Anders Walter’s short film Ivalu finds beauty in the darkest moments of storytelling and filmmaking. Here is his advice to filmmakers like you.
There is something in the waters of Anders Walter’s Academy Award-nominated short film, Ivalu. Shot in the stunning and icy scenery of Greenland, Walter personifies the isolation of Pipaluk (Mila Heilmann Kreutzmann) through sweeping landscape shots as the young girl travels through the icy lands and her memories in search of her missing sister, Ivalu (Nivi Larsen).
The heartfelt film is a quiet look at the abuse Ivalu endured and Pipaluk’s realization of this traumatic moment. It is difficult to find the words that encapsulate Walter’s and co-director Pipaluk Jørgensen's level of care and patients with their short as the viewer follows Pipaluk’s journey.
While the short stays true to the graphic novel it is adapted from, Walter finds a way to make it his own by adding a ray of hope near the end of this thematically heavy film, adding a bit of levity and urgency to the viewer’s experience. From the screenwriting to the direction, Ivalu is a masterclass at creating an emotional heavy hitter that demands attention.
Walter sat down with No Film School over Zoom to talk about his process of adapting the graphic novel, the future of the shorts category, and the trick to make a great story worthy of the Academy Awards.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: Congratulations on getting an Oscar nomination for Ivalu. It's a beautiful short film. What was the inspiration that drove you to adapt this graphic novel into a short film?
Anders Walter: The graphic novel itself was really beautiful. A friend of mine recommended the graphic novel. She knew that I had already turned a couple of graphic novels into films, then she said it was about incest. I was like, "Oh, that's an important subject matter." But it also sounded a bit dark. When I got a copy of the graphic novel, I thought it was so poetic and the right way of dealing with this subject matter.
The graphic novel worked as a visual inspiration for how you could translate this into the film medium. Then the fact about it taking place in nature and Greenland felt like a great way of addressing the solitude and the lonesomeness that these two girls are feeling. I thought nature was a great image of how they feel on the inside. So, there were so many things that had me fall in love with this graphic novel right away.
NFS: Can you talk to me a bit about the process of converting the story from a graphic novel into a short film?
Walter: It's always a little bit difficult adapting something. Even though you have your ideas, it always takes a little bit of time for it to become your own story because you need to feel like you almost created this yourself.
For a long time, I would just write draft on draft that felt similar to the graphic novel. Then, at one point, you start to be creative enough to change and tweak things. All of a sudden, something happens and you kind of leave the source material behind you, which is a nice feeling.
The graphic novel was quite dark at the end, very dark. And our film was also very dark, but the graphic novel was without any mercy in the end because she finds Ivalu, her older sister, at the US military base where she has hung herself. It’s an ending without any hope whatsoever.
In the film, we did change the ending a little bit. We added the character of the grandma because we wanted to leave Pipaluk, the younger sister who was the lead of the film, not in the violence of the father because that was how we were left with her in the graphic novel. We wanted to point in some direction where there was a little bit of hope if people step up or if the community around these children pay attention to what is going on. It was very important for me that there was a small light beam there that would point to a more positive future for her.
NFS: That does sound very dark to see her body at the end. I'm assuming that you've added the water elements into the story?
Walter: Yes because the whole myth about the Mother of the Sea was also an addition. For me, it was obvious that Ivalu sacrifices herself in the end because throughout the story she talks a lot about this myth called the Mother of the Sea, which is a very famous Greenlandic myth. It's basically about the Mother of the Sea punishing the people by taking all the food from the sea into her hair. The myth is that one day someone has to swim down to her and comb her hair to reestablish balance in the world. So, Ivalu talks about this myth as a way of bringing balance back into the universe, so her younger sister doesn't have to live through what she has been dealing with.
Then, very symbolic, it ends with Ivalu kind of dying, but the last image of her is her diving down to the bottom of the sea to comb the hair of the Mother of the Sea. By doing so, I thought that it was a bit more, I guess both more cinematic, but also a bit more symbolic and not so devastating as in the graphic novel.
NFS: You've written and directed quite a few short films and even won an Oscar for your short film back in 2014.
NFS: What advantages do you find working within the short format?
Walter: I mean there's a lot of creative freedom in the short format. One tends to think that the short format tends to be for up-and-coming directors, which makes sense. First and foremost, you want to learn how to make films and you want to figure out if you want to make a film at all. The short format is great for exactly that, but I think it's a shame to look at it only as a medium where you have a new challenge working. Also, in the way we kind of look at movies and entertainment these days where length doesn't matter anymore, hopefully, you will see a lot of shorts popping up on the big streaming services over the next couple of years, because why not?
I mean, people's ability to focus and concentrate is getting less by the minute, so why not have a thousand or two thousand short films on Netflix and look at this as an equal art form, as a feature or TV series? I would love that.
Also, in between financing features, I just wrapped my second feature and five years have passed since I did I Kill Giants, my first feature. I'd rather do fiction than anything else. It's just a way of trying off different things, working with subject matters or stories that might be hard to finance in the longer format. It's more like a playground and I see myself, but I want to do more shorts. It's not that I'm going to stop. I think hopefully [the stigma around short films] will change. I would love to see Scorsese or Spielberg do a short movie and take a chance and do something out there.
NFS: I love your embrace of the short format. I feel like a lot of people just go, "Okay, well, I'm doing this till I get to my first feature project, and then I'm only working on features." It forces you to flex that creative muscle of short-format storytelling.
Walter: Also it's nice because you meet so many film directors who work for six, seven, or eight years on one project, and sometimes it just never finds financing. There's something very satisfying in coming up with a story, writing it, executing it, and making a movie.
NFS: Do you think there is a noticeable trend or trick that you’ve discovered while making shorts that makes it appealing to the Academy?
Walter: I remember when I won with Helium in ‘14. That was just me doing a short film in Denmark, not thinking about the Oscars so even. That was just me doing my personal film. I do recall a short film I did right after Helium. I was almost trying to figure out if there was a model or a specific kind of way of doing it, which is a horrible thing. The Oscars were a joy, but they also made me a bit cynical for a couple of months after I thought about producing another story or another short.
I have followed the shorts over the last couple of years, and they tend to be a lot of stories and movies about children who find themselves in difficult situations in life. That seems to be appealing to the people who voted in the short format, but it has to be a great story.
It has changed quite a lot since I was there nine years ago. From the pool of 200 films, this year it was 200 films they were looking at that qualified to be looked at by the Academy. People are campaigning so much more and spending money on campaigning already at that level. Whereas, when I got nominated back in ‘14, we didn't start doing anything before we were nominated. It wasn't so big for us. It seems like there is this big industry in this short branch. Also, people are being forced to spend a lot of money already at the first stages, which I think is a little sad because out of those 200 films, I reckon there might only be 30 or 40 of them that have the ability or the financial situation to make some noise. I thought part of this job with the short films was the fact that you weren't competing like a presidential campaign like they're doing with the features. But slowly it's also moving into that specific category.
NFS: I don't if you've been following the news recently about Andrea Riseborough’s Best Actress nomination. She did a grassroots campaign and ruffled some feathers, which started a whole investigation. The Academy said that she did nothing wrong. She just advocated for herself.
Walter: There's of course, a tactical game going on also. With Ivalu, I'm very curious to see [what happens] because this is the first time, at least for me, that I'm up against Le Pupille, which is a Disney-financed film. They're supporting the campaign. From a marketing perspective, I'm very curious to see how they're going to play the campaign. The four other films, including Ivalu, can come nowhere close to what they can do in pure muscle power. From that perspective, it's going to be interesting to see how it's going to play out. That would definitely be a new thing for me when we talk about the Shorts category.
NFS: There are always challenges when writing or directing a project. With Ivalu, what was one challenge that you faced? How did you overcome it?
Walter: The biggest obstacle was going to Greenland to shoot something in a different country and a different language. Obviously, Denmark has a very close relationship with Greenland, and they speak both Greenlandic and Danish in Greenland, but the film was always going to be in the Greenlandic language, which is Eskimo–Aleut language, and it's very different from Danish. I thought that I would be able to tell whether or not it was a good or bad take because I felt like it had to be all about intent, which it normally is. Then the language is so exciting and so different that often I couldn't tell if the actors were doing a good or bad take.
I was very dependent on my wonderful co-director, Pipaluk Jørgensen, who is also a Greenlandic director. I've never tried to direct in that way before. I normally love to improvise with the kids and sit right next to the camera, but here I couldn't do that. I was depending on working very closely with my co-director. That was a big challenge, it was an interesting one, but a big one.
Because I co-directed this with Pipaluk Jørgensen, it was quite interesting to do something so closely with a fellow director. I learned to stay open to other people's ideas and let them inform the story, which I felt was very natural now that we were there and shooting in her country.
NFS: How would you take this lesson into your next project?
Walter: As a director, you want to have some kind of a vision to inspire the people around you, but I think it's only to an extent where you still want to stay open for everybody's input. That's a lesson you learn in every production. Also, I just directed a big World War II film, Befrielsen, in Denmark feature. Again, opening your eyes and ears and your heart and magical stuff will happen. Of course, you also sometimes have to stick to your vision. It's that crazy balance of sticking to what you think it's supposed to be, but still being open for other things to happen. And that for me I feel like I have to work on that for all productions.
NFS: Do you have any advice for any filmmakers who want to make an Oscar-worthy short or their first short film?
Walter: My advice is not to think about the Oscars, and hopefully find some joy in telling a story. There are only five people who get nominated every year, and I reckon there might be half a million short films being made every year on a global level. I think figuring out if you find joy in telling a story, then figuring out if you like being on a movie set and telling that story through the camera while working with actors. I think a lot of people are attracted to the medium because it's a very popular medium, and there's some glamor around doing films. But making films is a lot of hard work, and so little of doing a film is a red carpet and festivals. Pay close attention if you want to do this or not and if you have something to share.
I also think it's important to always create characters that are interesting or people can mirror themself in, in some way, and that even goes for an action film. There's always something even to take away from Rambo that inspired me as a young guy. You need to have a story to tell, I think it starts with being a storyteller.
NFS: Before we end, I want to point out the kind of idea that you keep coming back to, which is making sure that filmmaking is something you want to do, and that you enjoy being on set and being behind the camera. Can you expand on that idea about people just doing it to do it rather than doing it because they love it?
Walter: I think it's so difficult to put a film together, and that people are going to have a really hard time if they're not committed because you have to convince so many people. First, you have to convince people to come and work for you, either for free or for very little money, or you have to convince a big financier to put a lot of money into your film. The business is constructed as a “no” kind of business. People just say no for the sake of saying no. That's how it works. Then, you're going to get a couple of “yeses” over the years, and those yeses will be your career.
Unless you have some kind of inner fire burning in you, I think there might be other more joyful ways of expressing yourself creatively than the movies. I used to illustrate and do comic books for 15 years before I changed. I must say that there have been times when I felt like maybe I should just go back to doing comic books because this is just too hard. People of course don't see that. They look at all these things, all those small victories, but that's just a very tiny part of what the process has been like.
I believe people have to figure out if they have that inner fire or passion to do it. It's okay if people don't have it. It's also okay if they don't have it, and still want to make movies. I'm not saying they shouldn't make it, but I'm just saying that at some point the stakes for people who're going to invest in your film will be too high if you're not committed. I always tell students that I don’t think you necessarily can practice that kind of inner fire. Sometimes, I feel like I'm killing people's dreams by saying, "Either you have it or you don't,” because that can be a bit harsh to say.
My point is that I could never stop myself. There were just stories that I wanted to tell through the medium, and I just couldn't stop myself. I never thought about whether or not it was an option not to do it. That made it joyful because it wasn't like me standing at a crossroads deciding whether to go there or there. There was only one straight line. That is my experience, and also what I've experienced when being close to people who want to come into the industry and who are maybe a little bit half-hearted trying to leap. It doesn't seem to be the right recipe.