This Thursday sees the launch of the Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival for Perth. From July 19 to August 1 Cinema Paradiso will present the best that Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland have had to offer in the past year. DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to Mehdi Avaz, director of While We Live, about what it’s like to make your first feature film in Denmark.
What was the inspiration for While We Live?
It’s based on true events, so I used the accident that happened to my friend as inspiration, and built the rest of the story around it. So the inspiration was I wanted to tell a story that could happen to an ordinary family. It’s a film by ordinary people for ordinary people-that was my thoughts from the beginning.
The story is a bit like a puzzle in the way it was told, with flashing back to past events and different character perspectives. How difficult was it to construct that story on the screen and find a through-line?
I wouldn’t say it was difficult. Me and my brother, who we made the movie together (he’s the screenplay writer), we want to have people to be involved in the story-so we want to activate the audience. So the first half of the movie, is lots of relationships lots of storyline – a big ‘who’s who and what is happening’, so the audience can be part of the story.
You have that amazing opening credits shot tracking in from the sea to the land. Is that long tracking shot a drone or a helicopter shot?
Drone. Actually fun story. It’s a very low budget movie, I think we shot the movie for $280,000. So we were in the northern part of Denmark, about five hours away from home, and we were awake at 4:30m the morning and me and the drone guy were to shoot the scene. I had a little monitor in my hand, and we had a beautiful shot from the sea to the land. Then we came back to our hotel and…we’d forgot to push the fucking record button! We didn’t have anything. I was so angry! The budget was so low we couldn’t afford to sleep in the hotel anymore, we had to sleep in the car. We had to get up the next day and make sure we pushed the button, but we managed to do it… again.
There’s this beautiful repetition of circular shapes in that shot, was it meticulous set up, or luck and a good photographer’s eye that allowed you to get it on the day?
We tried 16 times before I got the shot I wanted, so it wasn’t luck. I started as a photographer back in the day, so I calculated how far out we could go on one battery and still land near the lighthouse for the shot.
I was going to ask you about your photography background, how easily transferable were those skills to directing?
Pretty easy to transfer. For me back, in the day, the most important thing in taking a picture was to tell a story. That was the main thing, and I liked to work with people. That thing called “empathy” -to look at people with the same eyes that you want looking at you.
Empathy is certainly a theme in the film…
And it’s going to be repeated my next movie too..and the third one. When people take two hours out of there day to watch a movie, I want to be thankful for that. I want to make them laugh, cry, and be motivated.
How difficult is it to get your first film project up in Denmark?
It’s very difficult. I’ve tried for a coupled years to get money from the government. They laughed at me, saying you couldn’t do a film with those actors for that money. It motivated me. When we premiered we opened in more cinemas than Dunkirk did (in the same week). So it was payback time for those that doubted me.
At the same time, we shot in less than three weeks. I was throwing up every morning as I was so nervous. It was harsh.
What has the reception been like?
Crazy. After I went to Cannes and heard “Best Danish film in decades” and praise for the performances…I was like- “Jesus we made a great movie!”
Of course, part of the reason we are talking is because of the Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival. What opportunities do such festivals offer, both for yourself and for Australian audiences?
For me it is awesome, because it is the first time I’m in Australia and it’s been a fabulous time. For Australian audiences… what I’m trying to do with a Scandinavian movie is to make a Hollywood production with a Danish way to tell a story. So it’s not under lighted and hand held. So I think Australian people want to experience two worlds crossing with each other.