Anne Sewitsky’s Happy, Happy is Norway’s Selection for the 2012 Best Foreign Movie Oscar.
In Happy, Happy, family is the most important thing in the world to Kaja. She is an eternal optimist in spite of living with a man who would rather go hunting with the boys, and who refuses to have sex with her because she “isn’t particularly attractive” anymore. Whatever—that’s life! But when “the perfect couple” moves in next door, Kaja struggles to keep her emotions in check. Not only do these successful, beautiful, exciting people sing in a choir; they have also adopted a child—from Ethiopia! These new neighbors open a new world to Kaja, with consequences for everyone involved. And when Christmas comes around, it becomes evident that nothing will ever be like before, even if Kaja tries her very best.
Ann Sewitsky recently graduated from the Norwegian Film School in Lillehammer. Happy, Happy is Anne Sewitsky’s debut as a feature-film director. She previously directed the short film Oh My God! for which she won an award in the Generation Kplus Category at the Berlin Film Festival (2009). She has also directed episodes of Himmelbla (NRK) and was co-director of the TV series Norwegian Cozy which will air on NRK this fall.
Bijan Tehrani: What motivated you to make Happy, Happy? Was it your idea or was it something that you developed with a screenwriter?
Ann Sewitsky: This was something that I developed with a screenwriter. She had a story from a small village about two couples that exchanged partners and told everyone in the small village on Christmas Eve and they would live happily ever after. So that was the start and then we developed the characters and story together; it was a long process of just telling stories, so there is a lot of personality in it.
BT: One thing about your approach, in comparison to other Scandinavian filmmakers, is that others always start with dark stories and there is humor behind it, but with your film you start with humor followed by darkness behind it, is that something that you did intentionally?
AS: We wanted to make a very strong balance and it was difficult because we wanted to be funny but we wanted to have a serious story lying underneath the whole time. We wanted to tell the story about an extremely happy person that was kind of a slave in her own life, just covering up all of the sorrow, which is something that most people can relate to; it is just that this character is more extreme. So, yes, it was our intent to see how happy we could go and at the same time, keep the serious story underneath.
BT: The characters are so real in this film and the audience can connect with them because they seem so familiar. Were they developed during the writing stage or when you were working with the actors?
AS: I think it was mix, but mostly when we were developing the screenplay because the screenplay has the characters inspired by a mixture of people that we know from our own lives and a lot of the scenes are taken directly from events we have experienced, for example, my sister and I had these sadistic games when we were young and they fit into the story. We worked a lot with taking real life scenes and putting them into the film to create this story. One of the ways of making it more complex was talking and adding content that we could relate to and, to some extent, some of the characters are really far out.
BT: How did you go about casting Happy, Happy?
AS: Casting was one of the more difficult things in the film. I did a lot of the casting myself and I auditioned almost all of the female actresses in Norway for this role. Because the character had to be so happy and still needed to show sorrow, she had to play out of her feelings. So Kaia, for example, she tried out for the other female part and during the casting I just switched the role and it was perfect. So it was all a very long process of trial-and-error in terms of finding the right mix.
BT: Did you do a lot of rehearsals before shooting?
AS: For this film we did a lot of rehearsals. It was about finding the right balance of humor and seriousness in the film, so I was obsessed with being very precise in terms of how the actors performed. We rehearsed a lot before going on the set and of course, when we went on the set, things changed as they always do.
BT: Did you let the actors do any improvisation?
AS: Some things were improvised, just to get into the scenes. We used some parts for improvisation, but when we ended up editing we were more close to the script, so it was a mixture and a lot of it ended up to be what was in the script.
BT: How did you come up with the visual style of Happy, Happy?
AS: It was a mixture between the things inside of the house and the things between the characters being very close. We wanted to be strongly in touch with the characters and we also wanted to isolate them and make these large pictures outside. Part of what shaped the visual style was the fact that we shot the film in only twenty days, so we had a rule where we did not want too much lighting and we wanted the actors to be at the center of the scenes. It was a very dark and cramped environment inside.
BT: How did you go about establishing the relationship between the two kids?
AS: Well, early-on we thought that some of the scenes in the film, everyone was going to enslave in their own life and when one family adopted the child, they just became the picture of how grown-ups are very egocentric and selfish and don’t see what kind of damage they are doing on the children. The children are very innocent and they don’t know what they are doing, and it gives a direct parallel to the grown up story.
BT: Are you working on any other projects right now?
AS: Yes, I have several different projects here in Norway which are under development. I am working on project with the same screenwriter from Happy, Happy and I have some other projects that have gotten development funding. I am about halfway to the next film, but it is a long process.
BT: I noticed that you are working with an all-female crew, was this something that you did intentionally or was this something that just happened?
AS: It is a coincidence, but these are people that I worked with before and with the next film it won’t be all women. With this film, it gave it a little something extra, but it wasn’t a part of the agenda to have an all women crew—then again, I thought it was very perfect for this film.
BT: Thank you, and good luck with your future projects!