Based on a beloved novel, Blizzard of Souls recounts the events surrounding a pivotal era in Latvian history, as the country fought for its independence in the aftermath of World War I. Told from the perspective a teenage boy who joins the fight, it is an epic tale of tragedy, courage and hope. In celebration of its huge box office success in Latvia and its selection as the country’s official Oscar submission, Awards Radar interviewed director Dzintars Dreibergs, lead actor Oto Brantevics, composer Lolita Ritmanis and cinematographer Valdis Celmins to discuss their experience in making and promoting this ambitious project. Below is an edited version of that conversation.
Shane Slater: For most of you, this is your first time working on a project of this epic scale. How did this team come together?
Dzintars Dreibergs: Let’s not even say epic scale. This is my debut fiction film, the same for Oto Brantevics. It’s his acting debut. We tried to make a team of persons who really cared about this story. That was the intention from the beginning.
SS: Was it difficult to get the project funded?
DD: Actually for the first time, there was special support for this movie to be made. The budget of the movie is less than $2 million but still, a bit more than half came from the state. It’s based on the book by a real rifleman who wrote this book in the trenches, witnessing the war and writing details about what was happening. And it became a very important book for us to realize when was the moment of independence. Where we realized that only freedom could give us the chance to protect our homes and not be marionettes for other countries.
For this, the book was forbidden during the time of the USSR. And when we finally gained independence, it was always in our minds that it has to be made into a film, for younger generations and also people worldwide to understand how it is when your country becomes a battleground.
SS: The tone of the film is very interesting. Even with all the horrors of war, there are many lighter moments. Was that something that was always there in the story?
DD: Thank you for this question. In my book, you can see where I put notes for every joke that is there. There are not many jokes in the book, because the author tries to capture all the war details. But when you read the memories of the soldiers, when you see the pictures, you understand that they are the same as us. The sadder the battle is, the more jokes people try to make the next day, just to tell themselves that they are alive. If you imagine for a moment, guys away from their parents, away from their girls, being together for a while. Of course, there will be a lot of jokes. And this tragicomedy is what makes life. When you can mix funny episodes with serious episodes. That was the intention, to show them as living human beings who go to war.
SS: The lead role is so demanding emotionally and physically. Were you intimidated by it when you first read the script?
Oto Brantevics: Not really. It was very hard for me to do almost anything in the movie because I didn’t have any experience. But I just followed my instincts. Back then I was a person without fear. I could go into very cold water. There weren’t any big challenges. I think it was a very positive thing that I didn’t have experience because it gave me a chance to live it more deeply.
SS: Was there a lot of preparation you had to do before shooting started?
OB: Yes, I was training with other actors. There were preparations before the movie was made but they were more about understanding what we would be filming. For example, specific historical events and important times in Arturs’ life. Not in the same room with other actors, but at home and behind the scenes.
SS: You’re known for your work in animated comic book adaptations. How was the process different for a live action war film?
Lolita Ritmanis: Truthfully, my role as a composer is always to be a part of the storytelling and not necessarily infusing new elements, but to amplify the vision of the director. That goes across all genres I think. This film is very personal. My family came from Latvia. They emigrated after World War II. And I loved having the opportunity to work on this project, where it is such a beloved novel being made into a film. A two hour film for something that could be 30 hours. When I saw the rough cut I was so deeply moved and horrified and touched. Just this feeling of seeing the war through this young man’s eyes. And understanding that there’s not a real difference between where we are in this world right now. Horrors of war and having your freedoms taken away are so close at times.
It was a no-brainer for me and I’m very grateful for this opportunity. While I’m having a successful career in animation, I’ve worked on concert music and a few documentaries and narrative films. To be able to work with these exceptional musicians in Latvia and record over there, my heart and soul was completely immersed in this project.
SS: Were you familiar with the novel beforehand? When we read we are already visualizing the story in our minds.
Valdis Celmins: I read the novel as a kid. My father forced me to. It was really difficult because it’s a seriously big novel. Especially the middle part is so detailed, the author loses the main character for more than 200 pages. It’s totally crazy for a book. But when Dzintars approached me to make a movie, that was one of the most beautiful moments. We were reading it simultaneously and all the time I would call Dzintars and say this crazy, I don’t know how we’ll make it! [Laughs]. We marked the scenes we loved the most out of the book. For both of us, there were some key moments where we understand how we wanted it to look like. The reading was one of the best parts.
SS: War films have historically delivered some of the most memorable images to cinema. Was there any particular scene that you were excited about shooting?
VC: For me, the killing of the mother is the main scene. This is what established the way the whole movie looks. When we thought about the way we would make the movie, we talked for weeks and understood that this is the key episode. We established that all we want to see is what the main character sees. So if we see only through the tiny hole in the window in this scene, then this is the way the movie should look for the whole time. So when we are in the trenches, it’s not that we see a drone shot of war and tanks approaching. All we see is just above the edge, some tiny details that make us guess what’s going on. It enlightens the imagination for the audience. It’s way more powerful than having everything seen.
That was a very important episode for me, but there are many very physical episodes in the movie. With the help of natural elements, we tried to make those acting conditions for the extras and Oto into really a physical experience. It becomes method acting for them and it’s way more powerful. So we tried to use the elements of nature and the real locations of battle to make it more realistic and documentary looking.
SS: The film has been a huge box office success. Were you expecting such an enthusiastic response from Latvian audiences?
DD: Expecting would be a huge word for that. Of course, you always hope for it. For me, it’s very important that the story is seen by people. Otherwise, why would you do it. I really believe films are strong “experience makers.” It’s very hard to learn from other people’s mistakes, but if you make it into a movie then somehow through the protagonist you can go through his experience and take it as your own. And that only happens if people see it.
The moment when people started to come and we surpassed Avatar and Titanic, that was really pleasant. It told us that we touched some strings that needed to be touched. Currently, we have the interest from so many countries around the world. Yet it’s a national story, but also such a personal story of a young boy in the war. It means a lot that it could actually resonate around the world.
LR: I was there at the premiere and what an incredible thing that we were able to experience that before this horrible thing that the world is going through. That we could actually have every cinema showing the movie and it was sold out for a long time. I went to the premiere with the cast and crew, but my husband and I bought a ticket to sit in the 10th row in the biggest cinema. And we had some Americans behind us and there were tears and laughter.
I knew in that moment that it wasn’t just me being Latvian that understood the film was really powerful. It also crossed the international line of reaching the hearts, minds and souls of people, of all races and nationalities. So I think it’s something that everyone should see, just to remind us that we shouldn’t have wars and that we need to respect each other’s freedom. It very much appeals to all people.
Blizzard of Souls is now playing in virtual cinemas.