Maria Sødahl reveals how her personal struggle with cancer gave birth to ‘Hope’

“Hope” is based upon filmmaker Maria Sødahl’s experiences as a working woman in a blended family whose life is forever changed when her cancer is no longer in remission. Over the period of a week, Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) and husband Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård) prepare for the worst and hope for the best. It’s a story that delves deeply into relationships and the meaning of love in the modern age. I had the opportunity to sit down with Sødahl at the Toronto International Film Festival where her film premiered to discuss the making of this very personal story.

Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård in “Hope”

PAMELA POWELL: Tell me why you decided to make a story about perhaps one of the most difficult times in your life.

MARIA SØDAHL: Actually, I didn’t want to do that. It happened quite reluctantly in a way, after I started to feel better and was no longer preparing to die, but preparing to live. This project just kept coming my way, and I couldn’t go around it. I started looking at it and realized that very raw and naked scenes appeared. What happens to a person when you get a very final period of time to live is also very fascinating. After quite a short time, I decided I had to be very, very honest, and when I started doing that, I couldn’t run away from being that way. The story, time-wise, takes place over one week, one Christmas, my marriage and my birthday. All of this is 100% what happened. The entire medical story is very accurate, with the hospital being closed at Christmas time, and even the internet being closed down by mistake. As for all the emotional stuff, I would say that a lot of the situations are very close to reality, but there is also fiction, with all the emotions left intact.

POWELL:  What did you learn about yourself as you wrote this screenplay?

SØDAHL: It was like an investigation into who I was because I was really high on medicine and steroids. The first thing I did was ask my husband if it was alright that I was working on this kind of material. This story is told from my point of view. It’s my memory, but it includes the whole family—my three kids, my three step children—so I asked him, but of course, he couldn’t say no. Then I had lunch meetings, one-on-one with the kids, telling them that ‘I’m not going to portray you, but I’m going to portray the family and the mechanisms of what happened.’ They had totally different memories of the exact same situation, and that was really interesting. At the same time, it’s very painful and it’s cancer, but it’s also a story filled with absurdity. A lot of absurdity! So I had a lot of fun. It’s also about a marriage, and about portraying a whole life in one week. It’s more than cancer, more than death, it’s about life and love. 

It’s more than cancer, more than death, it’s about life and love. 

POWELL: As this does portray a family, your family, what was your children’s reaction to the film?

SØDAHL: It’s like in literature when you have autobiographical material. A lot of this is my memory, but it does include them, and they have different memories of these situations. One said that it was egocentric, but felt that I had made it for them.  Some of the others were like, ‘It’s too close. It’s like a documentary.’ You steal the memory and you make a new memory.  

POWELL: What do you hope people will take away from your experience as you portray it in the film?

SØDAHL: I don’t think the cancer story is the strong story here. I think the love story is the strongest story to people. I think after the movie, they are not left in peace. They are given a wake up call and given time to reflect upon their own choices in their own lives. It’s quite an existential experience because it’s about life from so many angles. It’s about a modern family, being a blended family, what is love, what is modern love? If something happens, does someone drop everything and be there? This clashes with the concept of modern love because we are in such an individualistic times where that’s the goal, to be self-sufficient.  

POWELL: Tell me about casting your two main characters.

Maria Sødahl, Stellan Skarsgård and Andrea Bræin Hovig

SØDAHL: Ironically, I cast the male lead first, and he (Stellan Skarsgård) was in my mind for some time. He’s a very good actor and for this story, he could relate to it in many ways because he has many kids. I wanted the best actress and I didn’t know what she would look like, but I knew it had to be someone who had a 360 degree emotional capacity and that she had to have a sense of humor and be very vulnerable. 

Sødahl continued to discuss the use of a quota system for women in the film industry in Norway, initially rejecting it, but ultimately seeing the need for it. “Only until five years ago, I was so against it because I thought it was humiliating, now it has to be done. It’s really great.”  She sees the doors of opportunity opening up for more women, and for the younger generation who will be the future role models in the industry. Sødahl also shared with me her hopes for her next film about a young woman traveling alone, which I am confident will be yet another thought-provoking endeavor.

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