@Photo by Martin Dam Kristensen – © Nordisk Film Production
ROSE is the story of two sisters, Inger and Ellen, and how their relationship is challenged on a highly anticipated coach trip to Paris. When Inger announces her struggles with mental health to the group, the sisters are faced with pity from some and discrimination from others. On arrival in Paris, it soon becomes clear that Inger has a hidden agenda concerning a figure from her past, ultimately involving the entire group in her hunt for answers. ROSE is a film about love and care for each other, in spite of our differences, as much as it is a film about not judging a book by its cover.
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Original Language: Danish
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Producer: Thomas Heinesen
Writer: Niels Arden Oplev
@Photo by Martin Dam Kristensen – © Nordisk Film Production
Exclusive Interview with Writer/Director Niels Arden Oplev
Q: This film was initiated by your relationship with your sister. How did your relationship with your sister cause you to tackle this film? It’s so personal, but at the same time, it’s daunting to make this film because the subject matter is so dark.
Niels Arden Oplev : When I grew up, my sister got sick when I was around 15. As a young filmmaker, I always thought that one day, I’ll write something about how she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Of course, it had a terrible impact on my family. It was very tough on my mom, dad, and sister, my other sister and I. I didn’t want to write a traditional illness film like the Alzheimer’s film or the schizophrenia film.
So I never started writing it. I did a lot of other stuff. Then one day, some years ago, I was on a trip with a really old friend of mine, somebody I’ve known for a ridiculous long time — since he was six years old. He grew up with my sister and used to come to our home. We were talking about how she was doing and then we started talking about this trip to Paris in ’97 that my other sister and brother-in-law took her on. I’m the kind of person who tries to make everything into a film. Suddenly my friend says, “Why don’t you make a film about that?”
The second he said it, I knew it was a good idea. I had never thought about it before. It had never dawned on me. But the minute he said it, I realized I could confine the film to these eight days. Somehow, the fact that it was a road trip, made building the plot easier in the sense that you’re going from A to B and you’re going to end up somewhere like any road movie. The nature of the road movie appealed to me. As I started working on the material, I realized that I could make a film that would go through the illness and show her as a real person. In that sense, the film wrote itself. In a weird way, it became a lot funnier than I thought. I really didn’t intend it from the start to be this humorous.
Q: There’s so much humor throughout the film. Obviously, when you tackle the subject matter of mental illness, you’re dealing with a serious topic which could be stifling to an audience. When you were talking to your sister and taking care of her, there were a lot of surprise elements and humor. Did the experience of [taking care of] your sister help you incorporate it into this film?
Niels Arden Oplev : The one thing I did when I started writing was to involve my other sister, Kirsten, who’s very strong and a principal of this after-school program and kindergarten for many years. I told her you have to be the advocate for our schizophrenic sister because when I started writing this, it was tough. You want to write the best film but it still has to be a good experience for our sister who can’t really defend herself in the same way as a normal person could.
They can say, “Hey I don’t want that, you’re not going to write that about me.” So that’s the way we did it [with my sister looking out for her]. Her real name is Maren Elsebeth. I was talking to her all the way from the very start. It took a while for her to understand that it wasn’t a documentary and that she wasn’t going to play herself. There was a lot of talk about what the film was and what happened on the trip, what elements from her earlier life [would be used] or after the trip that would make it all the more dramatic.
We were walking her through the process because we really wanted it to be a good experience. My other sister and I always talked about these situations. For instance, when Inger says, “I would like to strangle you.” The wife of Skjølvik says, “Can it wait until after lunch?” That’s a situation which happened in reality. The person she was saying it to was another person who lived in that protected living environment; they were sitting there and it was family day and she was saying, “I want to strangle you.”
Then the other person says, “Can it wait until we had our coffee, right?” That kind of absurd humor was baked in. The more we talked about the film, there were more of these situations that could spawn some humor. When she says to Skjølvik,”Do you want to screw me?” That was also a real situation. it’s just that it was so unexpected. Maren Elsebeth has always talked very openly about sex.
When I started writing [the character of] Inger, every time she opened her mouth, she created an absurd situation that was like a collision with the normal world. It became humorous. even when she’s talking to a boy .He’s like, thinking about her where you can go from the mentally ill to falling in love. That’s really dangerous. When she talks so openly about sex with him, he is like, “Whoa, nobody ever talked to me like that.”But the audience finds it very funny; it’s refreshing because she’s just saying what other people are thinking. She just doesn’t have that filter that stops stuff from coming out. In some ways it’s quite depressing but she becomes very human in a way. Somebody who’s seen the film said that she saw Inger was more normal than everybody else in some weird way.
Q: There’s something that’s fascinating about someone with a disability or a mental illness that somehow exceeds in a certain sense. In this case, it is like speaking French and noticing something that we, normal people, couldn’t see. Have you experienced a similar experience with your sister that surprised you? There are a lot of great qualities about those people who don’t lead a normal life, but at the same time they’re seeing something magnificent and magical about life in a way. Did you notice something that surprised you? I think that’s one of the most human things about them.
Niels Arden Oplev : There’s no doubt that people who suffer from mental illness really suffer. It’s also true that in some moments they go somewhere that other normal people can’t go. What do they call it? What’s the right word? But in tribal societies — what white people with arrogance call primitive societies —what fucking bullshit! I’m a Viking, so I’m so tired of hearing about white people thinking they know something better.
But in some societies that were more like ancient religions and stuff, they considered people with mental illness to be sacred. They considered them being closer in contact with a divine force. There’s such a beauty to that, to see them that way. In this so-called Western society, the cultural capitalist western society that now has taken over most of the world, sadly — it sees everything as something that can be measured, weighed, sold and bought.
We’ve lost the capability of seeing value in something that is not exactly within this square that we have decided. That’s why it’s so tough to be an artist because when you’re an artist you’re honestly… a little bit mentally ill in some weird way. Eccentric is a nicer word. She had such qualities where she’ll play the piano and knows a lot about French culture. One interesting thing was — it’s only like maybe six, seven years ago — my sister was back in Denmark. She has grandkids now and then my sister’s husband’s father died on Christmas evening. My sister’s husband had to go to the hospital and deal with all of that. Then suddenly Maren Elsebeth, who is mentally ill, started talking to the children in a really insightful way about death and passing away.
I wasn’t there, but my sister told me about it. She was blown away at that moment. Maren Elsebeth forgot herself and, because sometimes she’s engulfed with the persona of being mentally ill, she doesn’t have to take responsibility for anything. But suddenly she went in and talked to the children about passing and all of that. It was oddly magical in that way. She had a connection to that, having always had death close to her because she does have a voice that sometimes tells her that she should die or something. She can talk about it in a way that a so-called normal person would never be able to do. It’s fascinating. I really tried to write a film that carried a message of [that] if you dare to open up your normal square life to somebody who is very different. It might enrich you. That’s the nature of the film. I think that’s why people get so affected by it.
Q: Talk about the casting of Sofie Gråbøl and Lene Maria Christensen. Their chemistry is wonderful, yet, at the same time, it’s a pretty daunting task to take on these roles. Did you have them in mind when you were writing the screenplay?
Niels Arden Oplev : I didn’t. I left Denmark 14 years ago and have been living in LA ever since I did “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” I occasionally go back to do a Scandinavian film because it’s my own language and I have the final cut. I work with people I’ve known all my professional life. I had this image of Sofie as being younger and Sofie is very pretty and petite. Anders Berthelsen, who plays her husband, Vagn, in the film, is a good friend of mine and we’ve done seven films together or so. He even co-directed with me a previous film that we did in 2018. He said, “”You’ve got to look at Sofie.”
Then the casting director said the same thing. I asked Sofie if she would come in and rehearse with me. Though she hates auditions, I said to her what the casting director told her, “Well, this is not a normal audition because Niels is asking you to come for two days.” She was like, “Wow!” Then she came and worked with me on the scenes. I just saw her turning into my sister. She turned into this persona and I knew she was going to be the one. That was that. It was a frightening task for her to do. She and I talked about everything you normally know as an actor and tried to build an arc, but then we just threw that out the window.
This is about every moment and that changes. It’s a completely different way of acting. Sofie said This was her most difficult part ever. She’s never acted. She felt that she was so big in her expression all the time. I was just like, “No, no, it’s cool.” If you’re mentally ill, you don’t have that normal filter, some of your mimicry is more like a child. In a way, you haven’t learned to tone yourself down, to protect yourself and all of that. At the same time, she and I were very concerned about making the right choices because we were portraying a living person who just lives five hours away. It’s a completely different thing than if you’re doing a historical fiction character.
Sofie is magic in this. So is Lede Maria Christensen who plays Ellen based on my other sister. It’s also a very difficult role because she’s constantly in the shadow of her sister. When I was writing a later draft, it became more and more clear that it was a two-hander. This thing about being the closest person to someone who’s mentally ill, the roles of who’s the little sister and big sister gets flipped, who’s protecting who. That’s why I think the chemistry between them was so important.
Some of the moments in the film are not in the script — when Ellen is combing her hair after they get into this fight about taking a bath, and then they’re sitting on the bed and she puts down the brush. Suddenly Inger puts an arm around her instead of Ellen putting an arm around Inger. It’s the opposite. She puts her head into her. That’s just something that happened between the two actors. It’s really very interesting that Inger, in her self-absorption, still feels that Ellen needs to know she loves her — that’s very endearing.
That’s just something that happened between [the women], but I always let my actors loose in that sense, I try to direct as little as possible and just let things happen on the set. Before, in rehearsals, you talk about psychology and all of that but when you get to the actual shooting, like the famous Polish director, Andrzej Wajda, who said, “When you come to the set, the direction should be down to walk faster, walk slower, talk slower, talk louder, right? It should be those four things.” That’s the truth to that.
You want to try to go through all of that psychology before so that when you’re on the set, the actors are free to be emotional, to just let it flow. As a filmmaker, it’s really important to use all those gifts that the actors come with, because they are emotionally engulfed in their character. Wherever they go, it is where their character goes. It’s in the premise of the film, because Inger took the power away from me as a writer.
She just said [when I was writing her] whatever she wanted to. I couldn’t really stop it. I called my producer and my script consultant and said, “This is a problem. This film is too funny. People are going to get mad at me. If I make this humorous film about the mentally ill, they’re going to think that it’s a comedy and that I exploited my sister and all of that.” I was really worried about it, but she was basically uncontrollable.
@Photo by Martin Dam Kristensen – © Nordisk Film Production
Q: In the film, Christian’s father says that it’s irresponsible and selfish to bring somebody so sick on a trip. There’s always people who say something like that when they see people with disabilities or even people with babies. How does your family deal with those issues when the society is so unkind to people with disabilities which you actually experienced with your sister? What kind of things that you notice and what kind of things bothered you back then?
Niels Arden Oplev : In some weird way, growing up with a mentally ill sister has sharpened my eye as an artist. I’ve been in so many absurd situations with her. It’s like when you try to take her out to a restaurant to eat and then she gets an anxiety attack. She says something really loud and everybody in the restaurant kind of jumps. There’s some similarities between Danish and Japanese society because you don’t show emotions in public. You hold it in and if somebody does something out of the ordinary, everybody gets stunned.
In America, you can have two people get into an argument in a restaurant yelling and then they’ll just sit down and eat and laugh afterwards. In Denmark, everybody would have to go home and go to a crisis psychologist. So when my sister does something in public like what Ellen does in the bus when she takes the microphone and says, “We are here to take care of her. So I’m sure we’re going to have a good trip.” I think all of us as a family have developed this way of signaling to the outer world that yes, this is unusual but it is under control. It signals to normal people that we can handle the chaos.
This is a tool that we use. A lot of times making films is chaotic and working with actors is chaotic as well. I’ve been very equipped to deal with that. I also think it makes me see normal people’s reaction, which is in some ways mentally ill in my opinion. Their incapability to deal with something that’s different is sometimes mind boggling, People get so bent on shape if something is out of the ordinary.
That’s why when you’re talking about mentally ill people or babies, a lot of people just want everything to look the same and nothing is disturbing. They have such a need for safety and no change. Unfortunately, that’s not how life is — it’s constantly changing. It’s an interesting schism and it comes out in this story.
I haven’t traveled that much in Asia yet. It’s certainly my ambition. I’ve been to Africa several times, traveling and shooting. Of course, I’ve been to America and some parts of South America. I always think that there are cultures that are much better at dealing with un-normality rather than the so-called Western, or normally white, culture. They’re not very well equipped [to deal with things out of the ordinary]. Also, part of my reason for writing this film was to examine how mental illness is so poorly treated in America.
The stigma of it is enormous. Every time a school shooting happens, the conservatives always come out and say it’s because of mental illness, not because of the guns and all that. It’s a very tragic subject. You’re probably not old enough to remember that Ronald Reagan closed all the mental institutions down in America to save money. The occupants all ended up in the street. In Scandinavia, thank God, at least we have a pretty good system that’s trying to give these people a life that’s also dignified.
That’s really what the Hedgehog scene is about: the dignity of all living creatures. It’s also something that’s been forgotten in our industrialized, meat-eating society. There’s a lot of elements that I wrote into this film over the six years it took me to write it. I basically wrote a draft a year. I think in that time there was a kind of aging and changing [on my part which] was very good. It’s a film rich in details and nuances but really doesn’t have much of a plot. Still, there’s so much emotion that came from that.
Q: Talk about developing that relationship between Inger and Christian [the child actor played by Luca Reichardt Ben Coker]. It’s something similar to the relationship that you had with your sister. This seems very personal as seen through a kid’s perspective, and it really opened up a lot of eyes to mental issues. Talk about how you transferred your relationship with your sisters into the relationships between your actors.
Niels Arden Oplev : When I first started writing, it was liberating not to have been on the bus trip myself. But when I was interviewing my sisters about the trip, my brother-in-law actually could remember a lot of details. It was towards the end of second draft I realized that Christian is probably me in some weird way because he’s 13 in the film. I was 15 when my sister got ill. I remember the first time she tried to commit suicide. She was in an open psychiatric ward and was prevented from throwing herself out of it.
She was literally standing out of a window and they had to talk her back in. They submitted her to the closed ward and it all happened in a matter of a couple of days. When we came to visit her, she was there. I must have been 15 or 16 and remember what a profound, terrifying experience it was for this young teenager to go through these locks, like double locks, where you walk through one door and they lock it behind you.
Then you have to wait until they open it up and you walk down this hallway. People in there were rocking back and forth or saying stuff. Then you come down to this room where the door is opened and there she was, so disturbed and looking so fragile. Why did such a gifted child take this turn?
She had this relationship, this unhappy love affair with a married man in France that was much older than her when she was 19. Was that what brought it out? I can’t tell you how many times I sat with her and tried to fucking convince her that this voice in her head that was called this weird name Golden Sun was not a real person talking to her. This was in the script.
I think about all those questions that were me without me really being totally aware about them that infused themselves into Christian’s character. He started becoming very interested in how falling in love is really dangerous and that his parents probably don’t love each other. He had some kind of unhappy love affair, with a girl that didn’t want to hold his hand or whatever. All this about Christian was what he needed to find out. He needs answers.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Norwegian-Danish film director from the last century named Carl Theodor Dreyer. Dreyer had a big influence on me when I was a young filmmaker. He did “The Passion Joan of Arc” in 1928. He did a film in ’55 or ’56 called “The Word.” He had written this play, which took place on a farm in the North of Denmark in the ‘30s.
It’s built on the legend of Jesus waking up Lazarus. In that film, there’s a character who suffers from a dual personality, a mental illness where he thinks he’s Jesus and wakes up his brother’s wife from the dead with the fate of a child. It’s this fucking profound film. It’s just a crazy film. You can’t watch it without fucking crying. That’s the film I saw with my dad when I was 12 years old.
That’s what turned me into being a filmmaker. I thought that the power of a child’s mind is like the belief of a child. In some ways, I was conscious that Christian’s mind is not prejudiced. He hasn’t yet taken on all those things that haven’t been formed yet in a way. He still sees the world in open terms. And that’s such a gift because he actually has the right approach.
And he brings out things with Inger that helps him understand the complications in his parents’ relationship. Christian thinks that, as part of his naive mind, that maybe Inger will be magically cured. Some prince will kiss her and then she’ll walk out cured. Of course, that doesn’t happen. This is his coming of age, his meeting with the grown up world and the complications of it where she nearly dies and he feels guilty about it.
Here’s the trailer of the film.