The Book The Film The T-Shirt’s Dave Griffiths chats to Christian Hallman – the director of new horror film Sensoria.
First of all Christian congratulations on such a great film and thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview.
Thank you, Dave. My pleasure.
1. Christian can you tell us a little bit about how your love for cinema and for filmmaking first started and where it has taken you over the years?
It kind of found me and grabbed me early on…, it all started when I was about 6 years old, it was 1980 and we were one of the first families on my block who had a VHS player, they had just come out, it was one of those top loaded ones, and my two older sisters (6 and 8 years older) gathered with their friends to watch films at our house as often as they could. Of course I sneaked up and watched the films with them and their friends. It was mostly horror films and martial art movies. Some of the titles I remember as being the first I saw during this time was THE OMEN, IT’S ALIVE, HALLOWEEN, THE EXORCIST and MAUSOLEUM, as well as a lot of Bruce Lee films. So horror and martial art/Asian films were an early influence on me. The result was that I slept with the light on in my room until I was 12 years old and I started taking Karate lessons.
Two years later at the age of 8 we moved to the south of Sweden and my cousin introduced me to James Bond, JAWS and more, and we started this ritual of watching a film every week or so… Around that time I saw the first STAR WARS which also had a huge impact on me.
During this time my interest in films grew, and I nestled myself in at the local video store and became friendly with the owner and from the age of ten I worked at that video store, Video 12 was the name of it and sadly it does not exist anymore. I was too young of course and didn’t get paid in cash, instead I got to see all the films I wanted, when I wanted. So I’d come in after school and homework and on weekends, sorting the VHS cassettes in the backroom, getting the films for the counter person, sorting cases out in the store and such. Later I got to take returns and then even rent out films. I watched all films, all genres and I loved it.
I kept working there until I was 15 or 16 years old, watching every film in that store more than once. These years were my real film school. I later in life returned to work at another video store for a few years, as well as working as a cinema projectionist for a while when it was all about 35mm.
I always tried to seek out creative people and creative things to do when I was a kid. I started hanging out on my first film set around the age of 9, my friends dad had a production company doing commercials and we visited both shoots and post production. And that just continued, I always tried to find a way to be on a set, just learning by watching.
Later when I was a little bit older I started working on films as a runner and PA and then working my way up, working in various positions. The first professional feature film I worked on was when I was 20 and I even acted in a small role in that film.
2. Have you always been a fan of the horror genre? If so what were some of the films that got you interested in horror at the start and what have been some of your favourite films of the years?
I’ve always been drawn more to horror, thriller, Sci-fi and fantasy etc so called “genre-films” but with that said I watch all genres of film. Film to me, has always been about escapism, to go to places or situations I don’t go to or can’t go to in real life. Its about entertainment for me – if that is horror, action, comedy or whatever genre. A film should move you, make you feel something, whether that is making you scared, cry, laugh or angry. But I have a keen interest in darker more twisted stories. I’ve always been drawn to good stories.
I mean growing up, of course films like HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH, JAWS, GREMLINS, ALIEN, ALIENS, THE SHINING and many, many others come to mind and they all inspired me. But also films like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, to me that was a bit scary as a kid the scenes with the Arc and some of the characters and the same with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.
Lately films like THE CONJURING, INSIDIUS, IT FOLLOWS, THE GREEN INFERNO, and THE OTHERS spring to mind as inspirational and also RESOLUTION, OLD BOY AND I SAW THE DEVIL which aren’t horror per say.
And for sure LET THE RIGHT ONE IN as that to me is the quintessential cross over genre film, combining an arthouse drama with a horror element.
I was also always more drawn to directors growing up, no matter what genre their films were, going through the filmography of Polanski, Hitchcock, DePalma, Carpenter, Argento, Fulci and Kurosawa to just name a few. Basically any director who interested me.
And even though escapism and entertainment is what drew me to film, I do enjoy documentaries as well.
3. Tell us a little bit about where the idea from Sensoria came from and why you wanted to make this film and tell this story?
I had tried during almost ten years to get my first feature film done. My writing partner Måns F.G. Thunberg and I had written two screenplays which we pursued and tried to get produced and a few treatments in English, but it always fell short at the end due to me not having directed a fiction feature film before. So we finally sat down and said lets write something that we can realise and make ourselves, and lets do it in Swedish. That was the starting point.
I had this idea what I wanted the film to be about, and Måns and I discussed it and brain-stormed around it. Måns had an idea for a story to put our ideas and themes into.
At the time I was just starting on a TV series as a first assistant director, and was going to be on that for three months, so Måns set out to write the first draft of the script. Then when I got of the TV series I started re-writing it and Måns and I threw the script between us until we had the shooting version ready.
ISENSORIA is a personal story for both of us, it deals with loneliness and loss and also about belonging. Themes I think a lot of us can relate to in todays society.
Also It was important for me to make a film I’d want to watch. There has been something I’ve been missing in films for a while, a film that lets you think and don’t just tell you everything that goes on. For some reason Måns and I always write female characters as well, and we like that.
4. Due to some great directions and cinematography the apartment building itself becomes a character as well in Sensoria was that something that you set out to achieve?
Yes, absolutely that was my intention. One of the first things I told everyone and especially to Janssen when he came onboard, was that the apartment building is a character in the film, as important as the actors. The same goes with the cinematography and the sound/music they are also characters in the film in a way and this was very important to me. It’s written like that in the script even.
5. There is a high feel of tension and suspense all throughout Sensoria did that affect the shoot at all? How hard is it to direct a film to the point of getting that feeling across to the audience?
I wanted that tension to peel out from Caroline and through the screen, and from the apartment building. Just to have this “on the edge of your seat” thing creeping on you as a viewer. It was difficult in many ways to achieve, I had certain ways of provoking it, but it also became natural in one way since we shot the film in 13 days, the schedule was kind of crazy as you can imagine, we did about 70 set ups a day, some days less, somedays more, we shot 12 hour days, so that pace lent itself well to creating that atmosphere.
6. There was some wonderful casting decisions made with Sensoria. When did you first discover Lanna Olsson and how did you know that she was right to play Caroline. What do you feel she brought to the role?
I’m very happy with the casting.
You could actually say that Lanna found me. We had a mutual friend who connected us. I had searched a long time for a Caroline and not really found one that I felt worked. Lanna contacted me and we talked, she read the script and really connected with it. We got talking about the character, who Caroline was, where she is going, where she come from and also the themes of the script and my intention and I think it was mutual we felt that this was a good match.
I saw that Lanna could be the Caroline I was looking for. A lot of it is about intuition and seeing that person as that character, but you never really know until you start working on the set. She was the last person to be casted for the film, so we did a screen test with her and Norah Andersen to see that they worked together and also with Alida Morberg. Once that was done it was an easy choice. Sensoria is Lanna’s first leading role in a feature film.
Lanna brought a lot to Caroline. I gave her some back story and key info, and then Lanna went back and built the rest. Its a difficult thing to find that darkness, that place inside you and she did a great job. Our cooperation worked out well and she delivered on all cylinders.
Due to the pace of filming there were many times that only I knew what was happening and how things were going to align but that is the job of the director, so it was about Lanna trusting me, and I feel all the actors and the crew trusted me and my vision. You have to make that leap of faith in order to make your best work. And it worked out I think.
As for the other actors, most of them were offered their roles directly by me as I had them in mind and had worked with them on films or TV series. So I approached them, gave them the script and they accepted. This was the case for Karin Bertling (Vera), Harald Leander (Frank) and Rafael Pettersson (Johan).
Boel, however contacted me. We had also worked together, but Else was written as older at first, but Boel insisted and said she wanted to try out for the part, she did and I thought it worked perfectly.
For Alida who plays Emma, I saw a casting tape she had done for a friends film and casted her based on that and a Skype call she and I had.
Casting right with a child actor can be hard how did you first discover Norah?
Norah is great. We met quite a lot of young girls before choosing Norah to play My. But once I saw her and we did a screen test with her I just knew she was right. She hadn’t done anything prior to SENSORIA. But at that age who has, so it was more about finding someone who had the right energy and whom I believed could do it. Of course it has it’s challenges to work with an unexperienced person and add to that a child.
A thing that happened in pre-production which in the end was a good thing, was that we pushed the shooting 10 months, we were initially supposed to start filming in January 2014 but pushed it to November for a few different reasons. A tough decision at the time, but the right one for sure. This made it possible for me to work with Norah for 10 months visiting with her on weekends going through the script, reading against her and talking about the film, as well as getting to know her which was key to our relationship and me giving her direction.
Also during this time I casted her in a TV series on which I was a First Assistant Director to see how she would react on a set with other actors, camera and crew etc. And that worked out great. Norah has this calm about her, she is wiser than her years.
And for both of us it was a great journey me as a first time director and she making her acting debut.
8. How difficult is it to direct a child actor in a film that can be as confronting as Sensoria?
You have to make it playful. But also in terms of with Norah, since she was very aware of things, it was also more of me explaining what and how things were going to happen. Breaking down the themes and directions as understandable as possible. And giving a lot of instructions on the go. Norah was 10 when she was casted, 11 when we shot the film and just turned 12 when SENSORIA had its world premiere.
9. Christian, Sensoria is your feature film directional debut. How did making a feature differ from making the shorts you have in the past? What made you take the step to feature directing? Did your role with the Lund International Fantastic Film Festival and European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation help you prepare a little more for taking this step?
It’s a giant leap for sure. I mean I had directed a feature documentary before, and I was a development producer and later line producer/production manager on the Swedish Vampire film FROSTBITE which was a big production in many ways. But SENSORIA was a different beast all together and I’ve learnt a lot on the way.
What prepared me the most is the last ten years of working as a 1st assistant director/production manager and line producer on features, TV series and commercials, as well as directing and producing commercials, corporate films and short films – the combination of all that. Especially working on TV series with the fast pace, watching and learning from directors on how to think on your feet, be two steps ahead, how to block scenes and just be prepared. I also learnt a lot of what not to do.
Also working with film festivals the last 20 years, both programming, advising and organising festivals, as well as consulting filmmakers on film festival strategies.
These are all valued knowledge to have when making a film in todays indie film world.
I’ve been working these both worlds – the filmmaking and the festival world for a long time and the relationships it has helped me to forge were crucial in many ways, most importantly for getting the word out about the film, how to approach distribution and sales, who to contact at festivals and to make a festival/marketing plan for the film.
And of course all the support from people around me was important, from people I’ve helped throughout the years and people who believed in me. You need that. You constantly doubt yourself, or at least I do… at least the times when I don’t know what I am doing, and then there are the times when I am 200% sure of what I am doing.
10. Over the past few years the Scandinavian film industry has given us some great horror films, can you tell us how Scandinavian horror has evolved over the years?
I think from an aesthetic stand point Scandinavian films stand out. Maybe that’s it, and that we then in the last few years started making genre films again. I mean Bergman did genre films, as did Carl Th. Dryer, Victor Sjöström and Benjamin Christensen to name a few back in the early days, so there was this strong Scandinavian genre presence at one time, then it started to come back a few years ago. It all goes in cycles.
I think with films like LÅT DEN RÄTTE KOMMA IN (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) with strong characters and a strong story, the very Scandinavian art direction and then combining this with a genre element, that has proven very effective. Cross overs like that are the strongest.
We kind of lead the way with FROSTBITE on that new start as well back in 2005 in a way I guess, there was another Swedish film at the same time called STORM then we have the Danish, Norwegian and Finnish genre waves as well.
There is also a lot of urban folklore to tap into for stories here in Scandinavia, a lot of which has not been told yet, so Scandinavia is a great setting for genre films I think.
11. Some people are likening Sensoria’s style to that of the J-Horror world is that a style of horror that you like and was that your intention with Sensoria to emulate this style?
Yes both me and Måns like the J-Horror genre. And, yes it is somewhat intentional. Not to emulate it but to tap into it. I mean Måns and I discussed Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water for example with the similarities of a women moving in to an apartment building, the water as a binding element since My was drowned etc. But there are so many other reflections/inspirations for SENSORIA, such as Polanski’s apartment trilogy, DePalma, Lynch, Argento, Fulci but you know putting that in our context, in our story and then filtering it through our writing and then through my direction it becomes what you see on the screen.
More importantly I like films that ask more questions than they give answers. There are too many films out there that just explain everything, and thus making you stupid in a way. I also wanted to make a film that didn’t rely on blood, gore and shock value, but a film that focused on story and characters, working with the cinematography, music and sound as characters to try and deliver a film which would impact on various levels. I might loose some people by doing this, but I think in the long run people have been waiting for a film like SENSORIA as much as I have. At the end of the day you try to make a film that you like yourself, and hopefully there are others out there that like what you like.