Interview: U-July 22 Writers Anna Bache-Wiig and Siv Rajendram Eliassen

ON 22 July 2011, far-right terrorist Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Oslo, including children staying at a summer camp on the island of Utøya.

Nearly seven years on from this devastating event, Norwegian filmmaker Erik Poppe has made a single-shot film – titled U-July 22 – from the perspective of a youngster on the island during the attacks. Although the highly emotive subject matter is sure to stir some controversy, the film received glowing reviews following its Berlinale debut in February.

Close-up Culture welcomes award-winning writers Anna Bache-Wiig and Siv Rajendram Eliassen to learn more about their partnership and role in the making of U-July 22.

Q: What inspired you to start collaborating as writers in 2011?

A: THE story is a bit of a ‘meet-cute’. Anna, who used to be an actress, was working on an outline for a TV show but got lost in the process. When the producer encouraged her to get help from someone who actually knew what she was doing, she was reluctant.

Siv was not keen on helping out ‘another actress who wanted to write a good part for herself’. But we agreed to meet and, in spite of Anna’s baby son screaming his heart out through the whole meeting, we actually hit it off.

Q: Can you tell us about your dynamic working together and what makes you such a good team?

A: OUR backgrounds are very different, Siv has been writing for film and television for decades while Anna used to work as a stage actress and wrote novels.

Our differences have turned out to be our biggest assets. We work our way into material from different positions but we are passionate about the same issues and fascinated by the same kind of stories.

We work simultaneously using Skype or a shared screen-function and take turns in writing. We live in different cities so we would be lost without the internet. We talk a lot. We argue a lot. But we always agree about the moment it just feels right.

Synnøve Macody Lund in Anna and Siv’s critically-acclaimed TV show Acquitted (Frikjent)

Q: Your latest project, U – July 22, recently screened at Berlinale and has already received tremendous reviews. Given the real-life gravity of the project, did you ever have any doubts or reservations about taking on the film?

A: OH, we were terrified. It had only been six years since the summer camp massacre.

The wounds were still open so we knew it was a controversial project. But Eric Poppe’s vision for the project immediately appealed to us. In particular, his thoughts about how terrorist Anders Breivik managed to turn the attention on himself instead of on the victims – and his sincere wish to give the victims a voice.

But what really won us over was his take on the material. The idea of a one take story in real time. We realised that it would give us a unique possibility to access the emotional dimensions of the attack. And of course, we always love a challenge.

Q: How did you approach the research and build the tone of the project?

A: WE spent a lot of time getting the facts straight. We read police reports, worked on the timeline and the whereabouts of Breivik. But most importantly we talked to survivors.

We listened to their stories and their thoughts about what happened – and tried to explore every detail. As you would expect, their experiences were different. To search for one ‘truth’ about what happened was impossible.

To pick one story amongst all those we heard felt unfair – not only to survivors but those who never got the chance to tell theirs. That was why we eventually chose to make a fictional story based on what we learned but within the frame of what really happened.

The ambition of everyone involved in the project has been to create a film that is as close to the grim reality as possible.

Andrea Berntzen in U-July 22

Q: The film is shot in a single take. What challenges did that present you as writers?

A: IT had similarities to writing a stage play. By that we mean we did not have the possibility of editing the scenes. In addition, we could not make jumps in the action. Every line had to be in there for a reason, every silence had to be filled, and every transportation had to feel meaningful.

We worked on a straight timeline and had to time every scene. Sometimes we even tried to act it out between us to see how many lines we could afford. And of course, the timing had to be in accordance to the timeline of the actual events as they played out. It was challenging for us as well as for Eric and the actors.

Q: Can you share any thoughts on the final film? Andrea Berntzen is supposedly brilliant. 

A: BERNTZEN as 18-year-old Kaja carries the film on her shoulders and we are so grateful for what she accomplished. Actually one of our biggest doubts about the project was the actors.

Would young amateurs be able to carry this off without the need to edit? We were so relieved when we saw Andrea’s first test screenings. We thought: ‘This might actually work.’

It is hard for an actor to shoot everything in one take but it can also be a gift since you get to work your way into it like in a stage play. Your performance is not interrupted by: ‘Cut, please’. It turned out to be a great help for everyone.

We were also impressed with the way Eric worked with the actors. He really gained their trust and spent a lot of time getting to know them, rehearsing for weeks. A project like this might seem improvised, but it is the opposite. Every second is directed and Eric carried it off brilliantly.

We are also grateful to photographer Martin Otterbeck. He had a wonderful way of interpreting the script and his questions and thoughts were invaluable.

Q: What is next for you both? Are you looking to continue your television work or do more in film?

A: WE would love to do both. But our hearts are really in television since as writers it gives us the possibility to explore characters and topics in depth.

In film you have to do the hard work, establishing the contact with the audience every time. In a TV-series, if you succeed, you can harvest the relationship for hours on hours. Maybe we are just lazy!

Title image by Martin Vike Arnesen


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