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Petter Naess

There's an Elling in all of us


- The Norwegian director talks about his success and European cinema's skill in portraying everyday life. Next film: the story of 4 teens discovering sex, growing up and life

Petter Naess

Petter Næss made the Norwegian film of the century almost by chance. This forty-year-old former actor and stage director adapted Ingvar Ambjorsen’s novel “Brodre i Blodet” for the stage. The play was an immediate and huge hit and although passing from stage to screen was not easy, it was, to a certain degree, inevitable. As was his decision to cast the two enormously popular Norwegian stars of the play, Per Christian Ellefsen and Sven Nordin, “following two months of fruitless auditions.”
The result was Elling: a modestly-budgeted blockbuster that was selected to represent Norway in the best film category at the 2002 Oscars. This extremely funny and touching story of two social misfits who must learn how to live alone at the age of forty also won important awards in Wurzburg, Lubeck, Ghent, San Sebastian and Toronto. Audiences delight in seeing how the pair deal with supreme challenges like leaving the house, answering the phone, shopping, making new friends and finding a reason to live.

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What do you think is the secret of Elling’s success?
“I think there is a little bit of Elling in each of us. Every time we have to deal with issues or find away around obstacles, we are like Elling as he attempts to cross the road. I wanted the audience to be sympathetic to Elling and Kjell Bjarne, and their friendship, and to everything that their being “odd” stands for.”

Your film is a masterful exploration of the borderline between normality and madness...
“I did not want to make a film about two psychos but rather one about two men whose experience of life made them react in ways that are not normal. Elling and Kjell Bjarne are always saying what they think. Out loud. Most people, especially Norwegians, spend their lives bottling up their feelings. That in itself is enough to convince the audience that Elling and Kjell Bjarne are two nutters. However, there is nothing healthy about repressing feelings like anger, desire and frustration, so perhaps we could all learn a lesson from Elling and Kjell Bjarne.”

Are you pleased that Elling is being released in Italy?
“Delighted. But I must confess that I’m also worried. I am something of an Elling myself but Italy is the one country where I’d really like the film to do well. Italian cinema is Number One for me. Maybe because I grew up watching films by Rossellini, Fellini and Visconti. I went to the pictures with my father and those films left an indelible mark on me.”

Elling was well-received in America, where European films usually have a hard time finding a distributor and getting visibility. How do you see the relationship between American and European cinema?
“I have never been all that interested in Hollywood. And I believe that Hollywood has a sort of inferiority complex towards its European counterpart. More and more they are looking to us for ideas and then, thanks to their industrial infrastructure and wonderful financing and distributive mechanisms, they make the film. What I like best about European films are the stories, the skill with which they portray reality and ordinary people, and feelings we all share. The way in which everyday life conceals precious and unique lives.”

Would you agree that the popularity of so many north-European filmmakers, the so-called Scandinavian Vague, is a result of their ability in portraying contemporary reality?
“Yes. Elling is one example of this but several directors have begun to concentrate on the plot, on the fundamental importance of a good story. None of the films by von Trier, Moodysson, Dresen or Susanne Bier are glamorous, star-driven, cloying or inevitably with a happy ending and yet the public appreciates them. Europeans must not forget that. It is fundamental to our cinema. As far as north-Europeans are concerned, don’t listen to those who denigrate Norwegian cinema: we have always had a terrible reputation in Scandinavia but deep down we are all friends and colleagues.”

The Americans bought the rights to Elling for a remake starring Kevin Spacey. Meanwhile the prequel, Elling’s Mother is currently in production. How come you are not involved in either project?
“I was asked to shoot the prequel but I wanted to change the setting, characters and prospects and I have the perfect story for this. I was not consulted about the remake but what sense is there in making the same film twice? I have a lot of new projects to work on.”

Such as?
“Two plays – because I have absolutely no intention of giving up the theatre, and then a film: the story of four sixteen-year-olds in Oslo. Four adolescents who discover life, sex, struggle to delineate their respective identities: who grow up. We have cast the film and will begin filming next spring. No title has been decided on yet but the film will be released in 2004. I am also reading two screenplays but it’s too early to talk about them. Last but not least, my immediate future includes lots of Norwegian mountains to ski on all through the winter.”

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