There is something amazing and extremely elegant about Tuva Novotny. I had not remembered her without doing a Google search, but now, I will never forget her. The Swedish actor made her mark in Alex Garland's phenomenal sci-fi film Annihilation, playing one of the five women that boldly went into the shimmer, but now she takes her second step into the role of director. Her second film, Britt-Marie Was Here is the mature kind of work that audiences should take notice of. A narrative about a women who finds the courage to leave her ungrateful husband after 40-years of marriage, may seem like something for an older crowd, but Novotny injects pure energy using laughs and honesty. On top of all that, Novotny is flat out talented, truly skilled with pacing and style in her films, and hopefully the rest of Hollywood will take notice. Give her a Star Wars movie, give her the next big blockbuster, I don't care, but don't let someone this talented pass you by. I was lucky enough to be able to talk to Tuva about Britt-Marie Was Here and her path to becoming a must-see director. Read it here:
AMG.COM: Before I get into your work on directing Britt-Marie Was Here, I would be foolish to let this opportunity go by without asking you about Annihilation, a film that I love so much. Would you say you learned anything as a director from your experience on that film specifically?
TUVA NOVOTNY: It's interesting that you ask that, because just the other day I had a conversation with a good, old friend of mine. He is a producer, he's a reliable person, and I always want to work with him. He sent me this script; It was all good and well written, inspiring in so many ways, but I had to talk to myself in terms of why it didn't turn on my lights. I realized that, to me because that project had- and this sounds so boring right now- but it did not have a female lead. What I actually gained from [Annihilation], for the first time in my life, my 20-year career, I had never worked with a full female lead cast. However ridiculous it might sound, it had a huge impact on me, because we talk about representation, and I'm super aware of that in my own storytelling. To actually work in an all-female surrounding was so inspiring and refreshing. I think subconsciously, I brought that with me, it wasn't a secret, it was a big part of that project in the script, but I think Alex's (Garland) genius was that he did not make a point out of it. It was a norm and that was a new thing. It was not done as a statement, we did not talk about why, there is only one line in Annihilation that comments that they are only females. That was a genius move, that it was actually created to become a norm, that was such a revelation for all of us I think.
AMG.COM: With the success of A Man Called Ove, we know Fredrik Backman's writing has a good history of transferring to cinema, but was it hard for you and your other screenwriters to adapt Britt-Marie Was Here?
TUVA NOVOTNY: It was super hard. I did not jump onto this project as a screenwriter originally. I was busy with my first movie Blindspot, which I wrote and directed, so I was hoping for that magical, genius script to arrive at my desk, so I could just go out and direct it. It turned out that it was difficult. I think that is the beauty with Backman's books. They are so immense, large, full, and rich. There are loads of side stories and he creates this universe that is amazing to read, but difficult to transform into a 90-minute movie script. The original screenwriters really fought to make this as direct to the universe of Fredrik's books, but at the same time as simple as a movie should be. They fought and I fought and I don't know if we made it, we tried to narrow it down to the essence of what I felt that book was about, which was to me, a start over at a late age for a women. Getting to know yourself, in terms of being a woman from a generation where you've been relying on your husband for all of your life, not even having a job. I hope we captured that essence, but had I been forced to work on the script longer, I would have.
AMG.COM: This is your second time directing and both of your parents are artists, so are you your own worst critic? And do you put more pressure on yourself and the success of the film when you are the one directing?
TUVA NOVOTNY: Definitely. The first movie I made, the first person that saw the movie that was not a part of the project was my father. It was a huge moment for me, when he came out of the theater crying, saying, “Wow, that's well done”. Obviously, yes, I have a huge luggage to bring on from my childhood, but at the same time, I have to say it makes things easier. For a lot of people, coming from completely different sides of town or from parents with other professions, I know that there's a bigger complexity in terms of the identity they are expected to take on in life. For me that's never been an issue. It's been the most normal or natural thing to work within the arts and movies. I grew up with watching all the big classical directors, so I feel very lucky, because it feels like being home on a movie set. I have been there since I was a kid, I grew up with it, so it feels like a home turf.
AMG.COM: What I loved about this story is that it is about finding your voice at any time in ones life. Did you see yourself in the character of Britt-Marie?
TUVA NOVOTNY: Oh yeah. I think personally I could not have taken on the script or the movie to direct if I could not relate to her. In terms of representation, obviously there are going to be stories told that everyone cannot relate to, but I think there's this point of an existential core that I think people can relate to a lot of. Despite of color, gender, sexual identity, whatever, I think I try to speak out in this project through myself and therefore I believe many others can relate to it. Yes, absolutely I relate to starting all over, or the anxiety of daring to start over at any time in life. Wether you are sixty-three as Britt-Marie or thirty-nine as I am, or even the ten-year old little football girl. I definitely relate to it and that is the beauty of this book, the story, that we can all change. It takes a bit of work, but it is possible.
AMG.COM: We have to praise your lead actor Pernilla August. What kind of notes did you give her in preparation for this role? Or do you stand back and let her work?
TUVA NOVOTNY: I had one thing, and its obviously an ambivalent task to take on, to direct a woman with that immense amount of experience. She's also done directing and so on...but knowing from my own experience as an actor, that working with a director that has too much respect for you is never going to push your limits. I decided beforehand that I was going to let her go on set, but I am also needing one thing, and that was for her not to smile. It was a simple thing, but knowing Pernilla in private, she is a glowing beam, wonderful, loving, happy person. She smiles all the time, she laughs all the time; I really wanted to get the transition of this gray woman, that has left her life behind, in the shadow of her husband, to finally blooming, and I knew we couldn't do that if she was going to be available as a person throughout. I asked her for that. I asked her to change her smile, it was going to be so important. Then to me it was the most beautiful thing, when she finally smiled, when the policeman brought her the flowers. For Pernilla this was such a difficult thing, I mean she really struggled. She thought it was hard to be at work, she stayed in character all the time and did not smile, she almost looked depressed. Such a small thing became such a big thing, but I also believe that it was a key to that character.
AMG.COM: I wanted to ask about the supporting cast, specifically the kids that are on the soccer team. Was it easy for you to work with this group because you're just getting them on a soccer field and telling them to act naturally, or did you feel like you needed to be their coach as well?
TUVA NOVOTNY: I have to say, I have been working with kids on both of my movies and to me it's all about casting. You find the right cast, right character, because children are going to be children. I don't want professional children, who knows when to say a line or what light to stand in to do a character, because then it is going to be acting. I don't like acting. I like authenticity. I like genuine characters. I had a party with these kids. It was just...I loved them so much and pointing a camera at them, I got so much material. I think it feels authentic because they were. They weren't saying lines. I know if you ask anyone from the crew or the rest of the cast, they'd be like, “oh my fucking god!” Oh you'll have to censor that...(laughter) it was a horror because they were just kids. They ran around, they screamed, got tired, they fought, we'd give them ice cream, and then they get breaks. Well, that's what kids are like, so I was prepared. I just think a lot of people these days are actually expecting kids to come in and be grown up professionals and I didn't. I wanted them to be those kids, so for me it was great, but I think a lot of people did have their difficulties.
AMG.COM: There's a lot of detail in the set designing. Britt-Marie is a meticulous, detailed person. Was there extra time taken to make sure all the utensils were lined perfectly and the rooms were set to perfection?
TUVA NOVOTNY: Oh god, yeah. To me a movie is several departments working together. Several creatives. It's all about creating this universe and so for me every details is important. In cooperation on working with the production designer we decided to build the children's home because we wanted to control that universe, we didn't want it to be random. It was important that the universe to me and the production designer is almost a character itself in my movies. Even with my first movie, it means so much, the costumes, the makeup, and obviously the photography, production design, it can play a part in the movie. I think it should. We are creating this in my way of movie making. If you want to go make a documentary or something else fine, but for me it is super important and not just a backdrop. In terms of Britt-Marie, her characteristics of the tidy, almost diagnosed way of living before and how she needs to transfer, open up towards chaos, open to her own existential chaos, it was super important that it played out parallel with her own journey.
AMG.COM: For a final question, I am fascinated with Swedish, Norwegian cinema, and you are one of the many great stars to come out of this country, can you speak to why foreign cinema is thriving now for so many talented people such as Ruben Ostlund, Noomi Rapace, Thomas Vinterberg? I could go on.
TUVA NOVOTNY: Well, ohh, I don't know. There is obviously a good old tradition of movie making in Scandinavia. There's been initiatives on a financial level, a cultural initiative from a governmental level in terms of actually making sure movies are made. We fund our movies with governmental tax money, so there is this cultural identity of movie making that is highly appreciated. There's drive, these past 50-years or more with Ingmar Bergman, there's also been building a platform for it. I am sure there's great movies made throughout Europe, that I know Scandinavia had the infrastructure to also make those movies get out into the world. That is a big part of it, we need distribution and Scandinavia is good at showing the rest of the world that we make movies. There is two heads of that driving it.