Karl Sterner Illambra Interview

Conversation with Karl Sterner, a passionate young author from Sweden: Karl talks about his work as a fully independent filmmaker, about his background, inspirations and past and future projects. You can check out the series of his short films “We also want to play” in our online library – click here to watch.

ILLAMBRA: Tell us a bit how you became a filmmaker, and why are you doing it?

KS: I started writing just after I graduated from high school. First poetry and short stories but soon a novel. After a couple of years I began experimenting making sketches, knowing very little about filmmaking, just letting creativity flow and always with my focus on the script. Soon I started working on a full length movie script which I sent to a producer who surprised me by getting enthusiastic. A project that never succeeded but became my learning book. Trial and error all the way through.

Although I started writing when I was 19, I have come to realize that story telling has been a large part of me and all the games I played on my own ever since I was a little kid. All the worlds I created with my stuffed animals and imaginary friends was much the same as what I do now only applied onto the mind of a child. Add to that the fact that I love watching people, trying to understand their behavior, and I guess that’s why I work with film; there are simply lots of things I want to cast light on.

ILLAMBRA: You mentioned to have started as a writer. Could you tell us more about influences and inspirations for your films?

KS: I guess I find most of the inspiration in real life. People I meet who in some way makes me wonder why they are the way they are and so I start fantasizing about their lives and often get inspired to try to portrait them in film or text. But there are of course writers and filmmakers who also have inspired me, for example Miranda July, a brilliant writer and director. Moving on to some name dropping there are a bunch of Swedish writers who were active in the first half of the twentieth century who I admire deeply, for example Harry Martinsson and Eyvind Johnson. John Williams and Kazuo Ischiguro are other examples and actually I read a lot more than I watch film.

ILLAMBRA: Why film? In which way the motion image enhances your ideas and do you see it as the best tool to express yourself?

KS: A film experience is much easier to share with a lot of people compared to a novel. It is also easier to show a film than what it is to make someone read a book. These are great advantages and sometimes an idea comes to me as film and sometimes simply as a story to be read. Nowadays people read less and less, unfortunately because in books the reader’s fantasy is allowed to co-direct more freely than in film especially today’s film which is full of action and cuts leaving little time for reflection. Still of course, done in the right way you can illustrate your ideas beautifully through film. 

ILLAMBRA: Working with a script seems to be the fundamental for all of the films you did. Do you also improvise, when it comes to the structure of your stories?

KS: Yes, the script is my main focus, especially when it comes to the characters, it is both fun and interesting with strange people but you always have to be true to them and never make them do or say things that goes against their persona. Keeping the characters in mind and what they would reasonably do we always improvise. I ask the actors to maybe keep some certain punch line the way I’ve written it but apart from that focus on being they way the person they act would be and that is easier for them if they don’t have to remember the exact lines. The different shots often becomes more vivid if some lines change a bit.

Working on “It is more fun to give than to take”

ILLAMBRA: Your work represent a great mixture of a social satire and sympathy for the “small man”. Warm-hearted is the term that comes to one’s mind when watching your films. The subtle humor that you constantly use is nevertheless sharp, but you never mock your characters and always remain respectful for all the human weaknesses, confusions, for their loneliness and despair. Is human fragility a central motif of your work? Tell us a bit more about that.

KS: Haha, your question here better describes what I try to achieve then what I would have managed to write. So I would simply like to say: Yes! Trying to develop it further I guess I always in life try to be as tolerant as possible with all the people I meet and see their weaknesses for what they are – a weakness, something we shouldn’t judge. Still it can be frustrating to live with people for the sake of their oddities or weaknesses but there must be space for everyone so we have to find other ways to deal with our frustration over other’s shortcomings and here comes the warm humor. We must be allowed to smile or laugh at one another without mocking. We can often laugh in a friendly way at the people we love and this we should explore and instead of anger at some people’s strange behavior we should embrace the fact that we are all different and how boring life would be if it wasn’t so. 

ILLAMBRA: We are proud to have a series of your short films in our online VOD library called “We also want to play”. Can you give us a bit of background how they were made?

KS: All my films at Ilambra are zero budget in the sense that I’ve financed them myself. My series of short films was made basically without any budget while the feature film had a budget of about 15 000 euros and the challenge of our entire team travelling through Europe by train. But apart from the location steadily changing for the feature film we had much the same approach. Breaking it down chronologically it has always started by me working on my own writing the script, already with the actors in mind being able to tailor-make their roles. All the short films were filmed in one day and the feature film in eleven so shooting days have always been very intense and long. Working with a small team of close friends, all amateurs, we’ve actually always managed to get what we had scheduled for. I should mention that I always write the script in a way so that I know that we can pull it through.

My friend Fredrik Lotto has done a great job behind the camera especially considering his lack of professional experience. Especially when making the feature film we had decided not to be “too ambitious” and instead make sure to maintain the same level throughout the film. We have almost never used any special light and in scenes with dialogue we have therefore often been able to use two cameras.

Few of my actors have had a lot of acting experience but they have of course all been chosen because I have believed they can act. Good acting is fundamental and together with the script my main focus. When directing I always try to be open and kind, nudging rather than pushing and always asking before to see what my actors feel comfortable doing. I’ve been lucky to find among my friends people who really can act. In the feature film we’ve also had to use lots of extras whom we’ve met on the way, but given simple instructions and lots of encourage we were all surprised on how well most people performed.

When done filming, I have edited the films myself using Final Cut. Also producing all the music together with friends, not using studios but filling rooms with carpets, blankets and pillows cushioning the sound and making the recordings good enough. For some scenes we’ve had to retake sound, a hard task I’ve realized is often best done outdoors.

The one thing that I found hardest has been producing a good sound and I sometimes wish I would have invested more time in learning sound and more money in good microphones.

Karl Sterner and his crew

ILLAMBRA: And now, our favorite question (being an online VOD platform we are surely curious when it comes to distribution): Most probably, it is easier to make a film made than to get it seen, shown and distributed. Can you tell us some of your experiences with the audience, audience feedback, and the channels you used to get your films to the people.

KS: Sadly enough, I agree. When I was finally finished with my first feature film, which I had made totally independent and with my own savings (even borrowing money) I knew nothing about distribution. I knew I was naive even trying out on my own but still it was hard to realize that little or no help was to be found since I had no foot in anywhere. I had to learn little by little covering up for the mistakes we had already made producing the film. I spent a lot of money sending my film to different festivals (mostly through FilmFreeway) receiving many rejections but finally some entries and eventually also some festival awards. This, I believe, was necessary in order to get anyone to watch the film.

Still to take was the big step of reaching out to Swedish cinema and I had no idea of how. Left with no other option than basically emailing some info@ trying to present myself and my film to whomever would read my email. The big distributors all came back with a short “no”. Eventually I managed to get screenings at some independent cinemas and I was lucky to have film reviewers visiting some of the first screenings all loving the film and writing overwhelming critics. After that I almost managed to get the snowball rolling but not really. In the end I wrote to almost every cinema in Sweden and some got interested but most of them have a very small audience and I no money and little knowledge of marketing so even when I succeeded in smaller cities only a handful showed up. Same thing in some other countries where I managed to convince some cinemas of showing my film, much thanks to quoting one of the reviewers who had compared my film to Ruben Östlund.

Probably the most positive experience has been through an organization of film clubs spread out in Sweden which have a large membership of cineasts. I got to visit quite a few of them presenting my film to full cinemas, having great discussions with audiences always being surprisingly positive about the film. Visits that finally made all the work worthwhile.

ILLAMBRA: What do you dream of working with film?

KS: I hope to one day be able to work with film, developing stories with a team of inspired film workers, not having to worry about money and gaining finances for production. To write scripts knowing that I have a good chance of getting them filmed and shown to an audience.

ILLAMBRA: Is there any upcoming projects in the near future?

KS: Yes, although I’m having trouble financing my work. I’m at the moment trying to build a film collective in order to create new and better productions and make and to make it easier to reach out with our films. We recently finished our first joint short film, which we will apply for to different film festivals, but corona makes it, as you know, harder since lots of film festivals can’t run as usual. We are also investigating the possibility of creating a YouTube channel to expose more easy accessed film, like funny sketches.

ILLAMBRA: Thank you very much for this lovely conversation. We wish you the best of luck and are looking forward to your future films.

The films of Karl Sterner are available for streaming on Illambra – click here to watch.