Director Jimmy Olsson is no stranger to hard-hitting subjects. With past films exploring the plight of a migrant in the face of hostility (2nd Class) and a mother’s recovery from a car crash (Caesar), his most recent short film is no different. Alive, which premieres on Short of The Week and Vimeo’s Staff Picks this weekend, follows the disabled Viktoria’s search for intimacy.
In a story peppered with suspense and a humour which lifts Alive in its darkest moments, Viktoria decides to arrange a one-night stand through Tinder. With the app, and the dubious conventions and judgements of modern dating, running in the background, we watch as her carer Ida takes a concern over her safety. What Ida seems to forget, to Viktoria’s frustration, is how this concern infringes on Viktoria’s freedom as a consenting adult with needs and desires of her own.
What follows is a touching portrayal of care, love, and longing, brought to life by Olsson’s ability to switch from raw, almost-desolate scenes to light-footed laughter in a heartbeat. The result, and what makes Alive a contender for the Oscar Short Film Award, is a powerful story that packs huge emotional range into a 20-minute short.
I spoke with Jimmy over Zoom last week (where else, when you’re mid-pandemic and your guest lives in Sweden?), digging deeper into his creative process, ideas behind the film, and an unlikely source of inspiration.
Hi Jimmy, thanks for talking with us. What inspired Alive?
The idea came out of a podcast I listened to, on the way back from a film festival in Italy last year. It told the story of a disabled man who’d wanted to have an escort. He’d ordered this escort and told his caregiver to wait outside, in a coffee shop round the corner.
I thought this was interesting because, well, what if something bad happens? The man in the wheelchair is a grown-up, right, but where does the responsibility lie [in that situation]?
That scene – that image – of the carer waiting in the coffee shop. That’s where I thought, “this could be interesting!”
Where did it go from there?
So I quickly wrote the first draft in 90 minutes. I wrote the first three pages so quickly that I thought, well, this can’t be that good. But then I sent it off to my producer, he liked it, and told me we should get a move on.
When I cast the film, I knew I wanted Madeleine [Martin, who plays Ida] from the get-go. But I didn’t know who to cast as Viktoria.
I found Ava [Johansson] through Madeleine. She hadn’t done a lot of film before but was very interested in the project and after bringing her in for an audition I just thought, she’s the one. She’s amazing.
There’s a lot of tension in the way the film’s shot, with some interesting turns that you don’t always see coming. The film’s ending is surprising and, I think, probably more powerful for it.
Yeah. When I wrote the script for Alive, I thought the last line – which is quite comedic in a way – ties the knot on the film nicely. Cause it reflects a truth. If it had been a darker line, it would’ve been a shit film, you know. There’s always the risk it could’ve been cheesy, but I think Ava pulled it off well.
When shooting, I thought it was necessary to pan with her [Ida, when she re-enters the flat] and build that suspense. Even though we hear her say “hello”, it’s not yet clear what has happened. Then there’s the surprise.
[Apologies: yes, I’ve cut the record at this point. No spoiler alert; just no spoilers.]
There’s a really interesting mix of dark subject matter and light comedy in your work. Films like Alive and Caesar are hard-hitting yet funny. What draws you to these elements, and how do you strike the balance between them?
I just like those [darker] kinds of films. Those are the kind of stories that really get to you. They are more serious. They’re the stories of the real world, you know.
But also, I’ve always been the class clown. I still watch the show friends and, you know how Chandler uses comedy as a sort of defence mechanism, well I guess I do that myself, to some extent.
A lot of people say that it’s very difficult to write good comedy, and it is. But I like the challenge. I like the mix between drama and comedy. Because there is comedy in everything, really.
It’s a release of tension, right? Even – or especially – in the middle of a pandemic.
Yes. It’s not that you are being disrespectful – and you have to be careful – but it’s a way of lifting tension, like you say. So I always try to put a bit of comedy in everything I do. I think it makes the characters – the story – more dynamic and three dimensional.
So what drives that approach to film, and your creative process, more generally?
It all starts from an image, for me.
For example, at the moment I’m working on something. Get this. Wait, no, it’s too weird. It’s absurd…
Go for it.
Well, in Sweden we have a politician who the police caught buying a prostitute. From that, I got this image in my mind. The image of this man in a massage parlour.
It’s a good image.
Anyway, I’m forty now – the age where myself and many friends need to get our prostates checked – and I’ve got this image in my mind of this man getting his prostate checked. So, from this I developed a story about a [female] refugee and a politician. She lives in Berlin and, without any papers but in need of money that will get her over to her sister in France, she’s forced into sex-work.
If you’ve seen the film Locke [about a husband who drives – for the entirety – to visit a mistress who’s going through their child’s birth alone], it’s in the same vicinity, story-wise.
So yes, that’s my process.
Would you say the idea comes before the image? Or does the image trigger the idea?
It’s all about what you read, watch, see. It’s all those things glued together, to give you a premise. So with the prostate thing, the idea was there from a few things I’d been watching, before this image – of a woman feeling this politician’s prostate and feeling something – gave me the premise.
For me nowadays, it’s about finding something unusual. It’s about finding really good, odd ideas that can work as a premise for a film.
I’m a big fan of the Dardenne brothers and Michael Haneke. All the arthouse masters. So I’m very much drawn to striking ideas that you haven’t seen before. Unusual ideas that aren’t super commercial, it seems. I prefer to focus on what’s happening in society at the moment, with refugees on the run, for example, rather than middle–aged couples, artists, the bourgeoise… That [can be interesting] too, but only if you have an unusual premise, for me.
On that note, what words of advice do you have for young filmmakers and artists?
One of the most important things I’ve learned is just to listen. I started out in 2003 doing bits and bobs, before going into directing ten years ago. I’m a big fan of Ingmar Bergman. When he started out, he felt like he was tricked by everyone around him. Telling him “you can’t do this” or “that’s too difficult”. So over time, he learnt a little bit of everything behind the camera. So I’ve done lots of that.
It’s important, I think. For a young director, you can’t just go in without that experience and think it’s going to be the most glamorous job on earth. You can’t just go in and be the boss. Because you’re not the boss, really. You’re just a team leader.
But also, start slowly. Don’t rush into things. I was listening to Xavier Dolan, who was 19 when he made his first feature. He was at a film festival in Stockholm last year, talking about how he submitted his first script to the Canadian Film Institute and they turned him down, because he was only 17-18.
He then went away and made the film anyway, which made it to Cannes [the film festival].
At just 19?
Yeah, but that’s very unusual. You need time.
I’m forty. I’ve seen more stuff, had more life experience, than a nineteen-year-old. When you’re nineteen, don’t try to write a film from a forty-year-old’s perspective. Write what you know.
Definitely. You find that not only in film, but writing. When people try and stretch themselves to write what they don’t know, it’s noticeable.
Exactly. Even if you do your research, it’s hard to understand a person’s psyche when you’re not on the same level. If you have great actors and great collaboration, there needs to be a really strong understanding between the actor and director. For the director to be twenty, twenty-five, years apart from their actor(s), there could be some misunderstanding with how the actor interprets their vision.
I’m not saying it shouldn’t happen, necessarily. But just be aware.
So lastly, what’s next for Alive? It’s won quite a few awards already!
Yeah, it has; it’s been touring since last year and will probably tour this year, as well. It’s going up on Short of The Week and Vimeo’s Staff Picks [this weekend]. But the film’s eligible for the Oscars, so right now we’re working quite hard with this campaign. Lots of admin until February 6th, when the nominations are announced. Then we’ll see.
Jimmy Olsson’s Oscar-eligible short film, Alive, premieres on Short of The Week and Vimeo’s Staff Picks this weekend. The film is available for free on both platforms. For more of his work, you can follow @regissorjimmy on Twitter or Instagram. For updates on the film’s Oscar progress, go to @Alive_2020 on Instagram.