Interview: Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja on Traveling Into the Unknown for “Aniara”

Just a day after the premiere of “Aniara” at the Toronto Film Festival, Pella Kågerman wants Hugo Lilja, her partner in filmmaking and in life, to show off his hair – or lack thereof, following the four years spent on their ambitious science fiction epic.

“Yeah, I got these,” Lilja days, tipping his head forward and pointing at sparse spots amidst a still-flush head of hair. “It started right up here and moved around. It just grew.”

“Stress,” Kågerman confirms. “It felt like “Clockwork Orange.” Every time we watched it in the beginning of the summer, we almost puked. We got this bad reaction every time you mentioned the name “Aniara,” so now it’s been like two months since we had seen it and now we can’t do anything about it. I still have a little bit of a scissor in my hand, feeling like we should cut here and there, but we can’t – and that’s amazing.”

While Kågerman and Lilja unburdened themselves to great applause at the festival where “Aniara” became a sleeper hit, it is because that feeling of anxiety is so skillfully channeled into their debut film, which is set in the not-too-distant future after earth has become essentially uninhabitable as natural disasters ravage the planet. The fortunate board ships bound for Mars, a trip that’s become so common that it’s become like a luxury cruise where passengers can enjoy all the expected amenities such as 21 restaurants, a tanning salon and for the homesick, a machine known as the MIMA that can take memories and recreate the experience to put people at ease. Still, as comforting as this may be for the guests, it is less so for Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson), the put-upon crew member in charge of operating the MIMA, particularly when the already-popular attraction gets a surge in visitors when the Aniara is rocked from its trajectory and a three-week transport extends to have no foreseeable end date.

As panic commences amongst the passengers who subsist on the algae that was intended to give them oxygen rather than something to nibble on and the rest of the crew who haven’t planned for such a long journey, Mimaroben struggles internally with worrying about living a life without much meaning, with her own trips back down memory lane more disconcerting than reassuring. However, even as existential dread kicks in, Kågerman and Lilja insert a sly sense of humor and a handmade quality into “Aniara” that give the film humanity when its lead feels as if she’s losing her own. After spending nearly as much time making “Aniara” as the beleaguered passengers spend on the ship, Kågerman and Lilja spoke about making the most of limited means for such an ambitious science-fiction film and adapting a beloved poem for their first feature.

How did this one come about?

Pella Kågerman: It’s based on this very famous Swedish poem written by Harry Martinson and it’s super well-known in Sweden. It’s been made as an opera and as a play and I went to one of the theater plays with my granny that I was very close to growing up and the night after, she got a stroke and ended up in the hospital. I started to read the actual poem to her and as she was getting better, we started to role play and pretend that the hospital was this big spaceship, the Aniara that all of the doctors and patients were the passengers. That’s when I really connected with the poem because it’s a very difficult poem. You have to be a in a certain kind of mood to read it. It’s not an easy read, so you really need the closeness of death to be able to open yourself up to it.

It seems like fortuitous timing for a world that feels on edge because of climate change – did it feel particularly relevant as you were working on an adaptation?

Pella Kågerman: The last four years have been quite turbulent, so a lot of stuff changed or became more relevant. It was written in the ‘50s during the Cold War and there were a lot of people that were afraid of the atomic bomb and all of a sudden, we have Trump and the threat of nuclear war again because we had taken that out – like we’re bringing that back again? And in Sweden, we had a big refugee crisis and they were even started to build fences. We are living the apocalypse now, I think.

What’s it like imagining a vessel to carry us off this earth?

Hugo Lilja: [looking at Pella] I think it was when you were at the hospital with your granny and you role-played it there, [we thought of it like] the hospital and then as we spoke more about the concept [more], if we made a spaceship today to go to Mars and had that technology to colonize it, it would be a cruising ferry, of course, with shopping malls and bowling and all that. It’s supposed to be a three-week course to Mars and the ship is so big, it never lands on the planet. It’s built in space, so it won’t collapse from gravity, and of course, they fill up with resources because it’s huge – it’s five kilometers long and it has a lot of algae that they grow onboard to be self-sustainable on the oxygen. When they get out of course, they realize, “Okay, then we can change them to get food from them.” And in the book, wood is something that’s nonexistent. There’s no trees. So all the wood is plastic in the ship, and that was something we wanted as a consistent thing. There’s a lot of what seems to be wooden elements, but are not really.

Pella Kågerman: And we called the genre “not sci-fi,” so we avoided building studio sets. We tried to find the locations and develop the exterior of the ship to fit with the actual interior.

Hugo Lilja: We [also] thought a lot about the colors. In the pilot’s cabin, for instance, we really liked the Vegas cruising ship style of it with the neon blue lights and stuff like that.

Pella Kågerman: And then MIMA, the eye would mimic the sun, being yellow. Also, I know there’s a lot of purple in the film and it’s supposed to be the color of death. We even had a conversation with the set designer, who said, “We can’t have this much purple in the beginning because the audience will think that everyone will die!” [laughs]

What was it like creating the MIMA?

Pella Kågerman: We were very loyal to the poem. But because the poem was written in the ‘50s, the writer was describing TV actually – so MIMA was actually a TV screen. We were approaching it probably how it would work today…

Hugo Lilja: [We thought] a YouTube room wouldn’t be that much of an experience for a modern audience, so that’s why we went with telepathic images.

You’ve worked with Emelie Jonsson, your lead actress before. Was she in mind from the start?

Hugo Lilja: Yeah, we think she’s an amazing actress, so it was easier to write with her in mind. And in the book, it’s not certain whether it’s a he or she – it’s probably a he in the book, but the gender is not specified. We made it a she because of the actor, but also we thought it would be more interesting with a female lead.

Was making a feature any different for you than a short?

Hugo Lilja: It was different. It’s so much longer and so much bigger.

Pella Kågerman: Especially adapting this poem – it wasn’t the easiest thing you could do being a debutant. I don’t think we would’ve dared make this film if we weren’t debutantes and knew what was coming. We just jumped and when we’re in the air, “We’re like, ‘what the fuck? It’s a space film, and it’s taking place over so many years,’ so it’s not like classical dramaturgy with so many characters. It was a tough film to make. But I have never learned this much in my life, I don’t think…

Hugo Lilja: Me neither.

Pella Kågerman: Because all our failures also become lessons, so we came out stronger. We were so stressed.

Hugo Lilja: Yeah, we were editing at home…

Pella Kågerman: We shot stuff in our living room when we ran out of money, so some of the scenes are from our actual living room. Our [cinematographer] has a farm in the south of Sweden and we shot there too. We took a small camera and we went to my dad’s law firm and shot some [footage], so it felt like we were still in film school where you just gather your friends and are like, “Come on. We do this.” We’re standing there, just three people, and some other people are passing by, asking what we’re doing and it’s “Oh, we’re shooting a feature film” and it didn’t look like that’s what we were doing. It looked like some hobby photographers out. [laughs]

Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?

Hugo Lilja: We’re usually really synced in our thoughts, but we had one day where we were actually all over the place…

Pella Kågerman: Because we were on locations and not in the studios, everyone worked at night and in Sweden in the wintertime, the sun goes down very early, so we were just living in the darkness. That makes you really tired. And then we also shot on Scandinavian ferries in a storm, so it was just dark and bumpy. People were puking and it felt like real method acting, but for the directors too. [laughs] And people got so tired of the buffet – it was the same food.

It was like the algae for the passengers once they run out of food!

Pella Kågerman: Yeah, and we were there for a couple of days. We were still like, “Ohhh…” I wrote a note, “Don’t kill yourself.” [laughs]

“Aniara” is now open in limited release. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It is also available on VOD.

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