An interview with director Hanna Andersson on Staircase

Richard Raskin

This film is a perfect example of wordless storytelling. Could I ask you to comment on what you see as the special challenges and rewards of telling a story without the use of dialogue?

I believe it's more engaging to watch a film without dialogue. Wordless storytelling leaves space for the audience to feel and reflect. I myself treasure moments like that and I'm very inspired by the old silent films.

I wouldn't rely on the spoken word to tell a story on film, since we tend to believe in what we see, but seldom in what we hear. The challenge is of course to find situations, actions and imagery that speak for themselves. When you do, they speak more truthfully about the characters and their inner life.

When it comes to the actual filming, telling a story with no dialogue is more time-consuming on set, because every setup has to carry the story forward. I prefer not to cut back to the same camera-angle, which you can do more easily in a scene with dialogue. With dialogue, you can easily cover several script pages in one or a couple of set-ups. It's more demanding to film without dialogue - more demanding, but also more rewarding.

Could I ask you to fill me in on the development of this project? How did it begin? How did it unfold?

We were in our final year of film school and we were supposed to do a project for Swedish Television. We were given the theme "trapphus" [staircase]. I felt like making a film that would be more like a dance than a regular short and Karin pitched me the idea for Fem trappor. It gave me the goose-bumps. She had the story pretty clear in her head from the start; an old lady being carried down by the paramedics, remembering being young and taking a lover up the same stairs, a journey towards death and towards sexual satisfaction. The work we did together was mostly figuring out who the characters were and how the film should unfold.

We both agreed that this film should have no dialogue, no explanations, no decisions being made and no real turning-points: an old lady remembering being young or as the producer put it: "here's your granny dying and she's had better sex than you."

Fem trappor was a low budget project and it was a challenge to find the right people and an even bigger challenge to find a suitable location that would work for both the 21st Century and the 1940s. We had trouble getting access to the location we desperately wanted and we ended up building Greta's apartment in a studio. All the rest was filmed on location at Söder in Stockholm and we used only natural lighting. The look depended very much on the 16 mm stock we used. All those bright windows would have looked awful on video and I'm glad I fought so hard to shoot on film instead of video.

The shooting took three days and worked out fine, very much thanks to the actors being so devoted and relaxed. I enjoyed working with all three of them. Then I believe we did the editing and sound design in one week altogether. Knowing the material I feel there are some things we could have done better. In the very last minute, we cut out a scene at the end of the film, a tracking-shoot showing a lot of pictures from Greta's life, including a wedding picture that didn't show the lover. We felt it was too explanatory.

May I ask about the choices made in casting?

For the part of the elderly Greta I pictured Ingrid Luterkort, whom I had seen in a TV series a few years back. She made quite an impression on me and was terrific to work with. She started her career in the 1930s and when we made the film she had turned 93. Importantly, she didn't mind dying on the silver screen.

To play Greta as young, the original idea was to cast an older actress, someone in her forties. But the two actresses I was most interested in turned the project down on account of the sexual content. I met quite a few actresses but ended up choosing Pernilla Göst, whom I had seen on stage while she was still in theatre school. She was actually the very first person I had thought of for the part. Piotr Giro had had a tremendous success playing Romeo in a circus stage production of Romeo and Juliet. He had a background as a dancer and I wanted someone who wouldn't be intimidated by the intimacy of the part, someone who would lead the dance in the staircase. He made me very confident and at ease as a director and I think he and Pernilla made a nice couple.

In designing the story and making the film, where there any particular qualities you were striving for, and any others you were deliberately trying to avoid?

The D.P. and I wanted there to be a difference in cinematography between the flash-backs and present time, but filming in such a confined area as a staircase, with no possibility to use steady-cam or cranes, ended up being a great challenge and those ambitions faded away. Just managing to capture the story on film was really hard. Choosing to work on film instead of video was maybe the most important aesthetic choice. We tried to make it a world of it's own by shutting out the exterior and over-exposing all the windows and then concentrating on getting into Greta's head.

I can tell from Fem trappor that you see the short film as an art form in its own right. Could I ask for your comments on that issue?

I think the short film can be an art form in itself, but the idea for a short film needs to be stronger than the idea for a feature, since the idea is much more visible in the short format. You don't have the time to develop the characters or build up the story. Instead the short film needs to make a clear and simple statement to get through. It's very common to try and tell a bigger story and those films end up being not so powerful. I myself think that most of my films are exercises in making a feature, except maybe for Fem trappor. No matter how I feel about the direction of the film, I still think the idea behind Fem trappor is great.

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

Just do it. You will never regret a film you've made, only the ones you didn't make.

26 December 2005

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