A Personal Protest and a Test of Courage: The Erik Poppe Interview

erikpoppe1I wanted to tell my readers all over the world, ’This is what you should be concerned about.’ My skeptical retort to that in today’s hyperactive media culture, in which more pictures of horror are spread than can possibly be assimilated, amounts to four words: ’Good luck with that.’

~Erik Poppe, former photojournalist, director of A Thousand Times Good Night

Norwegian Erik Poppe started his career as a photojournalist, covering war zones in several different countries before deciding to direct films. Many elements in his latest feature, A Thousand Times Good Night, the story of a photojournalist torn between career and family, are autobiographical (he admits that some lines in the movie came from his own children). 

What elements in your childhood and early years pointed you toward film and photography? Toward documenting human pain and tragedy?

For me, covering conflict was a personal form of protest and a need to test my own courage. I’ve always been interested in photography and conflicts abroad. I was raised in Portugal during the dictatorship in the sixties and have been fascinated by conflicts and the topic of refugees since.

At the same time, it was the intoxication of knowing to what extent I was able to control my own fear.

I also feared the flat, bland life people lead at home, and so off I went, again and again, heading for new places, new conflicts.

What is it about your character and background that made it possible for you to direct a film like A Thousand Times Good Night?erikpoppe4

My early career as a print and photographic journalist came to an end in the mid-eighties when I was a war photographer in various parts of the world. This was a life I myself had chosen, and it was one I was always eager to go back to.

All the trips I made, all the assignments I undertook, were fueled by a desire to draw people’s attention to what war is and to increase their understanding of it.

I was captivated by the notion of using the camera to show people the ’’nitty gritty” of life. On numerous occasions, I represented the only voice the victims had.

I wanted to tell my readers all over the world. ’’This is what you should be concerned about. This is what you should be enaged with.”

I wanted to get people by the throat on a Saturday morning when they saw my pictures on the front page.

I thought of my camera not only as a witness, but as a mighty weapon in the struggle for our common humanity, and as providing testimony of a greater truth. To an outsider, it can seem foolish to move around in a war zone armed only with a camera when everyone else has guns. But oddly enough, I felt safe behind my camera despite all this.

The first weeks after I got back to Norway were always an enormous challenge. I saw sheltered lives and spoiled individuals everywhere, and it riled me. It was a sheltered, rosy vision of life that was a constant reminder that my job had been in vain, or wasn’t yet done. I wanted to go back in order to take even stronger pictures and scream to the rafters with my camera, to wake up from the doze here in Norway, or wherever the hell you are. Part of the world is in flames right now, and these people are being ripped to shreds! Finally, I crashed and burned.

Too late, I realised that this life exacts a price. In my case, it wasn’t first and foremost post-traumatic stress disorder that floored me, but a virulent infection I’d contracted that put me in Ullevål Hospital. In quarantine, I had time to think through the past few years. I had an awakening, but it came too late.

I had a strong relationship with the woman with whom I shared my life, but it couldn’t sustain the choices I’d made. I loved this person very much, but my ego was bigger than my love. Fortunately, we didn’t have children, but even though we were grown up people, the wounds were raw and open.

What was your most beneficial educational experience?

My years as a student at the Dramatic Institute (Dramatiska Instiutet) in Stockholm gave me a great deal of practice and theory. I had teachers who pushed me in the right direction, and I was lucky. Film schools are not always the right thing for everyone, but, at that moment of my life, ending a career as a photographer and moving into movies was the best thing that could have happened to me.

I watched a lot of Francois Truffaut’s early movies, like The 400 Blows and the Italian Rome, Open City from 1946, or Bicycle Thieves, and loved them all. I fell in love with Robert Bresson’s later movies and was blown away by his Pickpocket. Movies from the seventies like Alice Doesn’t Live here Anymore and Klimov’s Come and See were also a big influence.

erikpoppe6What was the most mesmerizing experience for you while making A Thousand Times Good Night?

It was definitely working with Juliette Binoche. It was a challenge to nail the script and the dialogue with her, and I loved the process all the way.

It was wonderful to be able to introduce new actors and mix them with such incredible actors as Nicolai Coster-Waldau and Juliette.

Laureen Canny, who played the 15-year-old daugther, was the one, among several hundred of young girls, to be cast. At the moment I saw her performance I knew that this was a moment, similar to the one you know that only appears a couple of times during a career as a director. You’re confronted with such a rare talent that no one has really seen before, and you’re the one to bring her out to the screen for the first time.

How did you get such moving performances from Juliette Binoche?erikpoppe7

In general I need a lot of preparation and rehearsal time with my actors. This time I had a limited time but needed to build a relationship on trust, a common vision, and an understanding of her part. The time we had was spent on preparing, preparing, and preparing the script, photographic skills, discussing her part as a mother, and finally pushing each other into making brave decisions on how to tell the story.

Do you have any thoughts on why film can be healing?

If it’s honest, and the audience members identify with the theme and the protagonist, then it’s like going on a journey you weren’t expecting. My role as an artist is to raise questions and not hand out all the answers. The questions do start processes among people like discussions, thoughts, or fresh perspectives, so film may be able to make a small impact, a change, or even heal.

How did your experience as a photojournalist prepare you for A Thousand Times Good Night?

I didn’t need to do all the research I usually do in advance. The story is also quite personal, and almost private, in the sense of knowing how to work out the story with my fellow screenwriter or how to work on the direction in an honest way.

Are there any books, films, or albums that have deeply influenced your development as a filmmaker?

I am influenced by all other art forms, and not particularly influenced by contemporary movies any more. Music is essential, and it’s very often classical music by masters like Bach, Händel, or John Cage, or some of the other minimalists. Scandinavian and Norwegian authors like Knut Hamsun, Për Lagerkvist, or the contemporaries like Jon Fosse or Per Petterson are all inspiring to me.

If you had an artist’s mission statement, what would it be?

erikpoppe2Don’t be general. Be specific.

Tell us about your current projects.

I am working on the final edit of my next movie, The King’s Choice. It’s about the first three days of the German attack on Norway in 1940 and tells the true story of the Norwegian King Haakon. Every institution and person fails or collapses around him, and he is sort of left alone, not knowing how to handle the situation before he sees that he needs to represent a resistance toward Hitler. It’s a story of his escape, with the Germans trying to hunt him down.


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