Erik Poppe: How We Filmed ‘Utøya: 22 July’

In 2018, Norwegian filmmaker ERIK POPPE dramatised his country’s biggest tragedy in a single, 90-minute take. Following Kaja, an amalgamation of testimonies, Utøya: July 22 was met with acclaim in cinemas worldwide…

Erik Poppe

I broke the story into small pieces, and with each of the cast members I went through it scene by scene. We worked in a small house until I was happy, then we moved into film studios just outside Oslo. I was able to use two of the studios and the courtyard outside, and I measured up the same distances as on the island. I wanted the same amount of gunfire, and from the same angles. Finally, we moved out to the island. We did it on the neighbouring island to Utøya, a couple of hundred metres away. It had the same topography (a square in the middle for the camp and so on) and we dressed it so even the survivors would believe it was Utøya. The problem with actually doing it on Utøya was that in the years after the attack they built new buildings. If you reached the island accitentally during filming, you would have no idea we were there. The crew were hiding, so you would just hear gunfire and see the children running around. That was what I wanted. Even for those who were not on camera, they were in the story. I wanted to get rid of the classic ways of telling stories, and just take it down to being with the protagonist from the start. I skipped the back stories about the perpetrator and flashbacks, so we were with one person physically. We know the same as them.

In an old barn we put up a huge screen, and we got the sound through headphones. For each location, we had surveillance cameras in the trees so I could see what they were struggling with. I worked intensely with the camera for a couple of weeks, working up to the week when we’d try to capture it. That week, we started on the Monday and ended on the Friday, doing one take a day (because everyone was so upset afterwards, that was all we could do). We succeeded a run on Monday, and again on Tuesday (with some things I wanted to change), on the Wednesday we had to abort because I lost contact with the camera. So, we had Thursday and Friday to choose from. And the one we used was Thursday’s take. Both the survivors and the Labour Party youth organisation (who owned the island) supported and helped the film. Five survivors sat alongside me during filming, which was so important for the cast and extras. It’s a story that’s so important for us as a nation, but when the film was shown in the United States, the victims of school massacres wanted it to shown everywhere. They were so grateful these children wanted to share their experiences. It’s a universal portrayal of terror.

ERIK POPPE is a Norwegian director and former war zone photographer.

This article is a Fika Online exclusive.

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