Three generations of a family have gathered at the matriarch’s house for the weekend. Terminally ill, she wants them to bid her a final farewell, having decided to end her life come Sunday. The sisters Sanne and Heidi have accepted her desire to die before her disease worsens. But as the weekend progresses, their mother’s decision becomes increasingly hard to deal with, and old conflicts bubble up.
Over the years, Bille August has signed a host of international co-productions, most recently Night Train to Lisbon (2013) with Jeremy Irons. Silent Heart marks August’s return to the intimate human drama of his Palme d’Or winners Pelle the Conqueror (1987) and The Best Intentions (1991).
Silent Heart, world premiering in the Official Selection at San Sebastian Film Festival, is produced by Jesper Morthorst for SF Film Production.
“I liked the idea of this family being together one last weekend, and in this weekend all the relationships and conflicts become apparent because it’s this extremely awkward situation.”
“The issue of helping people who are suffering to die, for me it’s a question of dignity. It’s a big debate in Denmark. It’s this paradox, we own the right to live, but we don’t own the right to decide our own death. That belongs to the government. Because of modern medicine, we live much longer, but we live with diseases that can have us live a very painful life. It’s important to discuss. I hope the audience will reflect on it.”
There are a lot of tears (on screen and likely in the audience) and complex emotions in telling the story of a family coming together for one last weekend before the ill matriarch ends her life. But Bille August’s new film Silent Heart never slips into easy sentimentality.
“I hate it when films are patronising, especially with a subject matter like this,” says the 65-year-old director. “It’s a film full of emotion, but we wanted to avoid it becoming sentimental.”
August was impressed with Christian Torpe’s script when the producers at SF Film Production gave it to him, saying, “You are the only one who could direct this.”
Space for Interpretation
“I liked the idea of this family being together one last weekend, and in this weekend all the relationships and conflicts become apparent because it’s this extremely awkward situation,” August recalls. “You have a ticking clock in the story.”
In addition to being drawn to the themes and structure, he was impressed by the well-crafted script from Torpe, who is best known for writing TV projects such as Park Road and the award-winning Rita, whose lead Mille Dinesen in 2012 won a Golden Nymph at the Monte-Carlo TV festival. “Torpe’s way of writing is so skillful,” August compliments.
“It was a great script, but it also had all these things in between the lines. For a screenplay to be great, you need room for that. If it is all in the script, good actors can say, ‘But there’s nothing for me to do, it’s all there.’ You need that space for interpretation from the actors,” he says.
“Also, the audience wants that too, that’s what brings engagement – when they can fill in the holes.” August is always mindful of the audience. “They can feel it if you let them in. If you respect their feelings, you can make them involved,” he says. “It’s all about engagement.”
Indeed, the issue at the heart of Silent Heart provides many talking points for audiences.
“This issue of helping people who are suffering to die, for me it’s a question of dignity. It’s a big debate in Denmark. It’s this paradox, we own the right to live, but we don’t own the right to decide our own death. That belongs to the government. Because of modern medicine, we live much longer, but we live with diseases that can have us live a very painful life. It’s important to discuss. I hope the audience will reflect on it.”
But it’s also important to note this isn’t just a film about death. “It’s a family story above all,” August says. Like all the films in his career, he adds. “They are always about relationships.”
This issue of helping people who are suffering to die, for me it’s a question of dignity.Bille August
Working with the Actors
The other big draw to working on an intimate family drama in his native Denmark was the opportunity to work with some “great Danish actors,” he says.
Ghita Nørby, who worked with August on The Best Intentions in 1992, was his first call to play the mother, Esther, in Silent Heart. “She’s the queen of actresses in Denmark. She’s a strong woman, and she also has that warm, motherly feel,” August says of his leading lady. “You believe her as the head of the family.”
“I called her to talk about Silent Heart, and she said, ‘Whatever you want to do I’ll do it.”
Her stamina – she is now 79 – was jaw-droppingly impressive. She shot August’s film during the day and then was doing two plays in her evenings.
The actresses playing her two very different daughters Heidi and Sanne are veteran Paprika Steen (“so present, and so totally right for this role” according to August) and impressive rising talent Danica Curcic (“absolutely amazing”).
Morten Grunwald plays the father, a retired doctor who loves his wife but also looks ahead to the future. Grunwald was more famous for his work 20 to 30 years ago, and August remembered him and chose him because “I wanted someone with an authority and who was believable as the head of the family.”
As Sanne’s slacker boyfriend Dennis, Pilou Asbæk provides some much-needed moments of levity – whether he’s wanting to smoke hash at inappropriate moments or telling awkward jokes. August says: “Dennis, he is the foreigner in this group, so you can identify with him.”
The location, a large family house on the island of Funen, serves as something of a character in itself. There are some beautiful, still atmospheric landscape shots interspersed in the film. But August is clear those aren’t just for beauty’s sake.
“The nature scenes are there to add to the feeling that this family is now together for this weekend, they can’t escape. No one could run away. It’s not something just to be beautiful, it’s more the feeling of isolation.”
Never Had Dinner Together
August has great respect for actors and actresses and says he understands their psyche even better having been married to two – previously Pernilla August and currently Sara-Marie Maltha.
“When I work with actors, I don’t want to know too much about their private life. I don’t want to mix it up. I want to stay professional,” he explains.
Even though the cast was together on Funen for seven weeks, he didn’t encourage them to get too friendly away from shooting. “Actors are not necessarily friends outside the shooting. They want to hold on to that privacy,” August says. “When they are creating a scene, they are in a special room, and you should never interfere with that. You have to respect that room.”
“We never had dinner together at night,” he continues. “The work was so intense and focused and concentrated. We didn’t want to destroy that space. It was keeping the characters’ integrity.”
The nature scenes are there to add to the feeling that this family is now together for this weekend, they can’t escape.Bille August
He also protects the work by not doing rehearsals. “It takes away some spontaneity of situations. I don’t get how any director can rehearse. I want to save the moment for when the camera is there,” he cautions.
What the team did ahead of shooting was to meet for a week to do readings and go over the dialogue and discuss the characters’ backgrounds. “The actors become ambassadors for their characters,” he says. “I wanted to get them comfortable with their scenes. I don’t want big discussions on set.”
The mood on the set itself, despite the heavy subject matter, was calm. “You can’t be tense all the time, but what I want is concentration. It’s important that you also relax. I want a calm shoot. But it has to be full of joy … It’s about creating an environment where great things can happen.”
You can see the strategy pay off in the film’s big emotional scenes or more commonplace, yet tender, moments: grandmother helping her grandson send a Facebook message to a girl he likes, the family sitting down for breakfast together, and – in a moment of more light relief – all of them smoking hash together.
Return to Denmark
Two of August’s most lauded films earlier in his career were also family dramas: 1992’s The Best Intentions, based on Ingmar Bergman’s script about the complex relationship of his parents; and 1987’s Pelle the Conqueror, about a Swedish father and son building a new life for themselves in Denmark around 1900.
Both films won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, and Pelle also won the Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.
In recent decades August had been working more outside of Denmark – and indeed was living abroad in London for many years before returning to Copenhagen to make Marie Krøyer with SF Film Production in 2012. That project marked his first Danish film in nearly 25 years. He then made the big German-Swiss-Portuguese co-production Night Train to Lisbon.
Somewhat surprisingly, he doesn’t see many differences in making films at home in Denmark or abroad. “There’s no big difference making a film in the US or Italy or Germany or in Denmark,” August says. “It’s about finding great actors and a great crew.” Of course, with unionised crews in the US, that can lead to bigger crews, and “as soon as you have stars on the set, you get the entourage.”
There’s no big difference making a film in the US or Italy or Germany or in Denmark. It’s about finding great actors and a great crew.Bille August
But wherever he works, it’s always about “finding the right crew of people with the right attitude who understand what we’re doing and want to tell the same story.”
One major positive difference working in Denmark is the collaborative spirit, he says. “I like that a lot of Danish directors are friends. We are colleagues, not competitors. We read each other’s scripts and visit editing rooms. That’s very healthy and fruitful.”
Off to San Francisco
While he plans more Danish films in the future, August’s next project will be a US-German co-production to shoot in San Francisco. 55 Steps is based on the true story of a mentally ill woman who was mistreated in a hospital. She and her dynamic lawyer take on the American hospital system. In addition to telling the case story, August says the film is also very much about friendship. “It’s a beautiful story … It reminds me a bit of Erin Brockovich. It’s that same energy. Very powerful.”
Helena Bonham Carter will play the patient, Vera Farmiga her lawyer and John Goodman the lawyer’s associate. The film will shoot in October or November. “Travelling stimulates my curiosity, and I’m excited to shoot in San Francisco,” he says.
August also plans to work in TV again – The Best Intentions was a TV miniseries that was edited for a feature version. “TV is a great medium. You have the time to expand your stories and go deeper into characters and their interactions,” he says. “If you’re successful, you can reach an audience you can never reach with film.”
He says a US producer has offered him a TV project that he hopes to work on in 2015. But it’s also evident that cinema is his first love. He looks passionate talking about the “cinematic” nature of Silent Heart.
“It has to be cinematic. The key to all film work,” August says, “is finding the reality and making it believable … Creating life and emotions and at the end of the day engaging the audience.”
Silent Heart, world premiering as part of the Official Selection at San Sebastian Film Festival, is produced by Jesper Morthorst for SF Film Production.
Wendy Mitchell is editor for British film industry magazine Screen International.
Director Bille August, born 1948, trained as a cinematographer and photographer in Stockholm before attending the National Film School of Denmark, where he graduated in cinematography in 1973.
August’s international breakthrough came with Pelle the Conqueror (1987), which received the Palme d’Or in Cannes and an Oscar and a Golden Globe. August received his second Palme d’Or in 1992 for The Best Intentions (1992), written by Ingmar Bergman. Also among the director’s intimate human dramas are Jerusalem (1996), a Selma Lagerlöf adaptation, and A Song for Martin (2001).
Since the early ’90s Bille August has directed a string of big international co-productions, including The House of the Spirits (1993), Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997) and Goodbye Bafana (2007). His latest, Night Train to Lisbon (2013), premiered at the Berlinale.
Silent Heart is debuting at San Sebastian Film Festival.
Featuring as the family members in Silent Heart are a wide range of Danish actors – from seasoned players to upcoming names:
Ghita Nørby / the mother
Unrivaled as the great dame of Danish stage and screen, Nørby’s career stretches back almost 60 years and spans multiple genres. She has played everything from bucolic sweetheart to Machiavellian mother-in-law, but Nørby’s perhaps most memorable role is that of a spirited middle-aged wife in Waltzing Regitze (1989) directed by Kaspar Rostrup. Cast against character in Lars von Trier’s absurdly comic TV-series The Kingdom (1994 and 1997), she showed funny bones as a bitchy doctor. Up next for Nørby is the lead in Michael Noer’s feature Key House Mirror, out in 2015.
Morten Grunwald / the father
Although Grunwald commands considerable natural authority, he has enjoyed his greatest success in comedic roles, not least 14 turns as the proletarian loud-mouth Benny in the The Olsen Gang-movies. Several of Grunwald’s performances have drawn on his undeniable ability to muster a bossy, intimidating presence, but this has done little to dilute his reputation as one of the most towering funnymen of Danish cinema in the last half century.
Danica Curcic / the daughter Sanne
Denmark’s Shooting Star at this year’s Berlinale has virtually overnight become one of the most sought-after young leading ladies in Danish cinema. In 2014, she takes the lead in no less than four films: On the Edge, The Absent One, Silent Heart and All Inclusive. According to Danish film critic Morten Piil, some of Curcic’s primary traits are “flashes of temper and a powerful sensuality” as well as “exotic, enigmatic allure.” Born in Serbia, Curcic has lived in Denmark since age one
Paprika Steen / the daughter Heidi
Steen initially became known for her knack for the kind of ironic comedy which captured the zeitgeist of the ’90s. Within a few years, however, she would demonstrate a talent for dramatic roles – though more often than not, Steen would lace these with a mercurial wit and throw in a graceful aggression all her own. Her part in Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme triumph The Celebration (1998) serves as a fine example of that special Steen touch. Memorable roles from recent years include her abrasive, alcoholic actress in Applause (2009), feisty runaway wife in Superclásico (2011) and lustful sister-in-law in Love Is All You Need (2012).
Pilou Asbæk / Sanne’s boyfriend Dennis
Over the last few years, Asbæk has established himself as one of the most talented leading men of his generation in films like R, A Hijacking and Sex, Drugs & Taxation. Unafraid of taking on very demanding roles, Asbæk is an actor of considerable range, exuding great intensity on both the little and the large screen, and equally convincing whether he plays likeable or not-so-likeable characters. In the popular TV-series Borgen, he portrayed a spin doctor that falls somewhere between the two categories.
Silent Heart also features Vigga Bro, Jens Albinus and Oskar Sælan Kalskov in supporting roles.