“Charter,” Swedish director-writer Amanda Kernell’s second feature after the multi-prize-winning “Sámi Blood,” world premiered in Sundance. The family drama was recently selected as Sweden’s submission for an Oscar in the international feature film race, and screens this week at Thessaloniki Film Festival.
What inspired “Charter?”
It’s a personal story, as are all my films. I come from a family with generations of divorced parents actually. So, I guess I grew up having to deal with that and thinking about the complexity in that, the loyalty, responsibility, power. Now I’ve been thinking about this for many years and I wanted to make a movie that is a love letter/declaration of love to divorced parents. I think I make films about my worst nightmares, what I’m afraid of, and one of those things is definitely that you can lose your children.
I was wondering how far you would go for your children if you were in a custody case and about to lose them. How far should you and could you go? And is there a point where you should let go? Stop fighting for being with them? Is that ever okay? Especially for a mother, a woman? Or is that a betrayal? Do you always have to sacrifice yourself completely for your children as a mother?
What interests me also is the stigma in being a mother and not having your children, since the image that most people have is that if you don’t have your kids as a mother than there is something wrong with you or you chose not to be with them and then you are not a good person.
What type of background research did you do for the story?
I see difficult divorces with custody cases all around me, so I talk to my friends of course, and a lot of things I know from growing up dealing with divorced parents, but also, I made a lot of research. I interviewed social workers, lawyers and therapists working with divorced parents, but especially parents who are or have been in difficult custody cases, and especially women who have abducted their kids and who have spent time in prison for that. It’s something that always interests me, people making radical decisions. I think that leaving with your children is something a lot of people have thought about but most don’t dare to do. With abducting your own children it’s very hard to tell from the outside if it’s the right thing to do or a crazy thing to do. You risk a long prison sentence and losing them completely. But if you have already lost them, shouldn’t you fight, especially if you are not sure that they are okay, when they call you or need you?
The mothers I interviewed who fought really hard for their kids and lost them, some of them abducted the kids and then lost them, they don’t always tell people that they have kids. The film plays with that. We meet a mother and she doesn’t have her kids and why is that? It’s about a custody case, but it’s really about a mother and her children, how to win them back, and find out how they are doing and how far she should go.
In some countries, mothers are prioritized for custody. What about in Sweden?
There are new laws, it’s more complex, a system that should benefit the children. That they should stay where they are, where they live, go to school where they go to school, have a network. So, it can be hard to move them unless you can prove that the parent who stays is unfit. I also think it’s an interesting question. How much do you matter as a parent compared to all other factors?
What’s the meaning of the title?
For me, a charter trip is when you go away with your family to spend time together to create happy memories and everything should be happy and nice. You have this image of a happy family together and I think it is hard to achieve for everyone. But in this case, there is also a point in taking the kids someplace that should bring them positive images and things to remember her by if she won’t be able to see them anymore. But it turns out to be a problem being around other Swedes on vacation when the children are reported missing…
How long was the shoot?
Thirty-six days, with a small break. We started in the north because I wanted that blue light that we have in January, February, up north where I’m from. Everything is like in a strange dream state, kind of a nightmare, never any sun, so you’re not completely awake somehow. I think it fits the story. When a place is that small and that cold it really hurts if you are not physically inside in the warmth with the rest. So, we did that first, then we went to Tenerife. My dream location to shoot this film. A bit like the Swedish mountains. The nature is harsh, with the volcano lava, desert-like, dangerous somehow, and then there’s this artificial paradise. There’s some contrast, a bit rough with the ocean and the desert.
Did you encounter some unexpected challenges?
We felt the change between the climates, people fell ill. I went to the hospital with respiratory problems myself.
We went from minus 32 to plus 30, and we went out one of the first days to the desert, and there was sand from the Sahara in the air, making it hard to breathe. For some reason, I always want to make films with children, difficult scenes in the water, extreme weather, animals. It has to do with authenticity, physicality, but it is also a way of making it difficult for yourself. To make stunt scenes with children in cold water, I don’t really recommend that.
Did you learn things during the making of “Sámi BIood” that proved useful during the “Charter” shoot?
Doing one film together and doing another one with the same people, we gathered some experience also concerning taste and how to work together. It’s the same DoP, Sophia Olsson, the same editor, Anders Skov, the same composer, Kristian Eidnes Andersen and sound designer. We learned a lot together doing “Sámi Blood,” so this time it’s maybe more fluent. I started writing this one while editing “Sámi Blood.” I had the story with me for some years, so maybe you could say I didn’t learn anything because I’m working again with children, with difficult weather.
Can you talk about working again with your DoP Sophia Olsson?
We went to the same film school but she had already graduated when I started. I saw the shorts she shot in Iceland. The Icelandic environment reminded me of where I came from. I liked her way of shooting nature, of making family stories bigger than that visually. I had worked with another really good DoP (Petrus Sjövik) for 10 years making shorts and “I Will Always Love You, Conny,” but our schedules didn’t align, and we couldn’t postpone our “Sámi Blood” shoot. But I knew immediately who to call because I always wanted to do something with Sophia Olsson. She has a warmth in what she does. She’s very much with the characters, emotionally, in the same breath.
In “Charter,” you work again with non-actor child performers.
I think they’re so good. Such great talents and they’re really hard-working and have this great integrity which is important for the film. I had to look at hundreds of kids before I found them. We started looking more than a year before the film. And then both Tintin and Troy didn’t want to be in the film. Their brother and sister wanted them to try, but they didn’t really want to. I had to talk them into coming back to recalls and to be in the film. They really wanted to understand everything they should do and why. I think it’s very impressive to be like that when you are so young and to be strong enough to be opponents of the main character. And being a real, strong, opponent to the mother, Alice (Ane Dahl Torp), was very important since the daughter in many ways is the antagonist here. She’s the one that Alice is up against, that she has to win over to her side, since the daughter is old enough to be able to choose who to live with. In many ways I think of “Charter” as a love story between a mother and a daughter.
We did a lot of rehearsal. I also had to make them comfortable with Ane as if she was their mom. The film is a lot about her with her kids, how can she approach them. All the details had to be so specific. Depending on how the kids react when she says goodnight or puts on sun screen, we judge her as a mother.
For “Sámi Blood,” you said you wanted the Katniss Everdeen of the Sámi region, and for the mother in “Charter” you said you were looking for a “contemporary warrior princess with massive integrity.” Do you visualize your characters like this for casting?
I try not to be too precise about what they should look like. That can surprise you. So, it’s more how they enter a room with their energy. Ane had the energy I was looking for. It was very important that she also had a charismatic, rockstar-like side… the ability to be entertaining and surprising so you want to be in her light. And even a teenage daughter can be impressed by her. And then I also think that Ane has this amazing vibrant energy. You just can’t look away, and you’re never sure what’s going to happen next. You’re not “safe.”
And in this film – about a battle between two parents – it was of course very important that our main character Alice has some qualities and the father has other qualities. What is more important? Love and emotion or a stable home?
Why are you based in Copenhagen when you are Swedish and your stories are set in Sweden?
Stockholm and Copenhagen are not so far from each other so I go back and forth. I went to film school in Denmark and there’s a way of making films there that I’m more familiar with and really like. In the Danish film culture, my impression is that the editor and sound designer take a more artistic role. In Denmark people are less scared of conflicts than in Sweden. You discuss things, and you put yourself in opposition, maybe even if you’re not, just to make a discussion. And in Sweden, we don’t really do that. We like to agree. I am educated as a director in Denmark and have all these collaborations with the editor and sound designer and different composers and Sophia and other DoPs, people I went to film school with. I think it’s a good thing that I can come to work and people might say, “Yeah, I know you said this but would you want to try something else? Or, “I’ve tried something else.” They take a great artistic responsibility and see themselves as an artistic conscience – and I think that these discussions, when people put themselves in opposition, can be very good for the process. Also, in Denmark I meet and discuss more with other directors. We invite each other to the editing room, to give each other notes on scripts or editing, help each other out. I like that. In Sweden, it’s not as cooperative.
But I love shooting in Sweden, the nature, the light of the summer and the blue light of the winter, the snow. And my stories are set in Sweden, so it’s a good combination. But I like writing the stories in Denmark so I am far away from where they take place. I hope and I think it makes me a little bit braver. There the climate of conversation and discussion is different, with a view that films can provoke and should provoke, and that you don’t have to agree with your main character, but in Sweden we don’t like to disagree as much.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing a contemporary love story set in Sápmi (Sámi land) today.
You always think you’re going to make something completely new but they are always concerning the same subjects somehow. “Sámi Blood” and “Charter” are both about what you would sacrifice for your family or not, making radical decisions and possible betrayal.