The Place of No Words just released in the most timely fashion, telling the story of a young boy who uses his childlike tools to process his father’s impending due to a lethal disease. Mark Webber’s fantasy-reality-drama depicts the harsh reality that perhaps too many are feeling right now with the current health crisis exposing many children to topics that they may not be ready to face.
Despite the serious topics, the film takes a strong approach in not depicting death completely as tragedy. Even as young Bodhi’s dad becomes sicker and closer to death, this family spends its final days appreciating the time they have together as Bodhi processes his passing in a fantastical and imaginative way, filled with monsters, robots, castles, fairies, and more.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with actress Nicole Elizabeth Berger, who portrays Esmeralda in the film, to speak about the serious yet hopeful tone of The Place of No Words, the experience of filming with an off-screen family, and the industry during the time of COVID-19.
What was it like collaborating on a project with an on-screen, and offscreen, family? Did that change anything in process of making the film?
That’s a really great question, actually. Mark [Webber] is absolutely brilliant. He has a heart of gold and is truly so inspiring. He gave me the opportunity to play Esmeralda and be a part of his family’s journey, for which I will always be grateful.
He even sought my input on the script and gave me the opportunity to ad-lib many of my lines. Mark loves improvisation, actually, and taking people out of their comfort zones to achieve new levels of realism not often seen in traditional films. He pushes the boundaries of traditional filmmaking by using elements from his real-life to develop this new method of filmmaking he calls reality-cinema. The Place of No Words is considered fantasy-reality-cinema, which really just expands on his filmmaking style to the fantasy genre through the imagination of his son.
Mark, as the director-writer, cast his three-year-old son, Bodhi, and his wife, the amazing Theresa Palmer, along with himself, as a real family facing the dying process together. The audience gets to experience the story through the eyes of their son.
We had a lot of fun working on the film together, especially considering the topic of the film, and Bodhi’s age — he was three years old. It was amazing how he was able to fully immerse himself in the role and deliver his lines. And Theresa really just rounded out the family unit. Her role in the film, I think, increased substantially and was definitely more apparent in the real world, but their family dynamic is incredibly close, remarkably transparent. I could easily see each of them reliving the experiences as depicted in the film.
That actually leads to my next question. What did you focus on when you translated your character from Bodhi’s fantasy perspective from the actual reality of what was actually happening?
Well, the main theme for me is conquering our fear of death by embracing the beauty of being alive through our imagination. If we could somehow bring our childlike wonderment, so to speak, into the dying process, we may even be able to see the beauty in it.
The film chronicles the story of a young man who is dying of cancer and how his impending death affects his family, their close friends, and especially his young son, Bodhi, who asks the question, “Where do we go when we die?” And this is an unanswerable one because each person’s religious culture has its own idea about where we go and what happens when we die. The film is seen and interpreted through the eyes of Mark’s son, who switches back and forth between the real world and his stimulated imagination.
Your character acted as a sort of guide for Bodhi. What about their relationship do you think made him choose her to be this fairy in his fantasy perspective?
In his imagination, I act as sort of a guardian angel, Esmeralda, and really, I offer a sense of reassurance to Mark and Bodhi on their journey to find Freeka.
When we first meet, they are visibly marveled and taken aback yet in this maze of confusion — they don’t quite know what’s going on. But, I definitely provide a source of comfort, love, and guardianship in both the real world and his fantasy interpretation. I always speak softly and kindly to Bodhi, and I bring magic and playfulness to his life.
And he’s also mesmerized by my huge wings. Now, those were beautiful. And they were added in post-production.
What was it like filming the more fanciful elements of this film in the midst of it having such a serious and heavy mood?
While the film explores such serious and challenging topics, it definitely tries to do so without discouraging viewers. Many of the scenes are so beautiful and really intimate that they make my heart skip a beat, just watching them.
Bodhi’s imagination paints this vivid picture of fairies, medieval castles, great lakes, snowy mountain tops, mythical creatures called ‘Grumblers,’ and crazy high-tech, life-sized robots. And I play the guardian angel who guides them on their journey towards death, the place of no words, but not in a sad or fearful way, but in a way that actually reminds us to cherish each moment we have with the ones we love. And I think the film does a really great job of balancing the two moods.
Since you brought it up, I was going to ask what was your favorite creature or sequence in his imagination?
There’s no question that the grumblers are my favorite.
What’s your favorite memory from filming The Place of No Words?
The most challenging, and yet most beautiful, part of working on this film was definitely dealing with the location that was chosen. We started our journey in London, at Strawberry Castle with a cast and crew of five people. We went on a four-hour train ride to Northern Wales, which is where we spent most of our time. Filming took place on a breathtaking mountain range, near Stoney National Park.
We spent practically all of our free time in a one room bungalow and an adjacent house that we all shared to get ready for filming. We all became very close as you would imagine, giving the surroundings. But nightly, we had traditional Welsh food cooked for us fresh by the family that owned the farm on which we filmed many of the scenes. We had karaoke sessions where we would casually belt out some Adele.
But it was incredibly cold and windy on set I remember. It was particularly troublesome for me as I was dressed in a lacey fairy costume. In fact, the actors’ hut that we used to keep warm, since we didn’t have actual heaters, was actually blown away with myself and Bodhi included. It was blown away by strong winds. So, that’s a fond memory I have.
That’s crazy! Did you have any favorite scenes to film or was there anything particularly that spoke to you when you were actually filming it?
One scene in particular that I think really stands out to me would have to be the part where I tell Bodhi a story about the grumblers feasting on fairies and ripping apart this dilapidated cobblestone hut. I feel there’s a truly authentic moment shared between the two of us during that scene — firstly, because it was all improvised on the spot and just done on a whim. It’s not surprising, of course, because Mark really loves improvisation and taking people out of their comfort zones.
You said that even though the tone of the film is serious, it included a more imaginative element, but was there anything you needed to do on set to challenge the possible seriousness of the mood?
The film was actually very uplifting. It wasn’t hard to stay in a constant positive mood because of the beautiful message of the film and the stunning visuals and surroundings. The biggest challenge was definitely the weather and the small crew, but given the environment, it would have been nearly impossible to have a large crew. Everyone had to do many tasks at once and maintain a very high level of performance at all times.
In fact, that small, tight-knit crew and cast helped us perform as a family and really work together as a single unit. We were always helping each other on set and Bodhi’s utmost enthusiasm and commitment made it much easier for everyone to remain uplifted and motivated. No matter the circumstances.
You’ve touched on this, but what did you take away thematically from the film and what do you hope the audience takes away from The Place of No Words?
Well, Mark was really my mentor in preparation for the role and also on set. He told me to just be myself, get into character, and let my imagination and talent support me throughout the filming process. But he really stressed the importance of feeling like a part of his family and being able to improvise whenever it’s needed. This was especially empowering as a young actor, coming from someone as insightful as Mark.
I feel like the film has even more relevance in today’s COVID-19 world where so many people are facing a multitude of challenges and having these difficult but necessary conversations with themselves and their children. And while there’s no actual timetable for grief, that hollow feeling of emptiness is shared through the innocent eyes of a toddler who grapples with these concepts that are really difficult to deal with at any age. And he does so with this childlike sense of wonderment. The film manages to convey a strangely optimistic and freeing image of death.
And what is it like promoting and premiering the film during COVID?
In the past 10 days, actually, we had our West-Coast and East-Coast premieres for the film — at The Palladium Theater, in Los Angeles, and The Fairgrounds in West Palm Beach. Over a hundred cars were in attendance. So, we had a really great turnout, each socially distanced by at least six feet. Everyone was able to maintain safety precautions.
I was joined on stage at the premiere in LA with my costars, Mark Webber and Phoebe Tonkin, and on the big screen by Teresa and Bodhi [Palmer], who are currently in Wales working. After the screening, Mark and I answered many questions about the film. We had an Instagram Live which lasted just over an hour. We tried our best to answer each and every question and the comment section was quite flooded at times.
We also may have taken advantage of the Instagram filters. Yeah, it was my first Instagram Live. So, I kind of went overboard. I may or may not have answered a few questions with dog ears and flower crowns.
But yeah, promoting the film during the COVID-19 pandemic is totally different from the circumstances surrounding any other movie I’ve been involved in, but still lots of fun.
Is there anything you’ve been doing to work on your craft during COVID?
The COVID-19 pandemic has really turned the entertainment industry on its head. Unfortunately, auditions and self-tapes for film have largely been put on hold. Festivals have generally gone virtual and online, and filming and production of movies now have SAG safety guidelines which inevitably complicates production, although completely appropriate and essential.
Film releases have been postponed by many months. Movie theaters are closed, Broadway’s dark, music clubs are closed — everything — and schools are struggling to reopen. But my family and I have been following strict health guidelines which ensures that we avoid contact with people who may have been exposed.
I spend a lot of my free time, which is limited, practicing piano and learning new classical pieces. I look forward to the time when I can actually sit and engage, and have a person to person interaction with my piano instructor and move forward with all my studies.
I’m also taking ballet over zoom conferencing, which is a struggle. It’s very hard, but we get through it and with acting as well. I work with my acting mentor to even still enhance my skills and auditioning and scene preparation over Zoom or Google Meets. I’ve been reading new scripts for possible projects. I’m currently working on a historical fiction novel. I’ve been taking on new music projects with my musical group — my band. Watching films — just a good variety.
Are there any projects that you have upcoming? Things have mostly slowed down because of COVID, but perhaps what projects are you hoping to work on in the future?
Before COVID-19 I had finished several short films, and I sincerely hope that after the film industry is back up and running and the pandemic is under better control that full films or TV shows will be based on these engaging stories. I am reading several major scripts at the moment. And as an actress, I’m always reading scripts and trying to find the next great opportunity for me.
The Place of No Words is now available to rent. You can find Nicole Elizabeth Berger on Instagram!