Un Certain Regard 2022
Sick of Myself
May 20, 2022
Signe and Thomas are in an unhealthy, competitive relationship that takes a vicious turn when Thomas suddenly breaks through as a contemporary artist. In response, Signe makes a desperate attempt to regain her status by creating a new persona hell-bent on attracting attention and sympathy.
Hi Kristoffer, how’s everything been going for you?
It's great. It was a pleasant surprise to get selected for Cannes and that sped up a lot of the process because we hadn't even finished the movie. We hadn't thought about how we're going talk about the movie or how we're going to present or market the movie, all that stuff just suddenly was propelled. It's good and I couldn't been happier. Cannes is a perfect place to prepare the film.
Does being nominated as well in the Un certain regard section add any nerves?
Yeah for sure as a lot of my favourite directors have started in that section so I just feels very humbled and honoured to be included in the Un certain regard section of the festival.
With Sick of Myself being your feature debut, how much did your experience making your previous short films help prepare you for writing, directing and editing this feature?
I've actually made a feature length project that was a docu-fiction hybrid called DRIP (2017) that we premiered at SXSW. But SICK OF MYSELF feel like my first real feature, meaning that it doesn’t have the documentary aspect to it, it's just a pure, traditional fiction movie. I think the short films had sharpened my teeth on the tone that I'm finding myself attracted to and I also edited these shorts which was sort of accidental and was not something I planned to do. Since I had gotten used to editing my films I thought I could edit the feature as well, which I might not do again because it’s such a huge and lonely task.
However I will say that it is immensely helpful to know film editing when you're shooting and know how you're going cut things, so I might still do it. I just feel, for my sanity’s sake at least, in the future I might collaborate with someone.
When you are shooting a film does being the editor influence any of your decisions for particular shots that you are gong to take or particular locations?
Yeah it does, even the way that a scenes between two people talking might be written and set, but it might be dialogue from a different scene. So stuff like that I already had in my head and it caused this kind of confusion with people, why are we shooting them talking under this tree here when you're supposed to hear them talking? And why aren't we recording the audio from this conversation? And why are we doing that conversation? This was like three steps into the edit type mentality that I wouldn't have been able to think this way unless I knew how to edit.
When you wrote the script had you always planned to film it in Oslo?
Yeah, it was always a Norwegian project from the beginning and there's a lot of specificities about Oslo and Norwegian culture I think could have worked anywhere in the Western world, but it would have to then be adapted to that certain culture. So I couldn't just take the script as is and place it anywhere, but there's universal themes, dilemmas or situations that I think would work in a lot of places.
How did you come up with the idea for this script, what inspired your two lead characters?
Mapping out the process of coming up with an idea is still abstract to me. I can't hold a Ted Talk about how to come up with great ideas because it's a mystery to me too. It is a combination of luck and what you are attracted to and I can't really tell you why I'm interested in all the things that I make films about, but I can try to analyse it too, in retrospect. The Norwegian title is "Syk Pike", which means sick girl which it alludes to art and Norwegian art history. And there's actually some confusion about that title because people think it's Edvard Munch, even if you Google the title you'll have Munch painting show up, but it's actually this other painter Christian Krohg.
It seemed like a fad you know, one that might never go out of fashion either, but subjects for art being a sick person has had a long history. And there is something about the sympathy and the gaze you get from others when you are sick, it's a special kind of sympathy. There seems to be a psychological desire to try to extract this sympathy from other people, though most people won't go as far as making themselves sick. Some people might lie about being sick or being with someone who is sick but the Munchausen Syndrome is like purely the problem lies within the person. And I think the movie taking place in our culture I think there's incentive structures in this culture that would make someone do the things that the main character Signe does in the film.
And there's many examples of it in, in our culture too, like Jussie Smollett staging an attack on himself, hiring people to beat him up so he could become this victim is kind of similar to what Signe does in the movie. For a person who has already achieved so much in life and already has a lot of attention that means that there's a specific type of economy around being a victim that might make people do crazy things. The movie explores that to its comedic kind of end goal and I went further than I'd seen any story in the media go.
Signe, Kristine Kujath Thorp in a truly career define performance and Thomas, Eirik Sæther, are very complex characters that are truly engulfed by Thorp and Sæther who seem to genuinely connect to their characters and have been open to be guided by their director. When you are auditioning actors when do you know you have the right people to play these roles?
Well, thank you for the kind words. The casting process was as you said, like seeing maybe hundreds of people for that part. It was part of the development phase of the film which happened pre-pandemic and I was seeing a lot of actors as Signe is such an extreme character on paper and Norwegian culture is way more humble and people are more introverted and shut in and generally don't take up much space in a room. It was interesting to me to see if we can find someone who could go to the extreme I needed, it's a very high energy character which is just rare in Norway. For this character I ended up casting Kristine who has some accolade having acted in several leading parts before doing this movie.
Also very important is the part of the energy of being on set every day for six weeks carrying a whole film and it is helpful if someone's done that marathon before. But not only did she have the experience, but she was also so charming and very sweet in real life. And I think I needed some of that for the audience to be able to connect with such a difficult character and she just made the character come alive, which in Norway, I think, was especially a difficult task, but she handled it really well. Thomas, the other character, is a friend of mine who is actually a fine, contemporary artist. That's what he does. He's not an actor, but he is somewhat connected to the world that is portrayed in the movie.
Eirik is in real life a big character and it was surprisingly easy for him to make this character come alive and having never been in any movie or anything before it was astonishing to see how professional and talented he was at acting. Both of them are characters who have a lot high energy, high verbal, high narcissism, high disagree ability. There's so much and I think it was exhausting to play these characters, especially so for Kristine who also had to do between four to seven hours of makeup before going on set and being high energy, which is just such a demanding task.
There is a scene at the very start of the film, in the restaurant, that I had to pause because I hate tension in movies and you somehow manage to create the type of tension where your brain knows where this is going. I instantly though ‘they’re going do a dine-and-dash, they're going do something’. I loved the way that that scene was filmed and I think that it gives great depth of the main character and seeing how Signe is looking at Thomas. That tension that you built when they bring the cake, it’s almost as though the waiter was calling Thomas's bluff, you see the waiter just slowly look at Thomas, which I thought was fantastic. How did you create such a great opening that kind set the tone throughout the film?
That's very nice to hear that it works. I never get to see that scene with your experience. When I am creating this type of movie making with tension I'm hoping that it works but I'm not sure because I can't experience it as I know what's going to happen. It comes from seeing movies about a bank heist or something, the dynamics of how those feelings have been generated within me before. Can I make that happen in a more normal setting within a movie that isn't about bank robbers, but these Bohemian thieves? Um, yeah. I, I'm not sure how to explain. It's great to hear that it works, it’s what I was going for.
There's another scene with Signe and Thomas who are having lunch with their friends at a restaurant and Signa is almost berating Thomas because his exhibition is going to be a satellite gallery, not the main gallery. Then later on you reversed it and she's the one with the good news and he then berates her. I always love this type of role reversal, was that your intention to literally switch their position in this scene which really captures the dynamics of their relationship really powerfully?
That's so great that you noticed that. Yeah, it was even marked in the script as we called it like an echo of a previous scene and it was deliberately shot in same location. They've actually just switched seats, the tables have turned but they're so far apart by this point in the movie. I wasn't sure if people were going pick up on it, but it is the dynamic between them being switched and the whole film is a sort of a tennis match between the Signe and Thomas trying to one up each other and trying to be the main character in the relationship. In the beginning there's always some news to share, there’s always something that is happening in their life and it seems that they want things to happen to them so that they can take that top position in the relationship.
Not because they actually want it, I guess it’s this aspect of their relationship which makes them both gradually more insane because this one-upmanship becomes their reality and they're the only ones who are okay with treating each other like that. Even when their friends leave the table and they seem to both not realise that they are acting extreme because they are both similarly extreme I think. And that's why you can have a story like this that goes so far is because nobody's is saying ‘Hey, wait a minute, stop! This is insane.’ They are just both mostly occupied by their own path and their own career. And if the other person starts demanding too much attention that means the other needs to do more on their end. So they help each other push each other towards the extreme.
"I think it's maybe better for it to be open to interpretation that it could be seen as both an honest confession trying to connect with a friend, but also maybe an attempt that yet again being on the front page."
Another thing I really liked was how Signa goes into her imaginary conversations I think this is the only time she's honest with herself and she really understands the situation she’s put herself in. Inside these fantasies, as in the hospital with the Doctor, she’s also degrading herself highlighting her darkest flaws. And even though this is her fantasy, we're getting a certain level of truth from here. It is in these moments you genuinely have real sympathy for her as we get a bit more of who she is in these fantasies, because she has to be honest with herself. How close to what you had written was what you filmed, did you stick to your script or did you allow yourself and particularly your two leads much flexibility?
It's very close to what's written. The thing is I thought I was going have time to improvise and do things on top of what was written but it ended up just never working out. I don't think almost anything is improvised, it's all by the script. However before going into the actual production we had rehearsals where I let them improvised and I recorded the improvisations and then rewrote the script. So they all have, most of the actors have had some hand in forming the script with me. They where able to be very free and collaborative in that way, but on set that's when we kind of have to stick to the written word.
And regarding the fantasies that hospital scene comes from my own experience and is a scene that I've had in my back pocket since I was at the hospital with a broken hand and I needed to do all these x-rays.
For some reason I started fantasising about how much can they read from these x-rays. I thought that was a funny, paranoid thought that I had. And I guess that's like one of the first seeds of inspiration for Signa, and I love this scene so much that yeah. As you said she's degrading herself in her fantasy, it’s like saying anxiety is conspiracy theories against yourself and this is so relatable to me. All the times that someone doesn't respond to a text or anything is left open to interpretation. I always go to the worst explanation they died, or they hate me when in reality they where in a movie theatre . There is also that meme of expectations versus reality which my movie goes into Signe's expectations of her very strange plan that she has for herself. And you can see how she hopes it will turn out. And then of course the reality is always different, we get to go through and experience what she expects to come out of this and the disappointing reality that happens.
It is almost like she remembers inside of her fantasy how ugly she looks and that wakes her out of her fantasy. She vomits and she's like ‘oh, this can never happen. It won't happen like that.’ I think she realises the impossibility of her fantasies. She fantasise about leaving the shoot but then she's like that's not going work. I should just stay and see if maybe this will work out instead.
SPOILER: Do you think that ultimately Signe loses because Thomas gets arrested and now he’s going have a huge court case with a lot of front pages and media attention. I was thinking maybe the scene at the end where Signe is crying is her admitting defeat. When Signe was on the front pages it was huge moment for her and now she's going be confronted with daily news of Thomas and he's going get all of this attention she had been craving. Maybe the reason why Signe confesses to her journalist friend is that she is hoping this confession will, in some way, put her back in the public eye. But the reality is she’s lost, having pushed herself to the ultimate extreme.
You're completely right. I cut a scene in the conversation Signe has at the end of the film with with her journalist friend, it's different much different now. Signe is saying ‘You might have to write in a new piece that I confess…’ and her friend saying ‘What the are you talking about? I'm not going write about you’. I cut that because we had some test audiences and I think they got so annoyed with Signe and about wanting that so much. And I think some people latched onto this being somewhat of a sympathetic moment, which I then sort of ruined. The way that audiences will probably have been acclimated to their ways of thinking will then have you think ‘oh, he's going get attention out of this’. Like you see the positive spin from these narcissists perspectives. I think it's maybe better for it to be open to interpretation that it could be seen as both an honest confession trying to connect with a friend, but also maybe an attempt that yet again being on the front page.
It's a small thing but was there a significance of the nail polish that Signe has throughout the film, I think it's the same colour?
That, that that's Kristine. She really wanted that and I was like, sure, go ahead. We did think about that prior to her getting the disease, there's a desire to be seen and that she has this very specific makeup style. With the nail polish she's trying to signal and stand out and we wanted her to be colourful and her clothing is cool, but it does signal a lot. She's always signalling.
Was there significance to the choice of piano music?
It's a zeitgeist story, but there are timeless issues of the desire to be seen and recognised and valued and to a narcissism, all these things are kind of timeless. So I wanted to have a story that was very modern and of our times, but then I wanted to portray it as somewhat timeless, the way that it's shot on 35 mm and the classical music. I've tried to make sure that the language around this is somewhat timeless and also beautiful. I wanted to balance the kind of grotesque in the movie with a very beautiful language.
Finally, because of the dynamics of this relationship did you pull from any of your past relationship experiences?
Yes, I don't know I should expand on that, but yes. There’s even verbatim things from my life and it's then taken into the extreme, heightened and curated. So in the context that whatever inspiration was drawn from it wasn't that extreme, but it's like put in a certain context and in the hands of these characters, it all becomes kind of clear and satiric in a way. There's definitely traces of myself and others around me in these characters.