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“Who Are We To Control the Destiny of Someone?” An Interview With Ísold Uggadóttir, the Director of the Icelandic Film AND BREATHE NORMALLY

This interview is in the March issue of Cinema Scandinavia and will be free for 48 hours before being made available to subscribers. 

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The winner of this year’s award for Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival, Ísold Uggadóttir has been on a long journey to reach the success of her debut feature, And Breathe Normally. Working in the editing room for a documentary company in New York for several years, Ísold spent her spare time reading film books in bookstores to learn how to direct and write movies. Her love of cinema is apparent, and And Breathe Normally is a stunning and emotional drama about two women whose lives intersect. We sat down with Ísold to talk about the journey it took to get here.

Let’s start at the beginning: how did you get interested in film-making?

As a teenager, I would use the family Super8 camera and document my six-year-old sister obsessively. I had dreams of making films but we didn’t have the proper equipment, so I’d look for creative ways to make a movie, such as shooting the scenes in order because I didn’t have editing software on a computer. Growing up in Iceland, we didn’t have a proper film school. There was just an evening course, which I took in my early twenties. I was so excited for this course because I was finally able to learn about film. That was the first step.

In 2001, I moved to New York City and did a degree in Interactive Telecommunications at New York University. I chose that course because I could learn about various types of multimedia and learn how to create and edit videos. My ultimate goal was to make movies, but I think I was a little scared of the titles ‘director’ and ‘screenwriter’; I hadn’t written a real screenplay and the thought felt overwhelming.

Did the degree help you start out making movies?

Once I finished, I was able to get a job as an editor in New York City. I worked at a documentary company and edited documentary films. I still had a desire to be a film-maker. I was mostly working nights, so during the day I would go to bookstores and read the books about screenwriting, directing and how to work with actors.

On one hot, sweaty day in August in the editing room I made the decision to go to Iceland the next summer and direct a short film. I then spent the next year saving money to buy equipment and gathering a small team made up of friends and recently graduated actors or crew members. I formed this community of newcomers and we shot our first short film, Family Reunion, in the summer of 2005. We were invited to the Sundance Film Festival, and that’s how I knew I was on the right track.

Did starting with shorts help the transition into feature films?

It made a huge difference. I made three other short films, and later on, in 2008, I did a Master’s Course in film-making at Columbia University. I made shorts before and during my studies, so it was a long period of training to become a film-maker.

Where did the idea for And Breathe Normally come from?

After finishing my degree, I returned to Iceland. At this point, I had spent ten years living in New York but had been influenced by the stories I would read about people struggling following the Icelandic economic crisis. I read about people who had lost their homes and how they’d end up living in their car. My original motivation was to tell a story about a struggling mother with a child and his cat and they lose their home. During the writing process, I found myself reading a lot about asylum seekers who were often travelling from the European mainland on route to Canada who would then be stopped at Keflavik Airport and forced to go into an asylum centre. They’d be trapped on this island, unable to go to another country, unable to work, and stuck in this kind of prison.

While reading about those stories, I decided to volunteer at the Icelandic Red Cross. I volunteered for a woman who was an asylum seeker from Uganda and learned her story and slowly it just dawned on me that these are the stories I wanted to tell. I was already writing about this struggling mother, and now I wanted to write about a female refugee. I had to combine these two stories and thought they could connect at the international airport.

I also was interested in exploring this idea of Western guilt. We have this woman who is in a position of power but doesn’t feel like they are a person of power. This mother can get a job at the airport and all of a sudden as power over a fellow human being. I found it to be kind of ironic, thinking who we are to control the destiny of someone not doing anything wrong, just searching for a safe place to live. I wanted to work with the themes of irony and guilt.

In your short films and now with And Breathe Normally, you tend to centralise your stories on women. Is this a conscious choice?

It wasn’t really something I thought about, it was just the type of story I was drawn to telling. The writing process often takes a long time and I have to try and have it come together as organically as possible. For example, when I started writing the story I thought it would turn into a romance between these two women. As I let that play out organically I put myself in the character for a moment, and I realised it didn’t make sense anymore. So one of the original reasons they were two women was for this romantic idea, but it’s a little bit vague now.

Where did you find the two actors for this film?

Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir has been in many Icelandic stage productions, and I had seen her before where she gave a really strong performance. I thought I’d like to audition her so I mentioned it to my casting director, but we brought in a lot of women at once because I wanted to be sure I was making the right decision. Kristín Þóra did really well when reading the scene we call the ‘moment of truth’, where we have these two women having an earnest discussion. She did it so incredibly well that I forgot it was my own writing; I just started feeling really affected by what she was saying and really sorry for the character. It led me to believe she is definitely the one if she can take writing I’ve looked at hundreds of times and make me feel like it’s not my writing.

For Adja, the actress Babetida Sadjo lives in Brussels but is originally from Guinea-Bissau. We hired a casting director in Brussels and mentioned we were looking for an African woman. I gave her some scenes, among them the interrogation scene. Babetida came to the audition literally in character; she was dressed down and presented in a way that I totally believed her. I believed she was this character. I was so touched by her interpretation and interrogation to the point that I was slightly traumatised by experiencing what she was saying.

Did the two actresses have a large input into the characters’ choices?

Babetida and I would Skype and lot and discuss the role, and she even went back to Guinea-Bissau and revisited her roots, getting inspired and speaking to people who had experienced similar things. She’d often just call me with ideas and it became a real collaboration between the countries. The same is with Kristín Þóra, she’d come over to my apartment and we would have long discussions about people she knew who were these struggling mothers who had similar problems. Eventually, some weeks before the final shoot we all met and went through the script together. I would’ve loved more time to rehearse, but these sessions were more about analysing the characters and scenes and making sure we were all on the same page. We never got to truly rehearse, but these sessions made the shoot a little bit better. Shoots are always intense, but it was the good fortune of having solid actors that truly did their homework that made it easier.

In Iceland, it seems like it’s difficult to make a film due to the funding options available. Did you experience this?

I felt most of the difficulty was the funding process. I had no idea how long it was going to take to secure funding, and it took a lot longer than I had anticipated. We were actually turned down when we first applied, which was a huge disappointment. There are so many unknowns when applying for funding, and it’s hard to plan your lift when you don’t know if you will be shooting a film or not. When you graduate from film school you feel really prepared and eager so you expect it to just happen, but it is really difficult. It’s not a process I’m excited to repeat but I’ve learned so much that I have new ideas about how to approach it for next time.

The shooting process was also hard because we didn’t have enough time. It is a bit of a complicated film because we have two languages going on. We have a child actor who I have to direct in Icelandic playing alongside a woman I have to direct in English, so sometimes I’d have to direct a scene in both languages. On our set we had a crew of Swedes because of our Swedish co-producers, a crew of Belgians because of our Belgian co-producers, plus Polish crew members and Icelandic immigrants playing the minor roles of the asylum seekers. Additionally, we had an airport, a shipping container, and a harbour.

Shooting in Iceland also means being able to handle the weather. Iceland is a place where you can’t plan things. The weather forecast may say one thing, but the weather will be doing something completely different. Anything can happen, and anything can change. Our foreign crew found it a bit difficult where we would be shooting a scene where it would be sunny for a moment, then cloudy, then hailing, and then strong wind within a two hour period. Instead of waiting for the right weather, you just have to do it. We can deal with the consequences in the editing room!

You won the Best Director Prize at the Sundance Film Festival; what do you believe is the most important aspect of being a director?

On set, there are so many things to worry about and a constant drama. As a director, you just have to isolate yourself from all the madness. Someone could be telling you that you’ve lost a location or an actor or maybe just lunch is late, and yes that is important, but in the moment you have to look through the monitor and make sure the actors are delivering what they need to be delivering because that’s all that matters. It’s a really exhausting job but as you do it more often I’m sure you get better at isolating the chaos and forcing yourself to focus.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a new screenplay, well trying to find the time anyway. I’d like to make another film in Iceland. I’m also looking at other opportunities and other options and I’m open to seeing what the future holds.

And Breathe Normally will be released in Iceland on the 9th of March 2018.

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.