Once Aurora – director interview

Once Aurora is a coming-of-age music documentary that’s as uplifting as it is potent.
See our feature review of the film >here<.

We interviewed director Benjamin Langeland and producer Thorvald Nilsen following the film’s UK Premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019.


Reel Steel: What’s the reception been to the film so far?

Thorvald Nilsen: It’s been good. It’s been screened at eight festivals, something like that, and the film has won some awards, played to some amazing audiences. I guess we’re quite enthralled.

Benjamin Langeland: It’s a bit overwhelming, the response. The discussions that the film seem to inspire with people — yeah, I’m impressed! We did good.

RS: What are the kind of discussions that people have been having?

BL: It’s the themes in the film…

TN: I think it’s not only the broad themes, but more like the personal themes, people saying that it’s affected their lives to see AURORA’s journey and things like that. It’s not only a political conversation, but also people are emotionally invested in seeing someone really, really working on their artistic integrity.

BL: Yes, and sort of finding a way to use your strangeness or your different-ness to turn that into your strength, and there’s something very positive in that. And I think that we’ve had some different reactions in Norway, where people seem to focus more on the darkness of the stuff, whereas in other places there seems to be more of a positive message that has been sent across. I just had a conversation that sort of pointed at that; because Aurora is more of a household name in Norway, they sort of see her more than they see the journey in the film. It’s a different way to watch something when you sort of feel like you have a relationship to this person instead of being introduced to our story.

RS: Is it a distance thing? So people in Norway are closer to it —

TN: Or maybe they have too much prejudice about her — maybe not prejudice, but predetermined views of her. And then the film — basically I think that the film maybe works best for people who don’t know her, because it’s a way to get to know her. Because if you know her from before of course you get to know her even better. But in Norway she is kind of strange!

BL: For a Scandanavian, yeah.

TN: Yeah, she’s kind of eccentric for us. People from the valleys see her like “woah, why is so so strange?”

BL: “Why does she talk like that?”, “What’s the deal with her arm thing?” But we designed the film for people that didn’t know Aurora, and that was something that we were quite firm on because we had early collaboration with the main Norweigan broadcaster on television and I think they wanted a film for the Norweigan audience and that made us very clear on what we did not want to do, the narrative of her story to this point. We wanted to drop the audience into the moment of when we came in, and have this story of her being discovered as a backdrop, and the music industry as a backdrop of a bit more personal journey and relationship-focused narrative than the broader —

TN: — Yeah, and get to know her rather than present the artist myth. The beginning of the film is more deep to the core of what she loves and what’s important to her, that music – it never dies. It’s something I guess speaks more to what she’s about than what the world thinks of her. Because we could have kind of all these record executives and lined up this interviews saying ‘she’s so amazing’, ‘she’s a musical genius’ —

BL: — The mansplaining version.

TN: The mansplaining version, yeah! But we wanted people to find that out themselves, and that makes it stronger.

RS: It makes it stand out from other music documentaries because they could be like ‘she is the person, she’s from here and she does this’ whereas this film is more personal. How did it come about? Did you know her before? And why did you decide to make a film about her?

BL: I certainly knew of her, we’re from the same small town in Norway. The few people that are different tend to stand out in small places!
We were sort of bumping into each other at certain theatres and cultural events. While the other guys in my town, I was off doing other things and she was as well. She was way younger than me but she had some older sisters who were about my age, but it wasn’t until I started working at a company in Bergen called Flimmer Film where there was this guy who became my co-director on this who was extremely fascinated about AURORA and used her song as lullabies for his then baby daughter. And he started conversing with Thorvald and I came into it saying ‘oh, guys, I’m not sure. I think she will trick you or there will be something here that’s not pure unless there is somebody there to call her bullshit and call your bullshit’ so I wanted to sort of balance it out. I think that was also for the access of it – they knew who I was and it was easier for me. But I was a sceptic in the beginning, and Stian was the driving force at the very start.
It felt weird having someone that you work with making a film about someone that you know without being a part of it.

TN: We did some music videos for her manager a year before that, so we knew him as well. So we had kind of different angles or different meeting points so we knew them and I think they knew us. It’s been a great collaboration.

RS: Why do you think she agreed to do it? Like what we were saying about it not being a typical exposé, why do you think she agreed to be a part of it?

BL: I think she wanted to communicate certain things. It changed over time but I think that it actually became important to her to have a way of communicating things that she perhaps couldn’t do on stage while she was working, and trying to show us something. She is a storyteller and she’s living her life as a character in a story in many ways. I think that she has another sense of reality in many ways and she wanted to share that.

TN: I also think that she felt that she was in the middle of a chaotic thing – the crazy touring, you know? I think it was the first day that you [Benjamin] were shooting, some of the reflections from that part have been really important for the film. The first conversations that you had with her on camera, she had so much that she wanted to share. I think that was also maybe because she’s been on tour for a couple of years and she’s basically been on this journey that she didn’t decide on doing, you know? Suddenly these guys come in and ask questions and it was like ‘oh, wow’.

BL: Like real questions as well, not like the ‘where do you get your inspiration etc’, it was a conversation. It wasn’t with the pressure of having to perform in many ways – she’s sitting down on the floor, literally, with us for an hour or two hours before a show, and Stian is a wonderful guy and she knew me so it was sort of a safe zone. And we became that for her, and I feel quite bad for not being with her anymore because there was a moment when she was going through a really rough time. And people, when you’re working with them, they’re looking at you differently, they’re looking for you to bring what you bring to the table, but she suddenly realised ‘now there are two guys here who are looking at me, not at the performer, not the artist’ and she felt that she was being seen even though everybody’s eyes were on her all the time, it was for different reasons, with certain agendas. Whereas we were there for the reality, for the truth, for her truth.

TN: And she knew that, when they were there, there’d be a film in two years. For this interview for instance, we are maybe a bit more nervous because we know that we have to say something smart for these ten minutes or whatever —

BL: — But if you were talking to us for three years, we could be like ‘OK, I can say some stupid shit’.

TN: Yeah, she let her guard down. That’s the magic of documentary, I guess.

RS: What was — how did you navigate the fan frenzy? There are certain scenes when fans just flock to her, and even as a viewer I find it quite overwhelming. So to be in amongst that, how did you go about dealing with it?

BL: That is when the filmmaker in you really awakens. That is one of those situations when you really feel the pressure around you. It sort of like a war photographer; you get this adrenaline and you just want to get in on camera. But also trying to keep Aurora’s point of view of it all, trying to be in the midst of it and try to experience what Aurora is experiencing, both the highs and the lows. For us it was mostly exciting, and then people starting asking ‘who are those guys and what is going on here?’

TN: The fans would actually post pictures of Ben and Stian say ‘there’s a documentary’ and it became a part of it —

BL: — The tapestry of Aurora’s life!

TN: Yeah, all over the Instagram accounts.

BL: You get to a point where you — it doesn’t take long before you get to a point where it’s exhausting, even though you’re just witnessing it. It’s draining you of energy, because it is something you have to respond to. It must be the most difficult part of it, but at the same time it’s like a drug, you know? It’s hard to just [clicks fingers] when it’s all quiet. That was one of the weirdest moments, when you close the door and boom: silence. That must be weird, living with that.

RS: It puts into perspective though. In this film, it shows that Aurora’s actually quite timid in herself, for example saying she doesn’t really like hugging people but then all these fans excitedly ask ‘can I have a hug?’ and she’s like ‘umm, OK’. Why and how did you decide what scenes to keep in? Such as the scene where she’s having a panic attack, why did you decide to keep those scenes in? Was it to show how difficult it can be?

BL: I think that was the one time where we sort of … really just went there. Just to show it, so you didn’t have to show it all throughout and make it a tragedy, but just have that one moment in the film. We stayed in that moment for quite some time; it’s one of the longer scenes and there’s no dialogue, it’s just Aurora in a bathroom and I think that helped us broaden the perspective and show a bit of the backside of it all and not have to constantly remind the audience: ‘this is tough, this is hard’. We just put it there and it becomes a part of this really quick, intense experience of the film which I feel is gone like this [clicks fingers]. But those moments, they stick out and it becomes — my idea is that, and my hope is that people realise that that moment is a part of it all.
It’s not a direct result of anything that’s going on in the film, it’s a direct result of her life and of how she’s living. So that moment will occur and recur, and it will always be a part of it. When you give so much, I think you will always end up in that bathroom at one point or another. So I think that is one of the most real moments and it’s true to what we experienced. We have on the cutting room floor many dark, sad moments but it’s too tempting to put those in, to show ‘oh my god, they’re killing her’. So we tried to narrow it down to: what is the one moment that we need to have in it so that we can have a more balanced film throughout and not just hammer in the point of ‘oh my god, look at this terrible industry’ because it’s more complex than that.

RS: Was she involved in the filmmaking process? Obviously she had to be, to a certain extent —

BL: — she never knew we were filming …

TN: Not in the filmmaking process but of course in talking to her in knowing when we could film her, for instance. But we didn’t show her anything until the very end.

BL: She didn’t really care that much, and I think was because there was a trust and she liked what we were doing and how we worked. She liked that we never were rude to anybody to get to that moment when we would film, and when we were filming in public we were very polite and tried not to step on anybody. But she kept on informing the film without explicitly saying anything because the film became more and more like her. She is in the DNA of the film because it became such a close relationship and it is a collaboration because she knows what she’s doing in front of the camera and she knows who’s behind the camera. But that depends on trust and it takes a lot of time to get to that point.

TN: I guess I also kind of informs the stylistic choices in the film; the sound editing and everything. Trying to depict her world and seeing her world through her eyes, and that’s something that I’m really proud of.

RS: It’s interesting that you mentioned trust because of the way she manages her music …

BL: She shows little trust.

RS: Yet she trusted you with this.

BL: I think that it is us being really open about ‘we are standing here in your shoes along with you’. So instead of trying to put the camera on her, we tried to navigate the world through her eyes so that she always felt that we were a part of her team even though we were talking to people around her. She never had any doubt that we were along for her journey, and being really truthful and respectful as to what that means to her, not our point of view. We weren’t there to speculate, or to give any sort of ‘this is what WE think she’s feeling’. None of that. We were trying to feel along with her, and we felt so much with her that we were sad when she was sad and we felt her victories and we were cheering for her, as filmmakers.
In a way — in fiction, you have your character that you’re rooting for and you can show certain things like ‘oh, that might of been a bad decision’, but you’re still with that character, you don’t go over to that other character that made a bad decision. You stay with that character. And I feel that she had faith in us doing that.

TN: And of course when she came with suggestions saying ‘maybe you should come be a part of this’ and we think ‘OK, maybe that’s not so interesting but we can be a part of that’. So to have this trust and openness in listening to each other’s ideas as well.

BL: And time, it all comes back to time. You need to take your time, and you need to develop your personal relationships within that story you’re trying to tell. I cannot stress that enough. You need to be visible even though you’re not visible in the film. You need for there to be trust, and you need to make mistakes as a person within that universe and make a fool of yourself, or go and have a beer and talk to people and to be friends with people. I think it’s so important to have that access and to be true to what — you need to know them on a more personal level. It’s not like you’re just filming and then going home. You try to develop those relationships so that when you get to the editing process you feel like you can represent them, because it’s just as much about what you’re not seeing as what you are seeing, and you need to have an idea about how the characters navigate outside of what you’re seeing on the screen. Then you need to have a feeling about how that will move.




Details of Once Aurora at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019 can be found here: