GÖTEBORG 2017: Charlotte Sieling and Søren Malling talk ‘The Man’

How did you come up with the concept for The Man?

Charlotte: It came at a time where all these divorces were occurring among my group of friends, and I felt like nobody knew how to do it right. I felt like the only thing I could do in response was make a film, so I did. Once the film was finished, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to make another film about it. To move myself to the next idea, I decided to come up with the most stupid, simple idea that I could understand. I just said, let’s make a movie about a man and after that a movie about a woman! That way the films become a trilogy. The ‘woman’ film is in the scriptwriting process, so that will be coming out.

When I was looking for my male character, I tried to think of the most masculine figure I could. That figure was a soldier, but when I was researching this character I realised that it would most likely have to be a political movie, which is not something I wanted to do. I searched inside myself and found what a man is to me. I found this crazy guy who wore pyjamas with goofy glasses, and it ended up working.

Søren, how would you describe your character?

Søren: He has this idea that he is the king, the biggest artist in the world. To become this egotistical, you need to be focused entirely on yourself. Everyone around him listens to him and follows his orders and if they don’t, they are fired. He’s not the most sympathetic guy you could meet. As an actor, it’s not very interesting to just play a psychopath. But the film starts with an egotistical psychopath, and it allows him to open up. It’s always a bleeding heart. There’s always a human being inside. I insist on opening up and finding this beautiful side to every person, even if we need to break the character. If that’s what it takes, it works for me.

Was this character based on a person?

Søren: For Charlotte and I, we had an artist in mind. We weren’t exactly fans, but his name is Julian Schnabel. He wears pyjamas and funny glasses and there are clips on YouTube of him acting like a big asshole. He considers himself to be this big artist and amazing teacher. But here he is sitting in this huge chair with this big belly and it’s hard to believe he’s for real. When I was preparing for the role, I got in touch with a German/Danish artist I admire. I told him about the movie and that I wasn’t a painter, but I needed some inspiration and asked to follow him around. He didn’t teach me how to draw because that wouldn’t be interesting, but I was like a small insect on the wall with big ears and big eyes. I watched how he went through the day.

The costuming of your character added to the feel of the film. Was that important to you?

Søren: That was the arty-farty type. I believe that costuming brings you into the character, but it doesn’t happen every time. Sometimes it’s just a pair of jeans and a sweater which doesn’t mean much to you. But here we felt we needed to do something extraordinary to make him alive, make the costume alive. We thought we’d give it a go because why not, he’s the king and he can do what he wants. It’s a little bit eccentric, but these guys are like that. At first, it felt awkward to wear, but within the hour I knew it would be the perfect costume and asked if we could have four colours.

Could this film be set in any other industry, or is it essential to include it in the art world?

Charlotte: Everyone had advised me that I shouldn’t use the art world because no one would want to see it. Who wants to see an idiot in an artistic environment? There’s also the logistics of filming art, which can be quite difficult. But once I grabbed him I just couldn’t change it. It is the movie I wanted to make and the script is what it is. I know it’s not the best script in the world, but the movie is exactly how I want it to be.

Søren: The way of thinking about yourself as the big man could happen in any world; it could happen to a bricklayer or plumber, for example. That setting could be boring, however, and we’ve been there too many times, especially in Denmark which has many feature films based on a social natural setting with lots of daily things going on. I’ve been there, done that, so let’s move on. Let’s get one, two, three levels higher.

Charlotte: I’m glad I didn’t change the profession. We’ve seen a lot of films recently that take place in the art world, and no one wants to look at them. I think the way we got around it is that we didn’t specifically film art and didn’t try to show the audience what art is. It’s just used as production design.

The art that we do see seems to very dark and melancholic, which seems completely out of character for a man who wears bright sweaters…

Charlotte: I think it’s because we have many layers inside. I’m always very light, funny, open and people like to hear what I say, but inside I’m crying like a baby also. I’m a very sad person. I think that’s why we chose the art style; to show the opposite of this persona. He’s not a happy guy deep down.

You set the film in Copenhagen but originally wanted to shoot in Berlin. Please explain why you had to move it to Denmark.

Charlotte: This atmosphere we create in the film is the Berlin scene. We have it in Copenhagen as well, but it’s not as big. There’s a Danish/Icelandic artist called Olafur Eliasson and I admire his work. He has ninety people working for him; so many projects and he’s all over the world. That was the reason why we wanted to base it in Berlin, but Lars, by Danish producer, came to be and told me it wouldn’t be possible to finance it. My name wasn’t as big so we couldn’t just shoot anywhere. Since then I’ve gone to the U.S. and shot Homeland, so maybe that’s changed. Lars told me it could be financed in Denmark, so I changed it. Olafur Eliasson has a studio in Copenhagen, too.

The ending is very manly in the way the father & son resolve their issues. Why did you want to go that route, rather than have them sort it out through conversation?

Charlotte: It wasn’t the original ending. In the early script, we were going to have the son come and take everything that the man loves. The son was going to have sex with the wife, steal the girlfriend and take all the assistants from the gallery. When he comes to take his things, the father hits him. It was going to become a very tough scene because the father was going to hand over one of his sweaters and put him on a train to Berlin, but the son is totally bleeding and must be carried by the father. It comes from a poem in Denmark that is about a father carrying his dying son on his shoulder. That’s a picture I wanted to see. It never ended up in the movie. Instead, we now have a fight take place. I love that the fighting made sense, despite the fact it’s very cliché because men would fight and women would speak. I feel it works because the two actors said it made total sense.

Søren: Before we started shooting, the financiers were unsure of the ending and wanted it to be changed, stating it was over the top. But I loved it. When I read it through the first time I actually insisted to Charlotte that it was making it very brutal because I felt like this was the only way to underline a new start. After much talking, we finally got to do it. It feels like a western; like a cowboy ending. You can almost hear the horses coming in. I thought it was great.

Charlotte, you spent the first part of your career as an actor, then transitioned to director. Do you feel your acting experience has helped as a director?

Charlotte: I feel it says a lot about me. There are many actors who shouldn’t be directing. It was so hard for me to be an actor and it feels so much more to me to be directing. As an actor, I’d be stressing before the camera was rolling about forgetting my lines, but as a director, I feel more comfortable.

But maybe it is another thing; maybe it’s because I love actors. I love them so much because I know what they are doing. I see it like a craft and they like that. I like to focus on the smaller human behaviour and not so much the psychology like telling them they had a rocking chair when they were three and they should feel because of that. I’m not interested in elements like that. I’m interested in the moment and human behaviour. It’s simple, physical and demanding. I also take all the responsibility for the work, so I reassure them of that and I feel like that’s a good tool.

Would you ever direct and act in your movies?

Charlotte: I would love to, but I’m not sure I’m brave enough. Maybe my upcoming ‘woman’ movie, but even then, I’ve found an actress that I think will be perfect for that role. I’m going to be in a part that’s coming up. It’s not a big role, but it’s a scary movie and I feel like it’s good experience for me to go out there and try to listen to somebody else.

Both of you have had a lot of success working in television, and we’d know you from your part in The Killing and Borgen, plus Charlotte having directed some of The Bridge. What do you feel is the biggest difference between working in television and film?

Charlotte: Once you’re on set, it’s pretty much the same, but the content is entirely different. When it’s your movie, it’s personal and it keeps you up at night. The Man is an auteur movie with all the flaws that come when you are the writer, the director and live with it for so long. That’s the whole idea with auteur movies because they are not perfect and they are a mirror of me, which is not perfect.

Søren: Acting in front of a camera is pretty much the same, there’s no difference. Rather, it’s the whole concept around it. When you’re talking about a film character, it’s the one script. You look up your pages and you know the whole story. You can actually create your character and you can have your own thoughts on the story. Television is much more complex. But at the same time, it’s more simple. Normally, the characters don’t develop much. It’s quite flat. If you’re doing a feature film it can go up and down. So you can say I like both, but if I have worked a year on television only, I can get a little bit tired and want to go back and do a feature. And then if I’ve been doing feature films, I want to go back to being more of a straight, television character. So I love both. The difference is the surrounding and the production, the way they actually produce. Television has to be very, very fast. The feature is more like sitting back and finding out, playing with scenes and ideas.

What has the reaction to The Man been like?

Charlotte: The audiences have been receptive, but the experience in Rotterdam was amazing. The film was screened on forty-five screens simultaneously, and once the film was done they were tweeting about the film. When I stood on stage to do the Q&A, I could see a screen with all the tweets coming in. Luckily they were saying things like ‘brilliant movie!’ ‘fucking awesome’ and nobody wrote anything negative. I was so sure that this would be a movie where 8,000 people would watch it because that’s what happens with drama, but there’s something about it that people love.


Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.