Chosen by Variety as one of 10 Euro Directors to Watch at 2013’s Karlovy Vary’ with her debut “Eat Sleep Die,” a Venice Critics Week winner, Sweden’s Gabriela Pichler confirmed her unique voice with her sophomore pic “Amateurs”, voted best Nordic film at the 2018 Göteborg Film Festival. At this year’s 47th festival, she makes her comeback with “Painkiller,” her first foray into long-form scripted format, co-written with her life partner Johan Lundborg, who also serves as DP and editor.
The six-part series is a feisty socially-anchored comedy, which delves into complex mother-daughter dynamics and gentrification in Göteborg, driving class divides.
As explained by the writing duo, the starting point for the story was Pichler’s personal experience of juggling between her work as a celebrated rising Swedish filmmaker, and the reality of her own mother’s struggle with chronic pain.
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In “Painkiller,” the adult daughter Andrea is a celebrated avant-garde artist, still living at home with her mother Dijana, a head-strong Balkan woman and retired cleaner.
Both try to make life better for one another, with moderate success. When Andrea decides to enrol her mother in her art project, as a way to distract Dijana from her severe chronic pain, things take an unexpected turn.
The quirky female-driven show ordered by Swedish pubcaster SVT was produced by Pichler’s long-time partner Anna-Maria Kantarius for Garagefilm International. REinvent handles world sales.
Variety talked to Pichler and Lundborg ahead of the Göteborg Film Festival, unspooling Jan. 26-Feb 4.
Gabriela, this is your first drama series. Why did you choose the long-form format for “Painkiller”?
Pichler: I longed for trying other formats than feature film. To be able to tell stories with different dramatic structures and more freedom in narrative construction. Working in the half-hour format was liberating. Additionally, the two main characters demanded an entire TV series dedicated to their story. I had no choice!
What was the starting point for the series and how much of the story is inspired by your own experience Gabriela?
Pichler: The story isn’t autobiographic, but highly inspired by reality.
My mom has fibromyalgia, a chronic pain syndrome. She went untreated for 20 years. Things hit rock bottom when I tried to get her into a pain program at a local hospital in Göteborg. They made big promises. But, before the patients could even see the pain specialist, they shut the whole thing down due to lack of resources. It’s a desperate situation when there’s no help in sight and you witness suffering up close.
I’ve often put my mom in front of the camera in my productions; those moments were like little breaks for her, where, if we were lucky, she could be distracted from the pain. We brought that idea into the script- distraction through creativity.
Why did you decide to collaborate with Johan on the screenplay? What special touch did he bring to the story?
Pichler: Johan is a film director, educated at the school of film directing in Göteborg, just like me. He has directed and written scripts for his own films before. He’s full of ideas and possesses a passion for writing that I admire. While I tend to delve deep into situations, character traits, and details, Johan takes responsibility for the content, pace, arcs, and structure. He organizes and is productive, whereas I ponder and contemplate. However, Johan also has passion and a desire to tell the story of the characters with empathy and emotion.
We think in terms of visual solutions and filmic portrayal already during scriptwriting. Our collaboration continues during filming, where I direct and Johan is the cinematographer. In post-production, we both participate in the editing. It becomes a natural and creative collaborative process that spans the entire journey.
Johan why did you agree to board the project as co-writer and what were the biggest challenges in the writing process?
Lundborg: As Gabriela’s collaborator and long-time life partner, I had long felt that a story needed to be told inspired by the drastic contrasts that is Gabriela’s life. How one moment she receives Sweden’s most prestigious film award, and the next she stands desperate at the health center with her mom, suffering from a diagnosis with the lowest status in healthcare.
It’s been heart-wrenching to follow her mom’s struggle with chronic pain, which, of course, has affected us all, close to her. I’ve collected ideas and jotted down scenes and lines for a long time.
A significant scriptwriting challenge was to tell a comedybased on chronic pain. Therefore, a fast pace and funny dialogue were crucial. We wanted short, snappy scenes to suddenly come to a halt when things got serious. The short format was in our favour to tell the story playfully and efficiently. I believe and hope that we have created something different and quite original, that tells something about our society and the time we live in.
Gabriela, could you describe your working method? In your search for authenticity, does casting and location scouting contribute to shaping the storyline and characters?
Pichler: I just try to strive for something that feels sincere to me. This places certain demands on alternative methods, and how the production is organized. For example, casting and location scouting always run concurrently with the writing. Archana Khanna is the casting director I’ve collaborated with for the past 10 years. She is brilliant. By now, we all know each other very well. She is also one of my closest colleagues during rehearsals, workshops and all the immense preparations that is required working with amateur actors.
Your eye for unearthing stellar amateurs defines your filmmaking style. How did you cast Dodona Imeri and Snežana Spasenoska and collaborate with them?
Pichler: It was a challenging project due to the intense shooting schedule compared to my feature films. Many in front of the camera were acting for the first time in their lives. That requires preparations, time, and patience. Finding Snezana and Dodona was a lengthy process. Luckily, they clicked right away. Dodona was just about to start her final year at drama school, and Snezana had to take time off from her job at the lunch restaurant. Both are incredibly charming individuals, open, and empathetic. It was a joy to work together. I’m incredibly proud of their performances and how bravely they elevated their characters to entirely new levels.
From the very inception, you set the tragi-comedic tone with the Balkan mum attending a session on how to learn to live with pain. Could you both comment on the use of humour in the show?
Lundborg: There’s humour in almost every aspect of life. It all depends on the perspective you have. Humour becomes a survival mechanism that helps you get through.
Pichler: It’s always a balancing act. We don’t want to make fun of people’s struggles. I also need to use humour for my own sake. I can’t handle living with the hardships in real life and then dedicate an entire TV series to it, haha….
The city of Göteborg is a character in its own right, but you also discuss gentrification. How bad is the situation in Göteborg and how does it impact diversity in the city which has a history as a haven for alternative culture?
Lundborg: Yes, the theme of gentrification forms the backdrop for the entire “Painkiller.” The mother represents the old Göteborg, the guest worker who came and helped build the city’s prosperity. And the daughter is as much a part of the gentrification process as she is an opponent to it. It’s a fact that artists often play a crucial role in making an area more attractive and thus interesting to investors.
Pichler: My feeling is that Göteborg is currently undergoing an identity crisis. From being a city with a strong identity tied to the harbour and industry, there is now an attempt to construct a new identity. In this eagerness, there’s often a tendency to build and plan away socially vulnerable groups, and those without economic capital.
Lundborg: When we were location scouting, looking for apartments, we initially encountered significant scepticism from tenants who thought we were investors looking to buy the entire building. There was a great deal of concern about what would happen to their rents, and how long they would afford to stay in their apartments.
What aesthetics or other films or series inspired you for “Painkiller”?
Lundborg: Our all-time favourite series is “High Maintenance” by Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair. It’s absolutely fantastic with its humanistic approach and genuine interest in people. At the same time, it maintains a high narrative pace and playful cinematography.
Pichler: We also recognized ourselves in their working method, even if our series don’t have much else in common, it’s a big inspiration to see creators doing something that goes against the usual norm in series production.
Lundborg: In addition, we wanted to break away from our previous films and bounce realism against bold colours and a more heightened narrative.
Gabriela, could expand on the particular issue of trying to make it as an artist with a working-class background, as portrayed in the series? A recent survey in the U.K. said that the share of working-class actors, musicians and writers has shrunk by half since the 1970s…
Pichler: Yes, I read an article about the study. That’s why it’s important for those of us already in the industry to do what we can to broaden it. It means we can’t just stick to the same old routine but need to make more effort. Take risks. My casting team put a lot of work and effort into finding individuals who haven’t followed the typical paths into acting, but still have the talent and charisma that shines straight through the camera.
What do you hope viewers will take away from watching the show?
Pichler: Our two female protagonists that are anything but conventional.
Lundborg: In a society where common spaces are being built away, and certain categories of people are at risk of being forgotten, perhaps our series can fill a void. Plus, hopefully, viewers will have a lot of fun along the way, and maybe shed a tear or two.
What’s next for you?
Pichler/Lundborg: Feature film…again!
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