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6 Filmmaking Tips from Mia Hansen-Løve

The filmmaker behind ‘Things to Come’ and ‘Goodbye First Love’ shares advice on working with actors, the importance of location, and not sweating the technical stuff.
Mia Hansen Love (Sundance Selects)
By  · Published on February 6th, 2019

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Mia Hansen-Løve.

As a teenager, Mia Hansen-Løve dabbled in acting, taking on supporting roles in two Olivier Assayas films, Late August, Early September and Sentimental Destinies, as well as film criticism, writing reviews for the iconic film magazine Cahiers du cinéma before turning her attention behind the camera in her twenties.

After directing several short films, Hansen-Løve made her feature debut in 2007 with All Is Forgiven, which follows the relationship between a father, who is battling drug addiction, and his daughter. The film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the Director’s Fortnight. In the time since, she has written and directed five more films, including 2016’s Things to Come, for which she won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Hansen-Løve has established a distinctive voice as a filmmaker averse to artifice whose understated but poignant character studies have consistently drawn praise from critics. Here are six of the best filmmaking tips she’s given in interviews:

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Mia Hansen-Løve

1. Write for location

There are many different ways to approach writing a screenplay. For Hansen-Løve, it starts with a character — “a certain idea of somebody.” And then, as she told The Seventh Art in a September 2012 interview, there’s one other thing that helps shape her screenplays:

“The one thing that helps me construct the film […] is the places, actually […] places have a soul [..]and I don’t even know what’s going to be in the scenes, I just know I want them to be here, and it gives me a frame, and inside that I feel totally free. And I feel also confident that once they are put together it will make the story — I don’t need to ‘tell’ the story, that the story is being told from itself by following the different moments in different locations.”

You can watch the full interview below. The featured quote starts at 13:05:

2. Don’t forget the rhythm

Hansen-Løve is one of the filmmakers who participated in the book Cinema Today: A Conversation with Thirty-nine Filmmakers From Around the World, published in 2010, in which she shares her thoughts on everything from cinematography to working with actors to post-production. As she discussed her approach to editing, she shared the following words of wisdom:

“The editing is another way of writing, but the difficulty is being economical, making choices. You have to make sacrifices. Sometimes you see beautiful things and want to keep them, but the essential thing about editing may be to get rid of things you like, to have the courage to exclude those moments and give precedence instead to the main line of the story and hold to its direction. So when I shoot a scene, I have to forget the script, forget what’s before and forget what comes after. Just think about the present and try to get life from the scene. And after having shot the film in a way to give it as much life as possible, when I cut it, I always have to remember what came before and what comes after. I can’t forget the overall direction, the film’s construction, as well as the question of rhythm, which is so essential. So the shoot and the edit require different ways of working, and the filmmaker’s relationship to the scenes become different.”

3. Don’t sweat the technical stuff

Although a prolific and knowledgable watcher of films from a young age, Hansen-Løve did not go to film school and is very open about that fact. Having stepped behind the camera without rigorous technical training and come out the other side just fine, she has great words of encouragement for aspiring filmmakers hoping to do the same that she shared at the Focus on French Cinema festival in March 2011:

“One [piece of] advice that I would give is not to give too much importance to the technique. I think the only important thing is the meaning—what you want to do, what you want to tell. Never be afraid of how am I going to do [this], will I be able to do it if I don’t know all the techniques of how to use a camera or how to shoot a scene or things like that, because it all comes from the meaning itself in a very natural way, actually, but you realize this progressively.”

You can watch the interview below; the featured quote starts at 4:46:

4. Escape archetypes

Hansen-Løve has developed and maintained a reputation for creating compelling, nuanced character studies with a strong sense of verisimilitude lacking in tropes or cliches. When speaking with the Film Society at Lincoln Center in April 2012, the filmmaker was asked how she achieves this “great sense of freedom” in her work, and her response also doubles as some great advice:

“As to freedom, I try to write with one priority in mind: to search for a sense of truth, knowing that if films have poetry in them, it is because of that. And if truth exists in a film, freedom will come along. On the other hand, it is not something that I wish to claim to myself in an ostensible way. […] If we are looking for some form of truth, it has to come in an implicit way. In film, as in literature, archetypes seem to weigh so much. And whenever we try to escape them, we do reach some form of truth.”

5. Hold back information

In seeking verisimilitude and avoiding expected narrative tropes, Hansen-Løve is known for using a more elliptical narrative style — that is, avoiding showing the most “dramatic” moments in a storyline directly in favor of highlighting quieter, in-between moments (a technique favored by such iconic directors as Yasujirō Ozu and Eric Rohmer). This technique also bestows films with a certain sort of ambiguity. The filmmaker was asked about her use of “withholding information” in a December 2016 interview with Film Comment, and her reply makes a compelling case:

“There are two very opposite ways of withholding information. One way is about creating suspense but ultimately delivering information that is nothing more than information. The other way is to make life bigger than cinema. Which is as it should be. Telling a story is about holding back information, but it can have the total opposite meaning, and for the opposite reasons.”

6. Trust your actors

While she has worked with some of the most acclaimed living actors of our time –Things to Come, for instance, stars Isabelle Huppert — Hansen-Løve has also frequently worked with non-professional actors, including children. Especially in the case of novice actors (though still generally valid regardless of experience level), the filmmaker has the following tip for getting the best performances out of your cast that she shared in a March 2010 interview with Screen Jabber:

“We will always start with improvisation and progressively go through the [script], but through improvisation so that they would say the things with their own words. I really trusted them, and, you know, I think with children that’s the most important thing—and also with adults. I think that actors really feel how they are looked at, they really feel the relation you have to them, and I think that when you really trust them, it gives them a lot of strength.”

You can watch the full interview below; the featured quote starts at 2:07:

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

There are a whole lot of films out there and a wide range of filmmakers. Not everybody is going to make a billion-dollar box-office hit — but also, not everybody wants to. As Hansen-Løve has addressed in interviews, her box-office goal is always simply to make enough money from a film that she can secure financing for the next one, and thus far, her strategy has worked swimmingly. Including the upcoming Bergman Island, currently in post-production, she has made a commendably prolific seven feature films in 12 years. In other words, while filmmaking may be a notoriously competitive industry, there is still room for a wide range of voices and approaches out there.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.