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Jean-Louis Schuller • Director of Hytte

“The people who are drawn to Svalbard are in many cases lost characters who start over at the end of the world”


- We met with the director of this Luxembourg-Belgium co-production which tells the story of a man in search of identity and meaning

Jean-Louis Schuller  • Director of Hytte

Hytte [+see also:
film review
interview: Jean-Louis Schuller
film profile
(the word means “cabin” in Norwegian), is Jean-Louis Schuller’s first fiction feature film, depicting a search for identity at the edge of the world, on the shores of Norway’s northernmost territory: the archipelago of Svalbard. Before this film, featured at the 11th edition of the Luxembourg City Film Festival, Schuller (who’s also director of photography on the film), co-directed documentaries such as Black Harvest [+see also:
film profile
in 2014 with Sean Clark, and High/Low in 2011, with Sam Blair.

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Cineuropa: Could you tell us about the relationship you have developed with Svalbard, this atypical arctic island territory? How did you find out about this place "on the edge of the world" which seems to have proven really fascinating for you…
Jean-Louis Schuller
: I discovered this place while researching a different project about the Anthropocene. Although it is very remote, its multitude of hotels, adventure companies and cruise ships make it represent an image of a modern travel destination in a globalised world. Together with its epic and dreamlike landscapes, it quickly appeared to me as a great location for a feature film. Furthermore, the people who are drawn to Svalbard are in many cases lost characters, like Luc, who start over at the end of the world. I tried to incorporate some of these characters in the film and have them play themselves, like the Russian builder, Aleksei. The tourists you see in the film were picked off the street on the day of filming.

You mostly shot on location: tell us about this experience and the collaboration with the crew on site and the inhabitants.
The crew on location consisted of only a handful of people, Jérémie Dubois (scriptwriter), the actors and myself. Working as a small team allowed me to shoot for longer and it gave me the freedom to experiment and to find out what I wanted to express. Inspired by the encounters and feelings that we experienced, most ideas and scenes were written on location, often fine tuned through improvisation with the actors. All the smaller roles were played by local people that we met or picked off the street on the day of filming, giving it some authenticity.

What is your main character Luc looking for? What is he running away from?
Luc is running away from his duties as a father and the pressure of expectations built by the world around him. He feels crushed under this weight and buys himself some time out on a remote island in the hope of finding himself. There is also the idea of finding peace in pure nature that I think is a natural condition of the human being. When everything fails, part of us wants to withdraw into the wild and recover our primal instincts to re-centre our inner clock. There is nowhere else to escape from our technologically saturated globalised world. This seems to have a particular resonance now with the global pandemic.

On the other hand, what about Ingrid, the female character? What are her expectations?
With the arctic winter being long and desolate and with less than 2,000 people on the island, she sees an opportunity to have some new company with Luc. And although she can see through him perfectly well during their very first encounter, she decides to play along with this romance. She obviously needs to fill a gap, to fulfil her need to have an intimate relationship on this desolate archipelago. Acting as a kind of “muse” she finds pleasure in guiding Luc onto a path to find himself. She is strong and confident, creating a counterpoint to Luc.

Can you tell us a few words about Luc Schiltz, a Luxembourgish actor who is currently involved in many projects (he stars in the Capitani series, and  in the docu-fiction An Zéro - Comment le Luxembourg a disparu [+see also:
film review
interview: Julien Becker
film profile
). What do you like about him?
I like Luc’s vulnerable expression and gentle body language. We are the same age and had a similar education in Luxemburg going through similar experiences which makes us relate to each other well. And on a project like this, working closely together as a small team, sharing an apartment over a long period of time, having a good relationship was primordial. Luc also has experience with improvisation which proved to be very useful on this project as we did not have a script on the first day of shooting.

Hytte places great emphasis on landscapes. How did you film them and what cinematic references did you have in mind?
I did not really use any visual references for Hytte as I feel they would have crowded my mind too much. I let my feelings guide my framing according to what I see in front of me. This is why I like to spend a lot of time on location so I can take it all in. I do like to contrast an epic wide landscape shot with the intimacy of a close up on Luc’s face. It reflects the scale of nature versus man. Moreover, establishing the visual style of this film came by setting limitations on how much the camera was allowed to move. As I was operating the camera as well as directing the film, shooting with a fixed camera as much as possible allowed me to concentrate on what was happening in front of the lens. This fixed camera approach became part of the visual style of Hytte.

The feature film is relatively short: 76 minutes, and its subject (a quest for metaphysical identity) could induce a slow pace. However, your story is very rhythmic. Was that your intention in terms of editing?
I like to be economical with the screen time and every second has to be earned. When it doesn’t add anything to the story or experience to the viewer it has to be cut out. My biggest influence and inspiration dates back from my early days at film school: Wong Kar-Wai. Although Hytte is not comparable to his films, I do like the contrast of hard cuts and a well-paced film to keep the narrative evolving forward rather than staying static for too long just to tell that a character is lost. The narrative of Hytte felt right at 76 minutes screen time, it wasn’t something I pondered on too long.

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(Translated from French)

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