Swedish director of photography Linda Wassberg illuminates the cut and thrust of young women's relationships in Lisa Aschan's She Monkeys.
The Variety review of She Monkeys described it as "one of the most intense and complex feature debuts to come from Sweden since Lukas Moodysson's Show Me Love". A bold claim for this intimate examination of teenage feminity, the fifth and final project funded by the Swedish Film Institute's Rookie Project, but one that reflects the intense nature of the story of Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser), a headstrong girl who joins her local voltige (horseback acrobatics) team and meets the vivacious Cassandra (Linda Molin), with whom she forms a close bond that is complicated by jealousy, competiveness and sexual attraction.
When director Lisa Aschan was putting the film together, she immediately turned to her old film school friend and long-term collaborator Linda Wassberg to shoot it. "Lisa and I met at the Danish Film School in Copenhagen about 10 years ago," says Wassberg. "During our studies we became friends and worked on a lot of projects in and after film school. We developed a trust and always fully collaborated with each other from the initial idea right through to the final result. She always tested different ideas and methods to best produce the script."
Wassberg immediately responded to what she describes as a "very well-written script" by Aschan and co-screenwriter Josefin Adolfsson. "It was about two teenagers who where in constant confrontation with each other, both physically and mentally," says Wassberg. "Lisa referred to all the scenes as duels between the two girls – I took this very literally and suggested the imagery of Westerns. She was thrilled with the idea and adopted the theme as an overall guide for the film. It was like a code for us, informing the selection of the right locations, clothing, setting and so forth. Later, it was also a guide for the composer and editor – as a theme it became crucial."
The Western trappings were key to allowing Wassberg to form a cohesive visual style within the restrictions of a low budget. "It made it easier to us to develop a 'look' that paralleled the story," says Wassberg. "We agreed that there would be no metal or modern concrete visible in the film, only leather, dirt, and organic materials."
This aesthetic thus informed Wassberg's choice of shooting format. "We really felt that the organic feel was vital in our choice of film materials, therefore we insisted on shooting on 35mm film," she explains. "We had to deal with big locations and mostly exterior shoots, which made working on film negative ideal. The choice of aspect ratio also referenced the Western theme, using the cinemascope format echoed the classic Western vernacular."
To achieve the iconic Western style, Wassberg found Fujifilm stocks to be ideal, combined with using an Aaton Penelope 2-Perf camera. "The Aaton and Fuji stock allowed me to develop the desired look," she explains. "There were, of course, some compromises. It was a low-budget film made for only 8 million Swedish krona [just over £700,000 / $1.1m] and the choice (and thus cost) of shooting on 35mm forced me to drastically reduce the size of the lighting department. Thus, most of the shots are lit by natural light sources only. During Swedish summers, the sun stays up for the entire night, so when I chose the stock, I went for the Reala 500D and Vivid Eterna 250D, both daylight negatives.
I made the choice based on the range of natural light and because of the shifts in weather I knew we would encounter. What little artificial light I did have, came from daylight HMIs used to 'improve' the natural light. For night interiors we used the same lamps with CTO [colour temperature orange] gels, which is somewhat counter-intuitive and a bit confusing for my gaffer, Janne Kokki, but he still managed to do a very good job."
The end result is a uniquely evocative and powerful study of female adolescence that pushes boundaries and got a special mention for the Crystal Bear at Berlin, won Best Narrative Feature at last year's Tribeca Film Festival and garnered Wassberg best cinematography at the Transilvania International Film Festival.