FILM = psychological experiment. Tobias Gundorff Boesen: “Ghost” (interview – part 2)

maja@tnf: You, your DOP Andreas Berg and the sound-designer Thomas A. Andersen all come from the small Danish town of Viborg. You aimed to transpose the city’s mood into visual language of your film. Please, tell us about Viborg’s history and geographical situation. How might these have influenced the feeling of the place in your opinion?

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: Great question…

“Ghost” was very much the product the many years I spent in Viborg, where I grew up, and stayed to earn my bachelor’s in Character Animation… A lot of my friends had moved on and away, to larger cities with universities. Sometimes it felt a bit lonesome there.

Viborg is a small town of about 30.000 in central Jutland. During the day, it’s a nice and cosy place, with lots of shops, access to great nature, etc. But at night something weird happens: You can go quite a while without meeting a soul, and if it’s really late, you’ll feel all alone in the town. This is quite powerful, especially if you’re drunk – I remember having to walk home through Viborg after parties, in the fall or winter. There was an enormous contrast between being inside, together with friends, and all of a sudden walking through what felt like a ghost town, just wanting to get home. Being drunk and out of my everyday context enhanced the feeling of being “stuck” in a parallel world, which would vanish as soon as the sun came up.

“Ghost” is not about being drunk (though aggressive drunk grown-ups do inhabit the world), I think a lot of that feeling of solitude and quietness in the film came from having walked through Viborg at night.

maja@tnf: Your film aims to tell a story without words. Pictures play a significant role in conveying meaning. Some of them constitute the storyline, while others form symbolic layers of the movie or stand for things which could be described as irrational. How can one distinguish the pictures with symbolic meaning from those standing for the irrational elements occurring within the story? What role do irrationality and symbolic elements play in your visual storytelling (not only for “The Ghost”)?

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: Great question again.

Well, one can’t really distinguish between the two… I sure can’t, anyway. 🙂 To understand the use of symbols, it’s important to understand the intuitive approach I took with “Ghost”.

I decided early on not to worry too much about plot, dialogue, storytelling rules, etc., and just to do story beats and situations which I felt resonated with me emotionally… Afterwards, I would structure in editing. It might just seem like an excuse for omitting clarity of storytelling or a script, but it was quite deliberate. The film is basically a Freudian experiment, trying to dig into the subconscious, and then just going with whatever appears there, without disrupting the process by attempting to mold it into a “hero’s journey”, or any other storytelling model. The downside of avoiding structure is that, well… you lose structure! And structure often produces twists which can be enormously important to films. The upside is that stuff comes out which otherwise would never have surfaced.

So the short answer is: I have no idea what the hell was going on, but I know this much: you’d be better off asking a shrink than an art historian…

Sadly, I’m no Stanley Kubrick, meticulously crafting symbols and references, embedding visual cues in the film which can be decoded through reason or knowledge of history and art. The value of my symbols doesn’t nescesarily come from being able to decode them rationally; they can be interesting, but should be regarded as secondary layers. I’m more interested in what things feel like, the emotional response I get to seeing things… Which is more in line with David Lynch’s way of working, employing props.

In “Out of a forest” for instance, I placed jagged knifes and scissors in all the trees: This wasn’t any rational reference, but more to add the subconscious feeling of sharpness, of pointiness/aggression, of danger, that I needed the outskirts of the forest to have, in order for The Wolf to belong there. It had to first and foremost feel threatening/sad/wondrous/etc.. Of secondary importance is the rationalisation and contextualisation.

maja@tnf: Please describe the relationship between the two realities blended together in your film – the worlds of the living and the dead. Tell us more about the visual metaphors you used for characterising each. What are the roles of recurring motifs (dogs, ducks, plates) and playing with time by reversing or freezing motion for people and objects?

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: They gradually meet and meld, making it difficult to separate the two realities. Whether this is because of the mother’s descent into despair, her state of mind influencing both worlds, or whether there’s something else going on, is intentionally not fully explained.

However, I needed a progression and development, so the cutting, sound design and art direction support the “blending” of these two worlds. There is a bit of a journey and a climax, wherein the mother is grieving and the daughter finds her home, followed by a kind of “resolution” and a hope of things getting better. But the direct relationship between the ghost world and the mother’s state of mind is left unclear, and I wouldn’t want to go into too much detail there.

My subconscious working process favours intuition and scenes which resonate in the mind. I think it’s a part of the charm in “Ghost'”s experimental approach that, whereas I might have a clear idea of what it means to me, I strive to encourage other interpretations and involvement from viewers.

If I’m forced to interpret my own symbols, then let’s take the toy ducks as an example: Towards the ending, it’s revealed to us that the little girl had most likely drowned. The ducks are leading her to the lake where this took place and, as she nears, the frequency of ducks increases, “pointing her along”. Who placed the ducks there? Is it the mother somehow “calling” her daughter?; the daughter’s needs to relive her memories before she can rest? Is she being guided by a kind of fate or higher intelligence? The fact that the ducks deliberately lead her to a place (they’re not positioned unintentionally) introduces the idea that someone or something deliberately wants her to travel backwards in time, reexperiencing events and finding her peace… But I offer no solution as to what that might be.

Then again, you could say all the standard stuff about white ducks symbolising purity, cleansing (ponds) and all that… but that would be an intellectual approach to symbols, and that’s not where I’m coming from.

Manipulation of time is second nature to me, because of my animation background. I love it. Time reversal, slow-motion, etc. It all gives a magical sensation, as we perceive changes in our own perception – a slow motion movement is still the same movement, but when slowed down it gives us the experience of seeing it differently. All of this made sense to me in “Ghost”, as I needed to indicate the mother’s state of mind, the fact that we we’re not in the real world, and that, all of a sudden, time seems to slow down as we become trapped in our own emotions or reflections. So it’s a “lost in the moment” thing… And it looks cool.

maja@tnf: The significance of the elements water, air, metal and light/darkness:

Tobias Gundorff Boesen: I needed the water early on, to hint at the fact the daughter had drowned, building up a bit of plot. The water, the funeral and the water running over her body in the hospital basement are all forebodings (or reminders) of her death, giving cause for grief. Thomas, my sound designer, was quick to pick up on this, and utilized water liberally in the film’s theme. Different kinds of water, but often close-up recordings of water.. It’s a recurring theme in the film. The water is a reminder of the drowning, but also a cleansing thing.

And then there’s my fascination with the senses: a lot of it is simply to provide substance, and particles always help to involve the senses of the viewer. There is a big difference between seeing an arm, and seeing an arm with water running over it. In the latter case, our “physiological memory” (for lack of a better term) steps in, and we automatically feel the arm as described by the water. So it’s a sensual thing, drawing the viewer in through the senses, rather than through intellectual involvement.

Interview in parts

Full interview

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