"Create your own opportunities by doing what you want to do"
Willy Lukwago moved to Sweden when he was sixteen years old.
One day, he witnessed a group of teenage girls attacking a girl with epilepsy. No one else reacted, and Willy decided to break in an stop the fight. After helping the girl, he decided to make a film about her.
It ended up becoming "Innocent Mara", a wonderful feature film that recently won Festigious' Best Picture award.
We asked Willy to join us for an interview, and met a rising star who doesn't wait for opportunities to come.
Willy, congratulations on winning Best Picture with your debut feature, Innocent Mara. Let's roll back to the beginning. You were born in Kampala (Capital of Uganda). When did you move to Sweden, and how did you become interested in filmmaking?
Thank you very much Festigious Film Festival, I am very honoured to receive this amazing prize.
I grew up in Kampala, Uganda. In 1997, when I was 16, I moved to Sweden.
I think I was already interested in films way back as a young kid, when me and my friends used to sneak in to cinema halls (known as Bikaali in Luganda), to watch Rambo and Terminator films with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I know we were very young for that kind of movies but there were no rules or age limits. And I got very curious on how things were done because we thought the events in movies were real, but the actors kept on coming back in others movies, hehe.
When did you start writing screenplays?
I started with writing small stories. In order to learn the Swedish language, my mum told me to start writing down everything I have done during the day. And in Swedish, so imagine a 17-year-old boy trying to write a story of what he had done during the day in Swedish after being in Sweden for only four months.
I had to find a way to write something truth-worthy, so I narrated everything. I don't know if she believed everything I wrote but she seemed satisfied every time.
And in 2000, the Swedish television aired a mini TV-serie called "Det nya landet (The new country)" about two immigrants trying their best to hide from the police and at the same time live as normal people. And this put a huge impact on my life even though I wasn't an immigrant, and so I thought to myself: If they can do it, then I can do it.
That's when I started writing screenplays even though I didn't know how to do it.
Did you go through any filmmaking training, or are you mainly self-taught?
I did not go through any film training, I followed my curiosity which was a big drive for me. I had to explore everything about film making. And that proved to be a bit costly because I had to pay for every mistake I made. YouTube was not around at that time.
Innocent Mara is based on true events about Mara Sandstrom. Why did you decide to tell the story of Mara, and how did you approach the subject?
I decided to make this movie after witnessing one of the events shown in the film. I was waiting on a tram (street car) when I happened to see a group of teenage girls attacking a defenseless one.
No one else reacted, people might have thought that maybe the girls were playing, which I also bring up in the film.
I decided to break the fight and talked to Mara (who wish to stay anonymous).
I was friendly and not judgemental, so i gained her trust and she told me a little of her day to day life story.
Then after a long time I carefully asked her if I could make a film of her story, I actually had started writing the script before asking.
After many hesitations and me promising to never reveal her true identity we came to an agreement. Never use real names or same school name and not even same part of the city.
- I had no idea about epilepsy. So i googled everything I could find about it. And this time, with YouTube to my rescue, I found a girl in same age as Mara who blogged about herself living with epilepsy. I got to see real epilepsy attacks on YouTube that scared the hell out of me. How will I ever be able to make such attacks realistic? I asked Mara for her video blogs too (Which she never posted online by the way) and compared them to the YouTube girl's video blog. They were almost identical.
So I decided to take an online course about epilepsy while interviewing pupils, mothers and teachers around the school.
And this was during the time I was making my short film Hallway Dreams (Grannen 2).
Tell us about your creative writing process. Did you do much research prior to writing? Do you ever experience a "writer's block" and if so, how do you deal with it?
The writing process was actually easy. Since Maras case and family relationship is quiet normal in Sweden it was not so hard for me to put it together.
But I had to write the film backwards. What happens to Mara? What do I want to make people in same situation feel? So I had to write the ending first and then go back and work towards that ending.
I can't say that I've had a writer's block actually. Cause whenever I feel stack on writing on an idea, I turn to another idea. This have resulted in more than 10 feature film screenplays and over 25 short film screenplays. I am always writing.
And if I am really stack on writing, I turn to programming. I love computer science, it helps me to train my brain. Filming for friends, editing videos and then go back to writing. I keep myself very busy.
Andrea Axelsson delivered an incredible performance as Mara. How did you cast her, and what was it like working with her? How did you help her prepare for this extremely challenging role?
Andrea, oh my God. What to say? The thing is, when she came in to the room it felt like she was not there. I think because maybe she had no expectations or something. She was calm and ready to take the casting any way it went. Right there, I had already found my Mara. A girl in the corner who doesn't care about anything.
My friend Sofie Gällerspång held the casting and even played the differed roles with the girls. A huge thanks to her. And she really had that eye for who could play who and why they should play those roles. She was going to be their acting coach too after all. So when Sofie saw Andrea she said directly: That's our Mara.
Working with Andrea was really easy, it was like she already had her own version of Mara in her head. I could just explain to her what I wanted and she just nodded and said "okay", and she did it even better than I had imagined.
The most difficult and disturbing scene was shot in one take.
Sofie helped her a lot. She talked to her all the time and made her feel very comfortable.
This was very important since we did not know each other during the shooting of those challenging scenes.
Who are some of the most helpful team members you've collaborated with in order to create such a meaningful movie, and how did you get them on board?
I can't pick any actually. All of the team members were fantastic, I enjoyed working with everyone. We pulled it off the way we wanted without any problems.
But as Ron Howard says: "Every project will find its way to break your heart". So did the post-production find its way to break mine, it had its hard times and right here I have to actually pick one person who made this film so beautiful.
My composer Andreu Jacob who made this sweet and amazing soundtrack. This man is incredible.
What is your favorite scene in the movie, and why?
I have many favourites scenes in this movie, but if I have to pick just one I would say the one when the parents meet the school principle. This is when we get to know who Alexandra really is and the dynamic between her and her mother explains where her behaviour comes from.
In this scene she almost becomes Mara herself. I just love to see how Alexandra is also vulnerable when she's on the other side of the table.
You have an extensive experience directing short films (Grannen 2, Troubled, Ensamhet, Use Condoms), and Innocent Mara is your debut feature. What was it like to step into feature-land, in comparison to working on shorts?
Innocent Mara started out as short film too actually. But the more I dug into Mara's day-to-day life and story I needed more time to be able to be fare with her character.
The most challenging part was to work with by then 15 to 19 year-old girls. 90% of the cast are girls and they all had different timetables for their own activities. So the scheduling was challenging. But once we pinned the dates the entire shooting process went on smoothly without any problems. All the girls and actors was amazing to work with.
What was the most important lesson you've learned from this production?
To plan everything beforehand and be well prepared. Actors have questions, a lot of questions and you must be able to answer them as clear as possible especially for young actors/actresses. Sometimes I had to explain why a specific character had to behave the way she/he did. Some actors took their roles very personal and I had to convince them that it had nothing to do with their daily lives.
The second lesson is to know your limits. You can never fix it in post, if you don't have a big budget for reshoots.
Find the right people for the job, it's good to work with friends but don't put them on posts they can't manage. This will save your film in a long run.
You usually edit your own films. In your opinion, what are the advantages and disadvantages of editing your own content?
I think every director should be involved in editing their own content, there must be a director's cut. Because editing your film is re-writing the whole thing.
First you have a clear vision on the paper, then you shoot and put the material in the computer just to realise that you have a different film on the tape.
This is when you have to bring your vision back together in line. No one else can see your vision, an editor will just try to put the material together just to match your script.
The disadvantages are that it takes you a long time to complete your film, and you get blind of your own work along the way. And I can say I have edited 15 versions of this film to get to the final product.
You usually work in the Comedy and Drama genres. Do you plan to explore other genres in the future, or mainly stay focused on these two?
I love drama and comedy. And even when I write comedy there are some drama elements in it. I think there are too many feel-good movies with only happy endings or with dreams coming true. I tend to focus on telling stories about our daily lives, and they are not often so happy as we wish them to be.
I would like to do action, i love super-hero and fantasy films and right now I am working on a script for a short "fan film" about a 15-year-old Lara Croft. It will really be a real adventure to make this one together with my friend and cinematographer David Erik Nilsson.
So yes, I would like to explore more genres in the future.
Do you consider moving to the Los Angeles (Hollywood) at some point, or do you prefer working in the local Swedish film industry?
Yes, If the possibilities comes, the industry is more big in the US compared to Sweden. I mean, who wouldn't love to work at Marvel Studios, hehe, or at any of the other amazing studios? But I will focus on making great movies here first before that happens . Then we will see.
Could you share what is the best career advice you've ever been given and if you have any advice for fellow filmmakers?
The words from my composer are: Ignore the naysayers! NEVER give up! Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.
Also, if you want to do something. Don't wait for opportunities, create your own opportunities by doing what you want to do.
Tell us about your next projects. Are you currently developing a new project?
Right now I am in pre-production of my new feature, (Lukwago's untitled project - working title).
My composer Andreu Jacob has already started writing some music ideas too, it is also a drama about Vivecka who get dumped while she is abroad on her studies in London. And things get really nasty when she comes back just to find out about what awaits her at home.
And besides that Lara Croft fan short film I mentioned earlier, I have a big project in development which I hope to get investors for from all around the world to get it in cinemas at the end of 2022. Long time plans, I know!
Innocent Mara - Trailer
Where can our readers follow your work?
Readers can easily follow my work on my website and social media. I am easy to find since everything are under the same name.
Is there anything you wish to add?
Yes. If you want to do something, go and just to it. Don't listen to people's opinions about what you can or can't do.
Be hungry even if it requires you to be a one-man band in the beginning.