The use of ambiguity can make or break a film’s narrative. If used correctly, you can enthral an audience, encouraging them to ask questions and bring themselves to the text. If utilised too vaguely however, you can lose an audience entirely. Björn Rühmann’s short film MirrorMirror definitely aligns with the former, presenting a mysterious tale with an ambiguous nature that pulls you further and further in. I won’t dig into major plot details because it’s best left unsaid but Rühmann’s thriller is a brilliantly constructed and tense chamber piece, mostly set within the confines of a car journey. DN is delighted to premiere MirrorMirror online for audiences to watch and was joined by Rühmann for an in-depth dive on the casting of his actors, the stylistic choices that manifested in the short’s unsettling atmosphere, and the challenge of capturing everything across a single night shoot.
How did MirrorMirror come to be both conceptually and practically?
The writing of MirrorMirror has been a pretty long journey. About ten years ago my writing partner Matthew Branning shared his initial idea with me of someone being pushed over the brink by a simple child’s game that we all know: constant parroting. Over the years, with long pauses in between, we’ve developed this idea into a short film, and finally, in 2021, my US/UK production house Smuggler and my German production house Zauberberg engaged to make this film happen.
We decided to keep the narrative as restrained as possible, the approach of a car ride at night felt like the best short version of this idea.
I found myself constantly asking questions about the young man when he first appeared. Was that something you baked into the screenplay?
In the process of developing the script, one of our focus points was fleshing out the main evil character, the parroting young man. When writing the script and character description, we designed him to look rather innocent and childlike but to have those unsettling demon-like qualities. We wanted him to remain a mystery. You never get to know his actual agenda, the reasons for his behaviour are opaque, and is the character himself, is he real and only playing a game, is he just a projection of the inner self, or is he an actual demon, a curse for anyone crossing paths with him? To us, it was clear from the beginning that we don’t want to give any answers but want the audience to think about it and come up with their own questions and explanations.
Did you always have the narrative set around a car accident?
During the long development process we toyed around with various, rather different, plots, and ultimately we decided to keep the narrative as restrained as possible. The approach of a car ride at night felt like the best short version of this idea. An intense compact story unfolding within a contained space and timeframe, with a clear and sharp narrative arch, ending where it starts, the infinite cycle of horror.
And how did you develop the counterpart to the young man? The driver feels almost like a member of the audience in that she’s caring yet unaware of his true motives.
As for the protagonist of the woman we initially had a middle-aged man in mind, and only late in the game we changed it to a woman who’s this mix of strong on the outside and vulnerable on the inside. We liked the dynamics between a grown-up woman and a childlike passenger in a close space, vaguely reminding us of a tense moment between mother and teenage son, and how these dynamics change during the story. The young injured man seems vulnerable at the beginning while the woman appears to be a reluctant saviour, but over the course of the film the power is shifting, and while she progressively becomes more vulnerable and fragile, he’s taking over control with an evil power.
We designed him to look rather innocent and childlike but to have those unsettling demon-like qualities.
What was it like casting for both roles? The young man, in particular, requires a specific vibe to make the whole film work.
We found our actors through my favourite UK casting director Ali Fearnley. I had worked with Tom Cawte, the young man, before, he played a Pinocchio character in a Coke Zero commercial I shot in London a few years ago. Tom has a fantastic range as an actor, from innocently charming and fragile to dark and sinister. Karina Orr, an actor with a Belgian-Swedish background, was introduced to me by Ali, and in our first Zoom rehearsal reading with both actors, I immediately felt that she was the perfect counterpart to Tom.
How long were you on location shooting for? Did shooting on a road throw up any production issues?
As for the production of MirrorMirror there are a few interesting background facts. We shot the whole film in eight hours during a winter night on a private road in London. As so often for short films with a small budget, the biggest challenge was the limited shooting time. Luckily, my DP Joe Douglas and I have a close work relationship, he knows what I need and want and I know how good and fast he works, so we were able to pull it off within the eight hours of darkness, despite the technical set up time of car rigs and all those annoying speed humps in the road, every 200 meters, that forced the actors to constantly interrupt their acting.
The atmosphere of the film emphasises the concept of mystery.
There’s a prominent use of darkness and shadow in the look of MirrorMirror, was that something you embraced to reinforce the unclear nature of the young man?
Joe and I spoke beforehand about the look and feel of this film. The idea of keeping things in the shadows was one of the bigger themes, and Joe had a clear vision of how to shoot the film in darkness while using just enough light to capture the expressions and emotions on the actors’ faces. The atmosphere of the film emphasises the concept of mystery, of just conveying enough information to paint a picture, but leaving enough in the shadows to create intrigue and unanswered questions.
What was it like developing the score and sound mix to create that atmosphere of intrigue aurally?
Thanks to my long-lasting relationship with Soundtree in London, my absolute favourite creative partners for sound and music, they got on board and composed an eerily intense mix of sound design and score. Luis Almau’s inspiration for his music score was the actual sound of the car engine. It had this repetitive sound of acceleration going louder and softer in waves, which he then took and translated into a score. I asked Henning Knoepfel from Soundtree about developing the sound design and the car engine inspiration and he said:
“The initial sound pass included a car engine sound that was so tonal in nature that it inspired a musical drone which we layered on top of the car driving and it created this beautiful tension throughout the film. We started to introduce it outside when the first car had driven off and developed it further during the whole journey. We could ramp it up and up to reach this climatic crescendo only to drop it at the right moment creating this suspenseful moment of silence between the two characters.”
And to wrap up, what can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
I’ve just finished writing a feature film screenplay called SNOWDEER with my writing partner from Huntington Beach. It’s a father-son drama with horror elements but in essence, it’s about the mental/psychological aspects of abandonment and loss. The story is vaguely inspired by Hemingway’s short story A Day’s Wait and Goethe’s Erlkönig. Now we are looking for partners to make this independent film happen.