The HeyUGuys Interview: Director Michael Noer on Northwest, and the new-wave of Danish filmmakers
Danish cinema appears to be going through something of a new wave at present, with something of a contemporary Dogme 95 movement being recreated, with host of brilliantly naturalistic pictures released. At the heart of this revival is Michael Noer, who co-directed R alongside Tobias Lindholm (who had himself made A Hijacking, and written The Hunt), now going solo with the harrowing drama Northwest.
Noer was once a documentarian, and he tells us how that benefited him when tackling a dramatic, narrative feature. He also discusses why he decided to use real criminals and non-professionals actors for this piece.
How did the idea for Northwest first come about?
I’m not really an ideas kind of person, if that makes any sense. What I mean by this, is that I have a documentary background. I met my editor when I went to film school and we’ve always worked together and made maybe 15-20 films, and they’re mostly documentaries. Then in 2009 I, and Tobias Lindholm, made R together, which was shot in a real prison, which was like a way to combine documentary filmmaking and fiction films. After that I did Northwest, and the idea comes out of the fact that having done R, where I got to know a lot of former inmates, it gave me this unique access to the crime world of Copenhagen. Then I got very quickly got interested in how these grownups recruit the younger guys.
Northwest follows on from a line of movies, like The Hunt, A Hijacking and of course R, where realism is so prevalent. They’re all so tragically bleak too, what do you think it is about this territory that has so much appeal at present to Danish filmmakers?
Well I think it’s a two part answer, because I would say that of course there are economical limitations to what’s possible to make in Denmark. If you make a monster movie in Copenhagen, you’d have to do it in a more realistic kind of way to make it work. But I also think it’s very much a credit to the post-Dogme 95 era, because I was a teenager when Festen and The Idiots came out, and they just blew me away. I didn’t know you could make movies that way, I didn’t know you could make movies that seemed real. I loved watching Star Wars when I was a kid, but it blew me away that you could make movies that made a mark on reality by commenting on reality. The Dogme movies were not researched in any way, so you could say these were done more like a documentary. Tobias, who I did R with, he wrote The Hunt, so there’s a very strong connection between this small wave coming out of Denmark right now, of well-researched, documentary based movies.
There does seem to be a real movement of filmmakers, including yourself and Tobias and actors like Pilou Asbæk. Is this something you’re all aware of – does this feel like a good time to be in the Danish film industry?
Yeah, definitely. Right now I am extremely jealous of a project that a very good friend of mine Martin Zandvliet is making a World War 2 movie, and the lead in that movie is Roland Møller, who has been in my movies. So the fact he’s hired one of my non-professionals into a very professional role, in a period piece, which I know will be very well-researched, is amazing. It’s a great time. The film I just finished shooting was shot in an elderly home where the lead is played by Ghita Nørby, who is a legendary Scandinavian actress, and she had to play opposite many elderly people suffering with severe dementia. It was amazing that she was committed to this project, and wanted to try and make a movie shot in a real home. You now have non-professionals that end up with greta acting careers, and legendary actors saying yes to shooting every day for seven weeks in a real elderly home, and watching people get their diapers changed – for me that was pretty cool.
It does seem the realism on screen extends to the cast and crew as well. A Hijacking uses real boats that had been hijacked, and with real Somalian pirates, and it was shot in pirate infested waters – it’s almost like the filmmaker is putting themselves in the same position as the cast. Obviously you’ve used real criminals in Northwest too… How important is it to you to extend that realism to yourself?
Not to talk about what I just shot, but it was just made with an almost 80 year old lead. This way of working doesn’t have to be dangerous, with real Somali pirates or criminals, the most important thing is working with people who have a know how, and knowledge of whatever environment you’re trying to portray. So that’s why it was fun to make a film that takes place in a totally different environment, but is still the same way of working. Because when they have to change the diapers of these old ladies, they use the same method of working and speaking, as if they were in a real job. It’s the same with people who were criminals and would steal a car or whatever they do – it’s a way of working in an environment they know, and they you just need them to reenact it out in front of a camera.
Talking of which, the lead roles Gustav and Oscar Dyekjær Giese are real brothers, again without acting experience. How did you discover them?
The writer Rasmus Heisterberg told me how important he felt it would be to push the boundaries of what could be possible, so we decided to hire two real brothers. There are so many movies about brothers but I’ve rarely seen a movie with real brothers. So we started casting following an ad on Facebook, and I said I wanted brothers who were just one or two years apart, and they should be almost like twins. We had maybe 20-25 brothers come to the casting agent, but the reason I chose Oscar and Gustav is because the moment they got there they were just arguing, because they were 20 minutes late. So Gustav had a hangover and Oscar was mad at him, saying ‘you ruin everything – you’re always hungover, and now you’re embarrassing me in front of these people’. Then he turned to him and just took his arm and pinched and said ‘shut the fuck up you little…’ and then I was just sitting there, looking at the casting agent and we said, hey guys – you’ve got the job! They looked at me and said, ‘what job? How do we know we even want to be in this? Because if we say yes we need to know what it’s about’ – and I thought that was perfect, because I’m not looking for somebody from the X Factor generation, I want someone who is genuinely invested in this. You know, they’re supposed to work with other non-professionals who have a background in the criminal world. One of them in the movie actually had to go back to jail. The reason why he didn’t go was beforehand was because we hired him for the job. He got a three month delay on his parole.
Northwest is dealing with a broken society, and people with no opportunities, so turning to crime because they see it as the only option. So because you’re taking people who have had that lifestyle, and giving them a real experience, the chance to act and be creative – was it a quite enlightening experience for you?
Well that’s what I loved and love about making documentary films, and this way of working, is that when I go to work, I try and be very humble and say to myself, I am not the expert – now I have to look and listen. This way of trying to respect people is what made it possible for Tobias and I to make these movies. Like in R, some the inmates were not used to people coming up to them and looking them in the eye and saying, ‘hello – how are you doing?’ So in the beginning, they either thought I was gay and trying to hit on them, or they actually thought I was trying to listen to them, and the moment they realised it was the latter, then we could start transforming whatever information and emotion they had into scenes. The problem is, one shouldn’t glorify this way of living, and one should not see it as some kind of therapy. That’s a very dangerous thing – just like a documentary. You spend one or two years with some person in an obsolete, small town somewhere weird and you make a film about loneliness, and then the moment the movie is over, you leave these people to themselves, but they’re still living this life. So it’s a complex thing, while you’re shooting you’re so involved, and then when you finish you leave them again, so I try as much as I can to keep contact with these people, but I also try to remind them that we’re trying to do something which hopefully can transcend whatever relationship we have, and allow other people to see. It’s not based around us being friends, but we have to work together to make something that is bigger than ourselves, and portray real life living that is going on, that will have a political and emotional influence on people watching this in the cinema, or in front of the TV.
Casper is a brilliant protagonist, because he’s so flawed. When we’re introduced to him as he’s robbing a house – which is one of the most despicable acts we all fear – and yet we can’t help but root for him and his safety. Was that a challenge for you – to take a character like this and make him so empathetic?
I think the task of making him likeable, solved itself with research. The apartment we shot in was the same apartment where real life brothers live, so we paid for them to move out so we could move in – and I stole a lot of ideas from these real brothers and based a lot of scenes on them. They got into fights, they did worse things than you could ever see in Northwest, but then when I saw them together with their kid sister, or how they took care of their mum, then it all made sense – it was this duality between doing immoral things and still having a family life where you really try and love the people around you. That’s the conflict of the movie.
Given your history making documentaries, how well do you think that informs your approach to dramatic filmmaking? Does it give you an advantage when creating realism on screen?
I think it gives me an advantage in the humbleness of knowing how important it is to listen. Errol Morris, the famous American documentarian, he said ‘the best question is no question – it’s just about listening’, and that’s really what I try to do when I do my research. I just spend some time with whoever I am trying to portray. To me that always works really well, if I don’t have any preconceptions. Maybe that gives me a little advantage – but a disadvantage is that it takes a long time to write these scripts, because you try to do as much research as possible.
Finally, you’ve mentioned your next film – when can we expect to see that?
Some time early next year I think. Hopefully, anyway.