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NIFFF 2020

Joachim Hedén • Director of Breaking Surface

“I never really considered Breaking Surface as a diving movie, about divers or for divers”


- We caught up with Sweden’s Joachim Hedén, the director of Breaking Surface, after its international premiere at Neuchâtel

Joachim Hedén  • Director of Breaking Surface

Sweden’s Joachim Hedén jumps straight into cold water for the NIFFF-screened Breaking Surface [+see also:
film review
interview: Joachim Hedén
film profile
, in which two sisters find themselves trapped in a remote part of the Norwegian coastline during their winter dive. It’s up to Ida (Moa Gammel) to ensure their survival. But time is running out, and so is the oxygen.

Cineuropa: Breaking Surface marks the first time you have entered the genre community. Did you even feel it, with the festival moving online?
Joachim Hedén: Of course, I would have preferred to be there and have the audience in the room. But this is the new normal now. Between cancelling the festival and moving it online, this is the better option, and at NIFFF, they really created something great – I was very impressed with their daily broadcasts. It’s a shame that the content was geo-blocked, but from what I understood, they had good viewership, and many people reached out to me afterwards.

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To geo-block or not to geo-block – it’s an ongoing discussion. But before we dive into the challenges of an underwater shoot, tell us about the more intimate elements of the film. You ended up with a family drama!
There is this one childhood incident that sort of creates the rift between the sisters. I think it’s quite universal for a lot of people – very often, there is some defining moment in our relationships, be it with family or with friends. But the challenge in a film like this is that there is not a lot of time to sit by the campfire and talk about the “old days”. Once the action gets going, it needs to go until the whole story is resolved. I hope we were able to strike a good balance between defining the characters and setting them up in such a way that you feel something for them.

A few years ago, there was a tendency to have “feisty” female protagonists. But Ida, once tragedy strikes, is actually quite hopeless.
For me, it’s a journey from being a passive person to an active person. When we get to know her, she is someone who always turned to others and who was a spectator in her own life, just watching things happen. Now, we put her in a situation where there is absolutely no escape: she has to solve this problem. Her first instinct is to look for help, first from her sister and then from outside, but this is the one time when she can’t do it.

I never really considered it as a diving movie, about divers or for divers. To be perfectly honest, and it’s no secret, at first I thought about two mountain climbers who get into trouble. But if that happens, if you lose your equipment halfway up a mountain, you would probably just sit there for a few weeks and eat snow. There is no immediate time pressure. Then, out of the blue, my producer Julia [Gebauer] said: “Ugh, I wish someone could come up with an exciting underwater movie with divers!” All of a sudden, the whole thing just fell into place.

Once you decided to make this change, how did you approach the basic technical issues? How do you construct a scene underwater or work with the actors, hidden behind those masks during the most emotional moments?
I guess I am an optimistic person when it comes to problem-solving [laughs]. In filmmaking, if you have a clear vision, there is a way to sort it out. I saw this as a dark movie, the darkness being one of the things that make it scary, contrasting with the snowy landscape above water. There were two key ingredients that made these sequences possible. One was our underwater cinematographer [Eric Börjeson] – we brought him in very early on, about a year and a half before production. The second was Belgium’s Lites Water Stage & Film Studios. It didn’t really exist when we first decided to try and make this movie. I was with the owner, and he took me to the site, where there was nothing but a patch of land. He pointed at it and said: “We are going to build the best underwater studio in Europe! And it will be finished in time for your movie.” And it was. Although when we started production, they were still painting the walls!

It’s like Field of Dreams: “If you build it, he will come.” For all this darkness, you still have a dog as the main cheerleader in the film. Were you trying to add some levity?
Or rather: “He will come, so you must build it!” The dog was always there. I felt she needed a companion, but I didn’t want it to be another person – I wanted her to be really alone, exposed, left to her own devices. I think at one point, I flirted with the idea of there being a bird that would follow her around, but a dog can mirror human emotions. One of my favourite little moments is when Ida lies down and the dog lies down next to her. They look into each other’s eyes, and it’s almost as if he was saying: “Are you really giving up? Or maybe you should do something else?”

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