Gríma Valsdóttir in "The Swan"

Interview: Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir on Spreading Her Wings with “The Swan”

Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir was about to be done putting the finishing touches on her debut feature “The Swan” when she was struck with a bout of panic, though there was little she could do about it. In adapting a book by one of Iceland’s most famous living novelists Guðbergur Bergsson, she knew the day would come when she would ultimately have to show him the film, considered a fool’s errand by more than a few who thought the meditative drama that lives largely inside the head of a nine-year-old city girl sent away to live at a relative’s farm in the countryside was impossible to bring to the screen. Yet Hjörleifsdóttir, undaunted before, would find herself in the same situation as her heroine, undergoing a rite of passage.

“I didn’t sleep at all that night when I knew he was watching the film,” laughs Hjörleifsdóttir, who couldn’t bear to be around that screening for either of their sakes. “Then he wrote to me just before midnight and said he loved it and he also had some great editing notes, because deliberately I sent him a cut before we locked, just in case he had any suggestions. It was locked in my mind, but he came up with small and specific notes that I think I agreed with all of them — all except one.”

As much as Bergsson’s potential reaction weighed on her, Hjörleifsdóttir has achieved something both delicate and strong with “The Swan,” which eschews branding its characters with names in following a mischievous nine-year-old (Gríma Valsdóttir) whose exploits back home land her on a shuttle to learn how to birth calves and keep hens away from the rhubarb for the summer. Yet the anonymity is there to suggest that she hasn’t yet grown into an identity, much like the far older farmhand (Thor Kristjansson) she comes to share a room with who drifts from one job to the next. While the two can’t bond over much besides the work – and not even that, really – their shared feeling of abandonment and isolation connects them, and they even find some more company when the daughter (Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir) of the family for whom they’re working the land returns home from college in Reykjavik, unsure of her own direction.

Although Hjörleifsdóttir will often zoom out to show the endless skies and the majestic mountains that surround the trio in nature, the freedom can become stifling when no destination makes itself known and as the writer/director watches the three stumble in and out of finding their way, she creates a compelling story offscreen about the abdication of parenthood, questioning what ties people together when it might not be by blood when the three, all at very different places in their life, take cues from each other, for better or worse. Throwing in the unpredictability of a working farm, it’s a deceptively treacherous story that Hjörleifsdóttir navigates with considerable grace, and as the film reaches American shores following its premiere last year at the Toronto Film Festival, she reflected on how “The Swan” sold her on being a filmmaker when she thought a literary career might be more appealing, establishing a relationship with the film’s young star Valsdóttir and wringing out emotional reactions not only from her actors, but from nature.

Gríma Valsdóttir in "The Swan"How did this come about?

It’s a funny story because my mother is a literature professor and the writer of the novel that the film is based on was one of her main interests academically. When I was growing up, she wrote a lot about his work and I wasn’t interested at all in reading him. Someone gave me “The Swan” at 13 years old and I actually exchanged it for something else. [laughs] I wasn’t interested because there was so much of his presence already at my home. Then of course, 10 years later, you realize your parents were right all along. [laughs] Actually, I had this moment when I was at university because my undergrad is in comparative literature and I had to read “The Swan” for a class that I had to take and I just completely fell in love with it.

I really felt connected to the story and even though parts of it were strange to me, mostly I really understood a lot of the characters and I loved how complex they were. This girl is [somewhat] naive, but she also has this profound, perceptive understanding of the world and the farmhand who is such a warm and friendly person, but at the same time, he’s so dangerous. I just loved how nothing was simplified in it and it felt so true to life, so when I was taking an adaptation [class] at Columbia studying film and we all had a novel to try and adapt as a school project, it was really an obvious choice for me. The more I got into this school project, the more I knew that I wanted it to be more than a school project, so when I had a draft ready, I contacted the writer [in] 2010 and that’s when this whole adventure began. It’s been a long journey.

Was it a difficult novel to adapt?

Yeah, it’s so common here in Iceland that [people] would say to me, “How the hell is this going to be a movie?” Because it’s all this little girl’s interior monologue and her musings on the world are so poetic and kind of abstract and strange. It doesn’t read like a movie, but what I think I’ve realized in hindsight is that one of the reasons why this book really captivated me is that reading the book pushed me towards films. It was a transitional moment to start to think in images along with words because there is something really visual about the girl’s flow of imagination. She doesn’t judge anything. It’s like planting a camera somewhere and just seeing the world unfold that felt very cinematic to me. So even though it was certainly difficult to adapt in many ways, there’s this flow of emotion that captivated me because sometimes when you’re thinking you have a character [that wants something] and then an obstacle to it, it fluctuates — it’s something that maybe you think you want but you don’t want in the end, and I’m really fascinated with how the camera can capture that kind of emotional flux because it is close to just pressing “record” and just rolling on something that’s happening – you can’t really judge or define what it is, but it just keeps going.

Gríma Valsdóttir in "The Swan"You’ve spoken before about this parallel in the book, and subsequently the film, about emotional life and wilderness. Were you conscious of that interaction in creating certain scenarios or finding those connections in the edit?

The nature is so overwhelming here [in Iceland]. The sea is always there and the mountains are never far away and there’s this feeling that it’s always close. You don’t have to go far to really experience quite unique and beautiful nature. And I’ve lived 12 years of my life away from Iceland and I always miss the nature — sometimes even more than the society because if you come from here, you’re bound to it somehow. A lot of [Icelandic] films have these beautiful nature shots and I was really not interested in that, but the writer has talked about [how] the action happening in nature is somehow connected to what’s happening in the emotional journeys of the characters, so we were trying to get certain emotions and feelings and anxieties out of nature. Unexpected things happen and you don’t always have time to get what you want, but what I ended up with in the edit was a mixture of planned stuff and also nature things that caught our eye. It was a fun process to create a certain feel or a certain emotion and we’d [ask ourselves], “Okay, where in this river can we find fear?” Or “Where in this mountain can we find anxiety?” Literally trying to find the emotions in the B-Roll shots. [laughs] Then completely new things happened like there’s one scene in the movie where the sound of the horses running become the heartbeat of the young woman who’s returned home – those are ideas that just came up in the editing room.

Was this a working farm you were shooting on?

The main location was actually very convenient — it had just been bought by someone who wasn’t going to inhabit it until after we were done shooting, so it was empty, and all the stuff involving the animals was [at] the farm next door, which was owned by the same people. That was most definitely a working farm and [things that happen in the movie such as] the birth of the calf and also the death of the calf were scheduled to happen on that farm and it was like shooting a documentary.

It was all shot in this one valley, really contained, which became a really good thing because it was an independent film [with] not that many shoot days, and [for example] the country fair scenes [were] all really close by. I was raised by my mom, who most of the time lived in Rejkavik, and I was with her in the winter time, and in the summers, I would go to my dad, who then lived full-time in that valley. He wasn’t a farmer, but my grandparents were there and when I was a kid, I would go and work on my grandparents’ farm. It wasn’t a serious job, but I would be allowed to try it all and [for] kids, that’s just the way it is — the kids help. So I was really familiar with this place and I had it in mind from reading the book. Because I was living with my mother most of the year, I would feel this slight little homesick feeling when I would go in the summers, so there are shots in the film where I felt this is exactly something I experienced, like when [the girl is] in the bus, coming out into this place and is going to try to be brave. It was weird to even film it. It felt so close.

Gríma Valsdóttir in "The Swan"What was it like finding the young Gríma Valsdóttir?

Working with her was really wonderful and we’ve remained close since. Before I made “The Swan,” I knew I needed to find a girl who could carry [a feature], so my producers and I decided to do a short film called “You and Me” to test a potential actress for “The Swan,” and it was an independent work, but also the character was specifically written as half me at 9 and half the character from “The Swan,” so I could find this girl [beforehand]. Grima ended up being in this short film and [it was clear] we could really work together well and that she could do this, so we had a preexisting relationship and it was the most important thing to me was that she trusted me, like any relationship in life. If there’s trust, you can do a lot of things and that was the key, that even though rehearsals were important, especially rehearsing the scenes between her and the farmhand.

That must be a difficult relationship to get right because of how adult their relationship is, despite the fact that she’s so young – what was it like to establish their rapport?

Yeah, we just talked a lot about the scenes and I had a little bit less time with some of the other actors, but with those two, I had a lot of time and we were able to not really think of the scenes as dangerous — it just had to feel like the right thing in the moment for the characters. They’re both wonderful, intelligent people and when we molded his character together, he crosses a boundary absolutely, but he’s not thinking of it in the moment. I didn’t ever want to use the word pedophile or label it as anything because one of the things I loved about the book was how it can dance the line of human experience and make you really wonder. I’m a mother and I would certainly be really worried if I found out that my child was sharing a room with some older guy. But [for the film] it should be able to remain undefined and then of course people will watch it and make up their own minds about it.

A scene from Asa Helga Hjorleifsdottir's The SwanWhat’s it been like to see reactions to the film as it’s traveled the world?

It’s been really wonderful. This film is a co-production between Iceland, Germany and Estonia, and I think it was the head of the Estonian Film Fund who once said after reading the script the reason why they really wanted to fund it was that they connected to it, she said, “People always say that stories are universal, but to be specific, it’s the emotions that are universal. That’s what really travels.” It was a small comment, but it really stuck with me and I could see that happening with “The Swan,” that people in very different parts of the world seem to find themselves in the movie. It’s something I [had some idea of] before, but it was confirmed for me when people really want to talk [after the screenings] – certainly there are questions left unanswered and they’re wondering things, but I could see how it opens up a space in the audience’s minds where the story can live on.

Even though it’s a very specific place in the world and a specific kind of experience that a lot of Icelanders had up until my generation — sending city kids to the country for the summer to work and to mature, it seems the emotions it evokes are quite universal and I’ve had all kinds of people come up to me afterwards and say this reminds me of things from their past they they had forgotten. People’s reactions are so different and I love that — how it could just open up a dialogue in a way and continue. It’s like the movie keeps going in people’s heads.

“The Swan” opens on August 17th in Los Angeles at the Royal.