James Morgan talks about what inspired his gripping tale of wilderness and culture, tradition and modernity, set in the Norwegian Arctic
Life, for many, is quite indoors-y right now, so James Morgan’s short film Seven might just be the perfect tonic. It’s the chance to immerse yourself in the stunning natural landscapes and seascapes of the Arctic Circle and its 24-hour sunlight. Produced through Fable Films, Seven tells a story of retribution and tradition in a remote rural community. A young girl must decide the fate of an outsider who has committed a terrible crime. The choice she makes will change her life and determine the future of her community.
Sit back and take 10 minutes to get wrapped up in a tense, human story set amidst all this beauty. And find out more from James in our Q&A below.
LBB> What was the root or seed that led to this idea? Why was this a story you felt compelled to tell?
James> I’ve always been drawn to these stories that sit at the intersection of environmental and indigenous rights - particularly situations that are being shaken by geopolitical issues happening many miles away. Just as we finished shooting Seven the Norwegian government announced its first new Arctic drilling licenses in over twenty years - a hugely controversial move and many of the extras in the film were actively campaigning against these licenses being issued in Lofoten. So the film felt very timely. The mechanics of the trial were based on elements of cultural practices I’ve seen elsewhere in the world, just transposed to this fictional Arctic setting.
LBB> The film is tackling something very current but seems to touch into something very ancient and I feel like, in some respects, this story could have been a tribe of Vikings and, without the gun and the oil context, would have worked - I'm wondering if this was something you wanted to tap into and what research you did or cultural/historical details you drew on?
James> Hopefully the story is universal in that it’s a small group of people being affected by decisions that take place impossibly far from where they are. It’s a situation that occurs all over the world in various different guises. I guess some of the timelessness probably comes from the landscapes which aren’t so much just a character in the film as an underpinning for all the characters. When Yohana looks to the mountains before they throw the oil worker overboard, she’s not just biding her time, she’s looking to something bigger than her current situation for answers. Those same fjords would have watched on as Viking or other ancient peoples lived and died fighting over similar issues. Resource raiding in spectacular locations is not a modern invention!
LBB> The cinematography is stunning - the wide shots of the scenery and that wonderful aerial view of the burning boat! How did you work up and develop those shots and how did you work with the cinematographer?
James> Ben, the cinematographer on this, is a long time collaborator and also from a documentary background. It was the first drama either of us had shot and so we approached it in much the same way as we would a documentary. There was no camera department on this - no focus puller, no ACs, no lighting crew - just the two of us with batteries and lenses stuffed in our pockets figuring out how to shoot it on the fly. It worked for the type of story we were telling and enabled us to be nimble shooting in boats and from in the water.
LBB> How did you cast the film?
James> The main talent were found by our casting director who worked with agencies in the UK and Norway. The rest of the cast were all family and friends of Gisli - our local producer. His uncle was tasked with both building the funeral canoe, then playing the dead man lying inside it - and then setting it on fire out at sea. He’d never made a canoe or been in a film before. The production became an event in the Lofoten and ended up in the newspaper - so lots of people wanted to be involved.
LBB> The dialogue is sparse yet there's an intensity in the performances - how did you work with the actors to get those performances out of them?
James> I talked quite a bit with the actors before the shoot - basically getting on the same page about their characters and the tone of the story. But my approach was mainly to give the actors all the background, support and ideas they needed, and then keep out of their way - I wanted them reacting to each other’s characters and the environment as much as possible, as opposed to reacting to my notes. We shot the film fairly quickly, only rehearsing the scenes that had more complicated blocking.
LBB> Ultimately there's a, sort of, hope to the film and at least the chance that our humanity will save us - why was it important to end on that note?
James> Having worked across fiction and non-fiction, I would say that people’s outlook on the world is affected at least as much by fiction as it is by documentary - which is a testament to both the power of storytelling and our collective ability to digest it. I don’t think sugarcoating or undue censorship is constructive, but I do believe that storytelling is a privilege that comes with a responsibility - not for good to win over evil, but to not do a disservice to how beautiful and complex the human experience can be. And ultimately the ending in this film was born out of character - the scripted ending involved a more complex set up that wasn’t possible, and so the ending that is in the film was improvised on set and based on what felt right to the actors!