Director of acclaimed Norwegian films Sykt Lykkelig and De Nærmeste, Anne Sewitsky returns to Sundance with her latest work – a biopic of one of Norway’s biggest stars. Sonja Henie was an Olympic ice skater who went to Hollywood and became a movie star. I met up with Sewitsky in Park City to discuss why she wanted to tell the story of this flawed but fabulous woman.
What drew you to Sonja’s story initially and why did you want to tell her tale?
This was a story that came to me almost ten years ago. Well actually the first idea of it came to the producer ten years ago and I was brought on eight years ago. Oh, wow! We’ve been developing it for the last ten years, yeah. What drew me to it was this very odd, ambitious woman of a time where woman weren’t supposed to be that way. She was a great businesswoman, a fantastic athlete. And also skating in films – which was a very weird concept. So she was a woman way before her time in many ways and an odd creature that I wanted to dive into.
Was it based on a particular biography?
We read all of the biographies – there are nice ones and there are also ones that are more character damaging. You can see interviews and there is a lot of footage on her from before. So we tried to draw the essence of it and we could have made ten different movies, but we drew the essence of what we wanted to tell. That is always both the fun thing but also the challenging thing about biopics – what’s the story you want to tell? How do we choose to tell the story?
How involved were her family, if at all?
Not at all. She doesn’t have any family that’s left. She didn’t have children. Her brother, which is a big part of the film, they never spoke after. So there wasn’t that much to draw from.
The casting of Sonja – how did you go about it and how difficult was it? Did you place a big priority on finding someone who could skate and do all of the choreography or was the acting the more important side?
The acting was the more important side. We spent a long time casting it. We cast Sonja probably four years ago. The lead that we chose, I did another film with her before Sonja, so she was practising for the last four years. She knew nothing about skating and she was terrified of speed and jumps. So it was a huge challenge, she trained every day.
I loved the score and the soundtrack and how you blended those together. Who did you work with for the score and how did you collaborate?
Well, the score came in quite late actually. From an early stage I knew that we were using a modern soundtrack because I felt like that was right thematically …. and it created that energy that I think that Sonja had – very modernistic and very progressive. So, the score came as the last challenge to lift the film. It was an Irish composer called Ray Harman.
I wanted to ask you about that choice of using artists such as Paloma Faith and the modern rock and pop…
Yeah it was to get that modern feel into it and to get that energy into it. Since she was so progressive herself as a character, I thought it was a cool way of going.
Staging the big musical numbers – the choreography of the shows on the skating tour but also when it’s a film within a film – what were the biggest challenges involved in those and how long did some of those sequences take?
(Laughs) Well there were a LOT of challenges. I think now I know everything about ice making, about ice making in a studio, ice making in arenas, how often you have to prepare it and clean it and blah blah blah…
I knew nothing about skating before we started this process but fortunately I got a very good choreographer who had done a lot of shows before and she could lead us through what we needed to think about, how to build it. I had ideas of how I wanted them to flow, how I wanted the dramaturgy to be in it, I would draw up – this could be in here, I think this could be the way that we film it etc. And then she would come with suggestions and things I hadn’t thought about before, which was really great. So it was a very close collaboration. Then there were specific things, like you have to be aware that people could get hurt, where do we put the camera. There were SO many unforseen things.
Especially that sequence with the water, where it’s water on top of ice…How does THAT work?
I think that when the real Sonja actually did that, that was actually ink. We couldn’t do ink, we shot this in quite a short time, we didn’t have a lot of time shooting this film so we couldn’t damage a thousand costumes. So we did lot of tests, so there’s water but there’s also some glycerine. We had to dye the ice and then paint it underneath. It was a long testing process. The most important thing for me was that I wanted to have the perfect reflection, so you got the mirroring into it.
The character of Connie (played by Valene Kane) who was her personal assistant and became her best friend, who went on a huge journey with Sonja. Was she Northern Irish in real life or was that because of the actress?
That character is partly fictional and partly a combination of the secretary and one other person. So we made a combination there. And partly a true character as well. But we made her Irish, yes.
You mentioned Sonja’s brother – do you think the fact that were maybe too close is the reason why their relationship imploded, it couldn’t survive what happened to her (her success)?
I guess so. Part of the thing was that it was in many ways, a family project. The family project was her. He was quite supportive of that and he did like the life that it brought him. Though being in the shadows for so long and then also being so close to someone that gets so much attention and also becomes that creature that doesn’t take care of the family anymore. I think his hatred or his envy – I just think the relationship became quite toxic from it. They were the only ones left, from moving to the US and being there for each other.
It was very nice to see the rise and fall of a woman for a change, we are used to seeing men at the centre of biopics. Where it’s a character who is selfish at times, who is flawed – why was it so important to you to tell this story of a woman who had all those sides to her character and who had such a downfall?
I think it’s important to tell that there are also very hard working, ambitious female characters. That narcissistic way of being is often a part of being successful. I think the challenge (and I don’t know if we succeeded or not) with that is that I believe that a female is often more heavily judged than a male character. You expect her to have a more vulnerable, more empathetic side. Maybe people who see the movie even now will feel that she should have more of an empathetic side but I thought it was an interesting task to see that to get that far, to get what you want, you burn and die for your cause and that’s what she did and it was even harder for her at that time because she was expected to be a housewife or be the cute ice princess. In all her movies, she played a very sweet, innocent, naive women but in real life she was….formidable.
Full Review of Sonja – The White Swan will be on the website shortly, as part of our Sundance 2019 coverage.