Gabriel Bier Gislason on Delivering Soul to “Attachment”

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Something tells Leah (Ellie Kendrick) to turn around in “Attachment,” having reached the end of her studies in Denmark and ready to get back to her home in England if it weren’t for randomly meeting Maja (Josephine Park) at a local library. Only days into a torrid affair, it seems like it may not be meant to last, but Leah can’t help but wonder what she’ll miss out on if she leaves. As it turns out in Gabriel Bier Gislason’s delightfully shifty debut, it’s hardly the only contact Leah has with the divine, as one learns when she actually does return to London with Maja in tow, suffering a broken leg that both believe will heal best in the care of her ultra-orthodox Hasidic mother Chana (Sofie Grabol). While Maja has to wonder how their relationship will play with Chana especially when all three are under the same roof, there’s far less to be afraid of there than Leah’s increasingly troubling habit of sleepwalking, appearing more and more to be connected to the supernatural than some psychological disorder.

The answers may lie in ancient Judaica as Maja learns, having little else to do in a foreign country but to wander to the local bookstore where she hopes to pick up some Yiddish from its proprietor Lev (David Dencik), but Bier Gislason’s horror film is refreshingly modern, concerned as much with the warped relationships that develop between Leah and her mother as well as her lover when she feels like she’s become a burden to them as much as the thought that a spiritual possession is causing rot from within. The writer/director clearly knows to understand to lows, you must feel the highs, of which there are many in “Attachment” when you understand how much love there is in the air, making Chana and Maja truly feel as if they’re losing something as Leah grows increasingly distant, and after throwing audiences for a loop on the festival circuit since its premiere last summer at Tribeca, the film is set to make audiences feel as uncomfortable at home as its central trio is with its premiere on Shudder. Recently, Bier Gislason graciously took the time to talk about his determination to find a new wrinkle on the religious horror genre by looking towards his own faith, how his longtime friendship with leading lady Park helped inspire the film and making sure nothing was lost in translation, though he’d employ multiple languages to amp up the tension.

How did this come about?

The story has two points of origin – one was when I was still in film school and trying to figure out what would be a fun first feature to try and make, I felt like there weren’t enough Jewish horror movies, and especially a Jewish horror movie that had the same irreverence and freely interpretive approach to the mythologies and rituals that a lot of horror movies that base themselves on Christian mythology and rituals [have] — that feeling of, “Oh, well, you take the bits and pieces from the culture and the religion that work for the story, and then you get to fill in the blanks with whatever you want.” I knew that there are all these great Jewish folkloric creatures and stories and I’d seen a lot of non-Jewish filmmakers take that liberty with their own cultural heritages and I really wanted to try and do with my own as a Jew.

But I didn’t have a specific story to clasp it onto. It was just a world or a mood I wanted to be in. Then as I was finishing up film school, Josephine, who plays Maya in the film, is one of my oldest friends. We went to high school together and we made truly terrible theater back in the day. In the summer of 2018, she and I went out and we got incredibly drunk. And she told me these stories that she hadn’t told me before about how she and an ex-girlfriend of hers had been between apartments for a while, and the ex was like, “Oh, well, we can move in with my mom. That’s cool. She’s got room. We’ll be there for a month or something. It’ll be fine.” And then it was super-duper not fine. It was a total nightmare. [laughs] The stories she told were so funny and so over-the-top and also weirdly sweet. I was trying to think, “What do I do with that idea? There’s something really funny in there and I don’t know how I can tap into it to make it more than just a surface level joke,” but in my drunken reverie, I was just like, “I am going to write you this film and we are going to make you a star and it’s going to be great.”

Josephine did, here in Denmark, go on to become a star, but not through anything I did for her, and when the Jewish horror idea came back to me, I started thinking about the trope of Jewish mothers and how they’re always super overbearing, overprotective and domineering and especially that there’s a sense of everything is a matter of life and death. So I [thought], “What if you made a movie where it’s unbeknownst to our lead, unbeknownst to us, shit’s real.”And that clicked into place with the structure of those three women in that house together. I wound up having to discard the specific stories that Josephine told me because it didn’t really work with the world and the mythologies and everything, and I’m sure that she’s glad I did because that means that this ex’s mother in question can’t identify herself in it now. But once that structure of those three women together in that house with the twist on that Jewish mother trope clicked into place, that became a script.

How much of a deep dive into Judaic mythology did you end up doing?

I did a fairly deep dive, but it was always important to me that I’m going to pick what works for me and not what doesn’t because it was important to me to have the same freedoms as a lot of Gentile filmmakers have had and how authentic I wanted it to be. I read into Kabbalah, but also there’s all these different stories about dybbuks. There’s a very famous S Ansky play called “The Dybbuk,” and we have a little Easter egg for him in the film [where] there’s a book that we made that’s accredited to a guy called Simon Ansky. But the biggest inspiration was actually Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Polish-American writer who wrote these amazing novels and short stories about both shtetl Jews, the world that he came from, but also Jews in New York and a lot of it’s really surprisingly modern and progressive [with] a lot of weird, magical realist touches that riff on Jewish folklore. There is this one story of his in particular that is probably the single biggest inspiration to the film, which is a story called “The Dead Fiddler, about a young woman who gets possessed by a dybbuk, and after a while she then gets possessed by another dybbuk, and the rabbi realized is that, “Okay, well, what I should do is I should get the two dybbuks to fall in love, I should marry them, and then their honeymoon will be the exorcism.”

It’s such a wonderful tonal piece because it starts out really fucked up and disturbing and all these changes to her body and changes to her voice — and a lot of the stuff we did to Ellie in terms of practical makeup, I took from that — the eyes and the distended stomach. And then at the end, it’s weirdly touching and heartwarming and, and again, a very freely interpreted riff on the actual mythos, so I was like, “If I can tap into what that’s doing, that’s what I want this film to be.”

It’s also really clever in how you use language, as far as what a character wants to withhold from one another, they can use a different language. How did you think about how that would work?

That was very deliberate and a thing that pops up in a lot of my early shorts and then weirdly, in some of the stuff that I’m writing right now because I’m fairly bilingual. Danish is my first language, but I think my English is pretty decent and I spent most of my adult life living in the UK and the US. But in doing so, I’ve been in so many situations where people will switch to a language like Danish, for instance, and not really think about the fact that someone else is not getting it. Or sometimes you do it deliberately, trying to hide the fact that you’re doing it deliberately. It just happens really naturally whenever you’re in an environment where there is more than one language present and I find it so deeply fascinating. Still, to this day, I am trying to think if there’s a way to make a whole movie about it, but it always turns up in these other small moments of uncertainty and the way it can make people understandably really insecure when there’s a quick language switch. Also, when is it really rude and when is it okay? Those are far more delicate balances to maintain than people necessarily thinking about even when they’re in the midst of trying to maintain it.

Obviously Josephine was in mind, but what was it like to get Ellie Kendrick and Sofie Grabol into the mix?

Sophie’s role was written with Sophie in mind as well and once I went from treatment to script, it was very clear to me that it had to be Sophie because she’s really funny and very good at playing these frustrating, difficult characters, but she always brings this real sense of humanity to everything she does. I thought that was really important because I want it to be very difficult to place her. If she was too kind of unpleasant, it would be too easy to pigeonhole her into one camp or to see a twist coming, but if she was too nice, you’d also know that there was [something lurking] underneath. I wanted her to be really inscrutable from the get-go, and she fortunately said yes [to the role]. And I also wrote Lev for David [Dencik]. But Ellie, I was just fortunate that she was part of a list of names and we had a Zoom and she was just so incisive and had such great thoughts on the script, that I was like, “Okay, this is perfect.” She and Josephine did a very awkward chemistry read over Zoom, but they were really funny and sharp together, so it just very quickly became clear that she was the one.

There’s never much time for rehearsals with movies of this budget, but as much as I could, we did and because this movie’s probably going to change tone every seven minutes, sometimes within a scene, they were really down to have that playful approach. Every weekend, I would meet with them all and we’d go over the scenes and I’d rewrite them and do pink pages every weekend, which is the kind of thing that is suicidal in some circumstances, but it was really nice here because I don’t do a lot of improv on set, but I do a lot of trying different things out with this feeling of, “Yeah, nothing is that set in stone,” so we’re relying on each other’s instincts and trust. That was just such a joy because it’s hard to make a movie that wants to draw on these different genres while also being fairly emotionally consistent to who all the characters are if people aren’t down to just throw a lot of stuff on the wall and see what works.

The shifting tones also comes across in a shrewd use of lighting design. What was it like to figure that out?

We hustled with that because it was kind of a crazy situation. We originally wanted to shoot all the London stuff in London, and then because of the nature of the budget, that seemed unrealistic and once COVID hit, it became entirely impossible. We could do a couple days of exteriors, but that was it. Because we were on such a slim budget, we had to find a house that could double as a house in London, so we spent ages looking for one. I’d lived in London for a long time and the production designer had lived in London for a long time, so we knew what we needed in terms of bare bone stuff and then what we had to add. Once we found the house, we spent a fair amount of our precious prep time figuring out how to use this house and two-and-a-half weeks before we go on set, the homeowner calls us up and says that she’s just somehow realized that we’re making is a horror movie and we can’t shoot in her home because — and she meant this quite literally — she was worried we would curse her house. Obviously, I promptly went and cursed her house as retaliation. [laughs] But after that we were screwed.

We had no time to find a new location. We had to take every single cent left in the budget and build it on a stage and [our crew] did it in two-and-a-half weeks and it’s crazy that they did. We couldn’t afford more than one window, which we moved every time we turned the camera. We had one front door that we moved every time we had to go from one floor to the next. It was really bare bones. The lighting design was really tricky because we couldn’t afford a big package. So if it’s a daylight scene, we’d shoot one angle and every time we had to turn, we had to move the sun to the other side of the set. It’s a real credit to the lighting department and to Valdemar, the cinematographer, that we still managed to pull off those switches without being too formalistic and it has the right vibe.

It does and overall it’s such a huge achievement, getting your first feature out. What’s the last year been like for you?

It’s been amazing. I am very fortunate to be the citizen of a country that has public arts funding and this entire film was more or less was paid for by the Danish government because the Danish Film Institute actually has a first feature scheme [where it’s like] “Have you finished up film school? Let’s see if we can help you make a first feature.” I wouldn’t call it a luxury because I feel that diminishes it, but that is an enormous gift and something I really didn’t take for granted. The moment I finished film school in the US, I got on a plane home and pitched this idea to a producer, and we took it to the Danish Film Institute, so that’s how it got made and I had the joy of having a theatrical release over the summer here in Denmark, I had a lovely festival run and I’m with a wonderful distributor with Shudder in the US.

It’s funny, I was having a conversation with someone the other day and they were saying very nice things about the film as you are, and they said, “I’m sure at some point you get sick of hearing these things.” And I was like, “What are you talking about? We’re a first feature.”Even to this day, I don’t know if it’s good. I feel really dearly for it, but it’s my first feature, so my barometer for whether I’ve done a good job or not is based on the literal one feature film I’ve made. But whenever someone says something nice about it and whenever it meets an audience and you feel that it’s appreciated, it means the world. So it’s been a great privilege and a gift to have been able to make this movie and to bring it to people.

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