After watching Utøya: July 22, the Norwegian film (Utøya 22. juli), not the Paul Greengrass one, I had the simple privilege of feeling alive. My recovery, however, as a prolific film-watcher, will be prolonged. Directed with such assured technical wizardry and panache by Erik Poppe, and featuring a devastatingly exhilarating central performance from actress Andrea Berntzen, Utøya: July 22 had a huge impact on me. It is nothing short of a blistering achievement. I was lucky enough to speak to both Poppe and Berntzen during the London Film Festival.
The film depicts the horrific massacre on the island of Utøya, Norway, on 22nd July 2011, where a Labor Party summer camp was underway. Just a couple of hours following an explosion at a government building in Oslo. The perpetrator of both terrible acts, was a left-wing extremist, targeting the government, and then the teenagers on the island he believed were traitors.
Utøya: July 22 is an exceptional film, but certainly not in the same vicinity as how we enjoy horror films. The scares and events are bludgeoningly real. You’re put on the ground level, as though the camera was a part of the group that would soon be fleeing for their lives, trapped on an island. Films are very often a kind of escape, a form of entertainment. Utøya: July 22 can’t labeled so easily.
“The idea behind making the movie was to see, in one way or another, the feeling of what it was like to be trapped on that island. With no knowledge of what’s going on.” director Erik Poppe told me, when I asked what he wanted for his audience. “We hear about such atrocities, and it seems like our ability to empathize with the victims is limited. I wanted to explore if we could use the power of film to re-sensitivize us to such violence. We wanted to help wake up part of our society, so they can take action against that kind of cruelty.”
And Poppe’s intentions hit me like a bucket of cold water. I didn’t feel any party was exploited or misrepresented. “This is based on the huge respect on what happened out there. But also the research of more than forty of the survivors, sharing their stories, interviewing them for several days, getting all this material together.” the director explained – not that I needed convincing – but was comforting to know how deep they went.
“We also brought on board some of the survivors, to follow me through the whole process. Being by my side, giving me directorial notes along the way. That helped me assure that what we were doing was the right thing, and that our representation of the story would be as truthful as it needed to be. It gave a feeling that this is not an intervention, but an important story to get out there.”
For the first ten minutes of Utøya: July 22, I was extremely nervous. The choreography of the teenagers, the tease of fear with screaming fun, and young banter on the news of the Oslo explosion. That they thought they were safe on the island. The sibling squabbling enhances the friction, as does the general interactions, a sort of undeveloped dread and excitement. Watching, I was almost thinking the inevitable might not happen – a false sense of self-reassurance.
How on Earth do you prepare a bunch of young actors and actresses to revive a tragic chapter of our history? Director Erik Poppe, and his dedicated team, dived into the material, spending many, many weeks in rehearsal, going through various layers of the story and characters. “I insisted on extending the time of rehearsals. I think that is so important.” Poppe tells me, ” Normally in Scandinavia, we are allowed between two and four weeks with the actors. But, spending so much time, two months, gives us a stronger sense of what we are doing. And we are better prepared.”
What is further remarkable about the film, is that it is shot in one, continuous take. “This project was more difficult as it was like going in there with the actors, and doing the whole story by themselves.” Poppe explains. The director did not allow for any form of improvisation – which I was about to ask. The cast needed to stick to a script, and encounter hours and hours of rehearsals. “It is probably the hardiest thing you can do, to ask actors, even professionals, to show and share these feelings as these young people.”
Poppe felt that the film was dependent on finding those actors. That the talent was there. “We searched all over Norway for these people.” In fact, Poppe said he did not want to give the green light to the project, until they found the actress to play Kaja, the film’s protagonist. “I found a lot of great talent. And then watching Andrea [Berntzen], that was the moment I realized. The defining moment, where it was possible to give the whole project the green light.”
So, a huge responsibility, on such young shoulders. Andrea Berntzen didn’t even know what, exactly, she was reading for initially. I asked the actress what she knew going in, and how she felt about the long take. “Actors in the school review were contacted by the casting agency. We all did self tapes, and I got a call back for round two. Then round three. And then I was told it was a movie about 22nd July.”
“At first, I was very critical. I was afraid that a movie like this would maybe bring more attention and satisfaction to the perpetrator. Like this was exactly what he wanted.” Such a mature outlook, many watching Utøya: July 22, won’t even consider that angle. “As the audition rounds went on, there was even a psychiatrist, then I got the script, and notes from Erik.”
And I assume this included that the film would be shot in one take? “Yes. And no music. So there would be no distractions, the viewers would sit and see the movie, and be reminded of the real event. You can strip it down to the victim, this is their story. If you are going to make a movie about 22nd July, then this is very important.”
At times, you have to watch this movie, and wonder how they did it. I mean, 90 minutes is a long time in this respect. To be acting, moving around, interacting, in the knowledge that one mistake could mean having to start all over. I told Andrea that I noticed a wasp hovering near her face, towards the end of the film, and she just brushed it off, and got on with it. I was thinking that could easily have put her off, but she just carried on.
“The wasp didn’t really set me off. In this movie, you have to be very technical. Which is something I learned while doing it.” Andrea tells me, “It is almost like a dance between me and the camera. I have to know when the camera is on me again. And doing this in ninety minutes, Erik told me pretty early on that I’ll get self-conscious. He said, the camera won’t always pick it up, take a deep breath, and carry on where you left it.”
Likely he’s been asked too many times to mention, but I was keen to push on the single take. So, how many (90 minute) takes? “Five. We’ll, technically three and a half.” Erik Poppe corrects himself, which has Andrea chuckling. “We had Monday to Friday, and day three we had a lot of technical issues.”
Speaking of which, there were some incredible subtle touches too. It was kind of a strange compliment when I mentioned that I was reminded of watching my own mother passing, earlier this year, when watching a girl die in the movie. The way her breathing changed, and that she appeared to be turning blue. It was painfully real.
“Partly, she got very cold, and started to shiver a bit.” Poppe confirms, “But we adjusted parts in post production. One of my close friends is a surgeon, he helped me with what exactly happens to the human body, from the first seconds, the first minute. But basically, the young actress did that performance, created a change in her whole body.” Incredible. You don’t see that kind of attention to detail in many films.
That sense of being there was rife throughout. And Poppe wanted that established clearly in his direction. From “presenting the cast with the sound of the gunfire not until the day of filming, so to help them feel hunted and threatened”, to even leaving the audio of crying, traumatized survivors on the island over the closing credits.
“The idea is to make it look like your telling the story with simplicity, and allowing the audience to take part in this journey.” Poppe states, as I continued to praise the vast artistry on display here, as well as the profound emotion. “How these young people reacted, were different day by day. Stressed and exhausted. So Andrea would start crying in places. That was not the plan, but this just added a layer of truth. Reactions you just can’t ask for.”
So to Andrea, I turned the emotive spotlight on the young actress. How much of the fear in that situation engulfed you as the actress, the person – not just the character? “For me, it was trying to get into the state of mind of being under a terrorist attack.” Andrea tells me. “I tried to picture how I would react if this happened to me. If I was on this island with my brother. Or what my last words would be to my mother. That scene when I am calling my mother at the beginning, felt very real. When I found the boy in the yellow jacket, it felt like my brother.”
“At the same time, I could get very close to this anxiety, in this bubble, but always aware in the back of my mind, I knew I could say stop, and get the help I needed. But the victims of that day, they could never say stop.” Indeed. That’s a bitter pill to swallow. As the interview closed, I had an even bigger lump in my throat, and a greater admiration in my heart for film.
Utøya: July 22 is released in the UK on October 26th.