"Deserted" is a collaboration between Estonia, Sweden and Finland, with filming locations in the exotic Jordanian desert. It's a masterful desert fairy tale for the senses that evokes conversation. Director and screenwriter Kadri Kõusaar and actor Frida Westerdahl discuss the film and the making of.
Kadri Kõusaar, your latest feature film "Deserted" showcases many talented international actors to Estonian cinemagoers, how did you discover Swedish actor Frida Westerdahl who performs the protagonist photojournalist Ingrid?
KK: Initially, I noticed a photo of Frida on a Swedish theater's website. I wondered who this pleasant woman was; she looked so beautiful, and radiated warmth and emotion. I then searched for her contacts and sent her an e-mail introducing myself, the film project and requested a meeting in Stockholm. Eventually, we met at the casting in Stockholm. There were other candidates for Ingrid's role, but I knew instinctively that Ingrid's role belonged to Frida.
The Estonian cinema audience doesn't know Frida Westerdahl! Tell us about yourself: when did you start acting, and what was your career before the movie "Deserted"?
FW: I've been acting all my adult life. As a young person, I wanted to become a musician – a pianist – which I studied for, but I had a lot of stage fear. So, I started taking theater classes to overcome my fear of performing on stage. That's how I discovered my love for the theater and decided to study acting further. I went to a theater school, where I studied for four years. After graduation, I worked in various theaters in Stockholm. I have mainly performed as a theater actor, but I've also played roles in television and films.
Frida, what were your thoughts and emotions when Kadri and the film producers suddenly contacted you?
FW: I was happy and very surprised! Having previously watched Netflix's "Messiah" series, also filmed in Jordan, I felt that this was the location where I wanted to be. The "Deserted" screenplay visually reminded me of what I saw in the "Messiah" series. When we began filming in Jordan, I was asked if I had seen the "Messiah" because it was filmed there – I then experienced a spiritual recognition that I was in the right place! I had been to the Moroccan desert before, and it matched how Kadri and I felt spiritually and emotionally about the essence of the desert. The desert also has a role in the film – the desert is almost the third leading character.
Kadri, you wrote the initial version of the screenplay in 2012 – that's ten years ago! Why was the journey from screenplay to film so long? Did you have to make any changes in the screenplay?
KK: The main plot was present in the initial screenplay. The changes were coercive and mainly due to the loss of funding. Originally, I planned to show Ingrid's everyday life in Sweden to introduce her character more. Tarkovsky has said that the story of the character can go beyond what we see on the screen. This helps the actor to develop the role. Retrospectively, focusing more on the desert story has been beneficial. If anything, the funding process dragged on, I also worked in parallel on the film "Mother" and a couple of other projects, then there was the Covid pandemic. I was ready to film since 2013. It seems dramatic that it took ten years to produce a film, but this is relatively common in the movie world. However, Ingrid's character as my alter ego from ten years ago is very clearly visible in the film – a woman, who longed to have a child whilst having unstable relationships. I wrote the screenplay "Deserted" at the age of 33 and started filming at the age of 40.
Frida, what did you think of Ingrid the journalist's character after reading the "Deserted" screenplay?
FW: I sensed that Ingrid's character is extremely important to Kadri and that her role is written from the heart. Ingrid is very close to life, and it was important for me to understand what Kadri wants to communicate with Ingrid's character. I haven't worked as a journalist, but Kadri has, so I tried to listen carefully to Kadri's advice.
KK: On the film set, we even joked that Ingrid has two main strains: there's the professional journalist Ingrid, who captures seemingly appalling situations neutrally and coldly, and on the other hand, Ingrid is a woman, sensitive and vulnerable. I tried to avoid creating a calculating career woman who can often be found in movies. It would have been a cliche that many male directors unfortunately recreate. Maybe men don't quite know this type of character. If you look, for example, at how men portray a woman giving birth, it's mostly ridiculous – giving birth is never easy! I was even annoyed by Almodovar's latest film, "Parallel Mothers", in which two women who had just given birth acted as if their bodies and spirits had not given birth, with no postpartum complications, sleepless nights or maternal naturalism at all.
It states in the film that Ingrid's mother was a WWII boat refugee from the Baltics. Frida, did you have to familiarize yourself with the difficult history of the Baltics and also with the conflicts in the Middle East, and all the hostilities between the Palestinians and Israelis?
FW: In character creation, I primarily sought to achieve emotional depth. I proceeded with my previous knowledge of the Baltic countries and Palestine. Most important for me was to capture the emotional character of the journalist because I can't act on history. I can play reactions to historical events. I met with Michael Winiarski, Sweden's best-known foreign reporter, who has covered events in both Moscow and many war zones. In conversations with him, I tried to understand how he does his job, how he meets and interacts with people, and how he reacts to events. I realized that I was a very emotional and spiritual person – I doubted whether it would be enough to play a journalist, but Michael confirmed that war reporters also need to be sensitive to understand how to get close to people's experiences and talk to them. He thought it would be even easier for women to do the job.
KK: People actually sense whether the journalist is merely doing their job or actually cares.
The male protagonist in the film is Ali, a member of the gang of kidnappers – played by Palestinian actor Ali Suliman. How did you create Ali's character?
KK: Ingrid's character as my alter ego existed right from the start. Ali's character is a mixture of fiction and a real person; I wrote the role of Ali for Ali Suliman, whom I met in Armenia in 2012. There we travelled briefly together and later we kept in touch. We met again, by chance once even in London, where we shopped together for kids' clothes as we were both new parents back then. Ali's character is not based directly on real-life Ali, but the gang member Ali has qualities that I appreciated in the actor Ali and in other people I met in the same region (Middle East) – innocent friendly warmth. Gang member Ali may have conflicting views on life, but he's trustworthy. My purpose was to create sincere and not over-constructed characters. I believe in sincerity, and I think the audience will recognize it too.
There's an authentic connection and chemistry between the characters of Ingrid and Ali on the screen. How did you achieve such an intimate relationship in the desert conditions on the film set?
FW: That's a beautiful question! Ali was a man with a very open heart and mind. He's like a big hug – Kadri too! We became friends right away! Before filming, we used to communicate via Skype: we read the script together, we talked, we felt together.
KK: Then came the pandemic period. Ali and Frida also communicated on their own via Skype. They were getting along so well on Skype; therefore, I was confident that the chemistry between their roles and personalities would work on the film set as well.
However, the characters of Ingrid and Ali come from very different worlds, was this of any concern?
KK: The main principle of the film set was that we respect local customs. We had a Finnish costume designer (Anu Makiniemi-Gould) whose assistant was local, we learned from her what headscarves the locals wear, what do the different symbols mean, and what kind of clothing would be believable. Achieving authenticity was important. Wearing a certain scarf in Egypt may have a very different meaning in Jordan. There were no cultural issues because we all respected each other. The Jordanian film crew was very professional, with a wealth of experience from collaborations with the Hollywood film industry. They have more experience in the field of international collaboration than we do in Estonia: "Dune," "Star Wars," "Martian" have all been filmed in Jordan.
The filming took place mainly in desert weather conditions, how was it to film in the desert?
FW: When we started filming, it was hot – up to 30 degrees. When we finished, it was only a few degrees. The temperature dropped tremendously! In the end, it got very cold.
KK: We were quite lucky with the weather because winter was approaching. The weather was generally mild, up to 28 degrees, but there were extremes. We had an air-conditioned tent where we could eat lunch and have a rest. There was also enough shade from the sun and water provided!
How was Kadri's style as a director, was she strict or gentle?
FW: As an actor, it was very easy to work with Kadri. She is straightforward and benevolent. It's important to note that everyone worked from their heart – the actors and the whole team.
KK: I think there was synchronicity and trust between us. I remember at the time reading news from Hollywood, where the film team must already have 'intimacy instructors' on set – why? It is incomprehensible for me. Why is there a need for a third person between the actor and the director? After all, actors and directors must first and foremost build mutual trust and agreement before the intimate scenes. It's especially necessary to discuss how to film and where the personal borders run. Once the actors and director have agreed, the DOP needs to be involved so that he would know what is going to happen and how to film it. In the case of intimate scenes, the fewer people on the film set, the better for the actors.
The production involves a lot of firearms and many snakes, but also beautiful desert vistas, did anything unexpected, funny or scary happen during the filming?
FW: You must be cautious when using firearms and animals. Every morning, we were properly demonstrated the safety of our weapons so that we could work safely. The same happened with the snakes on the set.
KK: We had a snake charmer on the set. No poisonous snakes were used though.
However, it seems scary!
FW: It was scary!
KK: When filming in the Petra surrounding, we had another snake charmer, and the snakes didn't want to cooperate there. The snakes like the heat but it was cooler in Petra – the snake refused to act. The temperature was only 2 degrees. We had to exclude that scene from the movie. There was another scene that had to be cut out because one local actor who had to speak English could not cope with his role. It was a miserable case because the actor allegedly had 30 years of TV and film experience! Such things happen, one thing is the rehearsals period, and the other is the film set. Unexpected things happen.
FW: It seemed to me that Kadri's style of directing didn't fit this actor, he couldn't react so quickly. With Kadri you have to be like water and flow and adapt, it suits me. In the desert we filmed mostly in chronological order, I was always ready to try different solutions, just give me instructions and I'll try – that way of directing is for me.
KK: As for Ali, I remember a moment when I really admired how much he was able to offer with his look. The first time Ali looked at Ingrid sympathetically, with guilt – before any other feelings at all, but the first, so to speak, the meaningful look was admirable. Ali was always able to offer various nuances – incredible!
The first kiss between the main characters and the subsequent desert sex scene happens so naturally, unnoticed – how is it to film such scenes?
KK: We had discussed with the actors how the transition should take place, so everyone was aware of how it should act out so as not to cause any inconvenience to anyone. The inconvenience was caused by circumstances beyond our control. It was a cool and windy day. The flowing sands also caused technical problems. We couldn't film on the selected dunes. I was frustrated in this situation because I had to leave the place where I planned to film. Of course, I realized that a new place had to be chosen. Let's say, it was Allah's will... In general, I don't think that intimacy or sex scenes are more difficult to film than any other scene. When actors have been instructed properly, agree and have negotiated amongst themselves, then everything works.
Frida, how do you feel about being naked and acting in sex scenes as an actress, how do you prepare for it mentally and physically?
FW: Good question! I agreed to do these scenes because of Kadri – she had a certain feminist approach. I am 43 years old. Women of my age have already experienced events in their lives: births, love stories, relationships. It was important for me to be able to act on everything as closely and genuinely as possible, which does not necessarily have to be aesthetically beautiful, but rather sensitive and spontaneous, as well as vulnerable. At the same time, I admit that it's difficult for me to watch these scenes in the film because I experience a feeling of shame. Yet, I think it is important in any film to show real bodies in their natural state.
KK: Intimate scenes have to be natural and we tried to accomplice that. In many cases, the love scenes depicted in the films are artificially created – it makes you laugh. We agreed in advance with the actors where certain boundaries lay. I made the scenes easier for the actors by using the average frame instead of the wide frame when filming, which also helps the actor.
Kadri, you have stated that "Deserted" is a story of two lonely souls finding each other in the desert, that it's a romantic love story. I wonder if part of Ingrid's character motivation could have been based on Stockholm Syndrome, was it a love story?
KK: At first, I flirted a bit with the depiction of Stockholm Syndrome, but the main understanding was always, and this is true of everything in this film, that it's a love story. Ingrid certainly didn't seduce Ali in self-interest, and Ali didn't abuse his position of power. There was no sexual exploitation on either side. There was a genuine feeling between Ali and Ingrid, neither of whom could do a thing about it. I like the idea of a desert fairy tale.
FW: However, we talked about Stockholm Syndrome; I also watched documentaries about people being held hostage and how they interact with their hostages. When I met Ali, it was obvious that it was possible to fall in love with him. It's so easy to fall in love with him! So yes, we captured something more – love. Ingrid's behavior was not just based on the instinct to survive. Stockholm Syndrome is not based on love, its victims identify with their hostages, accepting their positions. In the film, you may not realize what Ali is really thinking and doing, he has two faces – it's not easy, it may not be love when you feel true happiness. There are several facets to their story.
The film's ending is open to different interpretations. What can Ingrid's character take from the hostage situation? Are there any lessons? What can the cinema audience conclude?
KK: The message for the cinema audience is to be able to recognize the feeling. To be open to life. Ali was a lifeline for Ingrid – literally. We don't know how Ingrid finally felt. Will she return to her everyday life, which is a cool snowy ice field without love? Or is she still in shock and recovering from what she has experienced, yet coming out stronger? Is she looking for contact with Ali? I wanted to keep the end open.
FW: I think, I can't have a general opinion about the ending, it's a puzzle for the audience. This applies so even in the theater, the audience decides. After the premiere, someone thought that maybe everything was a dream, and nothing really happened.
Ingrid's character mentions the need for forgiveness in the film, what does it mean, and is forgiveness possible?
FW: While watching the movie, I thought again, what does Ingrid mean by that? Does Ingrid want to forgive Ali, signaling that she's not mad at him, or does she want Ali to forgive her and let her go?
K.K.: I sincerely believe that forgiveness is necessary, even though the world around us may not support that. Of course, there are various reasons why certain people are angry, hurt, and unable to forgive. But without forgiveness you can't get out of the closed circle, the enmity continues.
How did you finally dissolve Ingrid's character and disengage from the film "Deserted"?
FW: It was very difficult to return to normal life. It was a hugely powerful experience. My heart is broken, I have not yet fully recovered. Some acting experiences can become life-changing in very different ways. We were all close together in the Jordan desert, we didn't have separate trailers to live in or TVs – everything was very simple and down to earth. We were sincere and worked from the heart.
KK: I remember that even a camera team from Estonia experienced a wow feeling on the first day. There's something very special in the desert, it touches you. The locations have an impact even on the subconscious, and, of course, this reflects on the cinema screen. I'm not done with the desert yet – maybe even a trilogy will be born.
Kadri, "Deserted" is top-quality world cinema coproduced by Estonian, Swedish and Finnish teams, how do you see your career evolving in Estonia?
KK: I have the belief that the idea takes shape – the author cannot limit themselves to language and state borders. In the case of the "Deserted," the English language was a natural choice – how else could the Swedes and Arabs have spoken to each other. It all starts with an idea. Firstly, it must motivate you so that you will be able to withstand funding problems and other challenges over the years.
Are there any benefits or challenges to creating a collaborative project?
KK: I think every project has its demands and needs, and this cannot really be generalized. Of course, a project taking place (and having the talent from) in just one country is easier both in terms of financing and logistics. But usually, at least in more demanding arthouse subjects, you do need international partners, even if the film is centered on the main producer's country and topic.
Where does the Estonian film industry stand at the moment, in your opinion?
KK: I think it was a disaster that a million euros was cut from the film budget. First, they even wanted to scrap 3 million euros, but thanks to an outcry and social media campaign from almost all Estonian film directors, they ended up cutting one million.
All prices and the cost of living have gone up. It is crazy that in terms of financing we are at pre-2018 levels. Estonia is a very low production capacity country. Its potential is way bigger, but it's a political decision to stretch it to modern times. I think the politicians haven't quite figured out that it would also be beneficial for the whole economy of the country if you have a vital film industry.
I hope that in the near future the Tallinn Film Wonderland will be completed, which will attract more international film industry and cooperation here.
Last, but not least, what has inspired you to become a filmmaker, any particular film?
KK: All the films of Tarkovsky and Kieslowski. And "Apocalypse Now" by Francis Ford Coppola. I happened to see the "Redux" extended version in the cinema when it came out in NYC. A cathartic experience.
The interview was first published in Estonian news portal Delfi.
Editor: Marcus Turovski