Meet Swedish film director Joanna Nordahl. In this interview, we talk about what it's like to work in the creative industry, how creatives have the power to influence industry leaders-AND MORE ☺︎
Besides answering these questions, what are you up to at the moment?
I’m in this wavy, quite interesting phase right now of traveling, working from wherever and meeting new people, seeking inspiration and gaining some perspective. That always helps my brain to stay sharp. In any creative job I feel that there’s a fine line between just reacting and actually acting. It’s common in my industry that everything happens very fast; projects just “appear” out of nowhere, like land on your lap and go straight into production the next day and then you find yourself five months later, a bit confused about what you’ve actually invested your time in. I’m really happy to be focusing more on actively searching for projects, collabs and challenges that matter to me on a more personal level.
As a director and visual artist, what do you find about the creative industry that is so difficult, yet so rewarding?
I guess it’s all about this elastic love/hate relationship with living in uncertainty when it comes to just about everything. It can be painful at times to feel like nothing is really familiar; nothing is solid, safe or a routine. Like everything can change at any minute, and it’s hard to feel at home anywhere. Honestly, it can get lonely. At the same time, I find this lifestyle super exciting and rewarding and I feel like I probably subconsciously enjoy being pushed away from anything too comfortable or safe. I want to keep expanding my view on the world, and I can’t see myself slowing down any time soon. I’m very aware that I am privileged to be able to work with my biggest passion; I don’t want to ever take it for granted.
What originally got you interested, and eventually pursuing a career in directing and visual art?
I’ve always needed a way to channel or contextualize my energy and spinning thoughts. I basically grew up on stage; always dancing, singing, acting, doing big and tiny projects with my friends, constantly way too much to do and too little time running between different rehearsals. Sometime in my late teens, I realized I got a much bigger kick out of directing / curating a whole piece rather than just being involved in one part of the production. I really love this whole 'creating something from scratch' concept. To see your vision go from dream / potential to reality / actual is a very special thing, there’s nothing else like it imo.
I am such a nostalgic person and the idea of working for a year on a stage production that would then be shown perhaps a couple of times in front of an audience and then perhaps never ever again? That thought sort of killed me, that the moment would just get lost with time. I wanted to create something that would last ”forever” or at least have a life of its own after the live experience. Film seemed like an interesting route, similar but still very different to stage life. Considering I was already a music video buff, and visual storytelling had the ability to deeply move me I fell in love with it real fast.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received, and have you used it?
A few years ago another director who was mentoring me told me that I need to “count my victories”. As in, don’t just plough through life always aiming for the next big thing. Stop sometimes and think about the stuff you’re proud of, encourage yourself and look at your progress / work wise and as a person. I think this whole talk about “if you’re ever *happy* with your work, you’re over as an artist” is bullshit. The world is tough enough for us to also hate ourselves.
Being a creative, it’s sometimes hard to find a career that will support you as well as keep you motivated. As a creative yourself, have there ever been any moments for you when you’ve second guessed what you do because it might not support you forever?
I mean, if you’re not really rich then starting out in any creative industry (not counting apps and stuff perhaps) will be quite tough. For me it came to a point just a few years ago where I had to make a decision about getting into making commercials or not. A lot of directors finance their personal projects by making adverts, and for a long time I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. Mostly from a moral standpoint. Like I didn’t want to encourage capitalism more than I’m already doing by just being a consuming shitty human. But, then I tried it. And what I quickly realized was that as soon as you’re on the inside of the advertising world you get access to a lot of significant discussions. You also see some really dark stuff, I mean it’s no secret that massive companies are scary. But if you play your cards right you actually have the power to change things. I’ve found myself sitting in conversations with top executives of massive companies discussing representation in commercials and basically teaching them about modern feminism. In a way it’s super annoying that I have to do that, I should just be able to focus on making the films since they’re hiring me to do that and not to educate them, am I right? But still, it is cool to have power to actually influence people on a massive scale.
What’s one song you know all the lyrics to and could belt out in a moment’s notice?
Literally any Britney Spears tune. Love her so much, she’s my spirit animal tied with orcas. Went to her show last year in London and was surrounded by teens who looked way too young to be original-generation-one Britney fans. They didn’t know any of the lyrics. I obvs did. It was sweaty and great.
Working with visual elements, inspiration is a huge aspect. Is there anything specific whether it be films, or music that you get your inspiration from?
For me music has always been my main trigger for inspiration and really helps me get into that trance like state where your thoughts just flow almost uncontrollably. When working on a pitch I like to look through stills, mostly online and sometimes in photography books while listening to a playlist that puts me in a specific mood – and then create worlds from that. I think I’m super sensitive to music, and sometimes I have to go a few days without listening to anything at all because it affects me too much and really drains me emotionally. Some songs I just can’t handle. But it’s always great for working.
Actually I think I get my most interesting and surprising ideas when raving – just spending hours on a dance floor somewhere, moving with the vibrations in the room, letting my mind go completely. That really kick starts the imagination.
I try to look for inspiration in different places and worlds depending on what type of project I’m working on. Like I can get inspired by the fashion scene for one project and by nature documentaries for another, it really depends. I’m also very influenced by creators around me. Many of my friends are artists; writers, choreographers, musicians, illustrators, political activists etc etc – they are all brilliant and inspire me so much. Most of my work is in some way political, and I feel that the current times of hate spreading in the world is triggering me to keep working. I don’t want to be silent. That’s more important to me now than ever.
Who are you listening to (musically) right now?
I listen a lot to dramatic film scores when I’m writing treatments, like Hans Zimmer / Clint Mansell stuff or dance music… When just hanging out I always come back to Riri’s Anti, Fleetwood Mac, Lana Del Rey and The Beach Boys. Obsessed with Kendrick’s latest album like everybody else.
When do you feel most you?
In the summer, when dancing for hours and hours with my best mates to some amazing tunes while the sun is slowly rising over us. That’s such a spiritual thing for me, I love it. And during those selected moments I feel completely at peace with life and with myself.
Your incredible piece Hyperfruit with choreographer and dancer Ludvig Daae focuses on how we communicate online, and this difference between communication that is physical vs digital. Do you think working with this piece, developing it, and touring it has helped you to understand and maybe even approach the idea of communication with relationships in a different way? And do you think it’s possible to have a long distance relationship that involves the internet but doesn't come to the point of an eventual glorification of the relationship/person?
Wow what a question! I definitely find both researching and performing Hyperfruit extremely therapeutic. And studying long distance love and the internet as an emotional tool has helped me understand a great deal about myself and what I expect from physical vs digital contact. I think what the project has proven to me is that physical, live contact is a whole different animal than online connectivity. They should not be treated as interchangeable or even comparable. The rules and expectations you have on a live meeting cannot be translated into an online situation; they need to be treated as additional to each other. Since that realization I never wait too long between visiting my dear ones, as I know that the physicality is crucial. I also try to not have unreal expectations on the online communication. Like I don’t count on a Skype call to make me feel less lonely on a deep level, I know that it can only do so much. The immediate glorification that happens when there’s a screen between you and the other person is both a blessing and a curse. There’s something interesting and exciting with watching someone from a distance, this untouchable feeling. I think you just have to be aware of the fact that the glorification is always there, and realize that the online world is different (not better or worse) to the real world. To me this whole theme and discussion is very 'now' and important, and I feel a great deal of purpose when sharing it with people through the show. I really hope we can tour it in more countries.
Where’s the best place your career has taken you?
The most rewarding part of it all is definitely being able to pick and choose with whom to work with. Reaching that point has definitely made every struggle worthwhile. I’m in constant awe of my brilliant friends and the different geniuses I meet around the world and it’s absolutely insane and amazing to get the time and space to create projects together on a professional level. That’s real luxury to me. Being in that creative bubble with friends and people I look up to. I especially feel lucky to finally be surrounded by so many incredible female artists, as I really missed that when growing up.
How do you feel about the term, ‘Cool Girl?’
I think in this particular context, in a blog by and for creative young women with lots on their mind to share and discuss, I love to be considered a ‘cool girl’ (not to be confused with the Gillian Flynn / Gone Girl description of the Cool Girl, in short meaning “a girl who behaves like she’s one of the dudes but is still sexy and understanding”). When someone tells me that I’m an inspiration to them or that they like my work I do get inspired to keep pushing the envelope, grow by making loads of mistakes, try to work on myself, support other gals etc etc etc.
Answering these questions has made me think a lot about role models and sisterhood, how much I would have loved to have more relatable female filmmakers to look up to or just learn from when I was younger. I’ve also been thinking about how important it is to be open and talk about “failure”, because I feel like female film makers are forced to strive towards being literally –flawless- constantly to even be considered part of the industry, and that there’s no room for mistakes. I think it’s about time that unflawlessness is just accepted. For example - there’s an interesting Swedish TV-show right now called "We CAN'T do it” about the statistics around the stress of being a woman today, I hope that show gets some international attention.
I’ve learnt that success comes in different forms, it’s really important to be fine with not being on top of the game all of the time. I think many things that aren’t generally considered “cool”, like messing up, being insecure, being ambivalent, changing opinions or being openly vulnerable are in fact really cool, as they all push you forward and force you to evolve and learn. If what I know so far can be helpful for someone out there that’s really cool to me.
Hot or Cold? Hot!
Music Festival or Single Concert? Festival
Coffee or Tea? Coffee
Vintage or Runway? Both
Eyes or Lips? Both
To Love or Be Loved? Boootthhhh
Film or Digital? Depends on the story!
Color or Black & White? Color
Movie or Book? Movie
Call or Text? Team texting, always.
Lol! Well, I have these muses in my head – most of them classic stars from the past that I adore style wise, and when in doubt over what to wear I think “Would xxxx approve of this outfit?”. If the answer is yes then I go with it. For example if I wanna look sassy I think about Rihanna, if I wanna look classy I go to Charlotte Rampling in the 60s.
Get More of Joanna
Interview by Caitlin Rance
Photos provided by Joanna Nordahl