Höfn, between the living and the dead

Director of photography Maria Von Hausswolff speaks about her work on "A White, White Day", a film by Hlynur Pálmason

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Following Winter Brothers for which she earned the award for First feature film at Camerimage in 2017, the young Swedish cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff again joined forces with Icelandic director Hlynur Pálmason on a drama that portrays a former police officer mourning the loss of his wife and who brings his young daughter along on an uncertain quest into the past. Alongside the impressive Ingvar Sigurðsson (for whom the film was written), the little girl (Hlynur Pálmason’s own daughter), and a visual landscape made up of gradients of fog and rain surrounding the coastal town of Höfn (which simply means “port” in Icelandic) in the south-western part of Iceland. (FR)

There are many connections between the whiteness of Winter Brothers and A White White Day...

Maria von Hausswolff : Visually Winter Brothers is a more playful, naive and expressive film. A White, White Day is still playful but much more mature and subtle. The rhythm shifts between long, almost medita-tive scenes and long super intense scenes. On A White, White Day, we worked a lot with the cho-reography between the camera and the actors.

I think that the whiteness really doesn’t have any connection at all. In Winter Brothers, the weather has no importance for the actual story. The title A White, White Day does come from a series of photographs of a snowstorm where everything is white, which Hlynur (the director) had taken many years ago and which he called White Day. In A White, White Day the “whiteness” refers to the fog in the mountains and in Iceland there is a saying that when everything is white and there is no longer any difference between the earth and the sky, then the dead can talk to those of us who are still living. A White, White Day is about a man who is grieving his dead wife and about how complex love is and can be.

My collaboration with Hlynur started when we were at filmschool together and he introduced this film to me in 2013-2014. He sent me visual diaries and music clips, and he already had the main cast in mind at that time. It’s great to be introduced to a film that early in the process, it gives you time to dig, collect and digest a visual language together, and that made our communi-cation and collaboration very intuitive to the point where it’s sometimes almost telepathic on set.

How did you make this film ?

MvH : The scene with the house in changing seasons was shot over the course of two years before the other scenes were made. We shot the rest of the scenes during about 8 weeks in the summer of 2018, from August to early October. It’s during these two months that the weather starts to get more interesting and dramatic. We needed the dramatic weather, as it played an important role in this film. Since the weather was very unpredictable and quickly- changing, it could be both excit-ing and challenging when shooting, especially the outdoor scenes and the scenes with the white fog.
The film has three main locations : the mountain road, the police station, and Ingimundur’s house.

Why 35mm ?

MvH : The house that already had been shot for two years was shot on film. That material looked abso-lutely stunning and it would have been idiotic to switch to digital after those powerful celluloid images of the house. The house is shot on 35mm with anamorphic Kowa lenses, but the rest of the scenes were shot on 35mm 2perf with an ArriCam ST. It was both an economic, practical and aesthetic choice for the other scenes. We got a greater amount of film on the small camera magazines which was convenient for the car scenes and for shooting long takes. Also, when working with lots of camera movements and actors, the way anamorphic lenses can distort the sides did not fit this film. The lenses I used when shooting in 2perf was the Cooke S4 series, for a soft and warmer feel.

Both the house and the police station are very open to the outside...

MvH : Yes, we wanted the landscape and its weather to be as present indoors as they are outdoors. In both the house and in the police station, we wanted to work with the natural light from the win-dows as the main light source, but I didn’t want to burn out the landscape outside and I didn’t want to have the actors be silhouettes. In the police station, I put florescent light tubes up on the ceiling. It was the simplest solution, since we were panning around a lot and wanted the freedom to work with 365 degree shots. It was a tricky set-up since the police station had windows almost everywhere and you could see everything in the reflections, so we had to be extremely careful when working with lamps. In the house, I had several set-ups, but I mostly worked with one HMI that I bounced off of styrofoam or white fabric inside the house or lit from the outside through a window that we did not look at.

The car is another key element in this film…

MvH : Yes Ingimundur’s (the main character) car was of course really important since it is present from the start through the end of the film, both interior and exterior. His car was casted early on, and it became a precious car to all of us, we even called it Ingimundur. During pre-production, we drove it to the locations, so we got to know the car very well.

Tell us about the final scene in the tunnel…

MvH : I think it’s one of the places that inspired the whole film. I remember receiving a little video tak-en during scouting he’d done there in 2014 ! A mystical place, like many places in Iceland where the locals think that the living and the dead meet. The tunnel is beautiful and old and rough and no longer in use. It’s placed high up on a mountain road that was also closed pretty recently. In order to shoot that very long take, tracking backwards, I used a simple western dolly without tracks where I was sitting on a JL Fisher. The light source comes from a small chimera also placed on the western, while the gaffer walked next to us dimming the lamp up and down, bring-ing the actors in and out of the light. The slight roughness and instability with the dolly brings a raw and organic feel to it, which both Hlynur and I like very much. I think it works great togeth-er with the texture and the little dust scratches of the living filmcelluoid, the rough weather and the characters as humans - never perfect.

(Interview conducted by François Reumont and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe, for the AFC)