Interview with Jeppe Rønde, Director of Award Winning ‘Bridgend’
I had seen Bridgend at Tribeca Film Festival in its North American Premiere last year and reviewed it then. The award winning film, which has been touring the world and screening in various venues since Tribeca where it won three awards, has continued to receive a favorable response from audiences. It is easy to understand why Jeppe Rønde, Torben Bech, and Peter Asmussen have taken a true story and conceived a macabre, chilling tale about teenagers, who one by one, take their own lives leaving no suicide notes. The bodies are always found the same way, hanging in the forest guarded by a German shepherd who becomes the atavistic symbol foreshadowing another teen’s self-inflicted death. There are no manifest reasons how or why the youngsters both male and female come to their decision. As we watch in anticipation and fear as the teens gather in the forest, at school and in closed chat rooms online, we can only surmise which teenager might be next and we are always shocked at the outcome.
The film which is frightening and memorable for its ghostly tone, atmospheric editing and eerie cinematography is filled with contrasts. Pitted against the teen world of excitement, horror, and danger is the adult world of sterility and banality. The teens are a strong community who gather in the forest to perform ritualistic, mythic acts that have a tribal, surreal meaning. An empty and void counterweight is the reality of school routines, boring subjects, and tiresome parents. Filmmakers provide clues as to why the incredible string of teen suicides may be happening. But ultimately, there are no answers and the suicides which had been happening with some frequency in Bridgend, Wales, were no longer published in the paper for fear of copy cats.
Bridgend is a must see film. When I was contacted about interviewing the director, I was intrigued because I wanted to probe deeper into understanding his conceptualization and inspiration for the story. The interview took place via email through a film representative.
What inspired you to make a film about Bridgend, Wales? How did you hear about the story?
I don’t even think I get to choose my own films. The themes simply resonate something within me, something that makes me need to explore them. And in the case of Bridgend, it was the mysterious chain of suicides that had begun late 2007. I first read about it in a Danish newspaper on the 27th of January 2008. At the time 8 young people had hanged themselves, and the paper speculated in an internet suicide pact because they all knew each other online and because they had all committed suicide in the same way, by hanging and without leaving suicide notes. Just after reading, I went to Bridgend, Wales. I researched the story the following 6 years before shooting. Only 3 weeks after I’d first read about the 8 suicides the number was 17.
Have you kept up with the story? Have more individuals died?
I’m still friends with a number of people from the area, especially the youngsters, and they tell me whenever something happens. Fortunately, there are not so many suicides as in the beginning.
What has been the response thus far to the film?
I’ve been met with positive responses from all over the world. Once I was in the Ukraine to present the film, and after the premiere there were two young girls who wanted to talk to me. The tall one approached me with a tablet phone where she had Google translated that she’d planned to commit suicide but after watching the film she didn’t want to do it anymore. I got frightened, because sometimes Google translate does make mistakes. I got hold of my interpreter who spoke with the girl on my behalf. And the young girl told me that while watching the film she had felt she was seen. She felt understood. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
How did you put together the casting for the film? Did you rehearse with them?
I street casted for 1.5 years and mixed locals with actors from outside – like the lead role played by Hannah Murray from Game of Thrones. I rehearsed with all of them in lengthy casting/rehearsing sessions. I needed all of them not to act, so it was all about getting them on the same level to strip them from their acting techniques and safety nets so we could all step into “the void” together.
Had any of the actors worked with each other before? Had they worked with you?
It was first time for all of us.
Loved the themes of the film which are certainly in play today: kids in a dead end town of materially wicked banality, search for something spiritual to believe in. (what I saw was a theme). What is your take on the film’s themes? Which are?
For me the underlying theme is the collective subconscious. I lived in Jerusalem during the second Intifada while making a film, and there I witnessed a removal of Self that had been replaced by a greater We – which is unfortunately often the case when it comes to war and religion. When I came to Bridgend the first time I felt the same: the kids were together in this big group, moving around together regardless of what happened. So I could recognize it – but not only from Jerusalem – also from my own youth in the provinces of Denmark (that are not that different than the valleys of Bridgend). And I think we can all remember how we were part of a group when we were young or how we needed to be part of something bigger in our formative years. It’s part of our identity making, especially as teens, and not something foreign and exotic that can only happen in Bridgend, Wales. While I was shooting a similar cluster took place at Palo Alto High Schools in Silicon Valley.
What inspired you to capture the mood and tone and how did you arrive at its atmospheric nature? How did that evolve? It is truly incredible.
As the the main theme is centered around our (hidden) human nature, the collective subconscious, I needed to mirror that in all the various filmic elements: the acting, camera-work, sound, music and editing – but also simply in the surroundings, the location. And shooting on location was crucial to me as the nature surrounding Bridgend is hauntingly beautiful and at the same time like a nature built prison. Not only are the villages fenced in by the mountains, there’s also this incredible dense fog that can come within minutes from the sea and cover it all up – and it does constantly. The feeling the location transmitted to the actors and crew was crucial to get the tone right.
Have you reconfigured the film in any other way since your win at Tribeca? Any reedits, additions? And what was the win at Tribeca FF last year?
The film is the same as it was at the premiere last year. At Tribeca we won Best Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Editing.
One of the reasons why I think this film is so chilling is because of the truthfulness of how it was shot. The the editing juxtaposes the eerie with the material-boring world. How did that evolve?
During my six years in and around Bridgend, I got a strong feeling for the mood and also for specific scenes and sequences. Everything in the script is built on the reality I met there. And I wanted to capture the same things and the same mood that I experienced first hand while researching. I learned from suicide survivors that they lost all sense of time while trying to hang themselves, and that opened up for the way we edited the film. In important sequences you’ll find different times, past, present and maybe future, juxtaposed so that the viewer will even get confused and feel the same as the kids.
You managed to create tensions from beginning to end. Did you plan this carefully? To what extent did this result because of your DP and editor and your collaboration…for example…what did you want for the film? How did you work with them to achieve it?
To make a film is really a team effort, like being in a band. A lot was planned, but we also left some space for improvisation.
Bridgend makes its SVOD debut on Fandor on Friday, May 6th (available in U.S. and Canada only).