Nicolai GH Johansen • Director of If You Knew
"When we talk about mental illness in general, we are often too quick to reduce people to diagnoses"
- We chat to the Danish director as his raw and intense piece about mental illness screens as part of EFP’s Future Frames
Danish-born Nicolai GH Johansen is a graduate of Super8, the independent film school based in Denmark. The writer and director’s follow up to his Gothic-horror tinged Inherent (2021) – which premiered in Cannes Critics’ Week – is If You Knew, which is due to screen at the 56th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (1-9 July) as part of European Film Promotion’s Future Frames.
The film follows Leonara, a woman struggling with her mental health after splitting up from her boyfriend. Regular therapy sessions seem to have a positive effect, but when she discovers that her ex may be seeing someone else, Leonora begins to unravel. If You Knew is an intense character study that is both raw and empathetic as it charts the struggles of an individual during dark times.
Cineuropa: What was it that made you want to focus your film on mental health?
Nicolai GH Johansen: It happened organically. I’m naturally drawn to vulnerable characters dealing with loneliness, who are longing for connection. I’m especially interested in seeing this isolation's effect on the mind, and how longing can turn to obsession. This was the crux of my previous short, the horror film Inherent, but there we approached the emotions in a more abstract way. Our first plan for If You Knew was also as a genre film, but in my research I found that stalking in the real world was nothing like the clichés that Hollywood had taught me. Instead of evil psychopaths, perpetrators of stalking are often dealing with issues that I felt seemed both universal and very similar to my own mental health struggles, so it became natural to just tell the story in a much more raw and personal way.
I’d like to know about the casting of Mathilde Arcel Fock as Leonora: she embodies vulnerability but also a certain amount of defiance.
I think that exact combination of vulnerability and defiance is so key in making the audience root for Leonora, and I think that this is something that Mathilde is great at portraying. We cast her very early in the process in order to shape the story around her. We had the basic structure and facts of the narrative, but it was with Mathilde that we kind of figured out how Leonora specifically deals with her situation. Another actor might have gone for more manic energy, but Mathilde imbued Leonora with so much dignified vulnerability. It honestly didn’t feel like I was directing her, as much as we were kind of shaping the character in collaboration, which was one of the most creatively satisfying experiences I've had in my young career.
Was it important to keep a certain amount of ambiguity as to Leonora’s illness?
Yes, definitely. To me, when we talk about mental illness in general, we are often too quick to reduce people to diagnoses - but its way more complex than that. We wanted the audience to empathise with Leonora, and not just write off her emotions as part of an illness. The goal here was not to shy away from anything, but rather to show that mentally ill people are dealing with emotions that are universal.
Everyone is occasionally and transiently struck with anxiety, depression, obsessive thoughts and so on, but for some these emotions become too permanent. In short, we wanted to show mental illness not as something foreign or weird, but as something universal.
Can you tell us a little more about how you approached filming? The film has a slightly claustrophobic and naturalistic feel.
Our guiding principle was that every stylistic choice had to reflect Leonora's state of mind. The naturalism I think stems from an ambition to try to create a closeness with her. Me and my DP Sebastian Bjerregaard opted for a camera that tries to be in sync with her movements, using longer takes, where time isn’t compressed with efficient editing. I think this creates a sort of claustrophobia, as the audience is never allowed to leave Leonora's perspective - and sometimes this perspective is riddled with fear and anxiousness. We tried to create something similar with the sound design, by making Leonora's breathing our main sound motif. This is most obvious when Leonora is struck by anxiety, where my sound designer Emil Woxen experimented with isolating breathing in the sound mix and sometimes removing the exhalation.
Do you have any film projects that you're working on next?
I'm working on getting my first feature off the ground. It's at such an early stage that I can't really say too much about it. I'm still interested in a similar kind of character, and portraying mental vulnerability in an honest way. I'm also fascinated by exploring it with genre, as I feel genre allows you to go to places that are very dark, which I think sometimes can be more truthful in terms of translating the intensity of the mentally vulnerable mind to the screen.
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