CINEMATOGRAPHER Nadim Carlsen joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about the fascinating and arresting visual style of Isabella Eklöf’s must-see debut feature Holiday. The film will screen at the BFI London Film Festival on 15, 16 & 17 October.
Q: ‘Holiday’ is a very dark and troubling story, but it is set to an idyllic backdrop and filmed with high-key lighting. Can you talk about this contrast and how you and Isabella used the visual in subversive ways?
A: Isabella is the kind of director who prefers not to explain or psychologise the actions of her characters in a traditional sense. To support Isabella’s approach to storytelling we wanted the overall look and feel of the film to contradict the dark content. We were aiming for low contrast and a brightly lit film with plenty of non-directional soft light on the actors’ faces as well as strong saturated colours and an almost commercial-like glossiness to the images.
Holiday has a slightly distant and observational quality to it, and as we didn’t want to dramatise with the lighting, I tried to lift darker tones and shadows both on set and during the colour correction. Even at night time it doesn’t become very dark or moody.
Q: The image of Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) alone on the end of the boat (often used for the film’s posters) is typical of a lot of the visuals in the film. Can you tell us why you wanted to create a lot of space around her and restrict the number of close-ups?
A: We chose to shoot Holiday in CinemaScope since the film is about a dysfunctional group of people and the wide format seemed right to capture this sociological aspect of the film. We mostly shot on wide angled lenses as we liked the distortion and grotesqueness that these focal lengths added to the scenes. We tried to avoid making an emotional and psychologically engaging film; body language often felt as important as the actors’ facial expressions. In fact, only a handful of close-ups made it into the film.
Q: This is a special lead performance from Victoria Carmen Sonne. What was she like to work with and to film?
A: Victoria was amazing and such a talent to work with. At times when we were setting up wide shots, they felt static and empty at first, but when Victoria appeared in the frame, the shots became so vibrantly alive; so charged and relevant.
From my perspective it seemed like Victoria had total confidence in Isabella’s artistic vision for the film and she completely immersed herself in the role of Sascha. It’s a really interesting and complex part to play as Sascha’s inner life and thoughts are seldom revealed to the audience.
Q: There are two scenes I want to bring up and just ask for you to talk about your experience filming them. First is the nightclub scene where Sascha is fixated by herself in the mirror.
A: That scene blew me away like no other scene in the film. I was completely transfixed while looking through the viewfinder and I had a strong feeling that this scene would make it into the final film in its entirety. In fact, we didn’t do any other coverage of Victoria’s mirror performance.
Interestingly, we did a test on this scene several years prior to shooting Holiday back when Isabella and I were doing visual research in Turkey. The only difference was that Isabella was the one performing in a real nightclub with actual guests gathering around her.
Q: And second is the rape scene.
A: Surely, the rape scene is a very tough scene to watch in Holiday as it’s playing out in real-time in one unrelenting bright wide shot. However, shooting the scene proved to be a very different experience as it involved both SFX and VFX elements; so in a sense I was approaching it from a technical point of view. Obviously, this was a very sensitive scene to shoot and we had a completely closed off set.
Q: Are there any other scenes that were particularly challenging or interesting to you?
A: Aside from our limited budget, one of our biggest challenges was simply getting all the scenes in the can within a relatively short time frame. A lot of the scenes have multiple active characters in them; sometimes more than 10 actors at a time. It takes quite a lot of time to get the blocking and the timing right in wide shots with that many actors and semi-improvised dialogue.
Q: You met Isabella at film school. Can you give us some insight into what makes you both such a good team?
A: The fact that we know each other so well and that we’re very direct with one another and don’t take it personally when i.e. disagreeing about how to shoot a scene.
Aside from being good friends, we appreciate a lot of the same directors and artists which usually proves to be a good foundation for a collaboration.
Q: The ‘Holiday’ has turned a lot of heads and I know you have also done great work with Vice. What are your ambitions and hopes for the future?
A: I hope to be fortunate enough to continue getting the opportunity to shoot similarly interesting projects in the future. I’m always excited when meeting new directors with distinct personal voices while I certainly hope to get the chance to keep working with talented directors such as Isabella Eklöf and Ali Abbasi with whom I recently worked on Border – a film [also showing at the BFI London Film Festival] that won the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes and after which became Sweden’s entry to the Oscars.
Q: Finally, do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
A: At the moment I’m shooting Maria Bäck’s upcoming feature Psychosis In Stockholm. It’s a personal account of a rare and challenging mother-daughter relationship developing over the course of an intense vacation.