A Whole Other Toolbox: Theater Director Bartlett Sher on Making his First Feature, Oslo
One of the most impressive directing debuts I’ve seen this year is Bartlett Sher’s clear, concise and extremely moving drama Oslo, a movie that distills complex themes and conflicts into a remarkably accessible and riveting political suspense film. Adapting his own Tony Award-winning play, screenwriter J.T. Rogers tells the true story of the secret back-channel talks and unlikely friendships between a small group of Israelis, Palestinians, and a Norwegian couple acting as facilitators that led to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. The script is a model of elegant structure, weaving precise journalistic details into a sophisticated ensemble character study in which the intersection between the personal and political is profoundly and affectingly explored. It’s an ambitious story with big themes, but Sher’s graceful direction strips the story down to its essentials and gives the impression of effortlessness – a result that clearly took a great deal of skill and exertion.
While Sher is new to the cinema, he’s a highly regarded theater and opera director known for his innovative productions of both familiar classics (he won a Tony for his 2008 revival of South Pacific) and new works such as Oslo, which he directed on stage in 2016. With his film of Oslo, Sher has not merely photographed his play but reconceived it in visual terms, linking the camera’s perspective to that of Norwegian conduit Mona (Ruth Wilson). Through an expressive marriage of lighting, composition, and camera movement, Sher allows the audience to simultaneously share Mona’s point of view and take in the larger context surrounding her in all its scope and importance; there isn’t a wrong decision or false note in the entire film, and I wanted to find out how Sher approached such difficult material and made it look so easy. We hopped on the phone a few days before Oslo premiered on HBO, where it is available on demand as well as streaming on HBOMax.
Filmmaker: What were the circumstances that led to the choice of Oslo as your feature film directing debut? Were movies something you had been wanting to get into for a while?
Bartlett Sher: I can’t say that I made a conscious decision about becoming a filmmaker. I’m not particularly goal oriented—I’m more work oriented. I always thought filmmaking was interesting and that I would love to try it someday, but I didn’t set it in motion in some profound way; it unfolded somewhat organically. I’ve been in long term communication with [producer] Mark Platt about making a movie; he’s always wanted me to and seems to see a cinematic quality in my theater work. He came to see Oslo and said, “We have to make a movie of this, and I want to get the rights and help you make your first movie.” So, it really started with his drive to do it, then once the pandemic hit he took on some other partners. That’s when we started seriously talking about making a movie.
Filmmaker: The movie is quite different from the play.
Sher: Once I knew I was making a film, the one thing I did not want to do was film the play. I wanted to make a movie. To that extent, we completely restructured it; we loaded it up behind Mona and moved her to the central viewing role, and we built in a flashback structure, changing the timeline as a way of starting in a theatrical way. As I tried to uncover how metaphor works in film versus how it works on the stage, we balanced certain motifs in the subtext against what I was doing in the more literal parts of the filmmaking to build it into what we all called an “intellectual thriller”—a genre-based reference for how the rhythm was going to work, how we were going to cut. The structure of the play—[moving] from one set of negotiations to a second, then a third, and finishing in Sweden—is still there, but the overall POV is different, and we cut the hell out of it. It’s at least 45 minutes shorter than the play.
Filmmaker: Why did you think the story would work better on film if you cut that material?
Sher: It happened naturally. We’d already cut a bunch, and we filmed a lot more than we used. Obviously in the theater I always tighten and edit during previews, but when you get to the editing room on a film, the things you can change and shift and move and play with are extraordinary. I was working with Janusz Kaminski as my director of photography, and we stayed in each scene and worked them from beginning to end so that I had as much material as possible. That was quite helpful, because it meant that I had a lot more options for how to steer and elevate different moments as my vocabulary evolved.
Janusz and I both work similarly in certain ways; we didn’t say, “Oh, we’re going to do ABC.” We said, “We’re going to explore ABC,” and we set something in motion. There were things I wanted to do from the beginning, but there was a lot of improvisation. I mean, certain things were really clear, like the shot in that last scene where they finally make her go into the room and the camera follows her around, and it’s all from her point of view. That was a given; I said, “Look, we have to do it that way.” But sometimes we were just capturing things, especially once I was in the middle of working and really started to understand how helpful inserts were. One time I said, “Janusz, can we go in there and just take a shot of the empty negotiating room?” I was thinking, maybe I could use something like that later. We rushed everybody in, set up the A camera and the B camera, checked the lighting and did it in about 40 minutes. And that ended up being the last shot of the movie. There was a kind of mixture of those two things, things that I knew I wanted to do and things that grew out of decisions made as the vocabulary’s evolving.
Filmmaker: How do you start though? When you walk onto the stage, or the location, how do you begin formulating your shots?
Sher: We’d almost always start by asking what Mona’s seeing, then I would stage it and build a structure from there, breaking it down into shots. We had a rehearsal period, which was incredibly helpful, but once you’re there it changes and you make a lot of decisions on the set. The advantage of working in the theater is that I’m used to change; people would say to me, “What’s your shot list?” and I would agonize over it until I realized it wasn’t necessary. I just want to go in and have an idea, and as long as I stay in the theme we’ll find it—I knew when I was staging it where Janusz was going to put the camera, just because you would have no choice based on the staging. Then there are all those things about crossing the line…I never thought about shit like that. Nor did Janusz.
Filmmaker: What about the actors? Do you work with them differently in a film than you do on the stage?
Sher: On one level, no. On one level you are uncovering the same values, beats, ideas, information, build—all that’s going to be the same as you would have in a scene for the stage. But on another level, the scale is all going to be different. I had to adjust my scale. A room of 1,100 people where you’re reaching the back of the house is different from a camera that is four and a half feet away, or even eight feet away. So, I was shifting the scale of it, but I was looking for the same essential information.
Filmmaker: Talk about your experience in the editing room. Because that’s an area where film really differentiates itself from theater.
Sher: So much of drama is rhythm, and the editing room allows you to control the rhythm so intensely. Things that I would kill myself to take out on stage, pauses or places you want to build this shift and that shift, you can accomplish all that in editing. When I got to the editing room, I was like, “Oh my God.” You have to realize that every single thing about this process was new to me. It was like, “Oh, you get to do that?” Even if you take something like the sound, it was mind blowing, the way you can take this syllable from here and that syllable from there, and how many subtle and rich changes you can make in the editing process. You can rethink the whole shape of the film, which is remarkable. You hear stories of directors who struggle their way through the shooting process just in order to get to the editing, and I can understand that. Then there’s color correction. I was gobsmacked by what you can do there. The kind of thing I would do in theater with lighting, right? Where I might be able to pull out a face with a spot, you can build that window in color correcting and shift the lighting of the scene. That’s a whole other toolbox.
Filmmaker: It sounds like you really enjoyed discovering all these new tools. Are you looking forward to directing another movie?
Sher: Of course, it would be great. There’s no way to describe how you get to be an infant taking your first step, 20 times in a row. That’s kind of what I was like, because each new part of the process was another way of seeing something I hadn’t seen. The other thing you realize about filmmaking is that the people who work on films, from the camera operators to the grips and everybody else, are so extraordinarily skilled at what they do. I would find myself enormously impressed by the lighting because I’m pretty knowledgeable about lighting in the theater, but how you set up that lighting in film is completely different than how the cameras see it. I was constantly fascinated by everyone’s work, it was pretty astonishing.
Filmmaker: How did the fact that you were shooting during the pandemic affect things?
Sher: The thing I love about the theater is that it’s a social art form, and the thing I was looking forward to in film was how social it was. The worst thing about the pandemic is that it cuts you off from everybody, because you’re all in your little cell. Plus you’re asking actors and crew people to take risks with their health just to come to the set. We stayed safe throughout and we had a very strong and well-supported company, but the pandemic was this thing that sort of hangs over it. It just adds this level of obstacle and complexity to the whole enterprise.
Filmmaker: Obviously the timing of the film’s release is interesting given everything that’s been going on in the Middle East recently. How do you see the role of a movie like this at a time like this?
Sher: I don’t think that the object of a film should be social change; I don’t think that we should make something in order to have some impact on public policy. What film can do is help us think differently. It can help us have a perception we didn’t expect. It can help us see our history in a new way. It can help us experience things. It can do hundreds of different kinds of things in our internal life, in our relationship to each other. And in the case of Oslo, I took on a very overtly political circumstance and a history play of a certain time, but the subtext is the important thing. So, the real question of Oslo is: how do you get impossible enemies into a room and what can happen?
When we first did it, all anybody talked about was Republicans and Democrats. And when we did it in London, all they talked about was Brexit because that was what was happening. It’s been done in South Korea, where all they talk about is North Korea. Now, here we are with a film about to open and all we can talk about is Israel and Palestine, which is a good thing because the conversation has to happen. Our movie is hopefully a part of that conversation. No matter how complex the circumstances are now, I think we would all love a call to dialogue if that was a way of solving the problem. The other thing I learned from Oslo is that great leadership is a huge component in change. I think that this kind of dialogue between enemies getting into a room together, guided by leaders who have the courage to change—that is an extraordinary thing to make a story about.
Jim Hemphill is a filmmaker and film historian based in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.