Before his feature directorial debut, Blind, premiered at Sundance in January 2014, where it won the screenwriting award for World Cinema, Eskil Vogt was known for his collaborations with filmmaker Joachim Trier. They co-wrote Reprise (2006), Oslo, August 31st (2011) and Louder Than Bombs (2015), which makes its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. Like Vogt's early collaborations with Trier, Blind is a film that plays with conventions and expectations and perspectives. It's the story of Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), a woman who has recently become blind, adjusting to her new life. It's a film that demands close attention, and rewards it with playful storytelling and inventive associations that reverberate between the real and the imagined. The 2014 Village Voice Film Poll voted Blind the Best Undistributed Film.
With Blind finally receiving its well-deserved American release, I spoke with Vogt, who lives in Oslo, Norway, about his debut feature -- nearly two years after its world-premiere screening. "I'm looking forward to making something new," he remarked with a laugh when I asked if he was tired of talking about the film after all this time. "But at the same time I'm very happy that people still want to discuss it. Some films just die after screening in their home country, but this one just keeps on going."
Editor's note: Blind opens simultaneously in New York at IFC and online exclusively on Fandor. The following interview may contain what some consider spoilers.
Sean Axmaker: I enjoyed the way the story unfolded and how I had to reorient myself to the film every five or ten minutes as perspectives or identities changed.
Eskil Vogt: I'd like that to be like a game for the spectator. It's not that you hide everything and at the end of the movie you see, 'Oh it was just a dream,' or 'It's just inside a crazy person's head,' and you're disappointed because that's not the rules of the game. In my movie I would like a constant shift in perspective that keeps telling people that you should pay attention, that there's something else going on, and trying to get people involved in that. They could have fun, but it can be sort of a ride. That was my aim: constant shifts in perspective and some rug-pulling as well, but giving people a chance to follow it.
Axmaker: Blind is ostensibly the story of a blind person, but this is also about the creative, internal life of Ingrid, about creativity and storytelling. Ingrid is an author, and she recycles her perceptions of the world through her imagination, and turns it into a story.
Vogt: Definitely. For me, more than a film just about blindness, it's a film about our inner lives, and our imaginations, and our fears and anxieties and sexuality, and everything that is inside of everyone but we often can't express or we try to express through art or storytelling. I thought blindness was a great vehicle for expressing that because blind people are even more, how do you say, prisoners of their imagination, in a way. They don't have the visual objective correlative, like when you have that weird feeling that someone is in the room with you. I can just turn around and see that no one is there. But a blind person has to tell themselves that of course no one is there, but they can't look. So they are one step closer to their imagination, in a way, and they are in themselves, and that's what I wanted to exploit in the dramatic possibilities it would give me.
Axmaker: It's a different approach than we are used to seeing. Movies about blind people tend to focus on their physical relationship to the world and how it differs from that of sighted people. So much of this takes place her mind, which is something we haven't seen before. It's the imaginative life of a recently blind woman, someone who has memories of imagery and plays with it in her mind.
Vogt: I checked out a lot of movies about blind people when I started working on this because I felt this was such a great thing for cinema and maybe someone had already dug into this in that way, but I couldn't find many examples of that. Usually it's just about the blind woman being chased by a killer, being the ultimate victim, not only being a woman and less strong than the man but also being blind. There were a surprising amount of movies like that, but no movies that really explored the subjectivity of a blind person: How does a blind person perceive the world? I wanted to go deep into that and find cinematic ways of expressing that. And of course it had to be someone that wasn't born blind because, for me at least, I can't really film that, because that person doesn't know that difference between light and dark, that doesn't mean anything to them. But someone who could see and then loses her sight, that's someone who still has a visual imagination and when she hears a sound, she imagines what makes that sound. If she's in a room with someone, she'll imagine their reactions, and she'll constantly try to create the visual clues of what's going on around her, and those clues could change at the speed of her thoughts. That's extremely cinematic. I was surprised no one had done that before.
Axmaker: Did you visualize the film as you wrote it, the way the imagery would change, objects would be taken out, the scene would shift in the middle, to reflect that creative invention of her mind?
Vogt: That was definitely part of the script, and when my production designer got involved and the cinematographer got involved, I encouraged them to keep finding new ideas and pushing that during the shoot. So we would add to that all the time during preproduction and the shoot, and just take more and more risks -- of emptying the apartment for one shot and having furniture there for another one, and just trying to find what would be subjectively interesting for the blind person or for her imagination. That was very fun and you can imagine the script girl going crazy.
Axmaker: It's also about storytelling and the perspective of a creative artist, like an author changing a detail to see if it makes for a better story.
Vogt: Exactly. That's one of the early signs that makes people aware that something else is going on, not just these separate stories but there is something else at play. It's exactly like that, the way an author can work through a text and then suddenly, 'Ah, it might work better if she was a girl instead of a boy,' and then instantly change that and keep working. You don't go back and correct the beginning, you just go with the flow of it and change it intuitively and quickly. I'm fascinated by that process and also by how, when you're doing that, when you're working that intuitively and writing that way, a lot of your personal associations will work through that and reveal themselves.
Axmaker: Is there anything of your own creative process that comes out in Ingrid?
Vogt: In the beginning, when I started writing this, I felt that I was very concerned with that, because usually I write about characters that are much closer to me, and here I was writing something about a blind woman, and obviously I'm neither. Then I started working, and everything came very easily and quickly even though it was quite a complex structure. It fell into place quite easily for me -- it was like a torrent of writing. And I worked in a very associative manner, very intuitively, and when I'd gone through the script, I felt it was way more personal than I imagined because so much of my obsessions and humor and personality were in this woman. I had some friends joking with me that I had made a self-portrait of myself as a blind woman. Which I don't think is true because there is some stuff in this movie that is very specific to being a blind woman that I can't relate to directly... but there is something about her way of thinking, and her way of working in the night when she's written something and she laughs out loud at her own jokes, that I can find myself doing at my keyboard, so there's definitely some sort of auto-portrait going on here.
Axmaker: Ingrid says early on in the film that blind people lose the ability to visualize over time, so she makes a point to keep exercising her imagination to keep those skills.
Vogt: With Ingrid, this visualization being something you could lose -- which is something I read doing some research -- is a terrifying thing. Not only do you become blind, which is a huge deal of course, but then slowly you lose your visual ability in your imagination, so you lose track of the world once again, which I felt was just a terrible thing. It's true that if you keep exercising your visualizations you keep that ability longer, so it felt like a good starting point for someone, spending a lot of time alone, not wanting to leave the safety of her apartment, and just trying to keep this thing going. Then one thing leads to another and she's making up these stories, or maybe looking at her life through these characters.
Axmaker: It's interesting that as she writes the character of Einer, who is Ingrid's fictional version of Morten, he also provides a point of view for Ingrid to look at Elin, who becomes her fictionalized version of herself, and it becomes a weird loop of her looking back at herself from another point of view.
Vogt: Yes, definitely, and it's also about self-perception in a way. One of the interesting things I learned doing research is that women who have lost their sight, when they are in rehabilitation, one of the first questions they almost always ask is, 'How do I put on my make-up now?' The thing is, even though you're blind, you are very concerned with the way you look and the way other people see you, and of course you still have that desire to be desired by someone else's gaze. I thought this was very interesting territory to explore through this blind woman, and see some issues in our society today -- how much importance we put on our exteriors, and how a big part of our sexuality is tied up in these projections of ourselves and how we are being seen. So the male gaze that Einer represents, the man who watches pornography, is part of that, but also I didn't want it to be schematic, so the associations constantly drift. Elin is sometimes her double and sometimes her rival, and Einer has something to do with her husband and her wanting her husband to desire her visually, but he's also someone that she might identify with or be afraid of, that she will also end up as lonely as this man. Because the big fear of people losing their sight is to become a burden to the people closest to them and then get more isolated and alone.
Axmaker: You've been talking about Blind for almost two years now. Have you been rewatched it as it plays film festivals or opens in other territories?
Vogt: I haven't. I saw it three times -- well, you see it hundreds of times before it's finished -- but then I saw it with an audience at Sundance, and then at Berlin, and then at the Norwegian premiere, and then I said enough is enough, I don't need any more. But I love seeing parts of it with an audience and seeing them react. What I thought was extremely interesting was the difference watching it in Sundance, and then in Berlin, and then in Norway. I think it's true with every film that it becomes a different film according to the audience that is watching. This is so dense and it has so many different elements that an audience can pick the vibe they want to follow. It's important to me that the film has comic elements and that it's funny at times, but at Sundance there was so much laughter that I thought: It's not this funny, who's paying these people to laugh this loud? I guess that's the enthusiasm of American audiences. Then I went to Berlin and it wasn't like it was dead silence, but it was a much more serious screening. After the screening at Sundance people were talking about black comedy and Charlie Kaufman, and then in Berlin they were talking about Bergman. Both are fine with me. (Laughs.) And then I come back to Norway and I felt it was sort of in between, which was what I aimed. Maybe in Norway, with the language and all, people are more likely to be perfectly tuned to what I intended. But it was a little weird to see how different the film was with each audience.