Sanna Lenken
Foto: Moritz Schultheiss

Cops, covid and comedy queens – the hardworking life of Sanna Lenken

Since her 2015 breakthrough debut My Skinny Sister got the top Berlin youth award, Sanna Lenken has managed to free herself of the “children film director” identity via her acclaimed work on the crime series Thin Blue Line. Despite this very successful transition, she’s not quite done with her complex portraits of young girls, as is clearly evident in her second feature Comedy Queen – and again getting yet another Berlin top prize in the process.

When it comes to Swedish filmmakers, Sanna Lenken certainly belong to the more hardworking ones, even in covid times.

This year, she’s already been back and forth a couple of times between Stockholm and Malmö for work on the second season of Thin Blue Line, the police procedural hit series on which she is the designated main director in charge of overall concepts and visions since shooting commenced in 2019. Last year, her directorial signature also appeared on a good handful of episodes of another TV series, Thunder in My Heart, created by Amy Deasismont, who played the title character in Lenken’s feature debut My Skinny Sister (2015). At the time of writing, her second feature film Comedy Queen has just played in the Generation section at the Berlin film festival, where it received the Crystal Bear top prize – as did My Skinny Sister in 2015. Comedy Queen just opened in Sweden to splendid reviews and is sold to a handsome number of territories.

And to boot, much of all this has occurred during the assorted hardships dictated by the corona pandemic.

- Amazingly, I’ve been working throughout this whole period, she concludes, just as the Swedish health authorities are about to remove most if not all restrictions in early February 2022.

– And I’ve worked without interruption. I have many friends who’ve had it very hard and tough, but for us who work within film and especially television, there’s been work – thankfully, and also stressfully. On the projects I’ve worked on, we have managed to pinpoint several infection peaks during the period, which have coincided with the start of a shoot. Some of us are probably a bit run down right now, covid has certainly created its fair share of complications. I mean, regardless, there are problems and predicaments to be found on film shoots all the time, various puzzles that must be solved, even in ordinary cases, always. So to get this on top as well is a bit of a mouthful. A little joint stress therapy after all this would probably be a welcome remedy.

A question that naturally arises is whether you can actually learn something from this period, and find opportunities in the crisis. And yes, you actually can.

- Personally, I’ve become much better at not expecting anything - it sounds boring but it's true. You’ve learned to better accept the situation with various complications and postponed events, which is something new to me.

Thin Blue Line, the acclaimed and audience record-breaking police series has also contributed to her gaining a new directorial identity, after - not without good reason - being associated with films about children and young people. The step is interesting and quite notable. How did this “children’s director” really end up in a cop show?

- They had a couple of names up for consideration, I know who the other ones are, and we were really different in style and background. I think they chose me because I felt I could do this and do it well and could sense a tone that I could work with. I had received a text from screenwriter Cilla Jackert and already during the interview meeting I had devoted a little time to pick out a few pictures and ideas about how I wanted to do it. I think they liked that, they saw my ambition already at that stage.

- And I was happy about the offer to work with a different genre than the one where I had received a little “label”. Personally, I never regarded My Skinny Sister as a children's or youth film, but it was in that category it ended up and it was in the youth sections it was shown in both Berlin and Toronto. Nothing wrong with that, but it was great to do something "adult". And to be able to do something with the police felt pleasurable. It’s not a work environment I have thought about very much and it’s certainly been done before, but I felt a strong identification with Cilla's way of describing it. It felt new and real with many questions about present times. It’s got both heart and brains.

And as mentioned, Sanna Lenken has also had time to complete her second feature. Comedy Queen shares themes with the debut My Skinny Sister, written by herself, as well as the novella film Night Child (2017), based on a comic book by Hanna Gustavsson. The three films can be said to form a kind of trilogy with focus on girls in or just before their early teens.

- I'm back to the young girl again, yes, like in My Skinny Sister. There’s an absolute kinship. Together with Night Child and Comedy Queen we have three interconnected stories, all with main characters of the same age and gender. I’m drawn to these topics and to bring in darkness and humour, warmth and an underlying melancholy, ideally captured all in the same moment. Because that's how I think of life, really. Also, all the girls in these films go their own way, they don’t care too much about how others perceive them, at least they try to break free, they harbour a toughness and a fragility, in complex combination.

How much of yourself are you able to find in a film by another writer?

- The personal thing about Comedy Queen is that we have had some grief in my own family. Among other things, my grandparents died very early, my maternal grandfather when my mother was nine and my paternal grandfather when my father was twelve, which was probably my own perspective rather than my own experience, but this dark shadow has been hovering and life has felt fragile to me. I’ve started talking quite a lot with my mother and how she experienced the time after her father's death and just wanting to be normal, to want everything to be as usual.

Comedy Queen, based on the well-received book by author-psychologist Jenny Jägerfeld (who also wrote the recently Gothenburg-premiered So Damn Easy Going), centres around twelve-year-old Sasha’s dealings with the loss of her mother and the devastating circumstances around her self-inflicted demise. In order to move on through life, Sasha devices a set of rules, designed “not to be like mom”. Items found on this “survival list” include not reading books, not looking after anything living and, not least, cutting off all hair. The final rule primarily deals with dad, who hasn’t laughed since mom died. Solution: become a comedy queen!

Sasha is played by Sigrid Johnson, a "veteran" with just over ten years in the industry since her debut as a four-year-old and with stints on both the television Christmas series Tusen år till julafton (“A Thousand Years to Christmas Eve”, 2015) and the police series Maria Wern (2018) along the way. From her "own" police series, Lenken picked Oscar Töringe, the lovable Magnus in Thin Blue Line, for the part of Abbe, the dad. For the sake of order, both got to audition.

- If I may say there’s something I'm good at, it's finding actors and not giving up until I've turned and twisted and got the right ones - and I want to test everyone, regardless of "greatness". This particular movie had a tough process directly due to covid and we couldn’t bring the kids in just like that. I would have preferred to film about a hundred young “comedy queens”, but it didn’t work out due to the restrictions. But our casting director Catrin Wideryd had auditioned Sigrid, who was able to bring the part to both wide and deep places and just felt right. Oscar was one of several candidates for the father but he moved me most of all of them. He and Sigrid turned out to share a great chemistry together and after that everything feel into place.

Unlike My Skinny Sister, Sanna Lenken regards Comedy Queen more of a regular youth film.

- For me, this is a family film, with a message of hope and hopefulness. And hopefully, it’s unsentimental. We have been merciless in editing out all such tendencies. No tear jerking allowed. In parts, it’s been a difficult film to make.

Another youth portrait is already underway, again based on a comic by Hanna Gustavsson – “Iggy 4-ever”. Again, we meet the protagonist from Night Child, Ingrid, called Iggy, with whom Sanna Lenken has come to feel a strong bond over time.

- The story itself is quite concise and perhaps suitable for a ten-minute film, so I’ve asked Hanna if I can use it as a seed for a feature film. At first she was a little sceptical that I “hijacked” her character, but she has read my treatment and approved and even liked it. And I’ve really based it on my own experiences. So it will possibly be my next film, let's see and touch wood.

That Sanna Lenken makes sure to leave room for the adults in her youth portrayals, naturally and neither stereotypically nor "elevated" or "bizarre" (two “qualities” she carefully and skilfully avoids at all costs) is worth praising, not least as many youth portrayals tend to neglect such characters. Her affection for the adult characters in Thin Blue Line is already fully apparent. Might there even be an "adult" story in her own upcoming feature film plans?

- I made a short called The Artist Has a Baby in 2018, which is based on myself – it’s an ego trip I wrote and directed, and also played the title role in. I’m very fond of it. It’s made out of pure desire and I managed to get out many thoughts about my place in life right then, in art, in motherhood, on the subject of men and women… It was great fun to create, by just me and a photographer and without development funding or thoughts or speculation from film commissioners. It also became very popular, especially among mothers who were artists, obviously! I’d like to return to this very pleasurable process one day.

But right now, she prepares for yet another Malmö sojourn, heading for a city she likes more and more each time.

- The temperament is really different from Stockholm, where I live, and Gothenburg, where I grew up. I get completely calm in my soul when I get there. It was clearly another reason why I said yes to this project – this universe that is Malmö, whose streets and whose people I more and more really love. I’ve actually thought a bit about moving there, but haven’t gotten around to it quite yet…

This text is an adaptation of Jan Lumholdt's interview, first published on the website Nordic Women in Film 2022-02.