Sanna Lenken is one of the female filmmakers to watch out for at the BFI London Film Festival as she is set to make her feature film directorial debut with My Skinny Sister, which looks and eating disorders through the eyes of the sufferers younger sister.
We caught up with Sanna to chat about the film, why she wanted to return to this subject matter, and screening her first feature at the BFI London Film Festival.
- You have just returned to the director's chair with new film My Skinny Sister, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
My Skinny Sister is about a twelve-year-old girl who discovers that her big sister has an eating disorder. For me, it is a film about growing up and coming of age - in Sweden we don't have the perfect word for that - but it is a coming of age story.
- You have explored anorexia before with short film Eating Lunch, so what made you want to return to this subject for your first big-screen feature?
Fifteen minutes was not enough (laughs). I was writing My Skinny Sister at the time, doing a lot of research, and then I met this young girl who told me her story. What she told me didn't fit into the feature film but I thought that it would make a great short film; I actually made it because of her as I felt that I needed to tell that story as well. It was basically through the course of the feature that I made the short film.
- You have been quite open in the fact that you also suffered from anorexia as a teenager, so how much is the film influenced by your own experiences? And how much and what kind of research did you do as you were preparing to write the screenplay?
It is not autobiographical, but I have experienced some of the same emotions and some of the scenes are from my own life while some of the moments in the film are from the research that I have done; the film is very much a mixture. There are many of my own experiences in there but I would say that the little sister and the big sister in the film are two different sides of myself. With the research... I am healthy now and it was fifteen years ago when I was sick.
I felt like I needed to talk to girls as I didn't want to make a film about myself, I wanted to make something that was more universal. I talked to a lot of girls and families that I found here in Stockholm, I did a lot of interviews, and I also had a reference group who read the script and had been in a family with this illness or had been sick themselves. They read the script, they watched the first rough cut, we discussed the film, and they have inspired a lot of things - especially the parents. I felt that I could tell the story from my point of view, but I didn't want to leave out my parents. There were a lot of people involved in this project.
- Why did you decide to explore this theme through the perspective of the younger sister? Is this the way that you were always going to tell this story?
I started out with the perspective of a sick person. When I was conducting the research for the film, I also talked to my own sister who had watched me go through this illness. I interviewed her and she told me that she had been so scared that I would die; between the age of twelve and fourteen she was scared that I was going to commit suicide or get worse that I was.
Then I thought that if I used the little sister's perspective then it would become a story that was a little bit more universal and also have a little bit more humour. With my short film, I found it very hard to be funny from a sick person's perspective - I tried to have some humour in the film, but it didn't work out. With this feature film, I felt that I had this little girl who had a naïve way of looking at things I could also... I don't mean a humour of someone falling over, but I felt that there was a subtle humour that I could get from this young girl.
I also felt that I could put myself into this little sister, who I was before I got sick, and also tell the story of why you could get sick because the little sister is dealing with similar things that I was dealing with. I thought these two sisters were mirroring the same problems that you can face as a girl.
- Rebecka Josephson and Amy Deasismont take on the central roles of Stella and Katja. Can you talk a bit about the casting process and what you were looking for in your actresses for these roles?
At first, I was doing the casting myself and we tried for a year to find Rebecka Josepheson, who take on the role of Stella, because I realised that it was such a hard part for a child to play. I was reading about a British film called The Selfish Giant and how the director found her leading character in the first week of casting (laughs); for me it took one year. They both had to be warm and brave.
The character of Katja had to have some sort of love that we could feel of her. A lot of girls came to the casting and while they were very good at the acting side of things, they were lacking this warmth that I felt that I needed. When we met Amy Diamond, I felt that she had the mixture of evil but also had a very tender and warm side of her personality. With Rebecka, in the end I was just like 'I need to find a really great child. I don't care who she looks, she just needs to be perfect.' When I was looking I was looking for acting skills; were they good actors? Could I direct them? Are they brave enough to tackle this subject and do emotional and heavy scenes? There were a lot of things to think about.
Some of the children that came into the casting days fell asleep half way through because they would get tired. We needed someone who was up for it for seven weeks and we actually tried Rebecka on a full day of casting, just to make sure that she was not tired by the end of the day. When I found her, I just fell in love with her. It was not a question of who could play Stella; I knew that I just had to be her.
- My Skinny Sister is set to play at the BFI London Film Festival, which gets underway tomorrow, so how excited are you about being part of this ever growing festival? And how important are festival like London for shining a light on independent cinema?
I lived in London fifteen years ago and it was the city where I got well again. For me, it is so great to be back. Amy is actually half-British and she is coming with me to the festival. London Film Festival is a big festival and I don't think that we have screened the movie in Great Britain before - it has played in Ireland.
It is great to finally be screening my film there for a British audience. Every festival is important as you make connections and there are people there who may want to buy the film. Of course, London is a big city with a lot of people. I am not going to every festival that we are invited to but I really wanted to come to London.
- The movie has already been playing on the festival circuit, so how have you personally been finding the response to the film so far?
It doesn't matter which country that we have been screening in because everyone seems to understand it and have the same problems in their own countries - in different degrees maybe. I feel that I touch many of people's hearts with the film actually. There have been so many people coming up to me to tell their own story or that they recognise themselves in Katja and Stella.
I have also had parents who are facing these issues come and talk to me. I really feel like it has been great to travel with this film as it has given me great feedback. South Korea is the furthest away I have been with the film, while my producer has been over in Toronto.
- Finally, what's next for you?
My next film is about to fourteen-year-old girls who are discovering their sexuality in a very funny way. The movie is inspired by a famous Swedish cartoon.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7th - 18th October.