Academy Award-winner Anders Walter’s new short film Child of Mine examines how trauma and abuse can extend far beyond the years of active abuse. The film shows a new mother dealing with her own trauma as a child through conversations with the next door neighbor’s little girl. Here, in a conversation with Awards Daily, Walter discusses what inspired him to become involved in the project, including the doubts, the preparation both for the characters and crafting just two rooms to reflect the different worlds he has created. Plus, he reveals what the Oscars smell like.
Awards Daily: What was the inspiration for the story behind Child of Mine?
Anders Walter: This film was really made as an assignment. I made another short movie last year for an organization called Tuba here in Denmark, which helps young kids with abusive and alcoholic parents. They wanted to do a second movie this year trying to bring attention to Tuba and to help people who suffer with alcoholic parents. So they set up the framework that they wanted me to do a film that deals with a young mother who doesn’t have anywhere to go to reflect on motherhood, and how to be a great mom because she grew up with an alcoholic mother. That was the framework, but within that framework I could basically do whatever I wanted. So it didn’t start with me, it came from Tuba, but then it became my own creative project as well.
AD: At the beginning of the film you have some ambiguity about who and what the next door neighbor girl is. (Later it is revealed that it’s the young mother talking to her younger self.) What went into that style choice?
Anders Walter: I can’t remember where the idea of the two apartments came from. I remember having a long conversation with my wife about how to play this as a small story. Because to be inspired by the story I wanted to talk to as many women as possible who have found themselves in a similar situation. Another aspect of making this film is that I had actually turned down this job for quite some time because I didn’t think I was the right person to do this. I said to Tuba, “Go and find a female director to do this, because I am not sure I know enough about what kind of emotional journey this woman is going through.” But then talking to people who experienced this themselves, my wife included, opened me up to the idea that I could actually do this movie.
When talking to my wife the idea of two different apartments representing the present and the past came up, and it really seemed like a great way to go. The conversations between the two versions have to do with how you embrace your own inner child in order to set your present self free by accepting things that happened in the past. So the only way to do that was to meet a younger version of yourself and the obvious visual choice was to set her up in the next door apartment. Because that’s how it feels with all the demons in your head. They are just next door to all the other thoughts in your brain. That seemed like the natural way of dealing with the conversation she has in the film.
AD: Speaking of the lead actress, Mathilde Fock does a great job of carrying her emotions in her face and mannerisms. What did you do to help her get into that mindset?
Anders Walter: She doesn’t have a child herself (she is only 24) so it was very important that she got to talk with some of the same women that I talked to. Mothers who grew up with alcoholic mothers when they were young. Those stories inspired me to write this story but also inspired Mathilde to get into the character. Most of it had to do with me introducing her to all that source material and then we could talk, knowing where these stories came from. I think that was the most helpful in creating nuance with the character. Then of course I saw so many different people in casting of new talent here in Denmark, and right away when I saw her–she did a self tape and sent it to me, she just came across in a totally natural way and there was just something really likable about her in her appearance. She’s very much like her character in reality as well. Right away I knew she was the girl to play Anna the way I imagined it.
AD: One of the scenes that was very visceral for me was the pulling of the beads of the bracelet and then them being broken on the floor. What was behind that idea and the camera work for those shots?
Anders Walter: That didn’t come from talking to any of the women. So much of the story in the end comes from real life experiences. But the beads come from the fact that I have two kids and one of them, my six year old boy, because of his age has nightmares and he has this dreamcatcher next to his bed. Me and him often talk about how to keep the nightmares away. Children often believe a physical object has a magical power to it that can help keep demons or bad things away so that just came from me talking to my son during the time when I was writing the screenplay.
In terms of the camera movement there was an obvious decision made very early on to have close-ups with the beads and keep it really organic and textured. Because we knew it was going to be a visual set up for when Anna has been wearing the beads as a grown up, showing that she basically kept this on for her entire life as a memory or a reminder of keeping certain things in her life at arm’s length. Also it is a way of showing that we all carry our own inner child with us all the time because that child is who we are. I think that a lot of our personality comes from that first ten to twelve years at least, when it comes to self confidence or the way that you look at yourself or at the world. We of course add to ourselves through life but I think so much of who we are comes from our childhood. You are always looking for something visual to tell a story because you do not want too much dialogue. At least for my taste you want to leave a lot of the storytelling to imagery.
AD: That actually leads into my next question where in the “present day” apartment it is always sunny and pleasant while the “past” apartment is very shadowy and dark. What was your discussion with your cinematographer in creating that mood?
Anders Walter: It started all the way back in the production design, since the film was so simple with only two locations. They had to be so distinct; I looked at them as just as important as the characters. So for me and the DP Louise McLaughlin it was obvious that we had to make two different worlds, making it obvious like Star Wars where you have Luke in white and Darth Vader in black. Here we had one apartment in the present: modern, upbeat, and light. While all the darkness of the past is presented–well, first I must say that my initial thought about that apartment was that it was messy and small because I didn’t grow up with alcoholic parents. But when I think about all the cliches about abusive and alcoholic parents as people who cannot take care of their children and that reflects the way they live.
But when talking to Tuba and learning about alcoholic parents, so many of them are actually high society people. In this case I imagine the mother is a lawyer of some kind because it is a big apartment, it is dark, it is not messy, it is full of nice furniture. I wanted to go against the cliches about the messy apartment and make it a fancy place because the worst thing for these kids is most of these parents are capable of taking care of themselves, having a good job so other people do not realize that they are alcoholics, it is only obvious to those closest to them, the children included. It is a problem that doesn’t really explode until they are in the privacy of their homes and then it all comes down on the children and grownups do not notice it. That is how half the alcoholics are living in Denmark. But I never doubted that it should be a dark place reflecting the dark place in Anna’s life.
AD: You have mainly worked in short film format. What is it about the format that appeals to you?
Anders Walter: Many people look at the short format as a way of trying out your talent and/or a way to work in movies. Of course that was the case when I did my first three shorts some years ago in order to do my first feature. But then sometimes it takes an awful lot of time to get your feature projects financed, and so people in between features would do commercials to get by (at least Danish directors). I just figured I would do a couple of shorts. I love the format and certain stories are harder to finance in long form format and with shorts you do not have to think about profit or how many people will go to the theater to watch your movie. You can really do quite bizarre and odd stories that you cannot do in long format. So for me I have done three shorts since I wrapped I Kill Giants, my first American feature four years ago. I am in pre-production on my next feature that I am going to start shooting in March. So instead of just doing commercials in those four years it is so much more interesting to do shorts because you get to work with real stories and scripts, and fantastic casts.
The funny thing with shorts when talking to Danish actors and actresses is since it won’t take more than five or six shooting days it means you can get a lot of great actors to show up because they want to support a great short movie and they can spare the time. I just think it is just a wonderful format that you can be creative, and it is a nice way to stay in shape even for someone like me who has done his first feature. I would love it if more directors did that (I know David Lynch and a couple of others do that in between projects). I also thought the other day about shorts, in a world where people’s ability to focus and concentrate seems reduced, I predict you will see more shorts on Netflix and streamers over the next few years because it fits into the modern world in how we view media. For me it is not something just for young people and newcomers to work in film, I think it is a great medium.
AD: Has the experience of being in the Oscar race changed for you since you have won before?
Anders Walter: The problem is, well there is not a problem winning an Oscar, that obviously is something to remember all your life. But must I say I think it goes for everybody that even though we want to say and tell the world that it doesn’t mean anything it does mean something of course. The Oscar is one of the highest achievements of being praised by your peers and the thing about the Oscars is that it is all the Academy members who vote for you. So it is not three people at a film festival in a specific jury with a specific taste, there are more than ten thousand people who can vote. So that means something and the Oscar and the glamour around it. I like to compare it to Lord of the Rings, when people get close to it and start to smell it. It has this effect on you. Maybe a few can say it doesn’t, but for most people who make movies, everything about the Oscars, it just smells really nice.