Oscar shorts: Discovering story through location in Norway
The list of winners at the 2011 Academy Awards was populated with Hollywood big-shots such as Aaron Sorkin and Christian Bale. But also among the winners was a filmmaker just out of film school, and the same could happen this year, as two of the live-action shorts in the running for an Oscar made their way onto the category’s shortlist by way of the Student Academy Awards. One, called “Tuba Atlantic,” earned Norway its first Student Oscar last June.
The news that the film would be awarded one of the Student Oscars — it went on to win the gold medal in the student foreign film category — came via email to director Hallvar Witzø on a day that already was full of celebrating, Norwegian Constitution Day.
“That was surreal. It was amazing timing,” said Witzø, 27, who made “Tuba Atlantic” as his thesis project for his bachelor's degree at the Norwegian Film School.
“Tuba Atlantic” tells the story of 70-year-old Oskar, who learns that his doctor expects him to die in six days. As he comes to terms with his fate with the help of a teenage girl, he searches for a way to get in touch with his brother, whom he hasn’t spoken to in 30 years, with an unusually large musical instrument.
Before Witzø had that story, though, the film started with just an image: “a globe, two old guys, one of them trying to [send] a sound to his brother in New Jersey.”
Location scouting inspired the story and the main character. Witzø decided to film at a house by the ocean on Stokkøya, an island on the west coast of Norway.
“We went there to find the story,” said the film’s writer, Linn-Jeanethe Kyed, 29, who met Witzø at film school. “It was something about the weather that was so harsh, so a man who lives in that place must be stubborn.”
Also inspiring Oskar was the house itself, which had no toilet and no running water.
“If you’re always taking a dump in a bucket and have to empty it yourself, you’d probably turn kind of bitter,” Witzø said.
Witzø found Hægstad to be a better choice for his lead than a professional film actor. He explained that most actors in Norway are from Oslo and other big cities, and for his rural story he wanted “someone from the countryside that was colored by that way of life.”
Hægstad wasn’t fazed by the awards attention for the film.
“When we won the gold medal in the Student Academy Awards, he was like, ‘That’s great’” — flashing a thumbs up — “‘Now I have to go and pick up my potatoes,’” Witzø recalled.
For Hægstad’s costar, the girl who helps Oskar get through his last days on assignment for her Jesus Club, Witzø auditioned hundreds of teenage girls.
“It was really hard finding girls in early teenage [years] that can just be themselves on camera, to act, not to overact,” the Oslo-based filmmaker said. “Teenage girls are so aware of how they are presenting themselves, so that was really hard.”
He found what he was looking for in Ingrid Viken, 13, who had never acted before. Witzø knew she was the right fit for the girl who persistently pesters Oskar to let her help him through what she calls "the phases of the death cycle."
“She was fantastically annoying, and she had braces, and she was mocking my face and directions,” Witzø said. “She had this charm and I immediately liked her even though she was the perfect annoying teenage girl.”
Witzø and Kyed are continuing to work together, currently developing an animated feature as well as a live-action feature they hope to make in the United States.
“Tuba Atlantic” will soon be available to watch on Shorts International channel and on Apple TV. Nominations for the 84th Academy Awards will be announced Tuesday, Jan. 24.
— Emily Rome
Photo: Edvard Hægstad and Ingrid Viken in "Tuba Atlantic," one of 10 films on the Oscar shortlist for live-action shorts. Credit: Karl Erik Brøndbo