O'Horten: Interview with Writer-Director Bent Hamer

Bent Hamer is the writer-director of “O'Horten” which is being released by Sony Pictures Classics on May 15, 2009.

Is there a story behind the story of Odd Horten?

Most of my stories have begun with very clear and focused ideas, and when I’m finished with them I have purged myself. But I’m still traveling with Odd. I think that’s because his story is so universal; everybody finds themselves in situations where they have to make choices to give their life direction, but we tend not to associate change with old people. I like trains, but I had no desire to write about trains – what I am interested in is exploring people’s lives from different angles.

Horten is very taciturn and private. In the US, he might seem a bit odd, as in the name. Is that the case in Norway?

We have an expression in Norway: “sær” – it’s a little bit odd, but not really. More like a shy distance. In Norway you have a lot of people like this; people that are a little – different. I don’t think Horten is really that odd when seen through Norwegian eyes. Socially he is not very well developed, and lives within his solitude. I don’t say too much either about his background, except we have the feeling that he has been close to his mother, and that, along with his work, meant everything to him. His job is the only place he can socialize even though he is not eager to socialize with his colleagues either.
I very much liked his first name – Odd – especially because of its English meaning, and at the same time it is a common Norwegian name. I think odd is a very good way to consider him because he’s taking chances, jumping off and saying ‘yes’ to life in a way, finding himself in weird, quirky situations. This is absolutely a new life for him.

Aside from being about aging and solitude, the film strikes an American as being about Norway – the snow and the salmon, the ski jump, modern trains. Did you see your film as being about Norway and Norwegian culture, or just about Horten?  

I think both in a way. If you wanted to make a film about American culture you’d find it very difficult to find a subject that captures all of it. I think there is a kind of ‘atmosphere’ that you can say encompasses Norwegians in general. We have long dark winters and it is cold outside; that’s the reason we shot it in winter. It gives that feeling of separation and distance, very much what Horten is going through. We shot all the interiors in browns and yellows, making it a cozy warm place to go. Again, Horten finds himself going from the ordered solitude of the dark aspect of his life into the warmth of his new life. I honestly don’t know how much of the Norwegian soul I capture. We are a small country and maybe the way we talk to each other and inhabit a type of solitude could be an aspect of Norwegian culture.

It’s so stark and blank in the snow and the city seems almost uninhabited, so places like the Valkyrie Restaurant and Trygve's house seem very vivid.

When I look back on my films, I realize that I like to peel away clutter and make it all very clean. That’s my taste; if you see my other films there are very few people also, even in public places. But also there is a reason: I try to take away as much as possible because that focuses the story for me. I have a way of incorporating elements of absurdity in my stories, but I always try to connect them to reality. It’s my way of making everything more precise. You have to feel like you’re an authentic part of the story and surroundings.

Your last film released here was Factotum. Odd Horten could not be less like Charles Bukowski, and Oslo in winter seems very different from Los Angeles. How did you shift your attention from one to the other?

Stories are stories. It’s really just a coincidence that you jump from one subject to the other – you can tell more or less the same things using different settings, different places, and different human beings. I don’t know if it matters too much and I don’t think about it too much. That’s the good thing about choosing my own stories, I feel totally free when I do it. I relate to what I like and find important what I want to tell. The story can take place in Antarctica or in the desert, it doesn’t matter. What’s common to all of my stories is the effort to take a closer look at people.  

Can people really climb up to the Olympic ski jump and jump off if they wish?

Yes, in a way; you actually have to go through the museum these days, and I’ve been up there alone, so I would say it’s possible.

You dedicate the film to your mother and other female ski jumpers. Was she anything like the mother in the film?

Yes, my mother was a ski jumper and at the time, it was kind of unusual. There were not many girls that were ski jumpers; it was seen as a man’s sport, but she did it. My mother was always the one who pushed me through sports, including ski jumping, not my father. She was always there and into all the sports, a tomboy kind of mother. It’s why I dedicated the film to her and the other female ski jumpers. They represent the thought that whatever they want to do they can do. And it is the tie-in with Odd. In his ‘new life’ Odd is finding out that he, too, can do what he wants to do. In the film, his mother teaches him that he can be whatever he can be. Hence the dedication.

This is your third film in a row to be released in the US. Do you feel there is anything about your stories and filmmaking that appeal to American audiences?

It all started with my first film, Eggs. I had no idea anyone would pay attention to my film, I thought it was a private story for me that no one would be interested in. Then it went to Cannes and I realized I had made a personal story, which could open up a dialogue with the audience. It surprises me and makes me very happy that my films are released and accepted in very many countries, including America, where it so hard to have foreign films released. It’s not so much that Americans in particular relate – I think it’s much more of a human condition that everyone understands, and it comes across as universal. My stories are local, but also a bit exotic and it makes them more interesting. They get the story I’m telling, whether it is audiences in America, Italy, Japan or Norway, it doesn’t matter. And that’s what we can only hope for. I’ve been very lucky about that. I believe in what I am doing and try to take risks with my stories so I can make the kind of films I want. I say, stick to your personal local view that can also reach a universal audience, then you’ve succeeded with your art.