Imagine being told you only have three months to live? Then, nine years later, the film you made about the maddening, heartbreaking, soul-searching experience of surviving brain cancer has been shortlisted for the International Feature Film Academy Award! That is the short version of Norwegian filmmaker Maria Sødahl’s journey from living the story to creating the movie, aptly titled, Hope.
Prior to her health scare, Sødahl worked on numerous TV dramas, docs and shorts. In 2010, her feature debut, Limbo, opened the Norwegian International Film Festival—Haugesund. The film won five Amanda Awards including Best Director.
Now, a decade later, she is back with the searingly authentic drama that centers on Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig), a playwright who is just seeing some success. She is diagnosed with terminal cancer and must now deal with telling her children and her stepchildren while navigating the rough seas of a complicated relationship with her partner Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård) as well as the challenging world of meetings with doctors and specialists. Through all the muck, Anya and Tomas discover who they are to each other.
Hope has received a host of International Awards.
It was recently announced that Nicole Kidman will be adapting Hope into a limited series with her production company Blossom Films in association with Amazon Studios.
Awards Daily video chatted with Sødahl about her life-affirming film and her life-altering experience.
Awards Daily: Congratulations on making the short list.
Maria Sødahl: Thank you. We were a dark horse. So that was cool thing to happen.
AD: To pour your soul into such a personal film must have been quite a process. Take me through when the thought first occurred to you to actually putting it down on paper.
MS: I got this death sentence. I was going to have only three months (to live). And three years after, death was canceled. I’m still alive. (laughs) It’s quite a disappointment. (laughs) Then I had a phone call by this Danish producer saying she had this huge international movie happening in Stockholm…and I was like, haven’t you heard what’s happened to me? She said, yes I heard…you’re fine…which I was not…I probably wouldn’t be able to direct but probably not write either, because my language was so disturbed because of the metastasizing in the language zone in my brain…So I tried to work an hour a day, just to see if I had concentration and I could find the words. And slowly I realized that I could write. I tried to write ideas before this happened and those ideas were just so totally uninteresting, after such an experience.
Then friends told me, you have to deal with this experience. It’s so unique that a director has had this experience…the thought of it made me, not puke, but close to it, because I thought it could easily become something therapeutic, selfish. And also my fear of making a sentimental cancer story, which is almost a Hollywood genre. So it took some time. Maybe four years after that I realized there was no way around it…That’s when I realized the distance in time was so important to be able to make it personal as opposed to private and naval-gazing…which was crucial to me…So I found a way to be able to work with this process through memories and also to get permission from my closest family (members). You can’t write somebody’s story without their permission when they’re alive. That’s why it says, this is my story as I remember it…And also memory can be somewhat questionable, what is true and not true…I was only permitted to tell the story though my gaze, although it’s not that simple.
I soon realized I couldn’t make a hybrid of some fiction and some truth. I had to go all the way because there is always an inner logic in a true story…I also realized that the only thing that was fascinating for me, that made me curious and kept me going…was to be looking back and getting the crystallized emotional essence of each scene or situation…Being totally honest to what I remembered…and also interviewing my kids and husband. How they remembered me. As a character high on steroids, what did I say, what did I do?…But also watching things which are shameful, not very flattering…those things were extremely attractive to me. And very funny as well. It’s existentially very dark, but I laughed a lot and I cried a lot writing it.
AD: One of things I appreciated was the humor in the film.
MS: Yeah, it’s inevitable. When you want to make something unsentimental and unrhetorical it brings up all these things. You’re going to die, but you are going to vacuum clean as well…there’s no time for grief. And for a long time I didn’t think about the audience because I didn’t dare think that I was going to direct. By the time I saw that this was a fiction and I could forget about me…It has its own life, then I thought that I want the audience to be exhausted after seeing it, physically in their guts…
AD: As an audience member it was cathartic, at the end, knowing it was your story that you were still with us! How did you keep hope alive during your ordeal?
MS: Hope is a concept…If you don’t have any hope, that’s when your dead…I don’t think I was ever conscious about it. But looking back, I think it was really interesting to see the relationship between me and my man. How our hope, all the time, changed. Because dying is something very lonely…I think audiences forget it’s my story and they think, will she survive or not? And then in the middle of the movie, it turns out to be a different kind of love story. And the main characters don’t even realize it, but we as an audience can see, we can tell. And then hope becomes, is she able to love or receive love. And love life. Because it’s a movie about life and how we live our lives. And the decisions we make and do not make, much more than about death.
AD: It was interesting seeing how these men in her life—husband, doctors, were constantly
making her diagnosis about themselves. It seemed like she had to fight to have her own voice heard. Was that conscious on your part.
MS: No, not at all. I never heard anyone say that. That’s interesting. Like with Stellan’s part, Thomas, people read him totally differently. You can, because he is so passive, so you can put anything you want into his inner life as an audience. Until he speaks out. And when he speaks out people go, yes! At last somebody’s stopping her.
AD: Both lead actors are so extraordinary. How did you go about casting them? Did you have them in mind?
MS: I try not to have anyone in mind while writing. And, quite soon, I realized there was only one guy who could do Thomas’s part…In a sense, his part is more challenging, than hers. Because to be that character who’s not “acting,” has to have very small things, body language, and have this inner life that you can read. That needed a great actor. And, of course, I wanted my husband to know a great actor would portray him. (laughs) …I know Stellan. I know that he’s had similar experiences from his own life. He’s got a blended family of eight. I have a blended family of six…and he’s also had a wife who had cancer. He has been in Thomas’s shoes. So he could make his own character. He wasn’t going to play my husband; he was going to portray his Thomas. So I didn’t think of anybody else for his part.
As for (Andrea), it was much more open. I had been away from the business for so many years…I really was curious to see what had happened to all these actresses during those years so I made a wide, wide casting session with women between 35 and close to 50. And there she was…I was looking for an X factor, something I didn’t know, someone that could excite me and bring something fresh and new to the character, which was far away from my personality, my energy, my looks. Somebody I could indulge in. She’s very much a stage actor and a comedienne. She’s also a singer. She’s a writer. But she’s a very trained stage actress. So compared to Stellan she was not (as much a) “pro,” in front of the camera, but that also gives an energy between them…I cast them totally separately. When they met they had no choice… (laughs) But they turned out like an odd couple who I believed had had a long life together. And that was the crucial thing.
AD: Maria, at what point did you feel that it was no longer your story but the story of the narrative that was now created by you and the actors?
MS: Probably not in the writing process. But I think the moment they were cast and we met – this was a movie where we didn’t rehearse anything. We talked and talked so we knew each other very well. And I shared all our secrets…From that moment on they went home and prepared, knowing what each scene and the longer curves of the movie should contain…Andrea came with all her thoughts, her ways of doing it, so that was where we started out always. And we played a lot with shooting very different ways of doing the scenes…She’s in every frame of this movie, almost…so this playfulness and having fun with it…I think I knew from when we started playing together, ahead of the shoot. And I was so happy being free from being the writer…to be the director. And to see this as fiction. And to see the gifts they came with, which had nothing to do with my memory. They were doing their version of the script.
AD: What has the reaction to the film been Internationally? Have there been relatable stories shared?
MS: Everywhere I had been traveling before the Corona pandemic—opening in Toronto and then traveling with it in Scandinavia and then Berlin–of course, there are a lot of people who have been through something similar and have lots of things to share. But it is a different kind of love story more than a cancer story so most people react about relationships, family life, blended family. The taboos of loving biological and non-biological children more or less differently. All these things you don’t talk so much about. And I think that the gift in a movie is to have a heroine on drugs, somebody who talks straight from their heart and says all the things nobody dares to say in a normal movie.
AD: How is the Norwegian film industry doing in terms of parity?
MS: It’s very good now. We have a soft quota, for artistic movies. Because the funding in Norway and these small Scandinavian countries is from the Institutes—the main financing. So for those movies, there’s a soft quota. So if you have two projects with the same artistic qualities—just as strong—then the female project will win. (laughs) So in that respect it’s a very interesting period…
AD: There’s a development deal with Nicole Kidman for an American version of Hope?
MS: Yes. They have bought the remake rights, Blossom Films, through Amazon. They’re going to make a limited TV series. That is going to be different in all aspects. I’m very curious about what we’re going to cook together.
AD: How will you be involved?
MS: I’m involved as a consulting producer, which means I’m talking to the showrunner. And contributing, if there’s something that’s of any use for her. She’s Australian. Alice Bell. A very cool young lady…She’s written a series they’re doing now in Beijing called Expatriates. And I think that she is able to make something that is unsentimental…I feel comfortable that they will do something interesting. But I don’t want to have anything to do with directing. I’ve lived it, written it, directed it. (laughs) I’m off for something else.
KimStim is the US Distributor and will release Hope on April 16, 2021.