“One of the Basic Questions of Directing is When Are You with Someone and When Are You Not?”: Eskil Vogt on Blind
Blind, the feature directorial debut of Joachim Trier’s co-writer Eskil Vogt, is an aesthetically spick-and-span Nordic nightmare, a meditation on loneliness, illness and responsibility. If its effects are a bit sneakier than the wrecking ball to the chest approach of Oslo, August 31, it’s due to the meticulousness of its script, and the complex interplay among its many principal characters.
Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) has recently lost her sight, and spends her days cooped up with her computer while her husband Morten (Henrik Rafaelsen) is at work. Unable to relate to the outside world, Ingrid retreats into her imagination, crafting an interwoven tale of three strangers and their desperate attempts to connect with one another, as she struggles to maintain confidence in her own marriage. Filmmaker spoke to Vogt about cinematically conveying the state of blindness, his solitary and collaborative writing processes, and why Blind took longer to reach American audiences than he would’ve liked. Blind is released tomorrow at the IFC Center and on Fandor by KimStim.
Filmmaker: Watching the film again, I was struck by the commonality between Blind and Oslo, August 31, in that they both grapple with solitude as a result of an uncontrollable condition – addiction in Oslo and blindness in your film. Did you feel like that was something you wanted to explore further after Oslo?
Eskil Vogt: It’s interesting, after Oslo, I thought about how contained it was. It was one main character that we followed through the streets of Oslo for 24 hours. It was so scripted in a way and I felt a need to go against that, to do something that felt completely free. Fantasy and imagination were the engine of Blind. But, at the same time, it has been pointed out that there are some big similarities. They’re both about isolation, particularly urban isolation, which is something I think I return to.
Filmmaker: In terms of their structures, they diverge quite a bit. I think another one of Blind’s thematic interests is the nature of writing as a creationist exercise, and the control that one exerts over his or her characters. Given that you were a working writer before you had a chance to direct your own feature, was that something you wanted to toy with?
Vogt: I guess so. It’s about blindness obviously, and I wanted to treat that with a lot of respect, but aside from that, it’s about our inner lives and our imaginations. All those strange things that are boiling inside of us which you might not see on the surface. I wanted to explore that interiority, which meant the storytelling had aspects of imagination and fantasy. I wasn’t crazy about making her a writer, because I knew that people would draw comparisons, and make it about me and my process as a writer, which is only partly true. It’s more about her inner life, and making her blind, made that all the more obvious. Having said that, I did have a lot of fun with her thoughts, and torturing the characters, because that’s what drama means: you put them through situations. And that’s what Ingrid does in the film. She reveals herself through what she imagines. I can’t protect my film from revealing myself through her process. Some people say I’ve written a self-portrait as a blind woman.
Filmmaker: I wasn’t assuming a similarity between you and the character, more like your interest in the process, and specifically, that writing is a solitary activity, one that you can lose yourself to if you’re willing to go there. Because you write on your own, and you’re simultaneously working on your fourth film with Joachim, do you feel that you need to have a different approach to the two processes?
Vogt: It’s a good question. People ask me all the time, “What’s the difference between writing something Joachim is going to direct and something you’re going to direct?” And I think the proper question is what you just asked, “How is it writing alone versus with someone?” I feel the advantage of writing alone, because I can be even more associative and free, and not have to explain the ideas in the process. If you’re communicating with a co-writer, you have to sell the idea and explain why it should work, and it becomes very conscious. Writing Blind, which I wrote fairly quickly, I could be free, and let the subconscious play a part. That was a particularly beneficial thing for this film, because it’s about that kind of process.
Filmmaker: Since it has such an intricate structure, did you devise the characters separately and interweave them after the fact? Where did you begin?
Vogt: The entry point was blindness, and I also wanted to go deeper into loneliness. I had the idea to do something on online pornography, and how it’s become so abundant and easy to access. It’s a big part of people’s lives, which we don’t talk about. So from that, other characters evolved along this thread of loneliness. As I started to work, I understood why they fit so well together, because, pornography in a way is the opposite of blindness. You can see everything, but you can’t touch anyone. And it’s lonely, people who have a lot of time on their hands can lose themselves. Blindness is a fear of becoming lonely, of becoming a burden on people close to you, and becoming increasingly isolated. So all the other characters became interwoven into the blind woman’s psyche, and everything fell into place for me.
Filmmaker: In terms of the aesthetics, you’re working with a lot of disembodied frames. We don’t see Morten’s face until half an hour in. You convey Ingrid’s state by having her feel around: we’re constantly seeing her hands up against objects, but seldom do you use a wide frame to allow us to holistically view her surroundings. How did you want to render her psychological state when you were putting together the look and cinematography of the film?
Vogt: That’s a big question because it was so important for this film to represent blindness with cinematic means, which was a large part of why I was so excited about it. From the very beginning, there were all these possibilities of exploring that, which also meant I had to avoid a lot of the common cinematic language which is based on people looking. If I was being subjective, I would’ve had a black screen and sound, which would’ve be very cheap to make, but not many people would’ve seen it. It’s not just about living in blackness, because then you’d take away her visual imagination, as she’s constantly imagining her surroundings.
What we wanted to do, with the production designer and cinematographer, was feel her mental image. Our strategy of doing that was to change the sets all the time, removing objects she would forget to imagine were there. A lot of that, and playing with depth of field and being very close so we didn’t see what was around her. One of the basic questions of directing is when are you with someone and when are you not? And how are you with them? If I only had a black screen and sound, I wouldn’t have her reaction to the sound, I would just have mine as the spectator. If you keep on a close-up, you don’t see what causes the sound, but you feel her reaction, which is subjectivity. I think the whole movie in a way is exploring that question. I could talk a lot about it.
Filmmaker: What you were saying about the moving of sets, you also cut between locations in the middle of scenes, and characters change gender, which toys with the idea of an unreliable narrator.
Vogt: Exactly. We do a lot of stuff like that that you hopefully only feel and you’re not entirely conscious of. We wanted a few that were obvious, that would have people say, “What am I watching?” And question the reality of it.
Filmmaker: Have you ever seen In The City of Sylvia?
Vogt: Yes, I have. You’re the first person to ask me about that, because there’s that scene with all the women in the city, right? Yes, I’ve seen it and I like it and was maybe partly inspired by it. I was thinking about working with that cinematographer, but it didn’t happen.
Filmmaker: I hope this doesn’t come off the wrong way, but the film premiered at Sundance in 2014, got great reviews, and then it didn’t have that much presence on the American circuit and is coming out a year and a half later. I know it’s a sensitive issue, but it was curious to me that it didn’t immediately find an audience, especially because your collaborations with Joachim are well known.
Vogt: It would be sensitive for me if I had made an American film, but it’s not essential for a film like mine to get U.S. distribution. When we premiered at Sundance, it had a great reception and we got a lot of interest from distributors. I think we even got some offers, but the sales agent wanted to wait, and then it petered out. It played at some festivals, even Fantastic Fest, which, I didn’t know they screened these types of movies, but, I was a bit surprised as well, when it took this long to find its way.
Filmmaker: Well, it’s good that it has. Are you going to be able to do any promotion?
Vogt: There’s maybe talk of Skype Q&As, but I’m too busy working here in Oslo. Writing is hard work, you have these deadlines approaching and you feel sometimes impotent before the white page, but it always works out in the end.