Camilla Strøm Henriksen started her film career as an actress, having won, among many prizes, the Amanda Award for her role in the 1989 film “A Handful of Time.” As a writer-director, she also holds an M.A. from the London Film School, and has directed several episodes of the TV series “Hotel Caesar” and “Hvaler.” “Phoenix” is her debut as a feature film director. The film opened the marketing program “New Nordic Films” at the Norwegian International Film Festival Haugesund in 2018 and was selected for the “Discovery” program at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Strøm Henriksen was one of thirteen female filmmakers nominated for the Council of Europe’s newly founded Audentia Award, instigated by Eurimages alongside a raft of other measures to promote greater gender equality in the European film industry. “Phoenix” received the Jury’s Honorable Mention.
Tara Karajica caught up with Camilla Strøm Henriksen at this year’s Stockfish Film Festival, where she was a panelist at the 2nd “Nordic Female Filmmakers Meeting Point.”
You have been acting for many years. What made you want to change to filmmaking?
Camilla: Well, I realized I wanted to tell stories myself and it started out as a frustration as an actor, but I realized that that frustration really had to do with the fact that I wanted to tell stories myself. And for me, it was more about telling stories than directing even though I like directing. For me, the heart of it is actually telling stories. I wouldn’t even think of going into theater directing, for instance, even though I have worked as an actor in theater. For me, it was really about creating worlds and stories.
How does your acting career inform your directing now in terms of working with actors? Have you completely given up acting?
C.S.H.: Yes, I have completely given up acting. I wouldn’t say I would never act again, but it’s not like I’m pursuing it. I don’t really feel any need or lust for it. But it informs me because I’m quite familiar with and I have knowledge of the acting process. So when I work with actors, I do identify with them. Even if I am the one who’s having the overview of everything and having to guide them, I still feel that in a lot of the discovery process of the characters and the situation, I’m one of the actors. I really feel that we are doing it together and I feel that I am participating in that process. I think that because I have this experience myself as someone who knows something about their process, actors can tell and be comfortable. So, we find the communication quite quickly because I’ve been an actor myself. I think that probably the advantage of my acting experience is that I am not scared of actors. I think some directors are a little bit scared of them because they don’t really know the process and they are in admiration, so there becomes a distance – but I think I have less distance to actors than some directors who don’t know.
Have you considered, or do you consider casting yourself in future projects?
C.S.H.: No, because I also write my film projects so it’s too many roles. I wouldn’t then also act. It’s just too much. Also, it’s too much to be sort of aware of as a director, both in terms of the content and the visuals.
Can you talk about Phoenix? How did it come about?
C.S.H.: Phoenix is based on my own personal experience as a child and I started the story because I wanted to have a film to direct. That was after film school. I just knew I wanted to write the story. I didn’t know what the story was going to be about, but I started to write scenes. It was an idea that came to me quite early about these two children being lost and abandoned in the woods and I realized that that was quite a banal image, but I felt it had an emotional truth to it, so I wanted to discover what that image actually held. With that image and the feeling that grew inside of me, I started to write scenes and some of these scenes were quite close to my own experiences, so I wrote more scenes, some of which were fiction, and then I started to build a structure. And that eventually became the screenplay. So it’s a mixture of fiction and self-experience.
You met David Yates when you were in London and he is your mentor as well as an executive producer on Phoenix. Can you talk about that relationship? How has he helped you in the development of the film?
C.S.H.: David has been invaluable for me in many ways because without him I’m not sure if Phoenix would have been made, to be honest. He has also been guiding me creatively. I’ve had a discussion with him in the development process of the script, but also in the casting process – not that he has been heavily involved, but we have had discussions whenever I was wondering about stuff and he had a look at it even though he is a director himself and very busy with his big box office films. He’s been very present in the editing process as well. I would say that for the realization and the creative process of the film, he’s been very important because he came on board quite early on. I think he read the script in 2011, so he’s been part of it more than half way through the journey. He’s been an emotional support, which I think is really important to have. Being a director or artist is really tough and quite lonely and it’s crucial to have emotional support. You find your people and, in a way, I found David and what is great is that he is starting a production company now and he is going to produce my next feature.
You suddenly get a lot of interest because you are a female filmmaker and that wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. I think there’s a lot of change, actually.
It took you twelve years to make Phoenix. Can you talk about the process and the journey? What were the biggest challenges?
C.S.H.: I think the biggest challenge was that the film wasn’t following a traditional structure, really. It’s not that radical, but it’s a film that starts as a film about a mother-daughter relationship that then becomes a father-daughter relationship. In a way, it’s divided into two parts and that has been problematic for some people for a long time. Then, it’s a film that is a family drama with these magical elements, but it’s also a film with children as main characters, but it’s for grown-ups and it’s quite dark and a heavy, emotional watch. I was also a first-time director, so people didn’t really know what to expect as a directorial signature and I didn’t want to change the film. I did try, to be honest, before I met David and before he came on board. I was working with Norwegian producers and they said: “It’s very well written, but can you make it into a children film?” And I had a go at it and it was just rubbish – it had nothing to do with the film at all, but by the time I had already written a first draft – that is actually quite close to the film – that, I think, saved the film in a way because I did all these detours with a couple of producers and because I had that first draft that was written and it was quite pure. It was rough, but it was quite faithful to the core of the film because I always had that as a reference. When David came on board, that is the draft he read and he loved it, so in a way we had that unspoiled version of the story. There wasn’t really much understanding in Norway for the film I wanted to make and something has changed a little bit. We don’t really have a great tradition for melodrama in Norway; they have it much more in Sweden with Bergman, for instance. They have a different tradition in Denmark too, whereas in Norway, we don’t. I think that was one of the reasons that there wasn’t much of an interest in understanding it, too.
There has been a lot of talk about women in film lately. What is your stand on the matter? How is it in Scandinavia?
C.S.H.: In Scandinavia we have one reality, and if you work in the States or India, it’s a totally different story, so I don’t think you can talk globally. Who knows what it’s like in China or in Russia! There is a reality for all kinds of parts of the world, so I can only speak for Scandinavia and maybe a little bit the U.K. But I think in our part of the world, things are changing rapidly and I think so many more female filmmakers have emerged just over the last five years. You see at big film festivals that there are so many more films made by women, but I do still think there are hidden dynamics and hidden structures. The more prestigious and expensive the films are, the less women there are, so women are still underrepresented in feature films and in big budget feature films and they are overrepresented in short films and documentaries, films that are less commercial and have less prestige. I really think women should really stop making short films – I am saying this as joke! It’s changing a lot now because it’s also quite fashionable to hire female directors in big television shows; they want female filmmakers because they think they have a good sense of drama and they know how to work with actors and this has just happened over the last two years! You suddenly get a lot of interest because you are a female filmmaker and that wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. I think there’s a lot of change, actually.
What was the best advice you were given? And what advice would you give if a young woman came to you and said she would like to be a film director today?
C.S.H.: David gave me a really good advice: “Don’t count on your passion project to make your living.” That was one I was given that was very valuable. David said something to me when I was in a period where I kind of didn’t really find much meaning in the work I was doing because I I was directing soap operas for the fourth year and I had already written this script and I thought: “Oh my God! My feature is never going to happen! I went to film school for no reason!” I was in that quite gloomy state and we had a great chat and he said: “If you think there’s going to be a prize at the end, it’s not really worth doing this because there is probably not going to be one. Very few people are going to get the big prize whatever the big prize is – whether it’s an award at a big festival or becoming famous…” You have to really question whether you get pleasure or enjoyment out of this without getting the prize and that was quite liberating for me because I think, unconsciously, I had that pressure of making a feature and, in a way, that is the prize – to make a feature. After that chat, I let that go a little bit. I always wanted to do it, but I discovered the pleasure of creating without that sort of ambition overruling the pleasure and I think that was the best advice and one that I would give on. Filmmakers are ambitious and sometimes that ambition can overshadow the pleasure of actually doing the work. It’s so important because without that, it’s going to be hell because you spend twelve years making your feature, and maybe you make it and it’s not a success. So if you hadn’t had the enjoyment of creating over those twelve years, it’s really meaningless.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
C.S.H.: One that I loved a lot and that was quite inspirational for me when I was starting to write Phoenix is the Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel who made a film called La Ciénaga that I remember premiered at the London Film Festival when I first started there. I just loved the film! It was really inspirational and I watched it many times. And I’ve seen some of her other films and I liked them. She was certainly very influential for me.
What are your next projects?
C.S.H.: At the moment, I am doing two TV series. One of them is season three of Occupied, a TV series on which I am a writer and a director. And then, I am directing two episodes of a new Norwegian crime series, For Life. I am doing this back to back during spring and summer. From the Autumn on, I will start working on my next feature with David as a producer, with a script I wrote a couple of years ago. There is a basis for this already, but it’s going to be reframed. It’s a dark psychological thriller about a grown-up woman and her older father.
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Stockfish Film Festival.
Photo credit: Huawei Portrait Studio @ TIFF ’18 – © Toronto International Film Festival