Jimmy Olsson Director and Writer of Alive

Interview with Jimmy Olsson, writer and director of Alive (2020)

Jimmy Olsson has been in the film industry for the last 15 years or so. And it shows. His latest short film, Alive (2020) is a powerful demonstration of his storytelling abilities, depicting the struggle of a disabled protagonist in a dark narrative that manages to squeeze so much into just 23 minutes. Compelling performances, especially from Eva Johansson, have no doubt directly contributed to the many awards coming Jimmy’s way, and the film is now eligible for Oscars consideration.

We spoke to Jimmy about the decision to cast an able-bodied actress for a disabled role, his disbelief at how quickly he managed to write the first draft of the script, and how he is managing in the film industry with the coronavirus pandemic.

FF: What is your short film alive about for those who haven’t seen it, and what inspired its creation?

JO: Alive is about prejudice. Alive is about love and intimacy and it’s about a disabled woman in a wheelchair who suffers from brain damage, about her and her carer. Victoria is the one who’s disabled, and she yearns for intimacy. She wants what ‘normal’ able-bodied people want.

The film is about, you know, the prejudice that we as able-bodied people have; we don’t really know what what’s going on inside because we are judging them on their appearance and the way they handle themselves. So, it’s about that basically. 

How I was inspired…? I listened to a podcast last year about a similar story about a disabled man, I think it was, who wanted to have an escort. And he said to his carer, ‘So listen, there’s an escort coming, and I don’t want you to be here when she arrives. So, the carer was forced to wait outside in a coffee shop. And he didn’t know who was coming and he didn’t know what was going to happen, you know, and whose fault is it if something happens. So, yeah, so I got inspired by that – a certain scene in that story that made me want to write something about that.

FF: It’s interesting, I think it’s Ida’s boyfriend at one point, they’re lying in bed and having a conversation… I know where you were suggesting it might go with her boyfriend. I guess that’s intentional… Yeah, I thought it was gonna go that way and it didn’t. I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone but I think it’s a very clever ending with a comedy twist. Because it’s quite dark…

Alive with Eva Johansson, directed by Jimmy Olsson

JO: And that’s also intentional, you know, that there’s a line. The absolute last line of the film is, for me, you know, about Victoria taking back the power, you know, taking back that she’s a person, you know? She decides for herself. She’s a grown woman. So yeah, I’ve tried to combine, you know, seriousness with comedy in that line.

FF: What were the main challenges you faced writing and then filming Alive?

JO: Well, actually, I wrote it in an airport in Munich when I was going back from a film festival in Italy. I landed in Munich and was waiting for my flight back to Stockholm. And I’d just heard the story and had the idea of writing it and I wrote it really quickly… So quickly, I thought: ‘this, can’t be good because you can’t write this quickly!’ And so, I sent it to my wife and I sent it to my producer and just asked them: ‘Can this be something? I’m not sure yet because it’s 15 pages. It’s not that much.’ But I wrote in like 90 minutes. It’s like, ‘What!’. And we decided, let’s try, you know, and we can always fiddle with this script later.

When I cast it, I cast Ida first because I really wanted to work with Madeline Martin. And then I met with Eva Johannson and when we did an audition everything just fell into place, you know? We did some rehearsals and we worked on her character. So, there weren’t really any challenges per se, because everything just felt natural, you know.

We did have to edit something out… There’s a scene we cut out because it told the same thing as the next scene, and since she’s struggling to speak, I didn’t realise until after: ‘Oh yeah, it’s not gonna be 15 minutes!’. The first cut was 29! I was like, ‘fuck, this won’t fly in festivals when it’s too long!’ So, we cut down to 23 mins and that’s also pushing it but I decided ‘let’s have a good film and let’s try and see if it works at festivals, even if it’s too long’, basically because, you know, 15 minutes is the magic limit. So, the shoot went very, very well. We shot it in two long days. And it went well because we had rehearsed; the characters were rehearsed so much before. So, I would say it was the easiest shoot I’ve ever done.

FF: Were you surprised by the particularly strong performance from Eva Johansson as Victoria?

JO: I was, actually, because I’ve never worked with her. I’d seen a couple of things; she’s done a lot of theatre and I’d seen her in a couple of shorts earlier on. She hasn’t done much film, but I knew that she was a good character actress and she’s very sensitive and she’s very professional in, you know, really researching a role.

There is a scene in the beginning of film where there’s very strong performance – well, she’s strong all over – but it was the beginning of the second day of shooting where I just felt like, ‘wow this is powerful!’ So, I I just felt, you know, I think this is gonna work.

Alive starring Eva Johansson and Madeleine Martin

So, yeah, I was a bit surprised that it was gonna be that powerful actually. A lot of people asked me, since I’m using an able-bodied person playing a disabled person, there’s a lot of people asking if she’s disabled for real, and that’s amazing, but if she isn’t, that’s even more amazing. And I’ve spoken to a few disability groups and different forums about, you know, ‘Why didn’t you choose a disabled person’? And then my simple answer was that, in Stockholm, we don’t have that many professional disabled persons working as actors. And I actually auditioned a couple, but it didn’t work out. I felt with Eva that I could have more control. I couldn’t, we couldn’t, you know, micromanage each other. It was much easier working out/carving out the character and then it’s up to her to fake being disabled. And that’s, you know, it’s… I can understand if there’s some criticism to it, but it is what it is.

FF: When you reached out to me on Twitter and we arranged this interview you mentioned that Alive was now eligible for the Academy Awards? How do you qualify for the Oscars?

JO: There’s a certain amount of film festivals in the world; I think there’s 75 or 80 film festivals, all around the world that have this nomination thing. And so Alive (2020) won one, a big one in Spain in late June. And so, if you win the highest award there, your film is sent to the Academy.

They have live action and animation, they have documentaries, yeah? So this is live action short, that goes to the pool to the Academy and there’s, I’d say, around 80 to 100 films, live action, that goes to the pool and then they run it down to a shortlist and then it’s the five nominees. So, next year in April – they moved it forward, yeah… I will find out in February 2021 if the Academy shortlist it and then, like, a week or two weeks after it’s nominated. But it’s beginning of August, you know, I’m gonna play quite a few more festivals that are, you know, ‘Oscars’ festivals. So if you if you win a couple more, then obviously you have a higher chance of being picked, I think. I hope!

So, yeah, it’s a good start, you know, because the coronavirus thing really killed the spring for everyone. I started it… I had a premiere in Cleveland, and then Brooklyn and then Huesca in Spain. So now it’s going to play the Short Shorts Film Festival in Tokyo. I got into some other very big film festivals but I’m not allowed to talk about that yet!

FF: What advice would you give to budding writers trying to get into the industry?

JO: I would say that, first off, you need to practise obviously. If you have an idea you need to practise on yourself. I don’t think you should see that every idea you have is worthy of a film! Because I think, there’s a lot of short films out there and I’ve been in the business for, like, 15 years now; I made a couple of short films and I’m trying to embark on going into features now, finally. But if you have an idea that could be a story, I try to work on the idea for a long time and see if it’s a good story because a lot of short films are just a scene, or a situation and, to me, well, some people like that, you know, some people like to watch a situation, but I like to see a story. And it’s difficult to make a good story in like 10 – 15 minutes and to have that, you know, beginning, middle and end but I think you have to practise on yourself, write a lot…

I have lots of scripts that’ve never been made but I can still look at them and take a character, take a scene, whatever, and put it in another script. So, just focus on ‘Ok, I have a great idea. This is a good premise…’ or whatever it is, whatever genre and say, ‘Ok, what can I do? What happens next? What would be the ending? What’s the natural ending of this?’ and don’t focus on ‘Oh, this is cool idea. Let’s make a film!’ Yeah, that’s the start, but then you have to chisel it out. You know?

FF: What advice would you give to budding directors as well?

JO: Listen. Listen to your team. Don’t be the one that thinks you know it all because you don’t.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to say ‘I don’t know’. Because you don’t know everything. You have a vision but you have people around you, hopefully, that are there to help you to paint your vision. And a lot of people around you, friends or other equals, they often have good ideas; let them in, let the ideas in, you’re always free to say ‘no’. But listen and then when you feel comfortable with what you want to do and you’re comfortable, ‘yeah that’s a good idea but I don’t think it works for this one… because people coming from the side they might say ‘oh that’s a cool shot, that’s a cool idea!’ Yeah, but it doesn’t fit story.

So, listen to people and just interpret all the ideas from your friends and colleagues. And finally, you have to listen to you. When you have worked a lot – because I’ve been in the industry – I’ve been working as a production manager, editor, I’ve been, you know, all round the place, behind the camera… And finally, you get experience. Yeah, from set, from how it’s done, you know? So, you’re not a director straight away. Even if you have good ideas, you’re not a director straight away and if you just want to be a boss, you’re not the man or woman for the job, I think.

Madeleine Martin and Joel Odmann in Alive (2020)

 FF: Are you finding ways to work in film despite the pandemic? And, if so, what are you working on at the moment?

 JO: We didn’t have a lockdown. We have our restrictions and filming has begun again in Sweden.

 My wife, she’s a DP and she’s shooting a series now. We have a COVID coordinator that, you know, takes your temperature and gives you hand sanitiser every other hour, you know, and checks in all the time. And we have this restriction: we can’t be more than 50 people and we have social distancing.

 So, it’s [filming] starting slowly to come back. I’ve been lucky; I had a shorter series in April with a smaller team. I think we were like 20 – 25 people and when the pandemic came – because we started in late February – when it, you know, really broke out in mid-March everywhere they decided not to close down because we were a close family. And so, yeah, we managed, no one got sick and it worked out quite nicely. You know, if you just plan ahead then I think it works out and… I’ve been writing most of May and June. So, right now I’m working on a TV series that got picked up by our national broadcaster, so we hope to shoot it. There’s a big, you know, big epic thing, 1890s set, in next June or July. So that’s what I’m working on. And I’m working on two features as well. Two years ago, I made a short film called 2nd class that was, you know, quite successful on the circuit and people were asking if you should make a feature of it and I wrote a feature out of it. And now we’re trying to finance it, it’s really really hard… difficult to finance a film. So now we’re hoping for Netflix. And if they like it, yeah, hopefully we will start shooting soon.

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