By Robin Gregory.
Hope is also about blended family, the modern family, the structures and mechanics of that. For example, how you love differently or the same, stepchildren versus biological children. All of these things can have taboos around them (that) I wanted to explore.”
Cancer is not for the faint of heart. In terms of storytelling, it may be the nastiest of villains, surpassing Hannibal Lecter on the scale of evil intent. Imagine having recovered from a bout of lung cancer just as your career is taking off, only to be hit with a second diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. Hope, Norway’s 2021 Academy Awards entry, is the story of the survivor of such an ordeal, its writer-director, Maria Sødahl.
In lesser hands, Hope could have been another medical melodrama. But Maria had something completely different in mind. “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story,” said Orson Wells. Hope is a unique and candid portrayal of Maria’s personal relationships. Starring Andrea Bræin Hovig (Anja) and Stellan Skarsgård (Tomas), the story examines a couple’s fragile relationship as they and their blended family deal with a death sentence.
After graduating from Denmark’s National Film School, Maria amassed critical acclaim for her work in television dramas, documentaries, and short films. She first gained attention for her short film, Sara, which was included in the 1995 series, Love & Hate – European Stories. She won the Jury’s Special Award at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival that same year. Then Maria wrote and directed her first feature debut, Limbo, which opened the 2010 Norwegian International Film Festival in Haugesund. Limbo won five Amanda Awards and earned Maria the title of ‘Best Director’ at the 2010 Montreal World Film Festival.
In 2011, Maria was told that the lung cancer she thought she’d overcome had metastasized to her brain. Given three months to live, she was forced to abandon her skyrocketing career. Remarkably, she beat all odds and lived to tell her story. Hope marks her return to cinema after the nine-year hiatus.
Between Hope’s stellar year at international film festivals and whirlwind preparations for the subtitled, virtual theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles (April 16, 2021), Maria met with me for a chat, zooming from her home in Oslo. While the subject of cancer invites discussion of pain, doctors, surgery, and chemo, our interview, like the film, focuses on something altogether different, not the least of which is Maria’s determination to write a happy ending for herself.
First of all, congratulations on writing and directing Hope, Maria. It has already won critical acclaim at the European Film Awards and the European Cinemas Label Awards. And now it’s heading to the Academy Awards. Are you getting any sleep, I mean, are you ready for this?
[laughs] This is my last interview, actually, before the voting starts. I’m ready to do a lot more when the movie comes out in the US, April 16th.
Was it difficult to revisit your cancer experience through writing and directing?
Yes and no. When I started working with the script for Hope, I knew it was a different kind of love story and not a cancer story. Because it is autobiographical, the film has a poetic quality. Truth is what you remember. And truth is a very difficult thing to discuss. It was like reality gave me all of these things, just poured them out to me. Looking back at the precise [emotional] events, rather than rehashing the medical drama, the story became a portrait of a couple’s long life together, told over twelve days.
Hope is also about blended family, the modern family, the structures and mechanics of that. For example, how you love differently or the same, stepchildren versus biological children. All of these things can have taboos around them. That was definitely one theme I wanted to explore. And through this, other themes came up: how we live our lives and what decisions we make. The medical story is kind of the motor, or engine, of the story. All the other subjects and themes just run through that because there is a very decisive energy to it.
When you start watching the movie, you think it’s about whether Anja will survive or not. As the story unfolds, the question changes. It becomes will she be able to love and receive love, or not?
The events in Hope prick at hidden wounds, unspoken grievances, and emotional apathy. The theme of crisis-motivated transformation also appears in your film, Limbo, when a married couple confronts infidelity. Whereas some might view relationship crisis as the beginning of the end, you seem to view it differently.
You know, since it was so many years between my first and second feature, it’s difficult to say. But I think in both Limbo and Hope I’m occupied with relationships and family.
Anja insists that Tomas not mention her diagnosis to their children. Why is this?
Anja was diagnosed one Christmas earlier with lung cancer. They had gone through this with the children before. And it’s Christmas again. So, as they don’t know the consequences they will be facing, they don’t want to put the children through the same trauma. Without knowing specifically what to expect—you know, physically, what will happen – whether Anja will have to go into the hospital, or a hospice, or whatever – they decide to keep this a secret until four days after Christmas, when they have more information. It is a choice they make to spare the children.
Can you describe a scene where you were surprised at what Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård brought to the script?
They surprised me all the time! In small and large ways. When I wrote the script for Hope, it took me a very long time. I was a test rabbit in my own laboratory. And there was the matter of not knowing how much I would be able to work every day because I was not well enough. After I managed to put the autobiography together, I could step back and view it as fiction. It then took on its own life. I was no longer the source of the story but the director. This freed me from attachment to my own or my husband’s character. And this was key for the collaboration with the actors. I wanted to give Andrea and Stellen the freedom to surprise me, to allow them to make a couple that was believable with their own energies.
So, it was about trust. We never rehearsed. We went straight to shooting. The rehearsals were on set. The DP [Director of Photography, Manuel Alberto Claro] also had to be fluid with the way he shot the scenes. Andrea and Stellen had to be fully present and not acting, [which means] they’re very good actors.
They always gave their own version of a scene first. And then we started playing around until I knew I had what I thought was, at the end of the day, what I wanted. Often, the process is organic. You have to be awake to recognize whether unexpected developments are gifts or nothing useful at all. You might not see them during the shoot. Maybe you don’t see them till the editing room.
Andrea and Stellen delivered these gifts all the time. Especially during the two scenes that were most difficult to predict. In one scene where they make love, Anja is actually breaking down. How do you do this? How does that look? I actually didn’t know before I saw what she did. And she didn’t know either. In another scene, when Anja goes to the hospital and learns that her lungs are clear, she makes a sound like an animal, a sound that she seems to have no control over. Then she runs to sit down on a bench. At the time, we didn’t know if it was going to appear true, or if it would seem theatrical and horrible. [laughs]
At this point, were you still recovering from surgery and treatment?
When I was writing I didn’t know if I would be able to pull this together as a script. Writing is more draining than directing. It’s so intellectual and mental. You have to hold everything together, all the layers, all the plots, and all the characters.
That said, when directing a shoot, something always goes wrong, and you have to dance with that. There’s always a risk. A certain energy rises out of making creative choices, but after the shoots, I must admit, I was totally flattened.
In an interview with TheWrap (Steve Pond, Jan. 20, 2021), you speak of turning your diagnosis of brain cancer into art. How does that work?
As in Limbo, I worked with a lot of scenes from my childhood, not going back to Trinidad to do research, but just working through memories. The beauty of that is what you remember is crystallized emotion. All the noise disappears. In a scene or situation, you just get down to that very deep, clear emotion.
I was really experimenting with Hope. I was writing it four years after [the brain cancer] happened. I didn’t want to write a therapeutic work. It had to be good. If not, I could just write it for myself and put it on the shelf. It had to be something I would want to watch so it had to be raw and uncensored, not censoring my writing, not censoring the memory of what I actually felt in certain situations. When you do this, things come up that you don’t even dare say aloud to yourself alone in a room. [laughs] Shame, beautiful or ugly, is what I was willing to expose.
Did you sometimes cringe while seeing your frailties acted out?
Sometimes I’d look back and say “S**t, did I say that? Did I do that?” Being high on steroids, you know? You’re dying, you’re high on steroids, you’re self-absorbed, and you’re naval gazing because that’s part of surviving. You don’t see much more than your own point of view.
When death is cancelled and you basically receive life again, you experience extreme courage. You are not afraid to share things. I was not afraid of anything, actually. When you realize there’s little time left, it’s no use keeping secrets. And you also get curious about what has happened in the past, so ask your partner if there has been somebody else. You can do things which you can’t do in normal life without having to risk something.
It was really a relief. [laughs] And I don’t know how you can get there without something like cancer happening to you. I would never ask for that to happen, but it’s a goal to get to that place where you are not self-conscious, and you are just daring.
There’s a fun scene when the family physically piles on top of Tomas. It made me reflect on the idea of the best of times and the worst of times. When you face a terminal diagnosis, does it heighten your sense of the beauty of life?
Definitely. When you have a death sentence, life becomes so rich. You see what you have. Your awareness is like tchooo. [index finger pointing upward] And time…. In one way time moves slowly. You see things almost in slow motion. You get over-sensitive. In another way, three months, the time in which I was given to live, can seem like nothing.
What role does black humor play in the film?
To that question I simply answer that it is my gaze. I think I might have used black humor even if it wasn’t my story. I casted actors who could share this vision, who could play around and enjoy themselves, despite the existential darkness. A British portrait artist once said, “Laugh. Laughter is the way to survive.” Life can be absurd. In [films], you can have absurdity, the gaze of the storyteller, and then again you have the actors relating to each other. When Andrea and Stellen met in a scene, their improvised comments reflected this as well.
What do you most want the audience to take away from the film?
I hope it doesn’t happen while they’re watching the film, but the day after perhaps, I hope that people will think about their choices, and reflect upon their own lives.
Robin Gregory is an American screenwriter, author of The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman, and a contributing writer for Modern Literature, Film International, and Ginosko Literary Journal. www.robingregory.net