‘Britt-Marie Was Here’ director Tuva Novotny shows us how a 63-year old woman can relate to everyone with or without a smile

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It is a wonderful experience when you meet someone you connect with on a deep and creative level. I felt this connection with Swedish filmmaker and actor Tuva Novotny during our conversation about her film “Britt-Marie Was Here”, her second directorial effort following her debut feature “Blind Spot”. Before meeting Tuva, I was familiar with her acting roles, specifically in “Annihilation,” “Eat Pray Love,” and “A War.” The way she is present in her characters transports you. Now viewing “Britt-Marie Was Here” and “Blind Spot”, I see the same acting style reflected on the canvas of the screen, including the performances of Pernilla August, who plays Britt-Marie, and Pia Tjelta, who stars in “Blind Spot.”

In her films, Tuva is not afraid to take risks, bringing fully developed characters that can seem relatable to anyone to the screen. And she has made the choice for these main characters in her first two features to be played by women. Bringing women and minorities to the forefront in her films creates a norm of understanding and universality between people, all people. What Tuva is doing with filmmaking is exciting. I cannot wait to see what she does next. Go see “Britt-Marie was Here” in select theaters, adapted from the book with the same name, by “A Man Called Ove” author Fredrik Backman.

REBECCA MARTIN: I though a good place to start is examining your transition into directing. You’ve had such a long acting career—I love “Annihilation” by the way.

Tuva Novotny in “Annihilation” (2018)

TUVA NOVOTNY: Well thank you.

MARTIN: What took you into directing, what was your transition from acting?

NOVOTNY: First of all, I grew up with director parents. Moviemaking had always been a part of my childhood. They were artists, actually–they were theatre directors. So basically it was natural for me to get into directing with movies. Acting just happened, I slipped into it. It worked out for me. I just kept on working, and learning on the side. I felt because of my upbringing, I had more of a respect for the directing profession. I just decided I’d do it when I felt ready for it. 

Tuva Novotny on “Dag” (2010-2015)

There are a lot of actors that make the leap if there’s an opportunity opening up, but might not be ready for it, you know. I started directing with a friend, who was doing a TV series in Norway called “Dag”. It’s shown on Netflix. So it was kind of an easy transition. It was a big leap as well, but a smooth transition to handling the technicalities and the dynamics of being on the set. I directed a couple episodes in the series, and I worked on a Netflix series called “Lilyhammer” 

“Lilyhammer” (2012-2014), Netflix series

MARTIN: I’ve seen that show!

NOVOTNY: Yeah, I really want to say it was easy, but obviously it’s not easy to handle a big budget Netflix series, but I have to say it just felt very natural for me, for me to be in that role.

MARTIN: That’s great.

NOVOTNY: So, it was not a big thing to move on and to start writing my own material and getting it financed and directing. It’s all been very organic, easing into something that feels very natural to me to be in. 

MARTIN: I’d like to talk mostly about “Britt-Marie Was Here” today, but wanted to see if you could talk more about your experience with “Blind Spot”, your first feature. I’ve seen trailers and it looks really interesting, like a psychological drama. I’m interested in hearing your general experience on that film, and then we can go more into “Britt-Marie Was Here.”

NOVOTNY: Well I kind of had a plan of making “Blind Spot” with “Britt-Marie” and my current project I’m working on, so I had a three-year plan. 

MARTIN: That’s awesome. 

NOVOTNY: And yeah, I’m doing it right now, so “Blind Spot” was super important to me because it would be my first movie. I wrote it myself, and it felt like an art piece. It’s about mental illness, and it was to be shot in one continuous take, so it was kind of a risky project in a way. I asked my go-to advisor, Peter Aalbaek, of Zentropa Denmark, a producer, if I should do the artsy film first, or if I should make the bigger budget commercial movie first? And he said definitely do the commercial one first, because then you’ll be able to do whatever you want. So me, being an anarchist, I went on to do exactly the opposite of what he said I should do. Because to me it was so important to make my artistic mark first, and to go on to show that I could make a bigger budget movie as well. I just really had to send a message, as a director, profiling myself as someone with a political agenda. And “Blind Spot” was extreme in that sense. So that was the plan to start with “Blind Spot” and then go on to do “Britt-Marie Was Here”. And “Britt-Marie Was Here” is also political, in terms of its stories and the female lead.

MARTIN: Did you know Pernilla August before you started the film? Did you seek her out for the role?

Pernilla August and Tuva Novotny

NOVOTNY: I think I had one demand for the movie, except for my DP. I could not see anyone but Pernilla doing that part. So I knew her from before, but most of it was I knew that she is who that I wanted for this movie. There would be some suggestions for more obvious choices, but I just thought Pernilla with her experience, and coming from completely different types of roles, she would just be exciting to watch in this character. And I’m so happy I got that through and that she wanted to work with me on this one. Very happy for that. 

MARTIN: Now this was your first adaptation, since the other film was an original script. How did you go about the adaptation process, working with the author of the book?

NOVOTNY: First of all, Fredrik Backman is a great writer. He could have implemented so much more of his own thoughts on to my work. He was great in terms of being an active participant in the choice of the director for this project. So when we decided that I was going to direct the film, he was supportive. He believed in me directing this film, and making it my own. He said he didn’t want anything to do with it. ‘I’m here if you need me, but I want you to do your thing with it.’ It was like this great bond of trust and mutual understanding. I had respect for his work, and he had respect for mine. A great place to start with an adaptation, because sometimes it can be difficult.

MARTIN: Yeah, I really felt with Pernilla’s performance and your direction, that you really captured what it is to be a woman finding herself. How did you and Pernilla work together in capturing this on screen?

“Britt-Marie Was Here” (2019)

NOVOTNY: Well there are so many layers in depicting a layered character, especially when that character is in every single shot. The main thing that I asked from all of the different departments, the DP, the Production Assistant, Costume and Hair, and even Pernilla, was to always be with the character, and not look at the character. There are so many risks in terms of the story to make her funny and comedic. Of course we should be able to laugh at times, but then they are laughing with her. That was my only guiding star for everyone, including Pernilla. Because sometimes as an actor–I know too–we can make caricatures of our characters. And that can be fun, but I really didn’t want that with this character. So that was the main thing.

“Britt-Marie Was Here” (2019)

But also in terms of just acting and directing, I had this one thing I wanted her to work with: the smile. Because, not just as a woman, but as an adult today, we are brought up to smile, and be available. For me that is a very “feminine” feature that I’m hoping we’re letting go of, and trusting that we are good enough as we are, not just smiling and being cute, you know. So that was a big thing we worked with was not to smile at all throughout the whole movie. We view the smile as something available, as female and soft, in order to make her less social, socially able, not at all the feminine type that we want girls to grow into. I wanted to work with all of her sides, from that space, from the space where she had locked down all of those parts of herself, which was also interesting. The smile was one big key to her character and to the movie.

MARTIN: You’re so right, now I realize for most of the film I did not see her smile. Then at the end I was like whoa, that’s a transformation there. The smile really stands out.

NOVOTNY: I know, she looks so different. 

MARTIN: Exactly, she’s like a different person. I do like that you take us on her journey, her self-discovery. We meet her where she’s at. I like that it wasn’t about her being completed, it was like a journey. I feel like with female characters, in terms or representation, you don’t get the journey a lot. I really appreciated that choice for the character.

“Britt-Marie Was Here” (2019)

NOVOTNY: Thank you, thank you. That has been super important for me as well. And you know it’s so interesting about what you’re saying about representation. I read a lot of scripts, and there are lots of intelligently written scripts out there, but for me, I have discovered as a female director, growing up in a very feminist environment, an equality oriented environment, it’s just dawned on me–while making this film, for me it’s not necessarily about having a female lead always, although I see that’s what I’m doing, and doing that with my next movie as well. But for me it’s about creating characters that I can relate to, disregarding of age and gender and all that. There are so few stories and characters that I do relate to. So it’s been important for me to put those female and minority groups out into the leads, because how else are we going to move those norms, you know?

MARTIN: Yes, that’s so true. And I don’t want to go too much off talking about the film, but I’m so excited about what’s going on in Stockholm and Sweden with women in film. Maybe I connect that with Anna Serner, and all that she is doing with the pay gap and female filmmakers. I wanted to get your thoughts since you’re from there and grew up there.

Anna Serner

NOVOTNY: First of all, I think I’m very ambivalent. I don’t want to be appreciated for being a director because I’m a woman. We do need to put a light on the differences in our businesses. I have come to terms that I have to live with this transitional period that we are in now, but my main goal is that we will soon see a reality where this is not an issue anymore, but that it’s just the new norm. And with that, I guess I’ll just have to work with what is happening right now. I’m very, very anxious, or nervous about the polarized quality that has risen after #MeToo and #TimesUp. I think that’s the most dangerous part of this whole movement, where it’s becoming polarized, not talking to each other, but working in a revenge-oriented environment. It’s just important to focus on writing good scripts and for me, it’s been about representation as well. I’d rather have the focus be on the next step of this movement, where equality should just be the new norm. I’m thankful for achievements made by people like Anna Serner, who has made it possible for this discussion to even be happening. So on one side, I’m really ambivalent, but happy that things are changing. Although I have to say, I’ve never experienced being treated differently because I am a woman. I’ve just worked and taken myself seriously. 

Tuva Novotny

MARTIN: That’s good to hear. I actually hear a lot of different things talking to female filmmakers. Some of them are don’t want to be bothered about what’s going on around us, it’s just about the work. Then there are other female filmmakers that are more aware of where we are going and what needs to be represented through their work. It’s interesting to hear these different aspects. I really appreciate what you’re doing, you’re being true to yourself and your stories. I think that’s so important. 

Tuva Novotny with “Britt-Marie Was Here” Borg cast

Going back to “Britt-Marie Was Here,” I so want to go to that fictional Borg, everyone is so much fun, so chill and light-hearted. And that was a great environment for Britt-Marie to be in, they are just who they are. And those kids were amazing. That character Vega was such a wonderful spirit.

“Britt-Marie Was Here” (2019)

NOVOTNY: Basically what I wanted to do, working with such an established actor as Pernilla, was to create an environment that would be very authentic for her to move in. Because obviously she has lots of tools and experiences, so it was very important for me that the kids were not trained, that they were not going to forget their lines, but that they would be in character always. It obviously wasn’t easy for them to work with the trained actors, or the crew at times, but I have to say that I am so happy that I went with that direction. Because I was just so happy to get those children’s faces on screen. They are real. They might not say their lines at the right exact time, but that is for me to figure out in editing. Like if they don’t get their line, I don’t care, I’m going to make that work. So I’m super happy for going that way in casting, which meant a much longer casting process. It was difficult to find kids who had never stood in front of a camera, or were used to the long days. But in the end, I’d do it again. I love working like that. 

MARTIN: Yeah, it reflects on screen. It was a joy to watch, this community. 

Going back to Britt-Marie’s character, her transformation, I thought it was great that at the end of the film there was a question mark. You didn’t know what she was going to do. Is she going to go back to her husband, is she going to stay in Borg? But no, she takes her own journey after that. That time in Borg was just for that time. 

“Britt-Marie Was Here” (2019)

NOVOTNY: Yeah, thank you, I was so happy with that ending.

MARTIN: It’s so great, and I’m sure the ending correlates with the book, but during the whole film there are flashbacks to her and her sister, showing that her sister was always the dreamer, but now she is choosing her dream. What were you trying to capture there at the end, cinematically?

NOVOTNY: I think for me it was therapeutic in a way. It was important to me not only to connect with women, but to make it relatable for anyone. To make it relatable to being in a situation where you don’t see how you’re going to flip this coin, you know, and then you do. It’s not so scary after all. You can leave that open-ended if you want. It’s an open ending but she chooses herself in the end. That was really important for the relatable part of the theme, and really the whole movie, you know, that she has chosen a stronger route for her ending. Now I am hearing younger and older men and women can relate to her, letting go of old garbage, changing patterns, and so on, you know. And an open ending I felt was the symbol of that, of the message of the film. 

That was really important for the relatable part of the theme, and really the whole movie, you know, that she has chosen a stronger route for her ending. Now I am hearing younger and older men and women can relate to her, letting go of old garbage, changing patterns, and so on, you know. And an open ending I felt was the symbol of that, of the message of the film. 

MARTIN: What’s coming up?

Tuva Novotny

NOVOTNY: I just wrote a script for another director, it was a great experience. It’s also a story that’s representative, about a person in the 1870s who was falsely identified as a woman at birth, and then it turns out that she is actually a man. At that time, you didn’t have the same framework for identifying gender, but at the same time, people during that period were very open-minded. It was a period of information and enlightenment. It feels like a story that is very relevant for today, in this big discussion about gender identity, and so on. And already then a big topic, and you know we might learn something from history in that story. 

For my next directed film, it’s a story about biological monogamy, trying to penetrate the certain standards and norms of modern relational structures. You know, two and two, and are we really built that way. So yeah, that’s what I’m examining for this film.

MARTIN: That’s exciting! What stage is the film at?

NOVOTNY: We are prepping it now, a lot of prepping, because it’s a parallel story. One story is a couple. We follow the curve of their relationship, and along with that we see how animals behave, and how they come together–their bonding, and how it all comes together scientifically.

MARTIN: I can’t wait to see it. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

NOVOTNY: Thank you.

You can see “Britt-Marie Was Here” at select theatres. See link for more information.

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