Interview: Ali Abbasi on bringing Border to the screen
Josh Slater-Williams | On 12, Jul 2019
Winner of the Un Certain Regard award at last year’s Cannes, and an Oscar nominee for Makeup and Hairstyling, Ali Abbasi’s Border arrives on MUBI UK as a landmark title (read our review here). Aside from streaming on the subscription service, Border is MUBI’s first release – in conjunction with distributor Modern Films, who also released it in cinemas – to receive a Blu-ray and DVD release in the UK. High-profile MUBI-distributed titles Suspiria and Under the Silver Lake are due to follow later this year, although without the co-deal with Modern Films.
The Swedish film is based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let the Right One In), who co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Abbasi and Isabella Eklöf. A curious blend of romance, fantasy, realism and magical realism, Border sees Tina (Eva Melander), a customs officer with the ability to smell fear, develop an attraction to an odd traveller, Vore (Eero Milonoff), while aiding a police investigation. An outsider all her life due to her physical features, Tina learns from Vore that her own animal-like appearance may be because she’s a species that isn’t actually human.
We sit down with the Iranian-Danish director to discuss bringing the unique tale to the screen.
Warning: The following conversation with Ali Abbasi contains minor spoilers regarding a reveal roughly halfway through Border, so reader discretion is advised.
What made you want to adapt John Ajvide Lindqvist’s short story?
The novel has these highbrow and lowbrow things clashing with each other. There’s this whole idea of an existential crisis or pain that she’s going through, not only because she’s ugly, but also because she, at some level, knows that she doesn’t belong to this place and that she’s lost and doesn’t know who she really is. And also, after watching it many times now, what really works for me is the love story. So, you have that. And then you have all these troll things and lowbrow elements. I think it’s a very unique way in the novel where these things are intertwined together. You had this feeling that this could be really vulgar but also really subtle and funny, but also touching. It was hard to put it in a certain category. And I found that really fascinating. I thought, OK, if there is so much of this in 40 pages, then there’s a good chance it can spread out and onscreen you would have the same kind of effect.
I wanted to try to find a realism even in the craziest moments. I would say, okay, if I were a woman and I found out I had a penis while in the middle of having sex with someone, how would that be? I really tried to solve that problem. That’s why those scenes are not made with a specific mood; I didn’t think, oh, let’s make them unbelievable. Let’s make them crazy, let’s make them funny. Instead, let’s make them believable. Let’s make them believable enough so that they could work with other scenes, like in the police station or where she’s working in customs, so that you don’t get the feeling of some parts being more elevated than the others. Everything is part of the same universe. That was the main idea.
Lindqvist’s short story features pages from Tina’s diary. Was a device like that ever considered for the film?
I think when things were going bad in the editing, at one point some of our investors came in with the idea of making a voiceover that explains everything; they thought that the film didn’t really make sense and it would have been easier to follow with that. But I think the main advantage of having those elements, those diary pages, to refer to was that I got a really good sense of Tina, and then I could expand the universe knowing that I know her logic. So instead of trying to make direct use of those pages, we would use them in the sense trying to understand her, trying to understand what she would do in different situations, and then try to grow that upwards from the core of the story.
The two leads wear heavy prosthetics. What were you looking for when casting them?
At the beginning, I had no intention of using prosthetics. I was thinking of finding some people who had this odd character and look and try to maybe enhance that or make it more extreme somehow with little things, but not necessarily with silicone prosthetics. And then I realised that I had to choose: either I had to go after very extreme-looking people and hope that they can play a part, or go for the best actor and then try to make them look like what I need. There was this middle ground with people that look a little bit odd but weren’t necessarily the best collaborators or actors, so it didn’t really work. So, I ended up basing it on who has the best grasp of these characters. Who has really nailed the emotions of the character? And, then I said, OK, well they look great, not odd-looking, so I have a problem. And to solve the problem, the whole prosthetics things started.
Would you say that the metaphorical element of the film is more broadly about minorities in general, rather than any specific group facing prejudice?
Yeah, or just the other. It’s not a movie about the migration crisis or being ugly. Well, actually, it is about being ugly, I will say that. That experience of being ugly is very different from being another kind of minority. In our world, I think the worst thing you can be is ugly. Even serial killers get girlfriends and they’re married in jail, but normal sweet, sympathetic, ugly people, they don’t. We’ve been working so much on the surface of our world that the idea that something is superficial doesn’t make sense anymore. There’s nothing that is deep, it doesn’t work that way anymore. People don’t have this thing of hiding something behind superficial looks. There is nothing to hide and the surface is everything you have.
I’m not on Instagram and Facebook, and that’s why I can also talk about them like they’re something exotic and crazy, but it’s a little bit of that same feeling: people don’t make Facebook posts where there’s hidden meaning in it. It is what it is. And when the world works that way, then I think it’s extra hard to be ugly. It’s extra hard not to be perfect. You cannot get away from that judgement, no matter who you are or what you do, and that judgement is actually much harsher than it has ever been in human society. I think 20 years ago, you had another kind of tolerance for how people could be divergent from the ideal of the time. Now, the amount of tolerance in the media and everything is very small.
Were they any challenges or opportunities presented by the fantastical creatures having very few cinematic examples to draw from?
Yeah. What do they say in marketing: it’s like a blue ocean strategy, when you have to create your own market, like what Apple did with their iPhone. This is a little bit of the same thing with troll mythology. It wasn’t this thing where there was huge competition with a lot of other movies, where we had to adhere to certain storylines or certain characters. But that also meant that we had to start from scratch and there were no real conventions to guide us.
Border is available on All 4 until 27th April 2021.