The Grand Jury Prize winner for World Cinema at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Anne Sewitsky’s HAPPY HAPPY is the rare comedy that can elicit laughs from audiences in a different country without resorting to the pratfall. Sewitsky’s feature film debut, following her short film OH MY GOD! (2009) (which was an award winner at the Berlin Film Festival) and work directing Norwegian television, the film also proves an accomplishment in creating a group of characters whose flaws have equal sides of humor and pathos to them. Two couples and their very young sons find themselves new neighbors forced to face the comic and awkward differences in their mirrored counterparts while they increasingly influence, infiltrate and intrude in the others’ lives. What would already be an awkward alliance is soon pushed over the edge by the chirpy, yet needy character of ‘Kaja’, who is an irresistible force of delightfulness and irritation seeking love and validation. Balancing the actions of that character alone would put HAPPY HAPPY in the win column for Sewitsky, but there is so much more in this funny, yet affecting little universe.
(left to right) Joachim Rafaelsen, Agnes Kittelsen, Maibritt Saerens, Henrik Rafaelsen in HAPPY HAPPY
1) You stated that you wanted to tell the story of an insistently happy person in the film. Was there someone specifically that served as inspiration for the main character and what about that person or that type of person intrigued you to the extent that you wanted to build a movie around them?
I think a lot of people try to put on a smile to survive their lives. Kaja is just an extreme version of this. But yes I also had a friend or two that inspired and fascinated me. They have these horrible backgrounds, and at the same time insist on being so fortunate. And of course for the Norwegian audience, Kaja is from the southern part of Norway, where a lot of the Norwegian ”happy Christians” live. They insist on being thankful, whatever happens. It creates a very split personality. But I think you can believe so strongly that that becomes your own truth. I found this fascinating.
2) Do you personally find people like ‘Kaja’ a joy to be around or irritating for the most part?
They can be quite annoying. It’s difficult, because I can start hating them and I understand why they can end up in abusive relationships. I feel a great warmth for Kaja, yet she is a person it is easy to be mean to.
3) What was the biggest lesson learned for you in directing a feature as opposed to directing a short film?
Seeing the whole picture. Balancing many stories and characters. And still protecting my intuitive way of making film.
4) The role-playing between the two boys using the slave history picture book as their reference point treads a fine line between funny and discomfort. What concerns (if any) did you have as you delved into that territory?
While writing it, we had few concerns. Our concerns were more on fitting the children's story into the whole picture. The slave history and their child’s play became a symbol for everyone. Everyone was enslaved by their own lives. Children are often cruel to each other and most of the situations are picked from mine and others' childhoods. The discomfort appears when the play becomes more mean, because they are neglected by their parents. This becomes their way of expressing this. They don´t know what they are doing. They are innocent.
5) Do you direct from a monitor or do you stand next to the camera as the action unfolds?
Most of the times I watch the monitor. I get a more detailed perception and feel I can give a more specific direction from that. But when directing children it varies. Then, I might stand next to the camera and sometimes, even talk throughout the take, to my sound crew's huge frustration.
6) Since the ability to sing plays such a strong part in the storyline for the film, I have to ask what your song of choice is when you sing karaoke?
Ha ha, I get very embarrassed singing karaoke. I did it once, in Sri Lanka, and want to forget about it!
Agnes Kittlelsen as 'Kaja' sings with the choir in HAPPY HAPPY
7) What was a bigger challenge for you: Directing actors who are naked or directing children?
Directing children! Running naked in the snow in minus 10 degrees Celsius, was a one take. The actors agreed that it was the right thing for the scene, so no problem there. But directing children is hard, because it requires me to be patient, concentrated and secure in a whole different way. I needed lots of material of our five-year-old. And a lot of the work is done in the editing.
8) Since some humor translates across languages and cultures and some does not, what differences have you experienced in the reception of the film in Norway as opposed to the U.S.?
We had to take away parts of the dialog in the subtitles, so that people have the time to read and follow. I miss some of the in-between humor points. Probably Norwegians will also catch the Norway-Denmark humor and the fact that the different characters are for different characteristic parts of the country.
And of course, the German speaking scene!! This is the scene where Norwegians laugh the most and where Americans only see drama. In Norway parents switch to English when they don´t want the children to understand. In Happy Happy, Kaja starts speaking in German and Eiric speaks in some kind of weird German-English and mixes the verbs. Norwegians speak German in school, so this becomes hilarious in a very tragic scene.
Joachim Rafaelsen as 'Eirk' and Agnes Kittelsen as 'Kaja' in HAPPY HAPPY
9) What is the best thing about having HAPPY HAPPY screened at New Directors/New Films?
It´s an honor!
10) Popcorn or candy?
Popcorn. Or salty candy.
HAPPY HAPPY will screen at the Walter Reade Theater on Friday, March 25 at 6:00PM and at MoMA on Sunday, March 27 at 4:30PM. Anne Sewitskywill participate in a Q&A following both screenings.