“What I Really Love About Cinema is How You Can Embrace Inaccuracies.”

Set against Iceland’s dramatic landscape, Autumn Lights delves into themes of obsession, loss and loneliness as seen through the eyes of a stranger in a strange world. American photographer David finds himself adrift in a remote Icelandic community. After discovering a deserted crime, David is implicated in a local investigation and forced to stay in the area longer than expected. During this time, he crosses paths with Marie, and beautiful and intriguing Italian woman, and her Icelandic husband Johan. As David’s fascination with the couple intensifies, he slowly finds himself entangled in their mysterious lives.

Despite being made primarily by two Americans, Autumn Lights is heavily inspired by Scandinavian cinema. The film echoes inspirations from Bergman’s chamber dramas, and the choice of Iceland as a primarily location is wise considering the current Icelandic wave. We spoke to the film’s director and writer, Angad Aulakh, as well as the lead actor and producer, Guy Kent, about their love of Scandinavian cinema and their first feature film, Autumn Lights.

Cinema Scandinavia: Please tell us about your film-making background.

Angad Aulakh: I studied at New York University in their film programme with the school of the arts. After that I worked in production for a while and then moved to Los Angeles four years ago. I made some shorts while I was there, and collaborated with Guy in those shorts. We’ve been working for the past three years or so with short content and Autumn Lights is my first feature film.

Guy Kent: I went to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and basically after graduating I was perusing film-making and acting and met Angad. We started collaborating very quickly and that led us to short content and features.

How did Autumn Lights come to be, then?

AA: Guy and I had developed several scripts prior to Autumn Lights. I think there was a period of time when over a few months I had written three or four scripts. I knew I had to write a story that was small and something we knew could be done feasibly and within budget. But is also came out of my love for Scandinavian cinema and Polish cinema. I love character-driven dramas and to me the emotions that were explored in the story were very much emotions I was fascinated with and wanted to explore on the screen.

What is it that inspires you about Scandinavian cinema?

AA: Bergman’s chamber pieces are a huge influence. Bergman has always been a hero of mine. He’s always been one of my favourite film-makers and a film-maker I studied. The amount of emotion he’s able to convey within a single frame is quite astonishing. You’re seeing genre films from Bergman and you’re seeing character-driven dramas were often times there’s just a few characters on screen. For example, Persona was a huge film for me and it still is one that I watch pretty often. And that film only has two characters in it. And one of the characters didn’t even speak throughout the film. So yeah, I think Scandinavian film has been something that I’ve always admired. I love the landscapes, the techniques, the approach, the attitude. Especially in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s it was a really interesting time for cinema and the best stuff is coming out of Scandinavia, in my opinion.

Guy, did you know much about Scandinavian film before you started Autumn Lights?

GK: Yeah, we were acquainted with several different films throughout film school but a lot of what I’ve learned about Scandinavian film was through Angat. When we started to decide on doing a film in the Nordic region and the kind of story we wanted to mould, a lot of my research came through Angad and through those films. My love for Scandinavian film was always there, but it grew immensely once I started to dig into the films that weren’t always at the forefront of people’s minds, like some of Bergman’s lesser known works. The ones that weren’t his most famous titles but the ones that are equally as important.

Why did you choose Iceland for Autumn Lights, especially considering you have family in Norway?

AA: I have a lot of family in Norway and have always thought of it as a beautiful country. I’ve always wanted to make a film there and I still do. It started with me reaching out to my family as some of them have ties to the entertainment industry. I started getting more information on how we’d go about doing it and did a lot of research about filming in Norway, but ultimately it came to the point where we realised it was going to be too expensive to shoot it there and we didn’t have the resources we needed. So we reconnected with our Icelandic producers, David and Ari, who had read a previous script of mine, and we decided to move the production to Iceland.

Iceland’s the new thing and it’s such a small community. A lot of people who worked on this film worked on films like Metalhead which was a film we loved. This is actually how I discovered the lead actor, Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson. There’s also Rams, which we shared a lot of the crew and some of the cast with. So it’s a really close-knit community and while I was there I was able to meet some pretty interesting film-makers and certainly watch some great Icelandic films. They seem to keep churning them out. I’m excited to see what the next few years are like for Icelandic cinema.

Guy, what was it like working with Icelandic actors?

GK: They were fantastic to work with. It was interesting because during the casting process we cast a lot of actors based off films we had seen. Going into it we were already really big fans of their work, so getting to work with them was an incredible learning experience as an actor; getting to watch them on set and learn from them through rehearsal. There was so much trust with them because they were a talented group and we were incredibly lucky. We’d love to do another film there.

The film has a very specific look to it. Where did you get inspiration for the aesthetics?

AA: What I really love about cinema is that you can embrace inaccuracies. That can be in the music, the way people dress, or anything. I think there’s such a good opportunity for that in the world of cinema. For example, when you go to Iceland you don’t see people dressing like how we have them in the film, and they don’t listen to the types of music we selected. But that’s cinema. It was important for the cinematographer and I to have a very cinematic look. We were inspired by Vermere’s paintings, the photography of David Hamiltion, and by the films of Tarkovsky. We didn’t necessarily want to do those styles, but we were very conscious of going over a lot of reference material. I would bring photography books to the set and I’d just constantly be sending my cinematographer material. I felt like we worked quite well together and we had a very unique vision of how we wanted this film to look and feel. I certainly am quite happy with what we were able to achieve with that.

And in what ways do you feel the landscape contributed to this look you were going for?

AA: The landscape in Iceland is just breathtaking. We’d be on our drives and I’d just be staring out the window the whole time and I’d be walking down the streets of Reykjavík just constantly taken aback by how beautiful how it is. I think it’s just a really majestic landscape for me to paint on and the film really benefited from just how beautiful Iceland is.

We also did it pragmatically. If the weather was terrible or the location became difficult, we could easily find a backup location that was equally as beautiful. I think the film benefited from just how beautiful of a country Iceland is.

GK: Also the geographical isolation of it played such a huge role in setting the tone aside from just the beauty. Not only is it within the story but you also get the sense that this place feels cut off and I think Iceland and other Scandinavian countries as well could lend to that. Iceland was definitely a character not just for its beauty but for the fact that it lent itself to that isolation and that sort of almost unfamiliar sort of geography.

autumnlights_9

The film really does feel isolated and this lends itself to the thriller aspect…

AA: I think the stakes seem a lot higher because of the location and that’s the beautiful thing about Iceland. The other thing is that most of the Americans who watch this film don’t really know much about Iceland. They haven’t seen it on film before and if they have they’ve seen it in some blockbuster where it’s being portrayed as Mars or something.

It was, for me, a great opportunity to tell a story in an environment most people aren’t familiar with. Many people are intrigued by Iceland and that’s just growing. I was talking to someone in Los Angeles last week and she was telling me for her friends that’s kind of the number one spot for them to go to for vacation. I personally know a lot of people who are going to Iceland in the upcoming months.

The situation David finds himself in is very surreal. How did you want to portray this world?

AA: I think a big part of the film was that David was by himself in this vast wilderness of sorts. For him to stumble on this enigmatic European couple out in the middle of nowhere I think it’s something that I would fantasise about. It’s sort of the perfect situation and certainly for the people David meet to be so interesting. I think it really aided the story, the emotions and it always helped. Because we were in these very limited locations it helped to move outside and to shoot in these landscapes just helped to make the film a little bit bigger and because it would’ve been difficult if we were just in a couple rooms the entire time. We did venture out.

Guy: Because the landscape is so grand and so unfamiliar in so many ways I guess in terms of its dramatic nature I think the story is almost a fantastical sort of world that David falls into in a sense. The way everyone’s dressed, the way everyone how interesting they are. It’s a perfect sort of world he stumbles upon.

So in a way, it’s like a fantasy…

Guy: Absolutely, which I think Angad as a film-maker is so great at; creating unique sort of stories and settings and characters that you wouldn’t always expect. They are not always grounded in our world with you and I but there’s something special about them that makes it interesting to watch in a film and be told in a story.

So would this be an American film or an European film?

Guy: That’s a very debated topic at the moment!

Angad: Everyone who worked on the film besides from Guy and I, and our other producer, actually they were all Europeans and we did the entire production in Europe and even some of the scenes were done in France, so that’s also Europe. It’s tough for me to say it’s an American film in that sense because very few Americans really had anything to do with it. So yeah, I guess maybe it’s a European film.

Film details

Autumn Lights / Directed by Angad Aulakh / Produced by Angad Aulakh, Árni Filippusson, Ashley M. Kent & Guy Kent for Mystery Productions / Written by Angad Aulakh / Starring Guy Kent, Marta Gastini & Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson /  Local release date 21st October 2016

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.