Stockholm-based filmmaker Lovisa Sirén joins Goteborg’s Nordic competition with her feature debut, about semi-estranged sisters on a road-trip through Europe.

What inspired the story? And how do you work with your co-writer Peter Modestij?

Sirén: I was curious to do a story about women and kids, in the absence of men. How women are with each other, how their behavior changes in that space. From my own experience, many times that space creates a certain vibe that I wanted to show to the world. There are some men in the story as well and they do play an important part, but mostly it’s the relationships between the women and kids that inspired me. To have the sisters to be almost opposite to each other, still trapped in the same family, reluctantly on a road trip, made the idea interesting and dynamic to me. I wanted the film to be a liberating adventure for them, a journey that I wanted to be part of.

I’ve been working with Peter Modestij in all my previous films so it was natural to work with him from early on in the process. He’s great at complementing me in parts of writing where I’m lost, he’s a pro in structure and he writes really funny and smart scenes. He’s been creatively engaged and fully committed throughout the whole process and cares about every aspect of the film, which has been of great value to me and the film.

Please talk about the cast. 

To have Bahar Pars and Zhala as sisters was on my mind already when I started developing the idea for this film. I had met them together on set when shooting my previous short film “Baby,” where Bahar was the main lead and Zhala played a smaller part. They had such a fun dynamic off screen, so I started dreaming about making a film about them as sisters.

I started writing with them in mind, and let them read the first version of the script. From that we made some improvised rehearsals. It was Zhala’s first time acting, so I guess we were all a bit nervous. It turned out Zhala was amazing in the character, and Bahar, with whom I had worked with before in another non-experienced actor constellation, helped her do her best. They were the good match that I hoped for.

When we cast Susan Taslimi (as the sister’s mother), I let her improvise together with Bahar. Susan had a way of making Bahar feel really uncomfortable in the improvisations; how she said “I love you” and in the next moment, completely put her down. It was obvious that Susan had to do the part.

Finding Nadja, who plays Bahar’s daughter in the film, was trickier. I wanted someone who was in that very special age when one is between child and teenager. We weren’t looking for an average teenage girl. Nadja was different from the other girls we met, she delivered a tough and funny character but that also had the innocence and sadness that I was looking for.

What about the road trip aspect?

As the car is such a big part of this film, it was important to find the right one. I spent a huge amount of time on this; it became an obsession. It took us nine months to find the right 965 Volvo, we changed both the exterior and interior color, and had it ready at the last minute for shooting. It was a risk because we knew this car would be traveling through Europe, and we couldn’t make a replacement car if it would break down. The car had some really bad moments during the shoot, like driving in heavy rain with a small crew and cast in a muddy ditch, where we all thought it wouldn’t make it through the scene. Unbelievably, it stayed with us the whole shooting, and completely died after the last take on our last reshoot of the film.

Did you shoot chronologically?

We planned to shoot the film chronologically starting in Stockholm ending in Portugal, and to travel by ground as much as possible. But with the pandemic and restrictions that changed all the time, we needed to be very flexible and had to change the schedule a lot. We ended up shooting first in Belgium, France, then Sweden, Denmark, Germany and lastly Portugal. We shot in one sequence for two months. The cast only drove short bits, when actually shooting. Beyond that, the cars were transported on a tow truck to save them from breaking down.

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Lovisa Siren Credit: Ellinor Siren

Your editing and the score really give the road trip scenes momentum.

In the beginning of editing, it was difficult to see how much of the on-the-road footage to use. They’re driving long stretches in the story, so we needed many clips from different locations, weather and light, to feel that the characters actually travel far. I wanted the feeling of being inside the car with the characters so we took a lot of POV shots from the car windows, instead of using drones, for example. We shot the film on 35mm and I think especially in these shots it gave something extra that we wouldn’t have gotten from digital material. I used everything that was good and narrowed it down more and more for every editing version. Early in the editing, I got demo versions of score tracks from the composer Per Störby and immediately loved the music he made from his analog synths.

Did you encounter any unexpected challenges?

Everything that has to do with the pandemic has been impossible to predict. I think most of us who worked with the film at some point have been thinking that it won’t be possible to make it now. We’ve all been forced to adapt to it, be very flexible and do our best in the situation as nothing can be taken for granted. One thing I could never predict was having to make the decision if the cast should wear face masks in the film or not. I came to the conclusion that in the near future, some people in the public will wear face masks and some will not. I didn’t want it to be a point in the story, so we decided the cast wouldn’t wear them in the film, but if extras with face masks would pass by in the background it wouldn’t be a problem.

What are some of the most important things you learned while making your first feature? 

The importance of clear communication in the team is something I understood from making this film. It had to be practiced a lot, as the team members were a mix of people from Sweden, Finland, Belgium and Portugal and were sometimes swapped when we changed country (either for budget reasons or traveling restrictions). Super clear communication was of highest importance. It’s something I will keep practicing forever.

Also, as a director, to always take a chance when one gets it, in every moment, even when it’s a risk. To be daring and always aim for the best in every aspect of the creative process.