“It becomes a massive responsibility to make a film about a real person’s life”

– The German filmmaker touched upon the movie’s adaptation process and her work with actress Saoirse Ronan

Nora Fingscheidt • Director of The Outrun

(© Sundance Institute/Philip Leutert)

As women, we are not perfect, just like we are imperfect as people. But the saving grace of our imperfections is the empathy we have for other people and ourselves. The Outrun [+see also:
interview: Nora Fingscheidt
film profile
, directed by Nora Fingscheidt, and adapted from Amy Liptrot’s memoir of the same name, conveys that. We follow Rona, played by Saoirse Ronan, at the age of 30 during a time when she is healing from her troubled past on Scotland’s Orkney islands. We had the opportunity to speak to the director about her latest feature as well as her collaboration with Ronan, who served as both an actor and a producer for the first time. The picture screened at the Sundance Film Festival, in the Premieres strand.

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Cinema Femme: Can you talk about the adaptation process, and working with Amy [Liptrot] and Saoirse [Ronan]?
Nora Fingscheidt:
We collaborated really closely throughout the whole process, from the very beginning to the end. I pitched them my vision of the film after I had read the book, because the book is quite difficult to adapt; it’s very internal. It’s the equivalent of journal writing. It has the quality of being inside her head, remembering what happened. You’re also inside her head, observing and processing, and reconnecting with that place she once wanted to run from. Now she comes back and finds healing there. I thought we needed to add a layer into the narrative called the “nerd” layer – a layer that represents Amy’s internal life, which is so rich and full of amazing connections and poetry.

I really like this approach, and I asked if we could find a new name for the character in order to create a healthy distance for each of us, for different reasons. We had a Zoom call before we started any of the adaptation process, and Amy suggested the name Rona, which is a Scottish island. Saoirse and I responded to it because Rona is also connected with Ronan, which means “little seal”, and seals play quite an important role in the film. And then it’s a kind of anagram of “Nora”.

So we found this name thanks to Amy, and then we went into a very solitary process with the book for several weeks. I went through the book, and I colour-coded the different aspects: her childhood, the teenage years, London, sound levels, sound observations, nature observations, Orkney folklore. When I’d finished, I went through it again and I colour-coded. I wrote the moments down that I thought had to be in the film. So I had different piles, cards and colours. Then I spent a couple of days arranging them in an order that I thought could make a film. Based on that, I wrote a treatment, and I sent it to Amy and Saoirse. And then we started working on it together. I did the writing, but they were reading and sending feedback. 

Amy and I spent hours on Zoom going through it because then, we had to fictionalise things, dramatise things and leave things out. I wanted Amy to be a part of this as much as possible. It becomes a massive responsibility to make a film about a real person’s life. 

Can you talk about the sound in the film? I read that you were trying to get an acoustic feel into the movie. I’d love to hear more about the process, and your experience working with composers John Gürtler and Jan Miserre.
John and Jan were the sound team and also our composers. We all went to film school together. We’ve collaborated for many years on many different projects. And the great benefit, besides trusting each other, is that we all understand the importance of a great sound and music concept. So we usually start from scratch: the minute I write a screenplay and they read the first version, we Zoom and do a sound concept together. It’s because film is visuals and sound: it’s 50/50. If you want to create an immersive audio experience, there’s no other way. And so, we were inspired by the sounds of nature and making them clash with the sounds of the city. We wanted to merge them at times and to transform them according to Rona’s inner state. So when she’s really messy, the sound is really messy. It’s almost like the sound breaks up or distorts. Your perception when you’re drunk results in you seeing reality very differently. Your brain mixes it all up, so the dialogue gets mixed up. The sounds of nature are so intense when you are on a cliff and you hear the orcas. The storms are so all-encompassing. The music also uses natural sounds. We did a lot of work with ancient Orkney instruments and merged it all together. So, our music and sound design were married together.

What do you hope people see in your film?
I hope they are inspired by Amy’s journey, as I am. It’s a journey, and it’s a tough one to watch. It’s brutal, and she’s been to some horrible places. She turned to the extremes, not just because of her addiction, but also the extreme situation she grew up with. Her father’s bipolar episodes shaped how she grew up, as did her experiences with her mother’s extreme religiousness. She took all of that and formed it into something constructive. And now she’s doing art, she’s got a family and is living her life, and I find her story amazing and inspiring. I hope people take away hope and encouragement from it, but I also hope they have more empathy with people in recovery, because recovery is a tough process. It goes day by day for years. It’s sometimes very easy to point your finger and go, “Yeah, now you’re sober. Get a life, move on; you’ve got this.” But it’s not that easy, and I hope this film creates awareness. 

Read the full interview here.

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