When Lisa Langseth was in the midst of writing a script about a woman suffering through a deep depression, her producer passed along a newspaper article about a woman who disassociated herself from her past life in such a way that she’d wake up every day as a new person. And while the Swedish writer/director had already finished a draft, that article let Langseth know she was onto something with “Hotell,” a wonderfully strange and wondrous examination of a woman named Erika, who deals with the compromised birth of a child by leaving behind her everyday life to lead her therapy group out of their staid sessions into a tour of hotels across the countryside.
From the introductory moments of “Hotell,” you know you’re in for something special with Langseth’s sophomore effort following the intense character study “Pure.” Opening with the bleakly beautiful Bjork-esque warbling of singer/actress Mira Eklund, Alicia Vikander (“A Royal Affair”) can be seen arranging a baby’s room as Erika, her warm glow tempered by the uncertainty of what motherhood will bring. Though she could never imagine what’s in store for her, it’s almost a pittance compared to the surprises Langseth has up her sleeve for the audience, going on a journey that covers as much distance emotionally as geographically as it seamlessly moves from harrowing drama to bawdy comedy, ultimately arriving at a place as deeply satisfying for the viewer as it is for the troubled characters on screen.
While Langseth was in Toronto, she spoke to me about making a film about how people create identity and struggle to change it, how her own comfort level as a filmmaker grew during her second feature and her ongoing collaboration with Vikander, who once again confirms her promise as one of the most exciting young actresses currently working.
Was this is something where you just find yourself writing and writing and then you’re surprised by where it takes you?
The idea comes from when I was going through a bit of a rough time myself, so I was asking myself should you look backward or forward? Sometimes when you have a rough time, it could be easier to just get crazy or try to find another way to deal with it because if you think of your problems all the time, all the time, all the time, it becomes self-fulfilling. So for me, it was a pleasure to see [a character that] could handle all the darkness that she has inside, only in another kind of way because she deals with it all the time. It was just a story that made me happy. It was wonderful to write it actually.
When you make a piece of art that comes from a personal place like this, is it actually therapeutic?
Yeah, but I think that’s okay to make art if you want to reach out. It’s not complicated. Just do it for yourself. In a way, I think that’s how every artist works. There’s some kind of subject that really moves you and that’s what gives your art some kind of personality.
What it was like to work with Alicia for a second time?
It was pretty much the same. When you work on a film, you’re each in a bubble, and this character really took a lot of energy from her. She really had to focus. She is also older and has more experience now. She was very disciplined the first time I worked with her — I mean, she’s a ballet dancer from the beginning and I think that where she gets her discipline from — but [I thought of her] after I finished the script because I think Erika is very strong and very, very hard. She has so much anger in her, but is also so sensitive, so she has this complex personality, which is also similar to [the role Alicia played in] “Pure.”
I think my favorite scene is a small moment at a bar where a pregnant woman sits down next to her and when she shows sympathy, she’s forced to lie to be polite, as well as to imagine what life would’ve been like if things had gone differently, which you can see in a variety of situations in the film. Was it difficult to show what kind of mother she would’ve been in an organic way?
That’s something I worked on for quite a while because the film has kind of clear structure in a way, but you should not see the structure. Everybody has their own story and we worked a lot with balance. It shouldn’t be too funny because that makes it really hard, but it could not be too hard, because then it couldn’t be funny. Between the characters, it was all balancing all the time.
“Pure” was adapted from one of your plays, so was it interesting to create something specifically for the screen?
Yes, this was strictly for film and [with “Pure,”], it was such a long way to go from the stage play to the script writing. It was really hard and “Hotell” was much quicker to write.
Did that give it a different energy when you started filming?
Yeah. I think it kept the energy all the way because “Pure” took such a long time, but also, I never went to any film school, which I think is also a reason why it took a long time to feel secure. It really took a long time to write the script [for “Pure”] and to understand financing and the business and how to defend my film and also to prepare for it and make it.
The confidence shows – when Erica gets back from the hospital, the camera does a 360 around her in the empty space to convey her feeling of loneliness, which is a very cinematic idea that seems like it could come with experience.
I don’t know if you see a difference, but I feel at least that I have more experience. I was more relaxed this time and also I was around such good people for costumes and set design. Everybody on the crew was so wonderful. The importance of being surrounded with people that really understand what you want to do, to me, is fundamental. It’s like the whole base because then you get to set and everybody’s doing the same film. Everybody’s together, you’re helping each other out and it keeps your energy up as a director.
Were you actually just sort of hopping from one hotel to another throughout the shoot as it appears in the film?
It was wonderful to shoot that way, where you’d go from one hotel to another. Actually, the last hotel [in the film], the castle, was the first location that we worked at. Everybody was staying on the location because there was no other place to stay, so we just filled the whole castle with the crew. It was a wonderful way to start because then everybody got so close, [especially] the actors. They got so connected very fast, so it was really a pleasure shooting because there was such good contact. Everybody says afterwards when I talk with them, “Oh I miss the group.” [laughs]
One of the most interesting finds is Mira Eklund, the actress you hired to play the fragile Ann-Sophie who you discover sings the melancholy song that opens and closes the film in a beautifully trembling voice. How did you discover her?
She’s not famous. It’s like I saw her a little bit in very small performances at the theater 10 years ago and I remembered her because she is so much of a personality. Then I figured out she was a musician and I heard her playing this song I thought like, “Wow. I love it. I love it.” When we were shooting at one of the hotels, we just did it in a bar with the piano just for fun basically. Then I used it at the end and when I was editing, I found out, okay, this could be the beginning also.
How did you first get interested in filmmaking?
I wrote and directed theater for 10 years. Then there was a play that I working on that I thought, “Okay, this could be a short film.” I connected with a producer and we [agreed], “Okay, let’s try to make a short film out of it.” We did that, then I [was excited about the possibilities] because afterwards, it was just amazing to see how you can work with the camera and how you could tell stories. I really love the medium. Even if I didn’t make my own films, I would always love film.
“Hotell” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will show once more at the Toronto Film Festival at the TIFF Lightbox on September 15th.