“Finding Alice”, a drama about a resident aide who takes an old man from a nursing home to find his daughter, won the 2019 Phoenix Film Festival’s World Cinema Audience Award, and director Pablo Fernandez, actress Emma Melkersson and actor John La Briola flew from Sweden to the Valley to soak up some sunshine, meet new friends and celebrate their film.
The Phoenix Film Festival recently caught up with Pablo, Emma and John via an international phone call, and we enjoyed a warm and lively reunion. We discussed the challenges of playing the two characters, the film’s most emotional scene, the future for “Finding Alice”, and much more!
In addition to PFF’s award, “Finding Alice” also won the 2018 Oslo Film Festival’s Best Feature, the 2019 L’Europe autour de l’Europe’s Luna Award, and the 2018 October Los Angeles Film Awards’ Best Narrative Feature, Director and Honorable Mention Actress.
PFF: John, how did you prepare to play Henry, a man with dementia, and what were the challenges?
JLB: In the original script, Henry had a stroke, so I (studied) people who were afflicted with that. As the film went on, we thought that Henry dragging his foot was not the way to go, and we went with dementia (instead). A challenge was (deciding) how “with-it” is Henry?
He has moments of clarity and some capacity for numbers. He’s very preoccupied about how much an overdue library book would cost, so he has some idea that five cents a day for a book that should have been returned in 1965 adds up to (a large) amount, so he’s aware of that much.
I’ve had a few people criticize me about how believable (my performance) is. A woman who has a mother with dementia was offended or something, but other people said that I nailed it, so I don’t really know.
PFF: Emma, you play such a complex character. Right away, I was drawn to the story, because I wanted to understand Erin’s (Melkersson) motivation. When she was making bad decisions in the nursing home and on the road, were you aware of her backstory?
EM: I knew her backstory and how she ended up in the nursing home. She’s trying to just find some sort of stability and closure with her very painful past, and yes, Erin is a complex character.
PFF: Many of the scenes were so thoughtfully framed, especially during a pivotal moment with Henry and Erin while their car was parked. Were there certain scenes that you were really, really meticulous about getting a shot just right?
PF: There is a funny story about that scene. It was framed as a two shot, so we had Emma on the right and John on the left. The DP and I were arguing about this framing. We were shooting the scene, and for each take, Emma is getting better and better, and she’s just amazing. Really great, and the DP decides that Emma is so good, we should get a close-up of her.
Changing an angle of a camera is never something that you do in two minutes. Sometimes, it takes a half hour, and when an actor has reached a (certain) level of emotion, you don’t want to break it. You want them to keep working and keep doing what they’re doing. As we are shooting this scene – and Emma and John don’t see it - but the DP and I are behind a black (curtain) and are screaming at each other. The DP wanted to get closer, and I didn’t want to break this moment. We both had a point. It would help the story to be closer to Emma when Erin is opening her heart, but at the same time, I thought the two shot was really good as it was. We didn’t need to get a close-up, and I didn’t want to break the moment…and we were screaming.
PFF: Have moviegoers approached you after festival screenings to talk about that scene?
EM: In Phoenix, a (couple) came up to me, and the husband was all teared up, and he said, “Thank you. My wife had the same, exact story.”
She was standing next to him in complete shock. She was empty, and he was crying. It was an amazing moment, because he was just so thankful for hearing Erin’s words in Pablo’s script. So, that was a crazy moment. It was true. Those words, they were real.
PF: It’s one of the scenes that people really, really remember.
PFF: Michelle Williams said - in an interview - that she was really nervous about her most dramatic scene in “Manchester by the Sea” (2016). Emma and John, how did you prepare for your scene?
EM: Since, it was my casting scene, I said the words out loud, when I read the script. So, I had them in mind, ever since I got the part. When we shot it, it was about a year (later). I knew that the scene meant a lot, and I wanted to do it with respect.
That whole day, I was in my own mind, listening to music and trying to focus. People tried to talk to me, but I needed to be peaceful. Yea, I was nervous. I was, because I wanted to do it justice.
PFF: Henry seemed to be sleeping during that scene, but do you think that he heard Erin in some way?
JLB: I circled that scene on the calendar, and that was the one that I built up for. On some level, I think that Henry hears her story in his sleep. I don’t think this is a man who sleeps very well at all. I think he has troubling dreams, and even though he can’t complete a thought sometimes, I think the emotions are there.
PFF: “Finding Alice” is a Swedish film, but English is the on-screen, spoken language. Tell me about that choice.
PF: I wanted to reach a broader audience and as many people as possible. I do love Sweden. I do love the environment, and we, as Swedes, should be proud of this film. We made something beautiful, and we made it in a different language, but it doesn’t matter.
PFF: Was there anything uniquely Swedish in the film? For instance, when Henry and Erin walked in the countryside.
EM: I guess we are spoiled. We have beautiful nature here in Sweden, and we (embrace) our environment.
PFF: “Finding Alice” has played at the Phoenix and Oslo Film Festivals…among others. What’s next, and where can people see your movie?
JLB: We’ve been nominated for four prizes in the Madrid Film Festival. That’s coming up in August, and we also got into the Bucharest Film Festival. So, nine festivals in total.
PF: After Bucharest, we don’t know. Let’s see what happens. The hard part with making a film is getting distribution. We hope the festivals are helping us get some exposure.
PFF: I love the two blue cars that Erin and Henry took on the road. The beat up, older one and the shiny, new one.
JLB: One interesting behind-the-scenes-thing is that the muscle car caught on fire. It overheated, and we (ended up) pouring bottled water on the engine. We had to stop shooting every 20 minutes, because the car would overheat, and it actually did catch on fire. Emma and I were both sitting in it, and everyone was running, waving their arms and saying, “Get out!”
PF: I was on the radio and saying quite calmly, “The car is on fire. The car is on fire.” I think the crew didn’t understand what I was saying, but the car was on fire.
EM: We thought (you were saying), “The car is so cool, it’s like on fire.”
JLB: We had a lot of car problems, but it led to a cool, spontaneous, unplanned scene late at night when Henry and Erin are on the bridge looking at the stars. We were stuck in the middle of nowhere and waiting for another car, so we just got out and improvised. It ended up in the film, so I like that moment a lot.
PF: Thank you to the Phoenix Film Festival for having us. It was really a lot of fun, and you guys really took care of us. We felt like we were home.
EM: We had the best time.
PF: I really loved the festival and hope that we can go back. Even without a film, I would like to experience it again. It was amazing.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008, graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and is a certified Rotten Tomatoes critic. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.