Name: Nele Volbruck
A film director has to be prepared when 99 factors out of 100 might turn out to be a bit – or let’s be honest – very difficult to control on set. Even more tricky when the factor concerns the main actors of your film.
Swedish Maria Eriksson’s short film Schoolyard Blues (2017 ) is an aching, yet affectionate story of two small boys being there for each other, when their caretakers aren’t able to. The film is carried only by two children acting opposite each other. We sat down with Eriksson in Karlovy Vary to hear how it felt like, and how she managed to squeeze such mature performances out of the boys.
Where does the heart wrenching story of two brothers originate from?
Maria Eriksson: It came from the collaboration between me and my boyfriend who is a screenwriter (Pelle Rådström– ed.). It’s very much about life. I have a very complicated relationship with my sister and he with his brother, in different ways. I’ve been extremely interested in what happens with children, when they’re forced to take up the role of the parent, because their own parents can’t take care of them. It was a mixture of conversations about our relationships; violence and shame. It’s very seldom to have an idea like that(snaps fingers). We came up with this story of brotherhood and it started from there.
What is your favourite thing about Schoolyard Blues?
ME: The small boy is so great in the last scene, making the remark about his mother. We had such a struggle with that part, because I had this idea that the scene has to be in one shot. We had problems with him looking into the camera. In every take, he paused and looked up in the air. Acting, hmm, pause, air! It wasn’t good. We finally found one take in editing, where he was actually so tired he didn’t know what to say, he forgot his line. That is so beautiful, so truthful, because he really doesn’t know what to say. When we finally got that part, we got the scene. Found that golden take!
It’s very special to work with children. They don’t usually do what you want. It’s very much about getting the small truthful moments. When you edit, you throw away 70%, and then you have these moments you have to cut together.
Both kids are tender and sensitive, warm in the roles. How did you manage that?
ME: Good casting. We had a long period to find the right kids and 1.5 months before the shooting we met a couple of times to rehearse. Not the scenes from the script but other written scenes that could have been the backstory of their relationship, also improvisation.
Sometimes we did it alone with the 7-year old, because he had never acted in a film. We needed to prepare him and make him understand the difference between acting, just playing around and reality, so he wouldn’t get scared on set, when he’s brother was angry with him. It was really a preparation process. Of course, in close collaboration with the parents.
You have lots of practice working with children. Every child is different of course, but are there some common tips?
ME: The most important thing is to find the child quite early, to get to know him and prepare him. To endure you don’t cast a child only to realise on set that he gets scared for real when it’s scary. You have to have time before that. Every child is different, and you need to get to know them to form a strategy how to work with them. With some kids, you notice from the first rehearsal that you don’t have to do so much. I can just do this really bad directing:say „be angry” and it works.
It’s good to have a toolbox with a lot of tricks. We were singing the lines before learning them, so it doesn’t get stuck like a chewing gum. One time you sing it, the other time you scream it, so the kids can learn it without doing a line reading. Don’t let small kids learn the lines at home before. That’s a bad thing usually. One trick can work in the morning and after lunch, nothing works, so you have to find another approach.
Did you learn these tricks in film school?
ME: During my master studies, I wanted to learn about the subject. I was working on a short film at the same time, I did my thesis called „Directing children“. When I looked for other literature for reference, I couldn’t find anything, except for Judith Weston’s „Directing actors”. It’s very good and I got so much from it, but it has only two or three pages about working with children or amateurs. And working with children is not necessarily like working with amateurs! She had a lot of good tips, but it was not enough. There is no literature about it, really. So, I decided to interview the directors in Sweden who work with children a lot, for example Suzanne Osten. Also, I had a really good, experienced director as a mentor, watching the casting material with me. I’m happy that now there’s a text about working with kids that other students can read and use in school.
Interview with Maria Eriksson
Director of "Schoolyard Blues" (SE)
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C. Photo Credit: Schoolyard Blues (2017)