An interview with Unni Straume on Derailment

Richard Raskin

How did the idea for making this film come about, and how does it happen to be a Norwegian-French production?

As one can understand from seeing the film, the idea is a fantasy based on a similar experience. It is Norwegian-French because the Metro in Paris is more fascinating than the Oslo transport system. There is also less space between the seats, which is fundamental for this little story. The fact is also that I was very connected to Paris after the French release of my first feature, To a Stranger, and the distribution company K-films with Klaus Gerke and Marianne Slot Nielsen, was enthusiastically involved.

Both actors are perfect for their roles. How did you choose Anne-Lise Berntsen and Tom Remlow for the two parts in the film?

I wanted the characters to be of "a certain age," and they are two persons I saw a lot at that time. And wanted to try, because of the sensual expression of their faces. This is a film of close-ups.

How do you yourself see the logic of the title, Derailment?

Itīs the logic of non logic. Poetry I guess.

The photography is spectacular. What were your thoughts when you decided to do the film in black-and-white rather than color, and also in your instructions concerning the lighting, which also contributes greatly to the viewer's experience of the images?

My first feature To a Stranger is in black and white, and it was natural to continue this study. Actually I would still be working with B&W if it was commercially possible. As I said, this film is basically close-ups of faces, and I think black and white gives so much to portraits in general. And the fact that we were working with moving lights from outside the train, gave us even more possibilities for playing with the expression. B&W also gives a certain abstraction and takes us away from the trivial world for a while.

I see that you also edited the film. So there was no other person there killing any of your darlings or pressing you to do so. Yet there is great economy in the 30 shots of the film, and not a single superfluous moment. Your thoughts on both directing and editing?

For me writing, direction and editing are all parts of the same process. Working in a short format, it is possible for one person to do both - so why not?. Killing your darlings is not really that difficult. Maybe if someone had told me while shooting that a specific shot would be cut out, or when I was viewing the rushes. But in the process of editing, the rythm, the breath of the film, becomes primordial. Even when I work with an editor on feature films, I am involved totally in the decisions about every single cut. Anything else would be unthinkable.

One of the things I will use your film to illustrate in my teaching is how you manage to bring the viewer inside your characters, how you invest your characters with inner lives. Your thoughts on making the inner reality of characters a main focus of a film?

I guess that in a film with no words, it is easier to come inside a person. It sounds strange, but often words produce confusion and are too culturally based. When you are forced to read all communication through the way the characters move and look at each other, it may be easier for anyone to identify with them.

The dream sequence is beautifully managed. Could you tell me in your own words your thoughts behind the lovely shot of the curtain fluttering over the broken plant pot on the floor?

I think it is better to not try to explain that shot. Such images come very intuitively to me.

Derailment is the most erotically interesting short film I have ever seen, and perhaps one of the strengths of the eroticism in the film is that so much is left unsaid or un-shown - left to the viewer's imagination. Your thoughts on showing enough but not too much? On finding that balance?

Of course this is very personal, and being a shy person in this respect, I feel it embarrassing when they show me too much on the screen. I just follow my own sensibility when I shoot scenes like that, hoping this is also that of the audience - at least of my audience.

I gather that we hear the woman's footsteps at the end - that she is now following the man. Is that correct? And your thoughts on letting the footsteps suggest this, rather than showing her at that moment? Might this have been an idea that came to you after the shoot was over?

I hate to put an end to stories - both in life and in art. And both solutions, no steps, or seeing her in the last scene, would have determined the ending. As it is now, you cannot be too sure...

You have made feature films as well as shorts. Would you agree that short films have a different way of telling their stories?

Maybe, I am not quite sure. Maybe we should talk more about this. But in the final analysis, each and every film has its own unique way of telling. Short or long. Feature or documentary. Addicted as I am to filmmaking, the only reason why I do too few shorts is the terribly short time of shooting. I love being on the set, and I find it cruel to make all the effort to arrive at this magic moment - and then finish it all in three days!

Is there any advice you would give to student filmmakers, about to make their own first short films?

I can only give advice if the student wants to make atmosphere- based films. I don't know much about action-driven films. Here are some suggestions to a poetic mind: Insist on realizing your own images, creating as close a relationship as possible with the cameraman if you cannot do the filming yourself. Concentrate more on each moment than on the story. If each moment has something magic, the story can be very simple and even banal. Develop and respect your own intuition and be sensitive towards your actors' (or documentary-characters') personality when you are choosing them.
The filmmaking process is all about dialogue, and it is very important to have good relationships with everyone involved, especially on the set. In fiction you must have an inner image of all the scenes before you create them. New ideas can change and develop them, but the atmosphere must be the one you first imagined.

14 October 2002

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