On-location prep and a meticulous eye for detail led to the intense realism of the narrative film.
What does it take to be a naturalist filmmaker? For Ísold Uggadóttir, spending years researching, photographing, and meticulously designing the real-life aspects of her first feature.
It was that insistent eye for detail that earned Uggadóttir the Sundance the Directing Award in International Dramatic Competition. After moving back to Iceland after graduating from Columbia in 2011, Uggadóttir set out to make a film that combined two troubling effects: the struggle of women to make ends meet after the Icelandic economic crisis, and the increasing numbers of detained refugees trying to use Iceland as a crossing point to a better life. Uggadóttir sat down with No Film School at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival to talk about passing on epic music in lieu of naturalistic sound, creating a realistic cold vision, and why it’s important to feign self-confidence even when you aren't feeling it.
No Film School: And Breathe Normally takes places in an Icelandic town with an international airport that has seen a surge of refugees trying to get from Europe to North America. When they get stopped with falsified documents, they’re trapped here. You filmed on location in Iceleand. How similar were the places you filmed with real life?
Ísold Uggadóttir: It's 100% similar. I did a lot of research. I visited and I met with asylum seekers that were stuck, and I chatted with them. We almost shot in the actual place where they had housed people, but it had been turned into some sort of shady hostel. That was my motivation, to try to keep everything as authentic and real as it could possibly be. We have one international airport in Iceland, just one. In this one town where the airport is, that's where many refugees were given a place to stay or kept as if they were just incarcerated basically. We do shoot at the actual airport, we shoot in this actual town, and the neighborhood where Laura the mother lives that literally is smack next to the airport. It is a place where people move that often can't afford to live anywhere else.
NFS: There’s a single mom living out of her car and a refugee trying to escape persecution in Guinea-Bissau. It’s a cold, harsh environment for both. Can you talk about the visual strategy for conveying the world of the story?
Uggadóttir: I collected images of bleak landscapes, and I did a lot of photographing of the area. I started working on the directing in 2013. In the beginning I was looking at March-April, when we have a little bit of snow in the mountains. I was offered to shoot in the summer and I said, "No way. It's not a summer movie." We have to feel bleak. That’s the tone I want to have. That was something that I aimed for, and then of course you can't control weather so you take what you get. Luckily, we got all kinds of different weather, although it made our filming incredibly difficult. Mother Nature makes her call any given day and we took what we could get. We were often worried about continuity, how is this going to work out, but in the end visually it helped us.
NFS: She certainly offered her wind.
Uggadóttir: There’s a scene where there's massive massive wind. It was very hard to shoot on that day; nobody could stand still. The crew was not happy. I was freezing, but when I looked at the frame I was like, "I'm happy."
NFS: Besides the weather being integral, what kind of conversation did you have with your DP [Ita Zbroniec-Zajt] about the achieving this look and feel?
Uggadóttir: I did a kind of look book early on where I had photographed pretty much every location that I knew would be in the movie I had a reference for. She got it. She understood what I was going for. We shot this movie in late September and she came for a couple of weeks in August, when it was still a bit too green, and I was like, "Oh, it's not going to look like this." I could see that the way she was framing this she would be spot on. She brought her cinematic excellence. Of course, the dialogue continued in that we shotlisted the whole thing. Shotlisting is not my favorite part of the process, but you have to do it to make these decisions. We tried to go through every scene and have a plan for everything that we would do. That was our goal.
"That was my motivation, to try to keep everything as authentic and real as it could possibly be."
NFS: Color is such a big part of this effect, blue in particular. How did you control color in the film?
Uggadóttir: Well I always wanted it to be cold. So, then of course, you have your producer designer and your costume person. Everybody knew, “Okay this is what we're going for.” Thats helps the frames, so the costume designer doesn’t dress someone in too much red. We did a test a couple weeks before we actually shot. We went on location and we did camera tests to see how this clothing would look and how certain color elements would look, because whatever colors you put in the frame changes the overall color of the film. Then, of course, we did the grading. The grading was done in Sweden, where we had our Swedish co-producers.
That’s when you really make the decisions on how cold do we go. You want to be cold, but you don't want to go too blue. You need to have natural looking faces, and every frame is a decision. It's so hard because in the beginning of the grading I was like, "Oh this is nice." I'd sit on the couch. But staring at this big screen, you start to nit-pick, and, as a filmmaker, you have to be specific on what you what. But it’s also about balancing out the whole movie and not going overboard in the coloring. I think we may have desaturated it a bit to emphasize the rawness of the environment because this is real harsh. It's a lava field.
NFS: There’s a lot of strong constant wind in the sound design and there's sparse music. What was your strategy with the sound?
Uggadóttir: I've always been this sort of a naturalist of a filmmaker, and have never really felt comfortable hiring a composer and doing a score. Because it doesn't really serve my films, I want them just to be very natural, and only use music if it's on the radio or diagetic. I've made four short films in the past. My first short film was at Sundance in 2007. They were all like this. But for this one I thought, “Okay I'm going to be a little bit more poetic.” I started a conversation with our composer. This is his first film that he scored, and we emailed many times a year began production. He would have to keep asking me, “Have you started shooting yet?” Because of course, when you make a film it never happens when you think it's going to happen. It always happens much later.
"I've always been this sort of a naturalist of a filmmaker, and have never really felt comfortable hiring a composer and doing a score."
NFS: The times I’ve heard, “We're definitely shooting in summer.” Then, “Okay, Fall.” “Spring, really!”
Uggadóttir: Absolutely. So in the meantime, I would send him references and we would create this little folder in Spotify. I was like, no violins. Nothing epic. I want to be just kind of low key, but yet interesting. He's actually a DJ and he does this unconventional work, he often composes for theater, and I discovered him when I went to see a play in Iceland where he composed the music.
We did the sound in Brussels. We had a Belgian co-producer as well. I had to help the sound designer in Brussels understand the place because he's never been to Iceland. We can't use major traffic noises. We're kind of in the middle of nowhere. Let's make sure that it sounds that way. Also, the neighborhood where the Laura character lives has odd sounds. It used to be a US Army base actually, until 10-15 years ago when the US Army left. All of a sudden we have all this empty really, pardon me, but unappealing space. So houses that all of a sudden were empty could be occupied by Icelanders.
Uggadóttir: There were these weird things that were left behind by the army. And they created strange sounds. What's this odd sound? What's that hum? I wanted to use them for the soundscape. I asked my Icelandic sound person to record these things and then send them to Brussels so that we could put them into the movie. In Brussels, we’d have a conversation about rain. I would be like, "That's not correct. That sounds tropical. I want Icelandic rain." It doesn't sound like Hawaiian rain or somewhere. I was a little bit of an annoying control freak about every last detail. I love sound, because sound really makes your movie. All of the elements are important, but I always try to save a lot of money to spend on sound. Don’t go cheap on sound.
"You really have to make people feel like you know what you're doing because they are looking for a reason to say no."
NFS: What advice would you give to other filmmakers?
Uggadóttir: You can't give up, obviously, because it's always going to take longer than you think. It's better to just really not know how long it's going to take, and how hard it's going to be because there are constant hurdles. When you think are past them there is always another one. If you put in the time to actually get the script together to a point where you feel like you're happy with it and you're proud of it and you're willing to send it out, then I think at that point you have to display some level of confidence. The people around you are always afraid that you will somehow fail in some way. You really have to make people feel like you know what you're doing because they are looking for a reason to say no. But if they feel confident that you’re confident, then you're getting somewhere.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.