Violent is an achievement – a first-time director with a skeleton crew working in another country in a language they don't speak has pulled off a compelling and visually stunning meditation on life, death and love. The film is about a young Norwegian woman, Dagny (Dagny Backer Johnsen) who thinks about the people who loved her most as she experiences a (never quite spelled out) catastrophic event. The feature has picked up two awards at the Vancouver International Film Festival: Best Canadian Film and Best B.C. Film. The jury called it a "ground-breaking and emotionally mature film [with] audacious ambitions [that] more than delivers."
It's directed by Andrew Huculiak, 24, who is also the drummer with the band We Are the City, whose most recent album is also called Violent.
We met at VIFF, where Violent had its Canadian premiere.
You are the film's director but this was a collaboration. How did it work?
It truly was the four of us – myself, my brother Josh [Huculiak], my cousin Joe [Schweers, who shot and edited the film] and our friend Cayne [McKenzie] who's also in the band with me. We wrote the film together. We would lock ourselves in a room for eight or nine hours a day, for almost an entire year, hammering out these very small plot points. Then the four of us went to Bergen, Norway, with a sound guy and we made the film there. There was no hierarchy of roles. If someone needed to run and get a sandwich for an actor, it would be anyone.
It must have been a bigger crew than that.
No it wasn't; it was the five of us.
How did a group of guys from B.C. end up making a film in Bergen, Norway – in Norwegian?
We wanted to transport people in Vancouver to somewhere else, because that seemed like something that we would like to see; to go somewhere else and see it for the first time.
How did you land on Norway?
Just kind of pure luck. We had a list of places we wanted to go and I knew two people in Bergen. We actually employed one of them to put up posters around the city before we came, saying "actors wanted." And when we got there we held auditions.
Your lead, Dagny Backer Johnsen, was wonderful. How did you find her? Not one of those posters.
Yeah the poster. She responded along with maybe 10 to 12 other young women.
What sort of experience does she have?
She's worked in the theatre and she's done a few films. This is kind of her first leading role in a feature length film. She was really very patient with us because there's a language barrier as well. She speaks English very well but after a take, we'd have to talk about what was exactly said and [maybe ask:] You said this thing a little bit differently; you used this word. What does this word mean? She'd say 'this word is a little bit happier.' We'd work with all the intricacies of the lines.
How did you deal with the language barrier, because you don't speak Norwegian, right?
No, none of us. That was actually also one of the things that was very attractive about the idea of doing [the film] somewhere else; the fact that we were kind of experimenting with a different way to make a film. It was like a creative experiment to sort of direct on body language or just being able to feel when the scene was right and when the scene was authentic, rather than being distracted by hitting all the marks. We all just knew when the take was good because of how it felt.
Do you think being musicians helped with that?
Yeah maybe. In a couple of different ways. Maybe being able to hear the music in the language. That was actually another thing that we were really excited to do. If a word sounded cool, maybe stretching it out or repeating it just because of how it sounds to us.
You're a first-time director. How did you know what to do?
This is a bit embarrassing. I've always been a filmmaker but to direct actors is not really anything I've done before. And so on the flight to Norway, I thought when we get on-set I have to know what I'm doing or at least say a few things to make it seem like I know what I'm doing.
So I went to this website called No Film School and looked up all these tips on directing and what actors do and don't do and I had maybe 20 tabs open and I just started taking notes the whole flight over. So I learned how to be a director on the flight over.
And then when we were making the movie as well, I was learning.
Where did the money come for this?
It was just out of our own pockets. We didn't pay ourselves at all and we didn't work for the two years that we were making the movie. Nine of us lived in a house [together] to keep costs low. Like I said, there's only five people so it's not like we had a trailer or a big crew we had to pay; it's just us.
You had to pay the actors.
Yeah, but the actor that plays Bengt didn't take any money; he said he'll wait until we make money or the film makes money before he takes anything.
That actor [Tor Halvor Halvorsen, playing a lonely shop owner who falls for Dagny], was also great.
He is and the crazy thing about him is the actor [who was supposed to play Bengt] dropped out two days before we started shooting, and we were just freaking out. And then Dagny said there's this guy in the theatre who's also wanting to do films so we had him in for an audition and I thought this is the character; this is the guy.
The film has the same title as your album and we hear some of it in the film. Beyond that, what is the relationship between the two?
Conceptually we wrote the album and the film at the same time so there are themes in there that are covered on lyrics in the album or musical themes, as well as melodies and chord progressions that are in the film. It's not like you need to have one to have the other. Maybe they're like a brother and a sister or something like that, where they come from the same parents but they are two separate people.
You're a person of faith. Was there a connection between your beliefs and how the film deals with death?
I like to think there's a lot of suggestions of God throughout the entire film, but I also wanted to leave it up to interpretation. There's a scene where [Dagny] baptizes herself. The question we wanted to put into the viewer's mind is when she comes out of the water, what's the answer: Is God real or is God not real?
There's a silence and she looks at the mountains and there's this long kind of drawn-out moment where for me looking at the mountains and having that silence and no actual words being spoken – that for me is proof of God. But I think for another person, that could be the opposite.
Will you make more films with the same group of collaborators?
Totally; it just works. I just seriously would not want to make films with anybody else. Because we've worked together creatively for so long and we have very similar influences. When we have a good idea, everybody knows it's a good idea and then there's a sort of synergy.
You're able to do both – filmmaking and music making?
The band is full steam ahead as well. We're releasing the album again in Europe and we just got a U.S. label deal so it's also just it's going to be a good year I think.
You can make some money again.
Yeah I hope so, but at the same time I hope not, because I think that the best creative work is made when I'm hungry and when I'm uncomfortable. So I hope I don't make too much money – enough just to eat and live in a house, but that's it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.Violent plays at VIFF Oct 10 and Oct 12 at SFU Woodward's.