The Spool / Fantastic Fest 2019
Fantastic Fest: Johannes Nyholm on Gender, Grief, and Puppetry in “Koko-Di Koko-Da”
As Fantastic Fest opens, we talk to Johannes Nyholm, the director of the darkly imaginative Koko-Di Koko-Da, about grief, trauma, and the bizarre.
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Welcome back to More of a Comment, Really…, a weekly interview podcast hosted by Clint Worthington! Every episode will feature interviews with actors, filmmakers, producers, and more, giving you the skinny on the latest films and TV.

It’s festival season, folks, which means that The Spool is going to be knee-deep in film fests around the country! This weekend sees the beginning of Fantastic Fest in Austin, the beloved genre/horror fest brought to you by the fine folks at Alamo Drafthouse.

Of all the under-the-radar spookfests Fantastic has in store, few are as deeply strange as Johannes Nyholm‘s nightmarish Koko-Di Koko-Da, a harrowing tale of grief and loss that profiles a grieving, contentious couple (Leif Edlund and Ylva Gallon) who are beset by terrors during a camping weekend they hope will bring them back together and help them move on from the sudden death of their daughter three years ago.

However, trouble comes in the form of a bizarre trio of miscreants, including a charismatic Dutchman (Peter Belli) in a straw hat, a woman in pigtails (Brandy Litmanen) and a giant (Morad Baloo Khatchadorian) carrying a dead dog. Over and over, the couple are tortured and killed, then time conspires to thrust them back into the same situation with no hope of escape.

It’s disturbing, to be sure, but Nyholm’s pitch-black sense of dark slapstick humor and narrative flights of fancy (including more than one shadow puppetry sequence) elevate this from your typical oddball Scandinavian horror into something more poetic and mournful. For the podcast, I sat down with Nyholm to talk about the origins of the project (and the title), the curious psychology of grief, and the time he took Koko-Di Koko-Da on a screening tour of Sweden on his own converted theater bus. (A full transcript, edited for clarity, is provided below the podcast itself.)

(More of a Comment, Really… is a proud member of the Chicago Podcast Coop. Thanks to Overcast for sponsoring this episode!)

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For those who don’t know, where does the title Koko-Di Koko-Da derive from?

It’s a French lullaby called “Rooster’s Death,” or something like that. In French it’s le coq est mort, and it’s been sung in many different languages. Over and over again, it never stops, in a neverending loop.

At what point in the script or conceptualization process did that lullaby come in? Was it based around that, or did that come in later?

It came quite early in the beginning. I knew that this Danish gentleman in the white suit [one of the film’s antagonists, played by Peter Belli] was whistling something, he had this jolly energy around him. But I didn’t know what it was until I remembered this old lullaby.

Koko-Di Koko-Da is your second film; your first, The Giant, is this kind of contemplative sports movie; what made you decide to go in more of this horror-tinged direction for your second feature?

Actually, Koko-Di Koko-Da was something I was working on long before The Giant; it’s a project that’s closer to me, because I produced it through my own company. It’s much more small-scale with very few people. The idea was to make this first and The Giant afterwards, but then we got financing for The Giant and we had to really push ourselves to shoot it.

But I think the reason why this film looks like it has all those horror elements, it’s a way for me to lead with things I’ve been through, things that have affected me.

What kinds of things affected you that you wanted to express in Koko-Di Koko-Da?

Mainly, it’s about [how in life you’re always] trying to make [yourself] feel safe; you build walls around you like a safety net, when you create a family and have relationships. But you don’t realize that life is very fragile, and all of this can go away anytime. There’s nothing you can really do about that.

That’s what this film teaches – you have a really stable situation that’s very joyful and cheerful, but everything falls apart within a second. Your life changes direction totally, but all people go through these kinds of situations in life. No one can get away from it. You feel like your life is just misery and there’s no hope and no value in it anymore. I wanted to give a little glimpse of hope; I show the darkest depths of the human psyche in a way, but I also show how everybody feels. Even so, it will be better, sometimes you just need a helping hand.

That’s perfectly illustrated with theses three monstrous, sideshow characters that plague our protagonists throughout the film. What was behind the concept of these figures?

In a way, they are rather comical characters. They are real and not real at the same time. In a way, I wanted you to feel they are iconic, that they could represent something bigger. And yes, their physical appearance, but it’s also in service to what they mean. I tend to like characters that are a bit theatrical, with very contrasting traits. Like this burlesque artist who is also really aggressive, and this simple, charming gentleman that also threatens throughout the film.

And one of the interesting things about these characters is that they trap our protagonists in this time-loop situation. What made you decide on that narrative structure?

It’s the structure of dreams; it’s the structure of nightmares. You often feel like you’re in an ongoing loop that you repeat over and over again, with minor changes. You try different ideas of how to escape, or stall a situation, but you can’t really do it. You end up in the starting position over and over again.

When you have a trauma, for example, it’s very difficult to get rid of the thought this nagging thought. You have it over and over again; why did this happen to me? What could I have done otherwise? Could I have helped the situation? You can’t solve it, though, you have to accept it.

That dovetails nicely into the horror genre as well, because there’s a tactical nature of horror movies where you as an audience member are seeing the characters go through terrible things, and you see them trying to figure out how to get out of it. How did you conceptualize this aspect of the film?

There’s always an element of escape, from the male perspective at least, and maybe an opposite direction for the female. She doesn’t want to escape, she holds him back, and they’re pulled in different directions. Of course, that makes them go nowhere.

There was a psychiatrist specializing in grief treatment who had this experiment from female or male ways to treat grief or dealing with it. In her research, she saw that men often try to escape a [grief] situation – “we’ve grieved for two years, enough is enough, let’s get on with our lives.” Women have to stay in it and really process it and be there, ride the storm. I can’t help but feel that that’s what happening here as well; she has a dream where she lives her entire live in a couple of minutes, all the ups and downs in her life in front of her eyes.

I don’t know if it was a conscious idea from my psyche, but it happened to be [in the film]. But it’s been confirmed that this is a common way for how [grief] happens to a lot of people.

And that dream you mentioned is expressed with two different sequences of shadow puppetry. You’re also an animator; what was the process between crafting and conceptualizing these sequences?

The film apart from these shadow puppet sequences is very cruel, very direct and in-your-face, realistic. And I wanted a contrast to that. I had to give [the audience] some poetry, a little fable, a fairy tale. To give them a little bit of comfort, a warm blanket after the trauma. So I conceptualized a little story about life and death, told in a way that give a tiny perspective to the story as well. To do that, I used a technique that’s been used for thousands of years before the camera, the way you told stories with shadow and light.

Had you used this technique before?

I tried it for a music video once, and I grew really fond of it. You know, it’s animation, not live-action. But it works like a small theater, where everyone is controlling different elements in the scene, different characters, elements like fire and wind also. It’s a kind of social way to animate something.

You’ve been touring this film around festivals for the last year or so, and I heard something about a bus tour for this film around Sweden. What was that like?

It was amazing, so nice. A long time ago, there was this fantastic mobile touring theater [out of a converted bus] that was really well-made, looks like an old, expensive theater with red curtains and the like. Very classical theater. Somewhere in my mind, I wanted to do something like that – go around in a bus like that, and get close to the audience and give them a very personal experience.

So I looked up where that bus was now, and asked if we could borrow it. We rebuilt it into our own theater and went around to different cities in Sweden. It was such an amazing way to show the film. The theater could hold 40 people, really close to each other, like a big living room in a way. And also, we had really personal discussions with the audience after the film, much more intense than general Q&As. It almost feels like a big family when you’re sitting so close each other, and experience something so intense together.

Was it a more intimate response than you’d normally get?

Yeah, I’d say so. Afterward, we were out grilling and barbecuing, and people stayed after. They wanted to speak about and understand and share their own lives, their own personal experience that was close to the film.

It was a special environment made just for the film, and I think people appreciated that.

I’m sure eyes are turning toward your next film. Are there any concepts or ideas you’re interested in exploring in that one?

I have a couple of different ideas, I’m not sure will be the next one., But I’ve started to work on a very crude, slapstick comedy with very primal character. It’s much more crude comedy with this one, lot of physical humor, not so much dialogue. Much more flesh, much more profanity. (laughs).

Koko-Di Koko-Da Trailer: