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Seeking sensations

We are here by accident. Stifling a yawn, Norwegian filmmaker Kenneth Karlstad settles into the worn cushions of a couch across from me, near the windows of Oslo’s Kulturhuset. It’s Friday morning, and a cup of strong, black coffee steams on a table between us. Five minutes earlier, I’d arrived outside our original meeting spot, Café Sør, to find the place closed. I tugged at the locked door, embarrassed to be caught so disorganized, but Karlstad didn’t mind. He was apologetic, too.

– We were out celebrating last night, so I’m a little hung over, he admitted as he shook my hand.

It turns out he had good reason to celebrate. The Norwegian Film Institute had confirmed funding for Karlstad’s current project, a short fictional piece tentatively titled Gutten er Sulten, or Young Hunger. The film will span roughly ten hours, a day in the life of a teenager growing up in a place inspired by Karlstad’s hometown of Sarpsborg, Norway.

– It’s Norway’s New Jersey, he says. As a teen in Sarpsborg, Karlstad quickly found himself doing what he termed “small time criminal stuff.” Drugs, petty theft, vandalism, gang-related violence.

– It was all sensation seeking behavior.

This is the topic currently closest to Karlstad’s heart. He has spent months researching sensation seekers, their tendencies and traits, all in the interest of accuracy in Gutten er Sulten. In some sense, this was the equivalent of taking a long look in the mirror.

– I took these personality tests and had my childhood friends take them too.

Sensation-seekers across the board. Excited by risk. Given to recklessness. Drawn to experiences that are different, unique. For a film director, these potentially negative traits can spin positive.

– I’m easily fascinated

– I want to try everything.

As I sip my mild single mocha, Karlstad leans forward and draws up the sleeve of his jacket to reveal a second sleeve of tattoos running up his arm. These are the remnants of the life journey, which has led him here. He’s the kind of person who needs to try sculpture… Who has surfed the icy waters of Norway’s west coast… Who references both hip-hop diva Beyoncé and Japanese animé master Miyazaki… Who intentionally employs more women behind the camera when his cast becomes male-dominated. He is unafraid of taking sudden left turns in life.

After spending several years working in construction, he diverted his career by entering film school at the age of 26, where he felt his life experience and maturity gave him a certain advantage. He was willing to do things others didn’t have the guts to try. He started making music videos by cold-calling bands he liked.

– I would call them and say, You have to do a video with me. I was overwhelming them, trying to convince them just with my energy. And it worked. Now managers come to me.

Karlstad’s recent music video for Lesson #16 for Beatmaster V/fun, a song by Norwegian noise-rock trio Deathcrush, features a group of pale, strung out teens engaging in the type of sensation-seeking behavior that has captivated his imagination. They ride wild on motorcycles, light things on fire, shoot up in the basements of their parents’ suburban homes, and show off tattoos. By the end of the video the group has developed a bizarre obsession with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, a fixation that manifests in increasingly violent behavior. By the end, they are marching down the street in uniform, in lock-step with a Kim Jong Un lookalike, while the band’s viscously blond frontwoman sings, this is just for fun.

Kim Jong Un was my idea, says Karlstad. His hands move against each other in his lap as he talks about the atomic bomb scare out of North Korea in 2013.

– I don’t have a political motivation. The first idea is always intuitive. It just pops up. It’s always images. It’s like when you have a dream and you’re trying to find out what it is. I’m more interested in psychology than politics.

The Deathcrush video has picked up awards at both the Atlanta Film Festival and Kort på KinoKino in Norway.

Over time, the Kulturhuset café has become crowded. It’s a large room with dark ceilings and tables spaced out, allowing writers and artists and other creative types to work on their laptops without distraction. An older couple, in search of a place to sit, eyes our cozy corner, and Karlstad is quick to give them a green light. In a loose jacket and ball cap, he is an unimposing figure, but I get the sense this changes when he’s on set.

– I know what I want. When I have that kind of certainty, when I’m on set, it’s fantastic. It’s a big rush.

In his artist portfolio on Vimeo there is a two-minute behind-the-scenes clip of Karlstad at work on his video for Eva & the Heartmaker’s Told You, complete with English subtitles. He walks behind the camera down a desolate forest road surrounded by the rest of his crew. Ahead of them, Eva sings and moves backward through a series of choreographed scenes – a car accident, a wardrobe change, a witch burning. Karlstad watches the screen as cameras capture the action; his face is set aglow and he keeps a megaphone close to his lips. Every few seconds he barks instructions into it.

– I can be very ‘shouty, and I need to have a crew that is okay when I’m not sorry all the time, he says.

– I’m very impulsive and very sensitive, so I can be really happy and really angry. I’m very nice to my crew elsewhere, but on set I need to know that they accept that I’m very intense. In the end, everyone is going to be happy because you made a good film. Maybe people on set are pissed at me now and think I’m an asshole, but whatever, we’re going to make an amazing film, if you just do this, if you just trust me.

When Karlstad laughs, he appears younger than his thirty-one years, but when our conversation crosses the line into places he is passionate about, his brown eyes darken. Pointing to surrealist and experimental directors – his favorite film is Possession (1981), directed by Andrzej Zulawski – Karlstad stays true to his sensation-seeking personality when he says of his own work:

– It’s important to me to take a huge amount of risk, to feel like I’m standing on the edge of the cliff all the time. It could totally go to hell and it could be insanely good. When I do that, I bring a huge amount of energy into it. I have learned that as soon as I’m comfortable with something I’m just not doing good at all. I just make shit if I’m comfortable. I need to be under a lot of stress to make something good.

When we near this cliff in conversation, the sensitive, ambitious kernel of Karlstad’s art reveals itself. The cliff is the edge of expectations – from the public, the media, his family – about what a guy from Sarpsborg, Norway has to offer.

– When Gutten er Sulten comes out, it’s not important that it’s a personal story. That’s not what I want to talk about in interviews. Every film is personal. But in pitching the film to NFI, the personal side is important, to prove I know what I’m talking about. They were really excited about it, because you don’t have that kind of story, particularly from that part of Norway.

I’m not familiar with the biases of Norwegian culture, so Karlstad explains:

– It’s a place that is often ridiculed in media and films. You have these stereotypical characters that are from there – working class, dumb people that are funny. It’s a first impression. People are often entertained by these kinds of characters. You have commercials where people speak with that accent and everyone laughs because it’s cute and funny.

For this creative native son of Sarpsbog, the injustice of these regional stereotypes weighs heavily. He sits forward on the couch now, shoulders squared to me, hands clasped in front of him, a position of strength and confidence and resolve. Life begs for examination, even – perhaps especially – in the most dismissed places.

– I just want to tell stories about Sarpsborg that are serious, because it’s a part of Norway that’s not taken seriously.

The subject matter of Gutten er Sulten is potentially painful for many people, including those whose lives actually inspired the script. I can tell by the set of Karlstad’s jaw that there are corners of his life, his family, his work, he would like to remain secretive about, but steering clear of what is personal would go against his principles as an artist.

– You just have to stand in it and try not to worry about how your art makes other people feel.

Of course, this rhetoric is tested rigorously when an artist’s chosen medium is film. Putting your memories and commentary up on a screen, people see it as a mirror. The only way to move forward is without personal judgment.

– Cinema is a huge responsibility; it’s very powerful. You don’t make moral stories anymore. You don’t make Full House, each and every episode ending with a moral, he says.

– When you make films that aren’t moral, you don’t make accusations. It’s more like a search. You’re more curious. I don’t want to prove anything. I trust my intuition.

Looking forward, Karlstad is excited about what the future holds. With Hollywood’s increasing fondness for Nordic storytelling – Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs, which Karlstad hails a masterpiece, is the most current example – it is an exciting time for Norwegians in the film industry.

– The new generation now is really pushing the film medium, he tells me.

– Denmark and Sweden have had their run. It’s Norway’s turn.

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