VHS forever

Kristian A Söderström on tapes, addiction, open endings and Videoman

by Jennie Kermode

Stefan Sauk in Videoman
Stefan Sauk in Videoman

One of the most unusual choices at this year’s Frightfest is a Swedish film called Videoman, which stars Stefan Sauk as an obsessive VHS collector trying to recover a rare tape that could change his fortunes, and simultaneously embarking on a new relationship. It’s a downbeat, thoughtful film shot in a realist style and it really stands out amid the rest of the selection. On the second day of the festival I spoke to director Kristian A Söderström, and started by asking him how he was finding Frightfest.

“I had a great night yesterday,” he told me. “ I saw the opening film, The Ranger, and was at the opening party.”

Videoman is a very different kind of film from most of those showing at Frightfest. How did it find its way into the selection?

Videoman director Kristian A Söderström
Videoman director Kristian A Söderström

“I think it was mainly because of Alan Jones. He really liked the film, and I think it’s a film that many can maybe see a bit of themselves in. It’s more about the crowd watching the horror films than it is a horror film.”

I ask Kristian if he’s a fan of VHS himself.

“Yeah. I’m not collecting anymore but I’m a fan of old formats. I have a hard time coping with everything going digital. I love Blu-rays, of course, because I want to see films in great quality, but not having anything in my hand, I can’t cope with at this moment in my life.”

I’ve heard that the film’s central character, Ennio, is based on a real person from Gothenburg.

“Yeah, that’s right. There was a video store owner I met many years ago and he was so fanatic about running this business and everything around it. I had many talks with him and then I found the feeling that went into my film, because he was so alone and it was like he had built himself a prison using his big passion. That contrast was interesting to me, and also the sadness and the dream.

“I wanted to see if this person could find a way to get out of his own head, and in this case he needed someone else to help him do that and to help him see his own limitations.”

The film deals with alcoholism but Ennio’s relationship with VHS seems almost like an addiction as well.

“Right. It’s about addiction on those two levels, and also being very passionate about something and being too passionate. You can be too passionate about alcohol and you can be too passionate about collecting films and about the Eighties and stuff like that!” He laughs. “The two homes for the two characters I wanted to be Eighties themed, lighting-wise and in other ways. It’s a metaphor for what’s going on in their heads. When they step outside it’s cold, it’s winter and the lighting’s more realistic. And then, of course, the music is a big element as well.”

Life gets risk in new ways for Ennio as the film develops...

Videoman poster
Videoman poster

“I wanted to have his life almost becoming like one of the films he’s watching. I mean, it’s not entirely clear if this Faceless character or the way that she looks at it is his imagination or a delirium caused by drink. I wanted to leave that a little bit open. And when he’s stuck in his television it’s a metaphor for him being stuck in himself, in his passion. And towards the end his passion is coming after him, so to speak. His passion is chasing him out into reality.

“I wanted to at least open the door, to look into the door of a possible change, but I don’t know, with these characters, maybe in a month they will be back in their old shoes again. Hopefully not, but I think it’s tough to make a film where a character is changing completely, so I wanted to more hint at change than to really go through with that... I would need to do another film for that. So for me that’s a realistic way of dealing with change. It’s often the route of films, that characters need to change. I met that halfway.

“I always like to leave kind of an open ending where there are a few possibilities. You can go home and think about it then... Where are they going, after? I want to leave the audience thinking about that.

“I’m really interested in real people and combining that with people’s dreams and a few surrealistic elements. I’m really fond of the setting of horror films and the tone of horror films, but also in love with films like Mike Leigh’s that deal with everyday people. I would like to try and make maybe in the future a horror film with real people in it. I think Ben Wheatley and, maybe, Alice Lowe, are making really good films in the same landscape that I want to move into.”

How did he work with the actors to get the performances that makes this work in Videoman?

“We had a lot of preparation, talking about everything from mannerisms and how to walk to their psychological backgrounds, so most work was done beforehand. On the set I don’t like having marks for the actors, I want them to be pretty free, so if they have the psychological background of the scene and the character I want them to try doing the scene as if it was for the first time. If I don’t like what I see, I move them around a bit – maybe we should start the scene here. I always stick to the dialogue but apart from that I try to change things around to make it feel like it’s done for the first time.”

Lena Nilsson in Videoman
Lena Nilsson in Videoman

Kristian is known for having worked with one now very famous actress early in her career – Alicia Vikander, who starred in his short film Darkness Of Truth in 2007. I ask how it has felt to watch her career blossom since them.

“I have a lot of people contacting me about that film, wanting to see it because it’s so hard to get. Fans of hers,” he says. “It’s been incredible to see her so fast becoming so huge. Now I see her seldom, because she’s so busy, but I have good contact with her mother. It’s great fun and I think that I was one of the first people that really saw her potential. She was so naturalistic. She’s so beautiful and intelligent and talented and those three things are a deadly combination I think.”

So what’s coming next in his career?

“I’m hoping to do a film that’s closer to the horror genre, and film that has a focus on character and a bit of black humour. It would be a dream to do it in English as well, to maybe reach a broader audience, so I’m talking to a few people about this and I’m writing the script. That’s my dream project. I also have a few Swedish things in the pipe but this is the one I’m trying to get done.”

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