By Carlos Aguilar | SydneysBuzz November 26, 2013 at 11:30AM
The Disciple, Finland's Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : None Yet. Producer: Långfilm Productions Finland Oy
With The Disciple , her third narrative feature, Finnish director Ulrika Bengts returns to tell another coming-of-age story set in a remote island, but this time with darker undertones. Intriguing and strikingly beautiful the film follows Karl, an orphan who wants to learn the ropes and help in the island's lighthouse. However, the man in charge, Hasselbon, is not fond of the idea. His extreme standards make his own son Gustaf's life miserable, as he doesn't think he has what it takes to become the captain of a ship. Although simple in its conception, the great performances and the atmosphere created by the outstanding soundtrack make for a suspenseful experience. Bengts talked to us about how difficult it was to shoot on the island, her own take on working with actors, and the process to create the film's score.
Carlos Aguilar: The music is extremely expressive and evocative in this film; can you talk about the process of finding or composing this music?
Ulrika Bengts: The composer is my husband, Peter Hägerstrand, so we have been working together for about twenty years making other movies together. But this time it was a real challenge because I told him I didn’t want to have any melodies in the music, I wanted it to be disharmonic. Peter made music that didn’t sound melodious at all but it didn’t fit the picture, it was totally wrong. I was obsessed with this idea that it should be industrial in a way. But then one day when we met he said “OK, in the end I recorded something else that is not for this movie” and then I listened to it and it was going to be the friendship theme between the two guys, and then I went ”Yes, here it is, it should be really a really melodious score based on piano, violin, cello.” So that’s how we made it. And of course the piano scene when Dorrit, the mother plays, was part of the story, and we composed that piece before we started shooting.
Aguilar: How did you work with cast in order to achieve such emotional, yet subdued performances?
Bengts: I was so lucky that we had a week of rehearsals together, just me and the actors. Because the actors didn’t know each other before, they were completely new to each other. We talked a lot about the characters, about their back story, their background, what happened to them before the film starts, and what we thought happens after the film ends. I handled it by talking a lot.
Aguilar: Specifically talking about the young cast, how did you handle the violent sequences with them?
Bengts: I’ve mad a lot of films with young actors and with children, so it is not unfamiliar to me. I think I handle young actors exactly the same way I handle grown up actors, by asking the same questions. Because when we are on the set, they are not children or teenagers, they are actors, and they are working. Basically, when we had that week of rehearsal I wanted to give them some terminology, like the words we use when we are filming.Erik Lönngren, he plays Karl, I had worked with him before on my first feature Iris, which was two years before The Disciple, and he is a very skilled amateur actor. He has been in a lot of amateur stage plays. But Patrik Kumpulainen, the guy playing Gustaf, this was his very first experience, not only in film but also as an actor, he had never acted before. When we were rehearsing he really made me nervous because he used to ask me “Ulrika, what kid of face to you want me to put on in this scene” and I said “Patrick my dear boy, acting is not about putting on faces, you have to understand your character and feel his feelings” and he understood it. It was really cheerful to see the way he developed during this five weeks that we were shooting on the island.
Aguilar: The film seems to be about fathers and sons and about achieving certain expectations. Hasselbond, the patriarch, wants to be in control. Would you agree these are the messages the film tries to convey?
Bengts: I think The Disciple is mainly about control. The father is trying to control everyone, both the living and the dead on the island, he trusts no one, and he is prepared to be betrayed at every moment. I was interested in exploring what happens to people that have to live under such circumstances, where someone else is setting the rules and you have to obey in every situation. To me Karl is the main character because he wants to stay in the island due to his own background of course. For him this is a new opportunity in life and he really wants to be good in Hasselbond’s eyes, even though he understands he is not a good person and that the rules in this island are not sane. This is a very sick kind of micro-society, but he still tries to obey the rules and he goes through moral choices in almost every scene.
Aguilar: Do you think the story worked better by not showing Elof’s story, Gustaf’s older brother who died mysteriously?
Bengts: Yes, I wanted to make it so that the audience could make up their own pictures of how Elof’s life was and what happened t him.
Aguilar: Do you see Hasselbond , the father, as the villain or a product of his isolated environment?
Bengts : Of course I think he is evil because no one has the right to behave the way he behaves, but It think Niklas Groundstroem who played Hasselbond, has some kind of sensitivity and honorability that makes you feel that he is a poor wounded person. I didn’t want to show what happened to him, or why he has become the way he is. Personally, I think that because he has bonded so much with Karl, he had the same experiences as Karl had.
Aguilar: Could you talk about your experience shooting on location on this isolated island?
Bengts: It was quite hard for all of us. We stayed at the lighthouse island, which is really in the middle of the sea, for five week. It was hard work, as I told you there are only this lighthouse and the house on this island so there were no places to stay for the crew. We had a small crew, about 30 people. Most of us stayed at the sailing ship you see in the movie, the ship of Gustaf’s dream, but everyone couldn’t fit it, so part of the crew stayed on set. The photographer, and his crew, they lived in tents for five weeks. It was really kind of a special shooting; I have never been through something like that before, and probably won’t again either. Of course since we were in an isolated island there were only snakes and sea birds, and you have only one location that is marvelous, so the story comes even closer to you. It allowed us to get deep into the emotions. We could focus on the story and the development of the characters. We worked in a quite simple way because we had no time to do a storyboard, so when we were shooting a scene, I rehearsed with the actors and we decided how they should move, the photographer was also present, and we discussed together what we were shooting in that scene. It was kind of an unusual way of working but the actors had a lot of freedom. I think you can see that this helped them.
Aguilar: Your film is representing Finland at the Academy Awards this year, is there any pressure on you because of this?
Bengts: To me is only joy. I’m very proud of our movie, and I’m proud that Finland made the decision that this movie should represent the country. I’m hopeful. I don’t feel the pressure at all, if we are shortlisted or get a nomination, is just a bonus. Representing Finland has helped the movie a lot already. When it was official we got quite a lot of invitations from international film festivals. After it was announced that it was the selection, the number of invitations rose 400%.