“In New Jersey, there is a house, an old wooden house. In that house children and families come to share their emotions with someone who understands what they are going through. The place is called Good Grief. Every second week, Nora, Nolan, Kimmy, Nicky, Peter and Mikayla are there to talk about death, life and the loved one that they have lost. During a year we follow the children both at Good Grief and in their homes. We see them learn how to live with grief as their close companion. Though we see the children deal with these difficult feelings, the film also celebrates life and how sometimes these heavy times can also be humorous reflections upon big questions in life.” Director Katrine Philp on AN ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM which screens at the 2020 edition of SxSW film. Also on this interview is producer Katrine A. Sahlstroem.
Editor’s Note: While SxSW was officially cancelled on March 6th, 2020, the below interview was one of many that already took place prior to the festival. To respect the creators, all already performed interviews are presented in their unedited entirety below. All of the below works WILL make their way out into the world in one way or another, and we will update this article with updated information when we have it. — JW
Welcome to SxSW! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?
Katrine Philp: Yes, this is our first time at SxSW and we are so excited. We cannot wait to premiere the film and to invite the audience into this magical world of the children. Some of the families from the film will attend too, and reuniting with them will be amazing. They have all seen the film, but not with an audience or on a big screen. The film crew is all based in Copenhagen, Denmark, but the director, producer, cinematographer and composer will all attend the premiere and the screenings following.
So for both of you, let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on before!
KP: When I was little I loved to play circus, dance, and perform plays, but I always liked being ‘behind the camera’ the most or be the one directing and doing all of the production design. I also danced for many years, but all my friends loved to be on stage more, performing in front of our parents or classmates, so there was plenty of room for me to discover all the things off stage that makes a show run smoothly. I then thought that studying production design for film would be something for me, but after some years at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen I realized that having a script and monitoring everything felt a bit unsatisfying. I longed for unpredictability and wasn’t really interested in working with scripts, actors and set designs. One day I was asked to do production design for a documentary film at the National Film School of Denmark where I met the head of the documentary department, Arne Bro. I was immediately drawn to this place and the way Arne was teaching, so I decided to find a way to get into the film school. A couple of years later I became a student there and was happy. Working with real people, real situations, real life, was the best thing I could have ever wished for.
Katrine A. Sahlstroem: My interest in film started in high school, but for some reason I never thought my role would be to make them, but rather to be the clever critic, letting the world know my opinion on them. Sometimes I still dream about that; just to see a bunch of films every week and never have to deal with all the trouble. What a life. But my way into producing came little by little. I studied film at the university and was offered a student job at Zentropa, and voilà. Seven years later I was still there, working full-time as a PA to Lars von Trier on his films and others. When I left, I decided it was time to look at a genre I had always loved, but never worked with: documentaries. I love producing documentaries because it is alive and creative all the way. Your film does not have a script, and unpredictable things always happen. It is out of your control and more easily accessible than fiction; no need to wait for a green light, a dolly set up or the schedule of your actors.
How did this project come together?
KP: Some years ago, I was painfully close to losing my sister in law. Luckily, she survived and is healthy and happy today, but I watched my brother and their three children, being next to her while she was fighting for her life. Even though she survived, it left a mark on the family and that was when I started thinking of making a documentary about children and grief. In our research we listened to an episode at This American Life about a place similar to Good Grief and we were amazed to experience not only the adults’ openness towards death, but also the children’s. Everyone was talking about emotions in a very direct and open way and we were instantly curious to dive into this and see if we could find a story. We started calling around and very quickly we stumbled onto Joe Primo, the CEO of Good Grief. He was very welcoming and invited us to take part and film the group sessions at Good Grief. After the first day of filming we were convinced that there was a film to be discovered. Actually the first scene in the film was shot during the first days and it is incredible and full of emotions and sincerity. The children invited us into their deepest feelings without being disturbed by the camera or us being there. It was magical.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?
KP: I do not know. I just keep doing it and I do not know what else to do. Creating documentaries makes me happy and I love that it takes me around the world. I meet so many wonderful people who invite me into so many different communities. If you as a person are just a little curious, documentary film is the thing to do. I also love that you do not know what the day will bring and what small miracles you will experience. Documentary filmmaking makes you open and aware of the world we live in. It also makes me feel that I do something meaningful and that I contribute to make this world a better place. Documentary films can have a very strong impact and I am very aware of that responsibility.
KS: I never start a project thinking “we are going to work till we fall, having so many rejections and then in five years we will have a premiere” even though that is a typical scenario. I think that the different phases that the film is in helps me concentrate on what is important right now, so the marathon of filmmaking is divided into four long runs, instead of a “mission impossible.” I do films that engage and make me feel very strongly about the subject, and most often also something that I feel is important for more people to know about. My close collaborations with the directors are also a meaningful, daily motivation and I love when we accomplish something that looked very difficult from the start.
What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?
KP: As we are based in Europe, it was a bit challenging to go back and forth all the time. I always felt like we were missing things and therefore we decided to move to Morristown, NJ to get close to Good Grief and the families. Filming children in vulnerable situations like grief can be quite challenging on the families. When you have lost someone, some days are good and some can be more difficult to cope with. When we moved closer to the families we could be much more flexible and film them when they were ready to be filmed and not when we were ready. That made a huge difference. It was very important for me not to put any extra pressure on them and I always prepared the scenes that I wanted so that we could be efficient and not exhaust them. Our decision about moving close to them was also the most rewarding because the film would have looked different if we had not prioritized the families at that point. It would have been something else. When filming documentaries you really need to trust your gut feeling and at that point my gut told me to pack my suitcase and relocate with my family until the film was finished. Luckily, my husband was also the cinematographer on the film and he is always ready for new adventures. Our children are also used to traveling with us for work, so they were fine about moving too. Our daughter’s school in Denmark thought it was a good idea for her to try a high school in Morristown, and our boy started Kindergarten at a local school. Every morning he went in the school bus without speaking any English and spent a whole day with new friends and a different language. I was so proud of both of them. They were always with us when we were filming and they knew that they should be quiet and stay behind the camera or in another room when we were shooting. When we were done filming, they played together with the children we filmed. I think that relocating as a family made the filming much more relaxed and maybe that is also why so many people see the film as so sincere and close to the children we depict in the film.
I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.
KP: I am pretty connected with my cinematographer, Adam Morris Philp, because we are married, so we know each other very well, which is a huge advantage when filming documentary films. The children were going through some very hard emotions and it was important to be as invisible as possible. Having a smaller camera that did not capture too much attention was key and we chose to film with the Canon C300 Mark ll. We also used a Canon R with an Atomos Ninja V as a second camera, for some scenes where we needed to have an extra camera angle.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?
KP: I am so excited for the film to meet its audience and SXSW is one of the greatest festivals in the US to premiere at. Some of the families in the film will be attending and I cannot wait to sit next to them at the premiere and observe the children watch themselves on the big screen. It is a very big experience, especially when sharing it with an audience for the first time. I am sure it will be an unforgettable moment for them and a moment to remember with their loved ones.
After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?
KP: We actually just finished the film and at this moment we’re just happy that we actually have a final product – with sound, color grading and music. But, the idea is definitely to have the film around on festivals and to show it to as many people as possible. We want this film to help people who have lost someone, to inspire people to talk about emotions – big or small – and also to urge people to approach someone in grief, because it can be very isolating since a lot of people do not really know how to help and behave if they know someone who has lost someone. I have experienced that loss myself. After losing my dad, I felt that some people were afraid to talk to me, not knowing what to say, and that was actually one of the things that hurt me the most. No one can really make what you are going through worse – but by ignoring the fact that I had just lost made me sad. The children in this film are so brave and I cannot wait for the audience to see how inspiring they all are. I really believe that we as adults can learn so much from them.
If you could show your movie in any theatre outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?
KP: We would love to take it to a theater closer to Good Grief so that we could invite everyone. That would make a great impact on everyone if we could all stand together and create awareness about grief.
What would you say to someone who was being disruptive, like talking and texting, through a movie?
KP: I hope you enjoyed the film even though texting could not wait. We cannot reach every heart of every person on Earth, but I really hope that people will stay and give the film a real chance. What we have experienced with this film is that it somehow touches some deep feelings and for some it can be overwhelming. Then it is, of course, okay to leave the screening. But the film is actually not that sad. Most people are surprised that they did not feel uncomfortable watching children in grief, but that it was uplifting and existential instead.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?
KP: Do not try to figure out what people want for a film or what kind of film will sell. Listen to yourself and go after the films and stories that you would like to tell. If you like your characters or the story there will probably be others who will like it too. Trust that. You will never know if your film will be seen at noteworthy festivals, it is impossible to figure out what the festivals are looking for, so just don’t think about it. Only focus on your ideas and your process, always go back to your original notes you wrote on a piece of paper in the coffee shop, the key to making a film is there. Find your way to do it and be brave. Remember everyone wants to help and has been right in your shoes.
And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?
KP: Being totally unprepared for what might hit you is one of the greatest advantages to a film festival. I have had some of my most wonderful film experiences at festivals, maybe because I had no idea what I was about to see. Two films I remember vividly that are really different films are Magnolia by PT Anderson at the Berlin Film Festival in 2000 and Ne Me Quitte Pas by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden at IDFA in 2003.
To follow the path of this film and its future on the festival circuit, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film!