‘Border’ Director Ali Abbasi: Here’s How I Shot the Scene That Made Cannes Squirm

TheWrap Oscar magazine: Of course the troll sex was animalistic — “it would be strange if they were f—ing on a sofa with a whiskey in their hand,” says the Iranian-Swedish director

Elisabeth Caren for TheWrap

This story on “Border” first appeared in the Foreign Language issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Adapted from a short story by “Let the Right One In” author John Ajvide Lindqvist, Iranian-Swedish director Ali Abbasi’s “Border” was one of the sensations of Cannes this year, both for its oddly tender story about a customs agent who learns she isn’t human and for a scene of troll sex that made audiences squirm in their seats.

The film is the Swedish entry in this year’s Oscar foreign-language race, and this is one in a series of interviews with the directors of foreign Oscar submissions.

Did you grow up in Iran and then move to Sweden to make films?
ALI ABBASI: I grew up in Iran, and when I was 20 or 21, I just wanted to see the world. I was thinking I would maybe settle down in Germany or in Austria, but I ended up in Sweden after a while and studied architecture there.

And then I started making some shorts, and at some point I decided to apply to film school. I kind of felt like, “I have to see how the real professional film world works, because I come from a very different background.”

That experience must have had an impact on “Border,” which is at least partly about the way we treat people we perceive as being the Other.
People ask me if that has to do with my background, with my being an outsider. And sure, I’ve been an outsider, but I don’t think it takes much to be an outsider. Being a minority or an outsider, it’s a universal experience. Even if you’re a white, middle-class person, you would still feel like an outsider if you were put in a situation that doesn’t appeal to your values.

But having said that, for some reason I always had a passion for characters who are on the fringe or the edge of society — people who are so extreme in their values that they’re on the verge of falling off the edge of civilization. Sometimes it takes so little to show how thin the layer of civilization is, when things crack.

When I saw the film in Cannes, during the troll-sex scene the audience was laughing, cringing, groaning. Did it take a while to figure out how far you could go with that scene?
Not really. For me, that scene is pretty normal in the context of the movie. It’s normal because it’s normal for the characters. It would be strange if they were f—ing on a sofa with a whiskey in their hand.

What I thought about the scene before shooting it was, “OK, we just have to have enough material.” Like every other sex scene, there would be an animalistic tendency or impulse, and then a tender, more intimate one. All the sex scenes I’ve seen, they balance between those poles. I was just trying to get a take that was more intimate, more poetic, more gentle, and then from there we would crank up the animal impulses and see how far makes sense. And once we did that, I had the range and could find the sweet spot.

For more of TheWrap’s Foreign Language issue, click here.

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