“Finding the right car for a movie is like finding a precious pearl”
“I’m an actor; I like to talk,” Åsleik Engmark says. He is also a Director, so he knows what to talk about: about KNERTEN! His film debut is the most successful children’s film in years in Norway. The film will be released in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Estonia… and a few more countries are on the waiting list.
KNERTEN’s charm is partly based on nostalgia, but somehow the film has a very modern feel too. How did you avoid getting carried away by nostalgia?
Åsleik Engmark: “There is a certain nostalgia in this movie, but please take in to account that rural life in Norway was like 10 years behind of its time. It looks as if the story is taking place in the fifties, but actually KNERTEN takes you to the autumn of 1967 and Junior’s brother Philip is the first boy in the village wearing his hair a bit longer.
For a filmmaker the sixties are an exciting era. Children find it exotic (no cells, no batteries, little wealth), grandparents simply love it: “I remember those boxes”, “I used to wear just the same shirt!” and parents are introduced to a very different type of parenthood: a mother leaving her son alone at home with a fever or dumping him outside a shop while she goes to work. She’s a responsible, caring mum but such things are simply unthinkable nowadays. The time-gap makes the story go down easier.
The film indeed has a rather modern appeal. The editing is sharp, the animation and the humour are up-to-date and so is the photography. The camera work reminds me of THE SHINING: the camera is following the child wherever he goes, stumbling in his footsteps as he carefully explores his new environment, experiencing everything for the very first time.”
You invested a lot time in finding the right accessories?
Engmark: “Especially finding the right cars caused a lot of excitement. All my life I loved cars and finding the right car for a movie is like finding a precious pearl. I was really happy with what we found: a ’59 Morris Minor and a 1967 Lotus Elan – very exclusive!”
The result is a very Norwegian film. How would you defend its international relevance?
Engmark: “It’s a story about a brave little boy, struggling with a well known existential problem: trying to be accepted for who you are and not for what others want you to be. Even Philip and the parents are trying to become someone else, someone new. It’s a universal issue. Check out the comments on the international Internet forums: “It’s a film for toddlers… but it’s so cool and we love it!”
The film is based on a book by Anne-Cath Vestly. She’s a Norwegian phenomenon but not so well known in the rest of Europe.
Engmark: “She’s Norway’s best equivalent for Astrid Lindgren but never gained the same international recognition; she never travelled. Starting her career telling stories for children on the radio, she wrote her best work in the fifties and sixties. She had two sons, one old and one young, so Knerten’s story was basically about them. Anne-Cath Vestly died in 2008 but her family was very confident with us. KNERTEN is keeping alive her legacy, although the book is much more introspective. Many people had their doubts about our chances to adapt it for the big screen since so much of the action is situated inside the boy’s head.”
The sweet thing about this imaginary friend Knerten is that everyone just accepts his existence. He’s not kept a secret; the whole community sees him as he is: Junior’s friend.
Engmark: “But they never see him alive. They see him as a bizarrely shaped stick or as a doll. He comes alive in public just once, at the Christmas party when he welcomes back the girl: “Hi princess!” Knerten only talks when Junior wants him to talk, and that is never in the presence of other people. Mum is okay with her son’s imaginary friend – he’s still so young – but dad doesn’t feel like paying much attention to it and vice versa: “Knerten, why didn’t you say something when I was arguing with dad?” – “It’s your dad, Junior!”
How did you work with the animation?
Engmark: “We designed a twig that looked as realistic as possible. We had to ask ourselves the most awkward questions: What about his age? Does it show in his age rings? The tree was 79 years old but Knerten was cut from a younger branch. He has approximately 20 age rings but his mental age is like 7 years old. He doesn’t have much experience in life; he hasn’t seen much besides the branch he sprouted from. Trying out various options of wood we found out pine wood has a nice texture in the rind and the branches stick out in the correct angle.
We designed models for Knerten’s face. Most peculiar are his eyes: he doesn’t have those Disney-like big deer eyes. We designed his eyes in a commedia dell’arte tradition, in which naïve characters wear masks with small eyes and high eyebrows, making them look more vulnerable and adding a positive touch to their faces. A pig-like nose somehow lowers his social status. How many teeth should he have? We gave him 3 or 4… But then how to position them in the mouth? Could he easily move around? No, he moves a bit insecurely, carefully balancing on the bedside cabinet. And what about his character? We wanted to expand what’s in the book and make him a little less sceptical and anxious.
Afterwards we had to blend the character into the movie and make it come alive. That was an intensive process with many details to include and complicated corrections to be made.”
Young actor Adrian Grønnevik had to work with a twig as his opponent?
Engmark: “Sometimes he acted with a stick in his hand, sometimes he was addressing an imaginary stick while playing “in the air”. In the most complicated scenes he was holding a stick, steered through wires and cables hidden under his cloths. Horrible! That we will never try again! Those settings were pretty complicated but Adrian was able to handle them all and even correct himself whenever necessary.”
That was quite a responsibility resting on his young shoulders!
Engmark: “It was a big job to find a 6 year old boy capable of pronouncing his dialogues while still having his milk teeth. A boy with a huge imagination and confident about trying out new things. A gifted liar, actually! Adrian had a really demanding job and we were so lucky that he was backed by a stable and caring family. There was a nanny on the set and we agreed upon some strict regulations: a lot of sleep, no running around on the set, good food, no sugar, etc. There is a scene in the film when Junior is drinking coffee with the carpenter. That was Adrian’s first real cup of coffee ever and his first sugar in 4 weeks. On the way back in the car he had a sugar high; he was hyperactive and couldn’t stop talking.”
This was your directorial debut and you were very ambitious: playing one of the main roles in a film with a debuting child and including a lot of animations. How did you get away with all that?
Engmark: “I didn’t ask for it – I was asked for the job. I’m not a “renaissance man” who wants to do it all by himself. But the producers told me: “We know you’re a story teller, telling your stories with passion. If we have you surrounded by professional people from whom you can learn, we think you can make it. Relax; we’ll help you.” I found the task extremely inspiring.
In the theatre you have one opening night, that’s when it all has to happen. But working on a film that same feeling continues whenever finishing another phase in the production process: the manuscript, the preparations, the shooting, the editing… It’s like having premieres all year long and every time there was this victorious feeling: “We made it!”
The frustrating aspect, of course, is that up till now, whenever I’m watching the movie I still want to make changes and corrections.”
You also did Knerten’s voice.
Engmark: “That was the easiest part of the job. The tone of Knertsen’s voice is a decisive element in the movie, but I’m experienced in dubbing those slim, fast-talking, kind-of-Jewish overactive characters. I did Timon (THE LION KING), Woody (TOY STORY), Mushu (MULAN) and Mike Wazowski (MONSTERS, INC.).”
How much of the underwear story was originally in the book and how much came from the dirty mind of the director?
Engmark: “Let’s say 60 / 40%. In the book the father was selling women’s dresses, which in the sixties was a somehow weird occupation. We made him a lingerie salesman. Also the scene with the movie star isn’t in the book. The character is based on the actress Vibeke Løkkeberg, who in 1967 gained tremendous popularity in the film LIV and later became a well known director.”
Can you reveal a bit about Knerten’s future? Will he soon be back on the big screen?
Engmark: “The first film, made on a € 2 million budget, turned out a huge success. The second film KNERTEN TIES THE KNOT is ready, directed by Arild Østin Ommundsen. We have to work fast before Adrian grows up. The budget is ready to shoot a 3rd film, in which the family is about to move out of their house again.”