TIFF 2018 Interview: Benedikt Erlingsson On “Woman At War”

Woman At War Director Benedikt Erlingsson. Courtesy of Mongrel Media

European cinema has always been rich, imaginative, and creative. The subject matter they have in their movies is quite fascinating and encouraging. Why? Maybe because they don’t go back and forth, or play with words, and take life the way it is and translate it onto the big screen. This is what we are about to see, the real thing happening next door.

As someone who has an identical twin sister, watching “Woman At War” was a whole different experience which ones that do not have a twin will find difficult to experience. During my interview with writer/director Benedikt Erlingsson, I made sure he knew that everything described about Halla and Asa’s (portrayed by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) relationship is something that would happen in real life to any twin if they find themselves in a similar situation.

As for the interview itself, it took a different turn, became more interesting and informative which I’m sure you will be excited to read about.

MOVIEMOVESME: What was the source of inspiration coming up with the idea to co-write and direct “Woman at War”?

Benedikt Erlingsson: Well, inspirations I have many. One of them is the question that what if Artemis, the old Greek goddess, preserver and fighter for the untouched wilderness, what would happen if she was sent to earth like Jesus. She starts to fight for wildlife and the untouched nature and so on. How would she act? And for me, it became like wow, this is like a Fellini film. And then there is this idea of saving the world, all the action films are more or less about saving women, and a man saving a woman. But in reality, there are women who should be saving the world.

MOVIEMOVESME: And it was a woman…

Benedikt Erlingsson: Of course, there are no ancients but you know in the environmental struggle there are a lot of very famous big women left their careers for home and kids. And we have Icelandic content, we have a lot of heroines that were fighting for our big waterfalls. She is fighting for a national park to be made out of the Highland.

MOVIEMOVESME: How easy or how difficult was it to develop the story which is very complex, even though it may look like its very simple? Structurally it did make sense the way it started and the way it ended but I’m sure there was a long process to get the point when you needed to answer and read and put the word out to conclude it logically?

Benedikt Erlingsson: Thank you for this. This is very interesting. In a way this is the challenge – how do I do good storytelling, make an accessible story, a feel-good story, whatever you may say about the very complex issue. And the film is really classically paired in that sense and I could even break it down to 8 sequences and do all that stuff. But in a way, the basic storyline changes pretty fast as an inspiration, but then my co-writer Ólafur Egilsson and we were on this for half a year or something. It’s just the development and sometimes things take time, there comes a ghost into a script. There comes some power and it takes the power off you in a way, and it becomes obvious. And for me, it was really nice to have a dialogue to work with another writer and to play with this and challenge each other’s ideas to find a way. And I hope for me, our moment’s still in the film when I saw it again.

This is not something that I could see in front of me or I could plan, but it just happened. I felt this moment, “Wow, where is the story going”. But how do you develop such a script? You work from calls and structures and then you jump in calls and structures. So when you are stuck you go to the structures and then you are bored and then you go to calls and then you mix and match this. Sometimes it’s a question of what do you want to see. Skip the logic, “what do I want to see?”

MOVIEMOVESME: The relationship between the twins was right to the point. And towards the end, you can see they both have something to lose and something to earn. Yet, they never think twice to do what is right.

Benedikt Erlingsson: The twin sister makes a huge sacrifice, as she is also the hero of the film, taking the past of her prisons or going into a monastery. Yes, in a way this is the essence of the film, this way that we have to sacrifice ourselves for something good, to make the use of our life for somebody else, for your sisters. I think we all have this in us so she is also the hero. There are many heroes in the film, her fans are also sacrificing. Everybody has sacrificed. It’s a very passionate film when you go into it.

MOVIEMOVESME: The idea of including a musical band was so refreshing and joyful to watch and listen. How did you come up with this idea?

Benedikt Erlingsson: I come from a theater where we were always doing this but I had a vision. Sometimes it comes when you see action films, good films with really boring music, it’s really using violence, you know the strings how they are to tell you what to think. And when I was thinking what did you see the orchestra and it was a flash idea I had of a woman running through the streets in rain and then she stops and there were musicians behind her playing a score. She did not see that but we saw them. So it’s a very useful instrument for me in this film. I could talk about demons and angels and I could talk about the Greek choir, protagonist, so on and so forth. With their own story now, the fairytale has to be lifted up with the film to our plan which many can agree with. I am an atheist but I sometimes watch films about saving the world but this is the instrument to help me believe or go with it.

MOVIEMOVESME: How did you come to that point when you decided that “Okay, I’m gonna make her give up” or to attempt to give any chance to become a parent?

Benedikt Erlingsson: If you see her take this decision to save a child is to save the world. So she is going to leave her career and go after the child. She really thinks she is done. She really thinks she has put out the message and then she sees this spin against her and then realized that she has to save the world because there is no world for the child that she could be saving if she doesn’t save the world. But of course, its what triggers her is also the spin. The attraction on the TV lets her walk all the way. Did you believe in the character making this decision with intention?

MOVIEMOVESME: Yes, of course.

Benedikt Erlingsson: She is compared to terrorists, a murderer. They are really going after her all the way. So she realized they are really coming with force. There is no way.

MOVIEMOVESME: How about their ultimate sacrifice?

Benedikt Erlingsson: She (Asa) was going to the monastery as a quiet place to change as a person. She spits at the prison guards. Yes, but you are really right and this is a Shakespearian plot in that sense. But if you go to the reality of the sacrifice, she would still be in prison maybe 2, 3 years. She’ll be on a 6 years sentence or max 5 years but be released in 3 years or so for good behavior.

MOVIEMOVESME: So what is the child for Halla, is it a small drop or big vanity?

Benedikt Erlingsson: A big vanity… I once heard a man who had adopted a child from China and he said to me, “When I decided to adopt the child from China it was the most egoistic thing that I have ever done in my life but at the same time it was the best thing I have ever done in my life.” He was responsible for a lot… but that’s not our story. So I think it’s a paradox; parenthood is self-sacrifice with no exceptions, but at the same time it’s in your needs that you’re feeling. There was this, as you were talking about, doing something good for somebody else satisfies yourself for other’s well being. And that is a need that we get something out of. It’s a very strange fetish, this parenthood. For me, she is really sincere. I think she is; it goes in line with her character – wanting to do something good.

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