Features, Film, Interview, Interview

BBFF INTERVIEW: Director Uģis Olte on ‘Upurga’

Part of the Boston Baltic Film Festival 202


The Boston Baltic Film Festival runs from Friday, 3/3 through Sunday, 3/5 at the Emerson Paramount Center, and through 3/19 virtually. Click here for the schedule and ticket info, and watch the site for Joshua Polanski’s continuing coverage!

In one of my favorite films from the festival, Uģis Olte’s feature debut Upurga features a group of young adults on a camping trip near the Latvian-Estonian border for a vegan hot dog photo shoot. The environmental ignorance and vapid natural resourcefulness of Mara (Elvita Ragovska), amateur videographer Oskars (Reinis Boters), boyfriend Matiass (Rihards Sniegs), ad agency marketer Eva (Inga Tropa), and to a lesser extent Mara’s adventure tour guide brother Andrejs (Igors Selegovskis) is one that puts them in instant danger in the wilderness. 

By contrast, the indigenous Livonians, a Balto-Finnic indigenous people in northern and northwestern Latvia with a waning population, live intimately connected to the land they live on, completely aware of its snares and vices—including one special flower with unique side effects. (The last person to speak Livonian as their native tongue died in 2013.) Once the forest, perhaps the film’s most important character, forces the group to separate from each other, the friend group lacks even the most basic outdoor skills to piece together the new information they come across. They’re so ignorant that new knowledge is pointless— and this is where Upurga derives the bulk of its horror.

Read Joshua’s full review of Upurga here. The following interview, conducted over margaritas in a Mexican restaurant, has been condensed and edited for clarity.

BOSTON HASSLE: My wife absolutely loved Upurga and she wanted me to ask about a few scenes. She was researching everything she could after, and she doesn’t do that very often. 

Uģis Olte: After a few screenings, only women had dreams. Very specific and intense dreams. Men had nightmares, but women had dreams.

BH: Do you know why that is?

UO: I have a theory. Nature is a feminine force, so they are more connected to it. The moment we started casting, we found the women really dug deeper into the script than we ever intended. For example, Eva (Inga Tropa), the ad-agency girl, her casting session was 25 minutes of her talking about the interpretation of the character and only five minutes of line reading. 

The casting director offered only one option. 

BH: I wanted to ask you about the two underwater scenes. How did you do that? 

UO: It’s actually one of the most rushed scenes in the film. We had one day booked in this black background stage, but somebody took all of the lighting equipment from our company’s storage to another shoot and we had to wait for five hours for the (equipment) to return. So, we (only) had… five hours (to film)

Basically, it’s stop-motion animation using actors as animation dolls—with a long shutter, like exposure is one second. They act really slowly, which breaks the realism. 

The final animation is shot through an aquarium. You can play the surface of the water like a keyboard. So it’s really analog.

The scene started with one of my favorite films, The Witch. I heard an interview where (Eggers) said it started with a dream about a witch. And actually, this film also started with a dream about a witch. The witch in the dream was much more aggressive and menacing. 

BH: In another interview, you mention that the film is inspired by getting lost in the woods once. Can you tell me about that?

UO: That was the very first impulse. I grew up in the countryside. I grew up in the woods. Sometimes things happen and you get shaken. In this case, it was an encounter with wild boars: a female with piglets. I got so shaken that I suddenly became some ancient human being who experiences the world in some mythical, too close to the mirror manner. 

BH: What films directly inspired Upurga?

UO: Annihilation, because of this idea that it’s nature that we know but it’s different. 

Then Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and the way he filmed this Baltic landscape. And because he filmed in Estonia, that really left an impression on me. 

And also Twin Peaks because an ordinary forest has dementedness hidden.

BH: Was The Blair Witch Project an inspiration at all?

UO: That’s one of the scariest movies I remember seeing. I was eighteen. It left a huge impression, especially the last shot of the guy standing in the corner. But I didn’t rewind it in my head while making this film.

BH: What makes a good horror scene? 

UO: For me, sound is 60% of the film. But actually, my nervous system is not very suitable for horror. I was watching The Conjuring and I had to stop, go to Wikipedia, and read the plot (before I could keep watching). It was too scary. 

Regarding (the underwater sequences), these are based on things that came to me in dreams. And dreams are a communication device for … I don’t know … something (deep) in you. (They deal) with archetypal constructions and if you stay true to the archetypal stuff, it will always work. Don’t screw it up: leave it as it came to you.

The most terrifying things are those that stay true to the archetypes behind them.

BH: I found the professions of the characters interesting. You have an ad agency person, an influencer, etc… I felt a disconnect between their professions and the Livonians, who are more connected to the environment around them. Is this disconnect intentional?

UO: It’s an observation of how people behave when they go on boat trips. Usually, they are really careless. City people often get in dangerous situations without realizing they are dangerous. 

And this whole sausage thing, there’s this trope in Latvia that when you go outdoors, you grill sausages on an open fire. But… what about these modern trendy vegan sausages? Do you grill them as well? Can you base a commercial campaign on the idea that those sausages can also be brought outdoors and grilled? 

Regarding the flower, we are releasing a one-hour behind the scenes (documentary) which gives a bit more of the mythology. We asked my best friend, who is also a television host, on set and to film what happens as a reporter, but we had an agreement as a crew to not tell him anything. It’s probably the weirdest behind-the-scenes film I know.

For me, my film school was those three behind the scenes films of the Lord of the Rings. I learned everything that I know about cinema from those.

BH: Can you tell me about the Livonians?

UO: (They are) Indo-Europeans that originated in the middle of the continent and then moved in two different directions. Balts traveled longer than the Finno-Ugrians. Finns, Estonians, and Livonians are the same language group. They found themselves on the seashore, couldn’t go any further, and probably got depressed for a millennia. And when the Baltic tribes arrived, they were already there. 

Somehow, they (became) almost extinct. Right now, there are 40 people who speak Livonian. I had an intuitive movement toward this culture (for the film), but I needed a Norwegian actor to point it out (Morten Traavik as Inspector Salins). He asked me if he could base his character on (the Livonians) and I thought “oh, of course.” I had written the village without realizing they could be Livonians. 

So then I sent the script to the Livonian academics and asked, “Is this about you?” They said “yes,” and then started to provide materials. For example, the large charcoal drawings in the cafe, one is a real Livonian picture (from I believe 150 years ago, of a guy standing with a violin and an ax behind his belt.) My wife, who is also a concept artist on the film, copied the drawing and enlarged it. The (Livonian Institute) really wanted this charcoal drawing at their institute because it’s the first contemporary movie that doesn’t just respect but includes our culture. 

Do you remember the scene where the main character wakes up in this water womb? It’s an actual Livonian castle hill. This was the well for the fortification. 

BH: What do you hope the Boston audience will get from your film?

UO: I hope some archetypal experience. I made this film to make people feel a certain energy. And so far it’s worked. One of the methods was asking two writers from different cultures to join. I have a Serbian female co-writer (Bojana Babić) and a Brazilian co-writer (Lucas Abrahao). They had to point out what was too local and needed to be eliminated and what was local but in an interesting way. 

BH: Can you recommend a movie from Latvia, as well as one from the festival, for the Hassle audience”

UO: My number two film from last year, Squeal (2021, dir. Aik Karapetian), it’s shot in the same place I shot my film but on the opposite side of the river, two months earlier. (Currently streaming on Kanopy.) It’s a really weird exploration of identity crisis (from the perspective) of a certain foreign man who becomes captive in a weird, rural household. And my number one suggestion is a film called Troubled Minds (2021, dir. Raitis Ābele & Lauris Ābele), which is an exploration of the border between normality and psychosis. 

From the festival, I recommend January, which I like because it’s a subjective and affective based exploration of some historical era, and Sisters, which is a heartfelt and very honest film from someone who has the same surname as me… though we are not relatives.

BH: What’s next, if you’re allowed to say?

UO: I started writing a very specific time travel film. It’s not about people traveling but only some parts of their identity traveling back in time.

BH: Is it more sci-fi or horror?

UO: I don’t know. I never even knew Upurga was a horror film. I was always annoyed when I was asked about genre. I’m just making a film and don’t want to put it in some box. When (we finished), I realized it was folk horror. And several of my favorite films are folk horror, like The Witch and Midsommar

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