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Q&A: Director Jeppe Rønde and the Darkness of “BRIDGEND”

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A grim reality becomes a work of cinematic art in Jeppe Rønde’s BRIDGEND. Opening today at New York’s Cinema Village and also an exclusive SVOD release on Fandor, BRIDGEND is the fictionalized account of an unsettling cluster of teen suicides spanning a 10-year period, claiming over 70 lives.

GAME OF THRONES’ Hannah Murray, who won a Best Actress prize at the Tribeca Film Festival for her performance, plays Sara, a teenager who moves with her policeman father Dave (Steven Waddington) to a town in the titular county. She meets and befriends the local youths, including Laurel (Elinor Crawley) and Jamie (Josh O’Connor), but both dad and daughter are soon caught up in the unsettling death culture infecting the area.

The Danish Rønde, best known for his provocative documentary JERUSALEM MY LOVE, spent six years in Bridgend, South Wales following a group of teens living in the secluded region. His experiences led him to create a film that taps into the darkest elements of human nature and the depths of troubled psyches. Below, he opens the door to his experiences making BRIDGEND, which also took Best Cinematography and Best Editing awards at Tribeca.

FANGORIA: What inspired you to make a film depicting the occurrences in Bridgend?

JEPPE RØNDE: The first time I heard about it was January 27, 2008, when I read a small article in a Danish newspaper that connected eight hangings in Bridgend and suggested it was an Internet suicide cult. That caught my interest, because I’ve had suicides quite close to me amongst my family and friends, also by hanging. So I decided to go there to see what it was all about, because I don’t choose my films; they choose me, because something resonates with me. Within three weeks, the death count was 17; it happened so fast in the beginning, it was horrible. You could go on-line and read much more back then than you can now, because they shut everything down in 2010, but I read back then that journalists were beaten up because they lied their way into getting interviews with the kids, and they would use pictures from Facebook because they were public and make tabloid stories from them.

So when I arrived at this small train station at night, it was very dark, and three muscular guys came at me, and I was like, OK, here we go. Fortunately, there was an old man sitting there, and he said, “I’ll handle these guys,” and I thanked him and left as fast as I could. Then I simply started going out to meet the kids at the clubs and discos and talked to them. I was there for six years, making friends that I still have. Unfortunately, a lot of people around them were actually dying, and many others attempted suicide but survived.

FANG: How much of the film is fact, and how much is fiction?

RØNDE: Everything I’ve done is fiction, but it’s built on the tension of the people out there. I promised them I wouldn’t do that, because it’s dangerous for them.

BRIDGENDRONDE

FANG: BRIDGEND has many disturbing elements, but would you consider it a horror film?

RØNDE: I don’t even distinguish between documentary and fiction, so naming the genre is up to you. We played with horrific elements, but I would say it’s as much a drama as a horror film. That’s not for me to decide, though. I see it as a film about people trying to survive. It’s very difficult once you get into that creepy dynamic we all know so well from our high-school years, where we all want to connect to a group and sometimes even follow one that’s very bad, or in this case the worst. That’s a part of human nature.

FANG: The casting is spot-on, and Murray is especially strong in the lead. How did the actors come together?

RØNDE: It was a very long process. I had street-cast for a year and a half in Bridgend, and many of the kids in the film are actually from there. But I realized that the shoulders that should carry the heavy load should come from outside, because it could be morally too difficult for them to perform something too close to them. So I wrote Hannah as a newcomer to town, which was also good for the storytelling, since the audience comes in as outsiders, so she represents them in a way. I read Hannah three times in London and she just kept getting it right; she’s an amazing actress. In the end, I couldn’t not choose her, and it was a beautiful collaboration. All the other actors were extremely talented as well, and with the non-actors, we found a way to level everything, strip away the technique and make it all minimalistic and realistic so they would all be on the same level. It helped a lot to shoot on location as well.

FANG: What did that add to the film?

RØNDE: It created an atmosphere that was crucial to me. As you see in the film, there’s a constant fog there, a very heavy one you can’t escape, and it feels like nature’s own prison. These villages are remote; there’s only a mile or two between them, but you have to go all the way down a mountain and up again, so it’s a very long way. That was a very strong mirror for me to what goes on inside us and the nature of being human. There are railroad tracks coming out of an old mine, because it used to be a mining area but they shut it down in the ’80s, so nature has taken over the rails. It suggests a civilization that has now been overtaken by nature.

FANG: There is a lot of nudity and sexual situations in the film. How did you handle that while filming?

RØNDE: It’s part of being young, of being human—it’s just natural. Of course, not everyone wants to show off everything, and I wasn’t making a porn film; I simply told them I would make them look good, and if something went bad we could remove it or put in a shadow or something like that.

FANG: Your use of close-ups and overall filmmaking style seems to almost break the fourth wall. Was that your goal?

RØNDE: I really wanted to be in there with the characters, and needed to find a way to make you feel you were there as well. That was crucial for having a visceral experience, so you feel almost like you’re sharing Sara’s point of view, you’re almost inside her, which was so important. Also, we never really explore the origins of the town, but step by step, you kind of put together the whole story. It’s a method I felt was crucial to understanding what’s happening—that you’re there with these people, Sara in particular. You may notice that in the beginning we are there with Sara, but toward the end she closes the door on the camera, and we are cut off from her. It’s like she’s rejecting her friend because he’s becoming absorbed by the darkness surrounding the group, so the camera cannot even be her friend anymore.

FANG: Concerning both the facts of what has happened in Bridgend and the events of your film, do you believe the teenagers are part of a cult?

RØNDE: You can say, well, they’re howling at the moon—is it ritualistic, is it even a cult? If I believe it’s a cult? We basically have no way of knowing, because those who committed those acts are dead. But I believe there was something strange going on, because we’re talking about so many people who hanged themselves. I used the number 79 in the film because that was the only official one I had, but the kids told me it should be two to three times higher. Every time someone was on the front page of the paper, they knew two or three others who had done it, but were not reported. You have to understand that such a small community was devastated; they called it their own Columbine.

So I don’t know if it was a cult. I know it’s a human condition; it happened in Silicon Valley at the same time, at the Palo Alto High School, where those kids jumped in front of a train. You could say they were very well off and that makes it completely different, the opposite of what you find in Bridgend, but there is one similarity: they were alienated from their parents. In Bridgend, there’s a huge generation gap, and I do believe you’re much less likely to hang yourself if you truly feel loved. There are people who are so far out there and lonely in that moment, and several of my friends have tried more than twice to hang themselves, and they don’t even know themselves why they did it; there was just something pulling them. What I also learned is that they completely lose track of time. In the film, the crosscutting we do removes the sense of time.

FANG: There does indeed seem to be a great disconnect between the teens and their families in the film; their only connection is with each other.

RØNDE: When you’re not really connected to your family, you find one with your friends. And once their new family starts to disappear, it’s like a method is passed on. Why did they all kill themselves the same way, without leaving suicide notes, most of them in public? Even the girls; normally, they never hang themselves, they slit their wrists or swallow pills. But here, everyone did the same thing, in the same place, so it’s like a specific practice being passed on. Maybe you could even say it’s the only thing left that they could control in their own lives. Basically, we don’t know.

Also, we had to be careful when it came to depicting suicide, because young people could get inspired, even by a story like this. That’s why I talked about the huge moral obligation we had in making the film.

FANG: Would you ever consider going back to Bridgend to follow up on what is happening there?

RØNDE: As I said before, I don’t choose the subjects myself. So if something inspires me to go back there, I’ll have to do it. But time will tell.

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About the author
Adam Lee Price

Adam Lee Price has an intense love of horror films and has since being a child. This love of horror has led him to focus on a career in writing films for the next generation of genre fans. Adam has recently completed writing his first feature length horror screenplay entitled THE MASQUERADE. Now, he looks forward to the next chapter of his life working alongside great writers in the horror industry and at FANGORIA Magazine.

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