This Is Getting Very Abstract: John Skoog on Ridge

Director John Skoog talks about the origins of Ridge, his "radically romantic" hybrid documentary.

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This Is Getting Very Abstract: John Skoog on <i>Ridge</i>

John Skoog’s Ridge begins with something of an apocalyptic apologue heard over blackness: Two rogue cows desert their farm and their herd to live undisturbed in the forest, much to the bewilderment of the townsfolk. What this omen means for the village, we don’t exactly know, but the next procession of images—a chugging sea and various shots of men asleep on a ferry while one woman remains wide awake—feels like a deliberate trance inducement. We are heading to a place where the uncanny is the norm, where certain once-domesticated cows, it would seem, have shirked human rule.

Comprising several stories Skoog collected from his hometown of Kvidinge, Sweden, Ridge follows the rhythms of people and landscape in relation to the machines that run their farming industry, that milk their cows and till their fields. After culling these mostly-true stories, Skoog cast primarily residents of the town in their dramatizations, including his own brother, Aron, who acts in a scene of woodland debauchery not of the director’s own devising, but one that mirrors the emotional reality of Aron’s real-life return to Kvidinge nonetheless.

At times, in their starkness, the images are reminiscent of the less brutal scenes of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread, but where Geyrhalter’s film depicts the subjugation of animals and machines at the unflinching hands of human mass production, Skoog’s depicts coexistence. It is as if a cow had wandered off the farm in Our Daily Bread, its disobedience tilting the rigid order of things askew. Likewise, the machines experience a sort of liberation in Ridge, no shot more exemplary than one of a motorized log cutter that drifts along in the pitch black of night, cutting and processing standing trees as if at its own behest, no human instigation necessary.

These animals and machines may be presented as almost autonomous, but the human capacity for malice is still alive and well. What starts as a friendly depiction of two Swedes cutting the hair of their much younger, seasonal Polish coworker descends into an uncomfortable confrontation as they force him to practice flirting in Swedish, despite his repeated claims that he has a girlfriend back home. Everyday disagreements like these take on an extra sinister tone, no doubt a result of the time given to long dolly shots across the landscape and the agency given to machines and animals—all of which create the impression of a lurking specter, of anxiety over a loss of control.

The film proceeds in a relatively amorphous manner. Regardless of whether this is the beginning of a dystopian plunge for Kvidinge or a utopian leveling of the species playing field, the first step in either direction is unsettling.

Paste spoke with John Skoog about Ridge, which he recently showed in attendance at the 2020 True/False Film Fest.

(Note: This interview has been condensed for content and clarity.)

Paste Magazine: Ridge consists of stories gathered from locals in your home region of Sweden, so how did you go about collecting those stories? What kinds of stories did you ask for, and in what way did you collect them?
John Skoog: It started a long time ago, more than 10 years ago. When I was very young I had a chance to do photography exhibitions in museums, and those photographs traveled around the world when I was 19 or 20, which was very lucky but also a little bit strange. And then the town, Kvidinge, where the film takes place—nothing really happens there—but that town celebrated 700 years of existence since it was mentioned the first time in any text or record. And they had this idea to bring back the local talent to take some pictures. So I moved back to my parent’s place, a big farm, in this Southern region of Sweden, and did documentary photography in a more intense way than I had done before. I went to almost every house, hung out with the kids outside of the supermarket, visited the gas station that was closing—a very traditional documentary approach. But somehow the images were too good. The photographs came out really well, but I knew what kind of photographs I would have before I took them, you know? I didn’t want this to be another one of those documentary photo exhibitions/books about the small rural town. You’ve seen it so many times. They’re good photographs, but they don’t say anything. It only gives you what you already expected to see.

I started showing the photographs to people I trusted, and what I realized was that I was interested in not so much the photographs, but the stories that people told me when I was taking them. For me, listening to people’s stories is a way of working with them, to kind of get them to relax and be themselves. I realized those stories were much more exciting, and that’s what I wanted to talk about when I was showing the pictures to people.

I decided to skip the photographs and work only with these stories. I asked people to tell me stories or write them to me. There were three rules: First of all, it had to be [within the length] of an A4 page; the second was that it had to be somehow relating to the place, that it had something to do with the region in one way or another; and the third was that it had to be quote-unquote true. All these rules were obviously broken.

So that work took another two or three months, and I had collected maybe 70 stories and displayed them on this huge old table in the museum. I printed between 1,000 and 2,000 prints of each story, and [laid them] in stacks on this table and people could come in and make their own book. There was no order, there was not page 1, page 2, page 3, or so on. And there were also no names; it didn’t say who wrote which story. It was just the text on a white page.

The last weekend before I left for Germany to study art, we did a public reading where we would read the stories one after the other, and it was just this amazing experience. It somehow made me realize that this thing that I felt was lacking in the photographs was really there in between the stories—I guess you call it the gap or the distance between one story and the next. Somehow, when we were reading them and took a break, between each story a map, or a portrait, started to be drawn of this place through the act of putting these stories together. A few days later I left for Germany, but these stories kept haunting me.

When my producer Erik [Hemmendorff] and I were talking about this, I told him about the reading and said, ‘I wonder what would happen if we make a film that functions like that, if we made a film that works with these distances between different stories.’ What also happened is that I unintentionally became the story collector of this region. It doesn’t happen so much anymore, but for a few years people would call my parents asking, ‘When is John coming back from Germany? I also have a story to tell, he has to come and record my story.’ I became some kind of unofficial collector.

Paste: As far as casting, were the people featured in the film primarily from that town?
Skoog: When we had these stories, I had also collected all these other things, like things I’d seen in Germany or the US or different movies, and I had all this material. And then I met Anna Karasinska, she’s a genius Polish director, and she came and we drove around [the region]. Obviously from working there and growing up there, I knew a lot of people, and there were all these places that were important for me to be in the film.

Most of the people were already decided before we started writing the script. The little girl, Billie [Åstrand], she is like a neighbor; she lives a four-minute walk from my parents’ place, so they are incredibly local. But then of course, the Polish [characters]—some of them are real seasonal workers and so are not actually Polish, because that is kind of anachronistic in a way. Now the Poles have higher paid labor jobs in Sweden. The ones that work in the fields are more Bulgarians and Romanians. But for us it was important that there be Poles [in the film], because there was this big Polish part of the production, with Ita [Zbroniec-Zajt] the cinematographer being Polish, and so on. Some of them are also actors. Not all of them are real seasonal workers, so that’s a mix there. Agnieszka Podsiadlik, the main actress of the seasonal workers, for example, is kind of famous. I guess “famous” is always a sliding term, but if you’re in the business in Poland you know who she is.

But there was not a casting in [the traditional] way. Me and Anna and Jagoda Szelc, who is also a Polish director, and Ita, the cinematographer, we talked about who could be cast, and they all had suggestions. Then I went to Poland and just had coffee with people, kind of just like I do with the amateur actors. I just go and we have a coffee and I take a picture of them with my camera. It was not like they had to prepare a scene and we tried it, it was more finding something else, some kind of radiation or atmosphere of a person that would fit in the film.

Paste: There’s this associative, free-flowing progression to the images. I wouldn’t say they’re building in a traditional sense; it’s much more fluid. Like a boy taking a picture by farming equipment at sunset, and then the next shot is the farming equipment in use. What did you like about that structure?
Skoog: This structure refers back to the openness between the different stories, that’s kind of where you find the soul of the place, between the images, in between the stories from one jump to the other. You create a space that is possible to enter as an audience. You actually can access the film in a different way, access the place, and get a sense of place in a more kind of physical way. That’s one thing.

The other thing we talked a lot about when we were writing it was, ‘What if you make a film that is more like a topography, like a map? And then these scenes are kind of like dropped pins on this map?’ As you’re watching it, there’s a road you’re walking together with us that we set up through writing, shooting and editing, but then afterwards, when you’re thinking about the film, it’s not really so clear what came before something else. Like, you think about it and [the scenes] kind of get jumbled, and you can take your own walk between the different scenes, even though the film still has its own progression and narration.

It was funny, when it was released in Sweden I did an interview with the biggest film magazine in Sweden, and it started with the journalist being like, ‘John Skoog, the one who hates stories.’ [laughing] And I was like, ‘What? No, no, no. It’s not at all like that.’ I think we have a very dynamic relationship, me and film stories: It’s a relationship where you take long walks and discuss and kill it and try to understand and investigate it and work with the stories. We don’t just take our relationship for granted.

When we were editing, the other thing that became important was to have a kind of non-hierarchical relationship between the characters and the machines and the animals and the landscape. I don’t know if non-hierarchical is the best way to put it, but I guess a more traditional way of thinking about humans, machines and landscapes is that humans are somehow on top of a pyramid, and then we use the machines to kind of work with the landscape and control the animals. The world, the land, gives us these things that we generate, but now it’s a much more complicated situation. It’s not like humans can disappear and the world can go back to how it used to be. Everything is such an intricate network of puzzles now that we’re all dependent on each other in a way that it didn’t used to be. And somehow in a way we start merging into each other.

It’s not really easy to say, ‘Oh this is a tractor and this is a human,’ or ‘This is a phone, this is my ear.’ Where a machine, a human, an animal or a tree starts or stops is very hard to tell these days. So that was also a reason to make this in a more open and associative way. Images transform into each other. It’s more like the story tries to do something to you, make you feel something or give you a sense of something; it’s not trying to tell you something.

This is getting very abstract now.

Paste: No that’s great, because that answers a whole other question I had about the film showing machinery’s relationship to the land just as much as people’s.
Skoog: Exactly. And maybe one more short thing on that. With the cinematography, Ita and I talked a lot about this before. I’ve made one short film with another cinematographer, but otherwise I’ve only worked with her. We just work. We have this language where we don’t have to talk so much about it. We wanted the camera to feel very heavy; the camera had to have a weight to it. But more than that, in relationship to this thing with machines, we wanted the camera to somehow feel like an alien, like it somehow landed on earth and couldn’t really tell the difference. It’s not like it could see, ‘Ok, that’s a human, that’s a machine, that’s a tree, that’s a cell phone, that’s a tractor,’ but it somehow looked at everything in the same way, with the same curiosity or openness, and hopefully that gives the audience the chance to see these things. Maybe you can also think about it as a crystal that’s somehow refracting the image.

Paste: The beginning of the film uses a true story, but it really feels like a fable: Two cows go missing and are seen on the ridge, but when people go to get them they retreat to the woods. Then later in the film we see images of two cows wandering around a village at twilight. The souls of these cows seem very much tied to the land and to the film. Why was this fable-like story the right frame to use?
Skoog: During the film you know that these wild cows are out there in a way. Obviously it has something to do with what’s industrial: an industrial animal or a free animal, or a free machine or an industrialized machine, or a free agent or not. We thought that this film wouldn’t be possible if the cows weren’t free, out in the forest outside of where they should be. They are somehow creating a crack that makes it possible for the film to exist. But that’s more how we talked about it when we were making it; that’s a very abstract thought. In the same way we talked about how the film wouldn’t happen if Agnieszka’s character had not come to Sweden to work. She kind of activates the film, and in the same way the cows kind of activate how the film exists. It also of course starts with [the cows], and then her. Sleeping people on a ship arriving and then the aliens come somehow.

People, or cows instead of people, can decide to live their lives not like everyone else. That creates a possibility of life that is very inspiring to me, or important in these days. Alternative ways of moving through the world are very important. And if I want to double down on this thing that machines, animals and humans are somehow blending and merging and that you cannot really say so clearly where the differences are, then cows [can decide] to live in a different way than they’re usually forced to; [they can] somehow break free of the milking machine to live in the forest machine. Does that make sense?

This is getting very abstract.

Paste: It makes sense to me. And I think on a much more direct level, it feels almost like a folklore story.
Skoog: Yes, yes. I think maybe another good anecdote about it is that I showed it to my partner’s mother. Obviously she knew this film was happening, since she’s a part of my partner’s life she’s a part of my life, and we’re part of each other’s lives. But she didn’t see it until it was almost finished. She had an extremely intense experience, she felt like the world was ending through the whole film: It starts with this story in black and then it’s this twilight zone just before the world starts ending. It makes sense that she felt that, so for her it was a, not unpleasant, but a very intense experience. But it’s also just a fable, it’s also just a story; it’s a children’s story at the same time.

She also said something like, ‘It’s romantic, and usually I don’t like romantic things. But this was radically romantic, so I really like it.’ That’s a very good genre: ‘radically romantic.’

Paste: I’d like to talk about movement, both camera movement and movement within the frame. The movement has a very poetic sensibility, whether gliding on a dolly to create this eerie atmosphere, or set in a locked frame capturing patterns, like the tractor harvesting the grass. What about these movements was driving you to capture them?
Skoog: In general I like that kind of language, I guess. I don’t know what you would call it. I wouldn’t even call this movie slow, but in slow cinema it can be so excruciating to watch when you feel like you know what’s coming, that the next image is expected. But of course it can also, as when I’m watching other films that work in that language, get to emotions that are hard to get at otherwise, or an experience that is hard to get at with other [cinematic] languages.

This thing with the heavy camera was really, really important. We wanted it to feel like the camera was heavy like the machines. Even when it’s on the crane over the field, you still feel the relationship to the ground very much. It’s not on a drone. You feel as an audience, when you’re filming with a drone or a gimbal or a Steadicam, like the camera can go anywhere, and here I hope that you can feel like movement is limited for the camera. It sets up a framing for where the action happens; it cannot turn 360 degrees.

But also it’s still important that the camera move. Because with a tracking shot, a dolly shot, it always adds fiction, I think, just in itself. A dolly shot adds a sense of fiction even in a true documentary shot. It also helps the drifting, hallucinogenic sense of the whole film, that you’re somehow drifting across this landscape and seeing different things and bumping into them, and the characters and machines are also kind of drifting through this network together with the camera.

Limitations are good. When you make such an open film and work with nonactors and cows, it’s very hard. If you build dolly tracks it takes a few hours to weeks, because it has to be completely straight to make a good dolly shot, but it’s a limitation in a way. You cannot just shoot anywhere.

Paste: There are only two scenes of real conversation, both of which are surreal and a bit alienating. Do these in some way shape the character of the place? There is something that seems to be haunting it, a lurking evil, and these conversations feel like a manifestation of those things.
Skoog: Especially the hair cutting scene. It’s long, unbroken, six minutes without a cut. So it’s really doing something to you. Because at first it’s a little bit strange, and then kind of funny, and then it gets uncomfortable almost; you’re not really sure where it ends somehow. It’s playful, but it’s also pretty intense in the end.

It was really important that it be in one unbroken shot, for many reasons. One was that it needed to start when the sun is up and end when the sun has gone under the horizon, because there’s this really crazy thing that always happens: The bird stops singing. The birds sing a lot just before the sun sets, and then as soon as the sun sets [the singing] just stops. So at the beginning of that scene there are a lot of bird sounds, and then at the end of that scene it’s silent, which is important somehow. Obviously no one notices that, but I think you can kind of feel it. When you’re moving through the world there are all these things that give you an impression and change your experience even though you aren’t recognizing them one by one.

Paste: And then the other scene, the drunken shenanigans scene, where the group of guys take that one kid off into the woods and dump Cheetos on him.
Skoog: That comes from a really strange story; maybe I should tell that anecdote. When I started working on this a few years ago, since I was thinking about seasonal workers from the outset, my partner told me something. She gave me this SD card she had gotten when she was a teenager, when she had a lot of romances with older and more or less famous poets. One of them got really infatuated with her and he kept courting her when it was already over, and he kept coming around with gifts. And one gift was this SD card, and he said, ‘I was just sitting on the beach of the Southern islands in Denmark, and then this SD card came up with the ocean.’ Which sounds very suspicious, obviously. And he was like, ‘I don’t know how computers work, maybe I could come home to you and we can look at this SD card.’ Which sounds like a horror movie, but I’m not building up to some horror or thriller scene, it’s not like that. But then she said, ‘Come and we’ll look at it.’

On that SD card were all these photographs of younger Eastern European men; [we] couldn’t determine what language they were speaking. [The men] were sitting in this forest drinking. And first it was photographs, and you could see them getting more and more drunk. It was clear the youngest kid, who was clearly a teenager, was not as good at drinking as the other guys. And at the end, he’s really fading, melting into the vegetation, and the other guys are joking with him, kind of lovingly but also really rough. And they’re also taking hunting pictures with him, as a killed animal, and they are standing there joking like they have guns—they didn’t have guns—but they are standing there joking like when you’ve shot a deer or something, and he’s just completely crashed. And when you’re watching it the first time, it’s pretty scary because you’re like ‘What the fuck is going on? Whoa, did he die or something?’ And the last two images on the card are them walking back into the village. It’s this really really intense document of seeing this young kid just melting into the vegetation. So when I started talking about Eastern Europeans working in Scandinavia, she immediately thought of that card and gave it to me. So that’s the starting point for that scene.

That scene is a set-up. Everyone knew what was going to happen, and Aron doesn’t get that drunk, but they’re his real friends from primary school that he hadn’t seen for years. So they are still all living in the region and he lives in the capital in Stockholm, so it also had this really strange other thing going on, them meeting each other for the first time again. That was really fucking intense to do that scene, for Aron. Even if he wasn’t as drunk as he looks in that scene, he was hungover just from the emotions of making it.

When I was younger I used getting destroyed to kind of reset my life. This way of getting from a sad place or a good place to the next point was somehow to get trashed, and then you could have this [weird next] day. And that’s also what this thing of Aron meeting the cows is [at the end]. If you’re really hungover, destroyed in that way, the world is very intense for you if you have to go out and move through it. If he wouldn’t have [experienced those intense feelings] after getting so drunk the night before, maybe he wouldn’t have been able to meet the cows. But that’s a dangerous thing to talk about, because it’s both an answer to the film and makes [Ridge] more mysterious.


Daniel Christian is a writer and filmmaker based in Columbia, Missouri. In addition to Paste, he has written for Filmmaker Magazine and No Film School. You can follow him on Twitter.

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