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LOCARNO 2019 Competition

Rúnar Rúnarsson • Director of Echo

“Making Echo was like jumping into a deep pool in complete darkness”


- Cineuropa caught up with Icelandic filmmaker Rúnar Rúnarsson, who is showing his latest film, Echo, at Locarno

Rúnar Rúnarsson • Director of Echo

Misleadingly set over Christmas, Rúnar Rúnarsson’s experiment of a film, presented in the International Competition of the Locarno Film Festival, has nothing to do with all the Love Actuallys and Bad Santas. Instead of a sugar overdose, Echo [+see also:
film review
interview: Rúnar Rúnarsson
film profile
offers a portrait of a society in 56 separate scenes taking place in the countryside, in a museum, in somebody’s perfectly lit living room or even by the unusually safe highway.

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Cineuropa: Before we start discussing Echo’s structure, I wanted to ask about the holiday setting. It’s almost like you are showing the backstage of Christmas, focusing on the things that people would rather hide.
Rúnar Rúnarsson:
I was working on that film for a very long time; we were joking that I could end up filming it over more than a year. Then I stumbled upon the holiday season. It acts like a magnifier of our emotions, and even though you could say that Echo is some kind of arthouse Christmas film, the main goal was to come up with a contemporary take on Western society.

It seems like it also allowed for some humour, for example in the scene with kids performing in a school play, with little Santa Claus asking: “Do you want some Coke?” Only to hear: “No, we are looking for baby Jesus.”
Some things in the film are highly constructed, but others were just captured, and a lot of that humour came from things I had absolutely no control over. Like with these guys playing Monopoly, for example. They were fully intoxicated when we went to meet them, and although there is a lot of humour in how they are interacting with each other, we had to shoot for one hour. What helped was that there was a set of rules to the film. For example, the locations or the characters couldn’t appear twice, and there couldn’t be any well-known faces in front of the camera. There were actually very few people with any acting experience at all. We decided to play with how we perceive reality, because I believe there are more ways to show it than just by making a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

Some scenes play out for much longer than others. Were they always supposed to be so different?
If they all had the same length, it would have made the film feel like just a series of postcards. I wanted a different dynamic. I have never done a film like this before, so that of course was a challenge. Like jumping into a deep pool in complete darkness. We had more scenes that didn’t ultimately end up in the film because we didn’t want it to be too long — you don’t want to bore people. And it’s not like I was looking for some “ultimate truths” — just as the title implies, the film is an echo of our postmodern society. Some kind of a mosaic film where each and every scene is like a stone you could pick up on the beach. Some may have an odd shape, some may be beautiful, or something that you thought was a stone might actually turn out to be a 30-year-old Coca-Cola bottle, smoothed out by sand and the ocean.

Santa Claus probably left it there. It’s funny how we seem to be fed this narrative that Christmas should be celebrated in one specific way. In your film, everyone experiences it differently.
Isn’t that how things really are? When someone asks: “Did you have a nice Christmas?”, everyone immediately says yes. They don’t want to admit anything else. But life isn’t that simple; it’s all about these shades of grey, and at times, something beautiful can also be extremely sad. Together, all these different elements create a whole. I didn’t want to tell a common story, because I was slowly getting tired of it myself. Film doesn’t have to be all about this three act Greek storytelling, you know?

In that sense, could this structure be seen as every filmmaker’s ultimate dream? You don’t need to focus just on one side of the story. There is no limit.
It was a completely different way of working. All my films, even the short ones, always have this one main character who is present in every scene, and everything else is just supplementing his story. Now, I am eliminating that. But yes, it was a much bigger challenge than I ever could have anticipated.

Although, to contradict a bit what I just said, there actually is a main character in Echo – it’s society. And society is in each and every scene, with different people portraying its many aspects. Another thing that contradicts what I was saying before is that, within the holiday season itself, there is a hint of that Greek structure already. There is a period of preparation for Christmas, Christmas itself, and then the new beginning. So there is an arc. That was one of the things that surprised me the most. It’s there, even though I was trying to get away from it.

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