It’s bitterly cold in the opening moments of Jens Assur’s feature debut “Ravens,” though the chill outside in the Swedish hinterlands is likely more comfortable for those living on the inside of the lonely house in the middle of the family farm run by Agne (Reine Brynolfsson), a man of few words who has tended to the land for 40 years. His wife Gärd (Maria Heiskanen) would love for him to come to bed, yet after watching cows procreate all day, this is the last thing on Agne’s mind, while their son Klas (Jacob Nordström) shows no interest in carrying on his father’s work, instead following his own wanderlust upon the discovery of a girl his age who’s recently arrived from Stockholm. In introducing the family, Assur brilliantly uses time rather than geography to express distance, giving each member the individual space to stake their claim to the world “Ravens” immerses one in at the tail-end of the 1970s when thousands of farms across Sweden were falling by the wayside.
With the possible exception of the potatoes out in the field, only resentment grows on Agne’s farm as the place catches the interest of developers and without an interested heir to keep it going, the patriarch must decide how to move forward, a predicament that Assur wrings remarkable intrigue out of despite making a film that as nearly as quiet as its main character. Often presenting the family’s life in arresting still images, Assur (and a gifted cast) vividlly expresses the feelings of restlessness roiling around inside, punctuated by bursts of black humor, showing an ability to locate emotion in a single frame that no doubt came in part from his background as an esteemed photojournalist. Premiering “Ravens” in Toronto was especially sweet for Assur, who had come to the festival in 2013 after helming a trio of shorts to be a part of a talent lab and decided on the plane home to Stockholm to dedicate himself completely to a career in filmmaking. Shortly after “Ravens” debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, en route to the San Sebastian Film Festival, the writer/director and his leading man Brynolfsson spoke about the inception of Assur’s first feature, developing the character of Agne together and shooting on a real farm.
Jens, you were actually a photojournalist before getting into filmmaking. Why did you make that transition?
Jens Assur: I have always loved cinema, and during the ’90s, I worked as a photojournalist, traveled the world, especially to different hot zones [such as] Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and so on. Then for a decade, I did art projects, books and exhibitions, and I felt that cinema is such a great communication tool because it combines all of the other arts. You have photography, of course, but writing, music, acting, architecture, and costume. You have pretty much everything. And when that comes together and it works, it’s such a fantastic communication tool. You could spread it all over the world and you could really meet a global audience, so it’s a great way to both challenge me, but when it works, also challenge the audience. And my background is as a photojournalist, but I have always cared about writing, I always cared about music, architecture and everything. And to be able to work with all these different disciplines, different art disciplines, it’s demanding but also great fun.
How did “Ravens” come about?
Jens Assur: I’m looking for projects that could challenge me as a filmmaker, but also challenge the audience when it comes to visual style, pace and content. And my vision is to make films that take the audience on a journey — intellectual, emotional, but also to another world, another life. The world in “Ravens” is really exotic, a small farm. But at the same time, it’s something we all have a relationship to. The farm is [always] just around the corner, and in that world, Agne played by Reine, is struggling to justify his own life and his own choices, [which] is something we all can relate to.
Because of your previous work together on shorts, were you able to develop this character together?
Jens Assur: As soon as the script was done, we started to collaborate a year before the shooting started. We met a lot and discussed the film, the character of course…
Reine Brynolfsson: And the physical. Certainly, this is a guy who works and works. He struggles, so he has a body that is a working man’s body. I trained for a year to try to get more muscles and I was very glad to have that when the shooting started. But this is a very complex character, and Jens and I went on a mission to find him. Every day had its challenges, and after a while, it creeps into you. [When asking] “What happens here in the scene?” we know from the script, but what could happen more, and how does Agne react to this? Sometimes you just feel it, “This is it.”
It seems like a lot of scenes are shot in isolation – it may have been in the script, but what did you want to give actors on set?
Jens Assur: I tried to have a very open dialogue with everyone, and everyone has different ways of finding their characters. It’s pretty much about being open, but the film itself was very demanding for everyone because the subject is important, but it’s also something that gets into you. It was not a project that you easily could switch from a working day. The project became a part of us all during this process.
Was this actually a working farm that you shot on?
Jens Assur: Yeah, I actually went and searched for this farm all over Sweden, and spent many days on the road trying to find it. It was quite difficult, because for me, the farm is the fourth character. It has to develop during the year, and change and transform. And it needed to be a farm that was up and running because every aspect had to be authentic and that’s impossible to create. But it also needed to look like a farm where, in time and place, it could be whenever, wherever. Most farms in Sweden look different. This farm looks more maybe like a farm from Eastern Europe, or from the ’50s. So it was very hard to find the right farm. And you can see at the farm, there’s no charm or any beauty, it’s just functional. It needs to work every day. And when I passed this farm, I immediately felt, “This is the place.”
But one of the reasons it was important that it was a farm that was up and running is that everything that takes place in the film is taking place in real life in front of the camera. [Reine was] actually doing everything himself, even helping the cow…
Reine Brynolfsson: Yeah. And we used the living quarters in the house. The interior, the exterior-
Jens Assur: And we changed the interior, because it was also important that we could move inside and outside. If you are a farmer, you actually live very close to where you work. You will always hear the cows. You will always hear and see everything, so it was important that in the kitchen, you could see outside, and the opposite of course.
How much do you decide to shotlist the film versus letting the conditions let dictate what you could do?
Jens Assur: You shoot, if you have the chance, really to use the possibilities nature gives you. One day it was really misty, and that was so nice for some scenes and then we just changed. It’s quite demanding to work over four seasons because sometimes it snows and sometimes it doesn’t, so we tried to be very flexible, especially like the lighting, it’s so important in the film that it’s dusk or dawn, or midday, and it’s hot or if it’s cold. And it’s always demanding to work with weather and animals. But in the end, everything worked in our way, and the reason for that is that we planned everything very well. I worked with a really professional team. Everyone was so happy about the project and put so much energy and heart into it, and we also tried to have maybe some more shooting days than normal, but we worked with a very small crew so we could be light and fast, so when the weather changed or anything changed, we could use it to our advantage.
Did you actually spread the shoot out across four seasons?
Jens Assur: No, we did it during two seasons to be able to capture four seasons, but both shooting periods were where nature changes, which means you can’t control it. That was really one of the challenges. It starts in winter and then it goes to spring, summer, autumn, and then it ends in winter again, so it becomes a full farming year.
What was it like finding the tone of this in the edit? It was beautiful how you’re able to use music, in particular, to speak for the characters in their moments of silence.
Jens Assur: We are not using music that much, but when we’re using it, it needs to be excellent and a part of the environment. It should feel that every single tune comes from this world, and a part of the overall sound. I worked with a great composer who’s Swedish, but he lives in in Paris, and it was a strong collaboration between me, the editor, and the composer. We worked really closely, and I had a lot of dialogue surrounding music, where and how.
[The edit] was really difficult. This film, if you just change a single scene with a few seconds, you’ve changed everything for the upcoming 10 or 15 minutes, so every time we made a small change, you had to go back, and you had to see it over again. It was a challenge to edit. Not when it comes to the actual scenes themselves, but more about the overall pace.
What was the premiere like for you?
Reine Brynolfsson: It’s been really fantastic. I’m happy to be able to have the premiere here in Toronto and meet the audience.
Jens Assur: In the end, it’s about creating a piece of art and letting the audience meet the film, the world, and the characters, so I felt joy during the first screening. It’s wonderful when a film starts to communicate with an audience. It creates reactions and questions, and that’s why I’m doing film.