Tom Dawson: What was your starting-point for making Lilya 4-Ever?
Lukas Moodyson: After Together, I wanted to make a completely different film, and I started writing a script which has some similarities with the finished version of Lilya 4-Ever, except that it takes place in a completely different part of the world, with completely different characters, but maybe it asks some of the same questions. Then one day I was standing in my living room and it was like a big rock fell down on my head. The film came to me in a couple of seconds, all the scenes and everything with the exception that it was intended to be a more religious film. It was originally about the way that God takes part or doesn’t take part in the world today. It was very literally about Jesus next to this girl Lilya. That part was overtaken by the character of the little boy Volodya. If I was simplifying the process, I was thinking that it was very difficult to write about Jesus. It doesn’t mean that I lost the religious thread completely but it had a more substantial place in the film at one time. I think it’s interesting to think that Volodya took the place of Jesus. Just like Jesus he comes to this planet as a human-being. This time he comes as an abused child and he walks next to another abused child. That idea interests me.
How hard was if for you as a Swedish writer to find the voice of Eastern European teenagers?
I never really tired to find the voice of Russian teenagers as much as I tried to find the voice of Swedish teenagers in Show Me Love. I made this script a bit more universal: it doesn’t necessarily take place in Russia but somewhere in the former Soviet Union. The screenplay was translated by a Russian woman and then it was discussed by the actors. However the Russian language is very complicated. Swedish is much more homogenous than Russian, which has lots of different slangs. There’s literary Russian, the words of Tolstoy, and there’s everyday Russian.
Were you worried about the burden the film places on your lead actress Oksana Akinshina? So much hinges on her performance.
Of all the actresses I have ever worked with, Oksana surprised me the most, because I wasn’t sure she could make the film. Yes it was a gamble, and more so than in previous films. Oksana is an actress who gives quite a lot when the camera is on. When we auditioned her, she was obviously enormously talented and intelligent, but I was not 100% sure. It took a few days before I realized how good she really was. There was a scene where she runs down the stairs, and runs after her mother and falls into the mud. I saw the strength in her, and that was devastating and wonderful for the director. I really felt then I was on the right track, and I knew that she could do all those things. Maybe that was the best scene I have ever directed, but it was also bad news for Oksana because she had to be this good for the whole film.
What stood out about Artiom Bogucharkij from all the other kids you auditioned for the role of Volodya?
He had something with his eyes, and he had a kindness and an empathy, and a way of behaving that was natural and relaxed. To be able to relax in front of the camera is the most important thing as an actor. Artiom has got that ability to get more in contact with his emotions when he’s acting, to be more and more present. It was important though to sit down and talk about Oksana and Artiom’s roles with their mothers, and to make a very precise deal about how we were going to work. We had to make them feel sure we would respect them and their wishes and that we would not force them into doing something they didn’t want to do.
You portray both the post-communist former Soviet Union and capitalist Sweden in a brutally unflattering manner – Lilya is literally and figuratively raped in both societies.
To me the film is about the underbelly of Sweden, which is a comparatively rich society, and the fact that we in rich parts of the world exploit people in poor parts of the world. The way that people behave in Eastern Europe is a product of the way we behave in Western Europe. We are exploiting them economically and socially. What I wanted to tell Swedish audiences is that you can either say this is OK, this is the price we pay for living in this society, or you must do something about it. I was afraid people would react with sadness to this film and with depression. From the reaction I am getting, viewers are depressed but also very angry. In some cases this anger can be constructive. On one level it might mean helping people who are being exploited. The most important thing is to see that this sex trade is part of a bigger problem, which is based on the gaps between rich and poor, and also about male attitudes towards women.
How did you want the film to look?
I was planning not to direct the film myself. I freed myself as a writer by thinking that I wouldn’t have to direct it myself – I wasn’t thinking how I was going to direct a particular scene. So when I was writing I didn’t have any particular idea about the film’s look. Those parts of film-making are an area which I feel are intuitive, especially between me and the director of photography. I have a working method: me and the d.p Ulf Brantas look at the actors and try not to decide beforehand how to do a scene. Having seen the scene in rehearsal, and having seen how it works out, we then try to interpret it visually.
How did you find the particular locations for Lilya 4-Ever – in particular the crumbling housing estate where Lilya lives?
We made the film in Estonia. We tried to create a place that was not connected so much realistically to a place where we making the film. In reality it’s a place where every second building is completely empty. It feels like Pompeii, a broken-down empire. It’s like a wreck. There was this building where nobody lived any longer and we wanted to film a sunset. We went up an extra floor and kicked in the door of a particular room and there were people living there – there was no electricity, no warmth, no windows, no nothing and a whole family were there. It was November. We probably scared them to death. After we had left there, it was burned down, and lots of people died. I have a picture of this building, and there’s a man in the background. He may well have died in that fire. Life is sometimes crueller than fiction.
What about finding the abandoned submarine base? It’s a great metaphor for the whole of the country, in the way it has been stripped bare.
When we were filming there, we walked into this room, and there were piles of old propagandist literature, and the actors started to read them. We included that in the unscripted scene where they start to read a speech by Brezhnev. And in the other room there were piles of unused womens’ underwear! Everything seemed to have been stolen from this place. Everything that had been made of metal had been stolen, and most of the floor and the windows had been taken. At one stage part of the roof collapsed on us. It’s such a strange place. It was bought by a Canadian-Estonian company. They had bought the whole area and they planned to build on top of this submarine training camp and build a hotel. They wanted to turn this area into a tourist attraction where you go in summertime. There’s a small island nearby which is completely dangerous. That’s where the army aimed their grenades and some haven’t been exploded. Otherwise it’s quite a nice place. I’m not sure though if I want to go and swim there.