'Winter Brothers' Director Created a Filmic Experience That's 'Not Interested in Plots'
Director Hlynur Pálmason uses cinematography, sound design, and performance to create an evocative experience of a bleak world.
To watch Winter Brothers is to be transported to a desolate limestone quarry in the white-washed tundra of Denmark. We are introduced to this hermetically-sealed world through the eyes of a miner who fumbles in the pitch-black darkness with merely his clattering pickax and the unsteady light from his helmet to guide the way. As this disorienting opening scene suggests, this is a primitive world in which man is at the mercy of his environment and the sinuous, unyielding desires of the human mind struggle to find a form. Emil (Elliott Crosset Hove), a miner, does not belong here. He is bumbling; the others are ice-cold and stoic. He is entrepreneurial, creating illicit moonshine from the chemicals at work; the others are followers. Thus, Emil is ostracized from his tribe. But in an unforgiving world such as this one, the lone Emil's chances are few and far between.
Icelandic director Hlynur Pálmason's directorial debut is a tactile experience driven by the texture of its setting. Pálmason, a visual artist, treats every element of the film with equal weight—all in service of total immersion. The score, by composer Toke Brorson Odin, borrows heavily from the clanging industrial soundscape, in turn blending with Lars Halvorsen's sound design, which pierces every scene with a cacophony of sounds from the factory and mine. The cinematography, by Maria von Hausswolff, captures the intricate poetry in an otherwise bleak landscape.
No Film School caught up with Pálmason after his premiere at New Directors/New Films 2018 to discuss how he leveraged "creative conflicts" for drama, why less is more when it comes to dialogue, shooting in 16mm, and how he conducts a non-linear production process on set.
No Film School: This film lives and breathes its setting. What interested you about this story, which is so specific to the limestone mines of Denmark's tundra?
Hlynur Pálmason: I wanted to make something that was very beautiful, but brutal at the same time. I wanted to make something that was very bright, but also very dark at the same time. So there are all of these contradictions.
Within all that, I wanted to do a "lack of love" story against this winter world. By putting it into this winter world, it became full of creative conflicts. I really like when there's an ambiguity. I didn't want it to be just a narrative; I wanted it to be an experience.
"Sometimes I think not showing too much and not saying too much is exactly what you should do. There has to be space for the individual to experience the film."
NFS: The contrasts play out visually in some of the beautiful shots of the environment. You often cut away to shots of windows, mountains, or dreamscapes. These shots are almost non-sequiturs, but when seen through the lens of the story, they bring a whole other dimension of interpretation. How did you think about connecting to the setting visually?
Pálmason: I think it was just being in love with the material and loving the world around you. Seeing the beauty in things. In my life, I experience a day and try to see the beauty in the small things. I think that's what we try to do on set. You know, a stone, or a chalk wall—these things are part of the overall experience of the film.
I try to be truthful to what the film wanted. It's always a good feeling when the film takes over. My collaborators and I work on digging deeper into the film, and suddenly the film takes over, and we follow it. It's almost like the film knows what it wants and we just follow it wherever it wants to go.
NFS: I have heard that your process is very experiential and collaborative. Your editor was present during filming, for example.
Pálmason: For me, the whole creative process begins from the start. Once I'm done editing the film, we already have everything we need. I really like that because it's a more organic process. I feel like I'm not writing a story that I have to get people to understand; instead, I'm creating an experience. I feel more truthful if I do that.
Very early on, I invite my collaborators to work with me. Writing, developing, casting... it all happens parallel. So, my composer, Toke Brorson Odin; my sound designer, Lars Halvorsen; and especially my cinematographer, Maria von Hausswolff, come in very early on, before I begin writing. I keep them in the loop. There's a dialogue going on for a long time.
My actor, Elliott [Crosset Hove], the main character, was on the project before I began writing. I like going on location and recording sound and taking photos and rehearsing with the actors. I also sometimes write on location. This just helps me to see the possibilities. I like it if I'm a little bit surprised and I feel like I don't know what direction the movie is going in.
Of course, we try to prepare as much as humanly possible because I feel like if I don't do that, I can't be creative on set. There are so many practical things you don't have control over.
NFS: The way you integrate with the setting shows in the film itself. You used elements of the industrial soundscape in the score and sound design. It does feel like you're being brought into the experience.
Pálmason: I experience films in the cinema in a very physical way. They're experiences—that's where I really think they work in cinemas. Sound, music, production design, dialogue—I treat it all with mutual respect. Every element is just as important as another. The sound is just as important as the image. The image is just as important as the dialogue. The dialogue is just as important as the music.
I really enjoyed that process of working with sound very early on. Sometimes, I wrote a scene from the sound we'd been working on. Also, the dialogue was very affected by the soundscape. When I went on location where the workers work, I quickly saw that their life—and their dialogue—is very much just miscommunication or repetition. They don't hear each other. This became a big part of how I wrote the script.
"I'm not really interested in plots. I never experience plots in my own life."
NFS: In that way, the film can exist with very little dialogue, and the entire world still comes to life.
Pálmason: Yeah. That wasn't something we talked about. I didn't know there was going to be less dialogue. I think so much of the film just happens at places where people don't talk that much. There were a lot of things that were unsaid. I wanted to feel that. I wanted the film to feel like this sort of boiling pot. When people talked, you felt that there was something underneath—that it wasn't coming out right.
In the film, characters often try to express what they feel—what's nagging at them—but they can't. I did not want the dialogue to tell you exactly some sort of narrative plot. I'm not really interested in plots. I never experience plots in my own life or in lives of my friends. I never see plots anywhere but in films.
NFS: That reminds me of some of the monologues in the film. Sometimes, a character tells a story that doesn't make much sense in the context. But it's riveting and extremely unnerving, nonetheless.
Pálmason: Much of the film is built on this kind of miscommunication. I think language is a source of misunderstanding. And sometimes, the film works by taking things away. The film very early on gave us this idea of minimalism. It wanted to peel away dialogue. It wanted us to peel away, for example, too many locations. It wanted to portray routines, rituals, and habits. Only one road. Only one forest. Only one woman. It wanted to be very primitive and basic.
"The film very early on gave us this idea of minimalism. It wanted to peel away dialogue."
NFS: Why did you decide to shoot 16mm, given that this is your debut feature film?
Pálmason: I was very familiar with 16mm because I shot two short films with it. I did an installation film with 35mm. I also worked with still photography, so I know the 35 format.
Very early on [in the process of making this film], I wanted to shoot 16mm because of the way it [captures] sunlight—it's more fragile, more beautiful, a bit more soft in 16. I also love how it films faces and skin. I think it does these things more beautifully than digital.
Also, I always love when scenes change from darkness to light, and I knew that this film had a lot of that. There were so many things that pointed towards the direction of 16mm. It's a very intimate format. There's also a graininess, a grittiness, a fragile feeling to it. It's a bit rough and textured. It fit quite well with the film.
NFS: The film opens and ends with an extended scene in the darkness of the mines, where a small headlight is our only orientation in space. It's almost experimental. How did you shoot that, and why?
Pálmason: Well, I knew the film was interested in the contrast between the light and the darkness, the beauty and the brutality, love and hate, and all of these contrasts. I knew that I wanted to portray the darkness in a way that felt like we were going deeper and deeper.
When we tested lighting the scenes, you saw a lot of the underground. This just didn't work because it gave too much away. It was more interesting not knowing—and only hearing—what's going on. Your imagination takes over. Sometimes I think not showing too much and not saying too much is exactly what you should do. I think there has to be space for the individual to experience the film—to put their own feelings, thoughts, and emotions. You can't do that if you're dictating what people should think. We didn't want to dictate those dark scenes; we wanted to leave space for the individual to experience it.
"We shot these scenes extremely free-form. We had a place we started and we had a place where we ended. Then, we tried to create life in between."
We shot the dark scenes during the night outside, not underground. We built a stage. Then, we just drenched it in water and shot it when it wasn't raining, so you couldn't feel that it was outside. We tried to create this underground feeling. This was especially difficult with sound—it was so hard to create a believable sound world that was interesting and not only loud. I wanted you to feel the space and how it changed from loud to quiet to loud, [depending] on where the main character was walking. We had to make these transitions work.
Pálmason: We shot these scenes extremely free-form. We had a place we started and we had a place where we ended. Then, we tried to create life in between. These were probably the most chaotic scenes we filmed. I normally don't like over-the-shoulder shots and I don't like handheld. So this was something I was a bit afraid of. But because of the darkness, it felt right.
NFS: What is the current state of Nordic cinema, from your perspective?
Pálmason: This is basically a Danish film but is co-produced with Iceland, and I'm Icelandic. Anyway, that's a good question. There are really interesting things going on right now with Nordic cinema. Not only in the Nordic countries but also the debut films I've seen in Europe. I haven't seen as much here [in America].
I think the Nordic countries aren't treating art cinema well enough. The cinemas are kind of letting us down. Winter Brothers will not go to theaters in the neighboring countries, for example. Like, Norway won't take it. Sweden won't.
NFS: Why not?
Pálmason: This is a big problem in Nordic countries now. Filmmakers are doing really good work and I've seen that the projects are also reaching audiences who like them internationally. So that is really exciting. But I think we have a lot of issues at home that we have to figure out. It's about screening each other's films—screening Norwegian and Danish films in Iceland, and screening Icelandic films in Denmark. We really need to work on that.