Driving Mum's tune up

Hilmar Oddsson on how music and theatre help his road trip roll

by Amber Wilkinson

Hilmar Oddsson on the theatre troupe in Driving Mum: 'The first rule in improvisation is, you always have to open doors'
Hilmar Oddsson on the theatre troupe in Driving Mum: 'The first rule in improvisation is, you always have to open doors'
When we sat down to chat with Hillmar Oddsson about Driving Mum - which sees a man, Jón (Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson) take a very unusual road trip with his mother (Kristbjörg Kjeld) - we talked about the cast, aesthetic and setting, which you can read about here. Our conversation also included a discussion of other elements of the film that add to its absurdist atmosphere, chiefly the score by Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits and the use of a theatre troupe as a chorus that help to connect Jón to a memory from his past.

If you were listening to the music without watching the film, you might expect it to be accompanying American landscapes. The bluesy feel of parts of the scoring carries with it the suggestion of riding a horse as much as driving a car, although the sense of journeying is strong.

Oddsson says: “For me, if I have to compare it to something, it was a sparkle of Costa Rica and that kind of music.

He adds: “I opened the door quite early, when we decided to do an Estonian co-production on the film. I have always worked, more or less, with two composers and I was somehow ready to give this something else, something different. Estonia has a great tradition, with music. It's a high standard choir culture. So I could well imagine using an Estonian composer and Marianne Ostrat, my Estonian co-producer, gave me 10 names, something like that, with links, so I could listen to their work.

“The first name on the list was Tõnu Kõrvits and I thought, ‘He's good’. Even though he had a very strong personal style, like most good composers have, he was also diverse. I thought, ‘There is another soul there as well’ and I was not surprised when I found out that he had been in a rock band, even though he's a highly cultural, educated composer with a big C. I like that kind of combination.”

The director explains that, as with most films, the soundtrack used to help set the tone and idea for the editor is often different to the one that ends up in the finished film. As the score develops, these segments are gradually replaced.

In addition to newly scored music, Oddsson adds : “I used one of these old compositions, which we tried by coincidence in one driving scene, it’s cello and choral voices. It’s so beautiful and he liked that piece himself in that spot. But it was something he had already recorded and published.”

Oddsson admits he is “very detailed” because he is a musician himself. He says: “I studied cello and I was brought up with classical music, but also pop and rock. I'm still a member of a band in Iceland and I’ve done seven or eight albums. The group is called Melchior. “I'm very aware of the musical side of my films and they’re quite important for me.”

The director has, in fact, turned his hand to composing scores for some of his TV work, but he laughs and adds: “I don’t do it when it really matters. I know there are those who can do it better and I don’t think I should do everything. There is a part of one song of mine in the film. You hear a song, and he's sitting by the fire and then comes the comet, which he misses. Then you hear an old song, I wrote it when I was 16 years old or something, it’s kind of a personal joke.”

In the event, the composer and director forged a good working relationship.

“We never disagreed on anything,” says Oddsson. “I decided from the very start to be quite frank, and always honest with him if there was a sparkle of thoughts about anything, because I had said to him, ‘It's not about what I think, it’s about what the music is saying. The important thing is getting the right message.’ If I thought the music was not, then I told him, and he always took it so well, he never tried to disagree with me. He was so humble in that he knew his role. He knew exactly how he should approach it and what was the role of the music.”

The music deliberately adds an offbeat vibe to the film in places and so does the presence of a group of street theatre performances who Jón sees repeatedly and who may or may not be as much a figment of his imagination as anything else. The group were genuine street theatre performers in Eighties Iceland, called Svart og sykurlaust (Black, without sugar)

“They made their own film,” says Oddsson, “And I worked with them at the time on a film, it was a road film as well, in Italy. For five or six weeks we were in Italy and they were doing their theatre shows. It was street theatrend it was all about capturing the moment. They liten and wait and watch and do something. There are certain keys to their performance in the film. Like the very ending? Then the key was Chekov, hence the Russian or Slavic element of the film. They are telling stories as well.”

A female member of the troupe reminds Jón of an old girlfriend - a subplot that runs through the film.

“I was very strict on that. Everything she says should not reveal that she knows exactly what he's talking about because she works by the laws of Improvisation. The first rule in improvisation is, you always have to open doors.”

Oddsson previously told us that the idea for the film first started in 1994 - so does it feel different to finally finish a film that has taken such a long time to develop?

“It’s quite an interesting question, because I was asking myself yesterday because it was the world premiere. It is probably something that comes with age and experience, but I was surprisingly calm. Probably because I knew what I had and I knew that nothing could or should go wrong. I was ready for anything. I mean, I know you can never be sure of the audience reception, that's just how it is. You have to accept whatever comes. But I feel quite good about this film. t was also emotional for me. It was more emotional than feeling nervous. I was not stressed at all, I've seldom felt so well at a premiere.”

It seems Oddsson’s gut instinct was right because not only was the film well received by audiences, it went on to win Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival’s Grand Prix, while Tõnu Kõrvits also picked up an award for Best Original Score.

Read more about how Oddsson got Driving Mum on the road.

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