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Erik Skjoldbjærg • Director

"How can you live unconventionally, within a predefined context that implicitly excludes you?"


- Norwegian filmmaker Erik Skjoldbjærg drew inspiration from one of Norwegian author Gaute Heivoll’s novels for his latest feature film, Pyromaniac

Erik Skjoldbjærg • Director
(© Festival de Cinéma Européen des Arcs /

Erik Skjoldbjærg, one of Norway’s best-known and recognised directors, originally from Tromsø, but now based in Oslo since completing his studies in London, has made a name for himself overseas thanks to his works Pioneer [+see also:
film profile
; Nokas [+see also:
film profile
, which was recognised at the 2011 Arras Film Festival; Insomnia, which Christopher Nolan has remade; and the television series Occupied, which was the brainchild of Jo NesbøPyromaniac [+see also:
film review
interview: Erik Skjoldbjærg
film profile
, his latest feature film, is inspired by one of Norwegian author Gaute Heivoll’s novels, which has been successful ever since its release in 2010: Før jeg brenner ned.

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Cineuropa: Why did you decide not to use the book’s original title for the film?
Erik Skjoldbjærg:
I didn’t want a poetic title. I just wanted a small ID badge that sent a clear message, leaving the poetry for the film itself. I love short titles, ones that are easy to remember, that we can relate to straight away. Pyromaniac is the result of how I interpreted the book about the truth behind a wave of arson attacks occurring in 1978. I did my own research. The film was shot in the south of Norway, in the same region where the events actually took place. Among the extras appearing in the film, there are a number of people who actually witnessed the fires. When you read such a successful book based on facts that we witnessed, it’s difficult to distinguish what we read from what we lived. There’s a tendency to mistake fiction for fact. Gaute Heivoll accepted the fact that Bjørn Olaf, the scriptwriter, and I chose to keep what we thought was important in his book, and he would sometimes visit to see how the shooting was doing.

From the very beginning, the audience knows who’s behind the crimes…
That’s right. The narration is subjective, and so there’s no suspense about who this arsonist, whom we follow throughout the whole film, really is. There are dialogues, but there is no narrator speaking from off screen. Pyromaniac presents a multifaceted image: a young man, not a monster, just a human being whose motivations are different to ours; a family; and a village, a rural community that, either by lack of courage or sheer blindness, refuses to admit that the arsonist could be one of them. They would prefer to believe that it was an outsider. In this small village community, everyone tries to be the same as their neighbour, to conform as best as they can; how can you live unconventionally, within a predefined context that implicitly excludes you?

Is this a major theme in your film?
Essentially. Even the most seemingly harmonious environments can give rise to some disturbing, even destructive, element, like the one bad apple that spoils the crop. No one understands where it comes from, but can confirm it’s there. It’s a real mystery.

Tond Nilssen portrays the film’s protagonist.
Yes, and he’s got real natural talent; he’s not had any traditional training as an actor, and I worked with him using his instinct, intuition and past experiences as guiding elements to trigger his emotions. I found that it was best to do this conditioning work just before he started shooting, without any preparation too far in advance. I have a feeling his presence will catch more than a few off-guard.

For the film you had to, let’s say, burn down ten houses? Was it really needed?
For the story, yes. Fire is an incredibly organic, living element. Special effects wouldn’t have been enough to capture the way fire moves. So we took out ads, looking for homeowners willing to watch their houses go up in smoke.

But surely they were difficult to find…
No, not really. A lot of people used it as a chance to build a new house. On top of that, actually burning houses down turned out to be less costly than other ideas we had.

The colours in some of the scenes almost look like something out of a Turner painting…
I suppose it’s possible, but I didn’t use him as inspiration. It’s true, however, that we paid particular attention to lighting and, with Gösta Reiland, the DoP, we shot most of the scenes at dusk, which is often so long and so beautiful in the Norwegian summer. A film shoot is a truly inspiring thing.

(Translated from French)

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