As a director, I am constantly in search of goods ideas, stories and characters that I can identify with. When Elling came along, I knew that this was a story that was important for me to tell.
Towards the beginning of the film, the fearful title character says "Some people go skiing in the North Pole, while I have problems just crossing a restaurant floor. " I think that statement is essential in describing the universal appeal of Elling. We all have barriers we struggle to overcome at various levels. For me, it is a story about my own anxieties and phobias, about my own struggle to overcome personal barriers.
I am, first and foremost, a theatre director and Elling started as a play that I staged at a theatre in Oslo. It was a great success, but I was not sure whether or not I wanted to adapt it to film. I had succeeded with this material once and thought that that might be enough. But after a great deal of consideration, I saw it as an opportunity to dig deeper, to broaden the story and to emphasize the focus on these wonderful characters. I wanted to make a heartwarming film about human abilities that gave its audience hope. The focus on friendship and stressing the importance of being there for one another also appealed to me.
I did not, however, want to make the film about psychiatry, which is why neither Elling nor his friend Kjell Bjarne has any particular diagnosis. Rather, their problem is that they have no social experience, that nobody has ever really given them any opportunities or had any faith in them. For me, it was important to emphasize the possibilities and the human qualities within the characters that are not immediately obvious at the beginning of the story. That, essentially, is why I wanted to make this film.
When I decided to direct, screenwriter Axel Hellstenius and I began a six-month period of rewriting his play, an adaptation of Ingvar Ambjørnsen's best-selling novel. The stage version had started with Elling and Kjell Bjarne arriving in their new apartment and then focused almost entirely on their lives indoors. For the film version, we wanted to bring in some new characters. For instance, the character of Alfons Jørgensen, the elderly poet who plays an important role in the film, was not in the stage version.
Producer Dag Alveberg and I initially agreed not to cast Per Christian Ellefsen and Sven Nordin, the actors who originated the roles of Elling and Kjell Bjarne onstage. But after two months of casting, we realized that the 120 performances of the play Per Christian and Sven had performed in made them well suited to inhabit the roles onscreen.
Elling is only my second feature film. Having come from the theatre, I find it helpful to rehearse heavily, a practice normally uncommon in the Norwegian filmmaking tradition. With both of my films, I had five weeks of rehearsal to revise the script, to stage scenes and to help the actors in adjusting from theatre to the film medium. I prefer to use plenty of time rehearsing in order to save time shooting. My first film, Absolute Hangover, was shot in 25 days and Elling took only 34 days. I find that it's cheaper to rehearse and it also gives the actors an opportunity to get to know one another, as well as the key members of the crew.
Since the character in Elling are strong personality types and don't behave like "normal" people, it was important, as well as difficult, to find an appropriate level for strangeness in the acting styles of the performers and to create the right balance between humor and seriousness. I wanted the audience to laugh because they felt for the characters and not just because they found them strange. Instead of doing research in mental institutions, we all relied on our own experiences and personal responses from people who are either employees or patients at various mental institutions.
Ultimately, my goal with Elling was to make an unpretentious film, one that relies upon its story and is told entirely through its actors. The artistic obstacles that I and everyone involved with the film have faced have all, in one way or another, stemmed from our struggle to successfully balance comedy of Elling and Kjell Bjarne's adventures with the right amount of drama. This has been a challenge all the way from the casting sessions through the rewriting, rehearsals, shooting, editing and mixing. The resulting film has become very popular in Norway, Scandinavia and Europe.