BEHIND THE REAL WORLD: JOHANESS NYHOLM ON KOKO-DI, KOKO-DA

Note: The following interview may contain slight spoilers for Koko-di, Koko-da.

Koko-Di Koko-Da Director Johannes Nyholm_sm
Johannes Nyholm (photo courtesy Fantasia Film Festival)

is a Swedish animator and filmmaker with two features under his belt: the humanistic fantasy The Giant [Jätten] (2016) and 2019’s horrific Koko-Di, Koko-Da (read Giles Edwards’ complete review).

Koko-di debuted at Sundance, won the “Camera Lucida” prize at Fantasia, and is currently playing at Austin’s Fantastic Fest (catch the final screening on September 26). Dark Star Pictures has acquired the movie for a November 15 U.S. theatrical release.

The title comes from a macabre children’s nursery rhyme (“my rooster is dead, he will never sing koko-di koko-da”). The story involves a married couple—once loving, now squabbling—who go on a camping trip in the woods four years after a tragedy ripped their lives apart. Once there, they wake in the middle of the night to find the same events repeating themselves. Three figures trudge out of the woods: an old man dressed in white, a tall female leading a vicious dog, and a unibrowed giant with a dead dog slung over his shoulder. The trio terrorize the campers; then, they wake up in their tent, as if from a dream, and the cycle repeats itself. The man becomes conscious of what is happening and futilely tries new strategies to avoid their fate. All the while there is also a mysterious white cat running around in the woods, and scenes from a bizarre shadow play where animal puppets reenact a peculiar fable that seems relevant to the couple’s personal history. Will they escape this treadmill of horror and recrimination?

Koko-d Koko-da Key art
(c) 2019 Johannes Nyholm Produktion

366 Weird Movies’ spoke with Mr. Nyholm via telephone.

366: Would you consider this a Swedish or a Danish film? According to IMDB both languages are spoken in the film.

Johaness Nyholm: Mostly Swedish. We shot most parts in Sweden, and most of the team was Swedish as well. But I have a Danish co-producer who helped a lot on the film, and there is quite a lot of Danish spoken, especially from one character in the film.

366: I think it’s fair to say that this is a mysterious movie, in many ways, and I wanted to know if you thought there were any cultural references that Scandinavian audiences might pick up on that people in other countries might not get.

JN: No, I don’t think so, actually… the music is a French lullaby.

366: I was wondering if the “Koko-di Koko-da” song was written specifically for the movie or if it’s a traditional folk song.

JN: No, it’s a traditional folk song. Of course, we made many different versions of it.

366: Peter Belli is a well-known Danish singer. Did you have him in mind for that role from the start?

JN: No, I had trouble in casting sessions finding the right one. I didn’t know Peter Belli. But then we did a Google search and Peter Belli showed up… When I met him, I knew in a second that he was the right guy. So it was made for him, but I didn’t know him.

366: He seems to really embody that role. So the three characters that we first see on the music box, they’re all characters that you came up with on your own? They don’t have any relation to other characters in folklore?

JN: A very common question I get is whether the characters exist or not. I think it’s a little bit about you being afraid, maybe. They want to know that this is made up, it’s not real, they don’t exist. So you can sleep well. That’s one way to see it, anyway… A lot of the film is about trying to make these characters believable, physical and real. I’m trying to make people believe those characters do exist. But I met them for real, those characters! So the film is just a way for me to try to materialize them and make them as real for everyone else.

Still from Koko-di Koko-da
(c) 2019 Johannes Nyholm Produktion

366: So when you say you met the characters, what was the inspiration? Was it a dream you had that started this story?

JN: Yeah, very much so. You know, when you’re awake early in the morning, or very late at night, you’re half-asleep, half-awake, sometimes you can see stuff. You kind of know that it doesn’t really happen, but still you can see it.

366: Something that interested me was the shadow play that plays an important role in the film. I notice that you did a previous short film called “Dreams from the Wood” that was completely in that style. How did you get involved in that art form?

JN: I made a video for [inaudible]… a quite famous Swedish band… The music, the song was very minimalistic, had very few elements, and was very fragile in its soul, and I had to come up with visuals that matched that, suggested that fragility… just with light and shadows… The musicians and me, we played with different elements. We did everything together, some drawings, some cut-out figures, and the animation, the puppeteering of it.

366: In the movie, were the scenes 100% shadow play, or were there any animation or effects added after it was shot?

JN: The idea was everything should be analog. We did some retouching here and there, maybe to remove a hand or something like that. Otherwise, it’s just what you see.

366: There are moments, for example when one of the bunnies trembles, that look impressive because it’s able to convey such emotion with just this little puppet.

JN: And sometimes you get that for free, because the hand will tremble… you get a little sense of the real person behind it.

366: The shadow play is like a story within the story. Is this your commentary on storytelling and the role it plays in the grieving process?

JN: Stories work like magic that reveal hidden elements on top of the real world or behind the real world. Sometimes you see more fragments of magic when you’re in a miserable situation. That’s what I’m trying to show here. I’m showing a life of total misery, total depression, but also I want to give a little bit of hope to the audience to try to make them feel that it will be better.

366: There are four different types of animals that play roles in the film: roosters, bunnies, a dog and a cat. Is there any reason for picking these particular four animals, or using animals in general as symbols?

JN: I haven’t very much looked into it, which I may. But when I dream, I don’t control my dreams. I haven’t sat down and thought about it… I like to work with animals in general… elements that you can’t really direct… How can I explain it? I think it’s more powerful to be led out into the woods by a cat than by a person with an idea of why you should come. It’s more like it’s something that just has to be done. There’s some other will that controls this.

366: I think the other three animals may be more obvious, but the cat is a mysterious figure in the movie. I think he or she acts like a spirit guide leading the characters where they need to go as they work through their grieving process. Would that be a valid interpretation?

JN: Yeah, I think the cat led you to the forest gentleman. There’s a relationship between them, I think. It’s not by coincidence that they’re both white, and that when one of them disappears one shows up.

366: Finally, there is a traditional question we ask all of our interview subjects at the end of the interview. We ask if you can recommend a hometown restaurant.

JN: Maybe my local restaurant, Tullen, in Gothenburg.

366: Thanks for your time, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit.

JN: Nice to hear!

Bonus: behind-the scenes footage of the filming of the shadow play in Nyholm’s short “Dreams from the Woods.” The same techniques are used in Koko-di, Koko-da.

Dreams from the Woods – Behind the scenes from Johannes Nyholm on Vimeo.

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