Bille August • Director of A Fortunate Man
By Matthew Boas, Cineuropa
"I want a nice atmosphere on set – the drama should be kept in front of the camera"
At the Cairo Film Festival, we chatted to Bille August about his duties as head of the international jury and his latest feature, A Fortunate Man, which is screening at the gathering
Seventy-year-old Oscar and two-time Palme d’Or winner Bille August has an illustrious career behind him and shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. Invited to head up the international jury at the 40th Cairo International Film Festival (20-29 November), August is also seizing the opportunity to show off his latest historical epic, A Fortunate Man, starring a smouldering Esben Smed in the lead role, at the Egyptian gathering. We got the chance to talk to him about his jury duties and his new opus.
Cineuropa: Is this your first time in Cairo? How are the movies so far, and is there anything that you will be particularly on the lookout for in the films in competition?
Bille August: It’s my first time in Cairo, but I haven’t seen anything of the city so far. The quality of the films here is very good – sometimes at festivals you wonder why they picked certain movies. But here, this year’s selection is good. Being on a jury is about listening to your intuition and not having any prejudice – you just follow your heart. What’s great about being on the jury is that you get to see so many films from different countries, and that reminds you why you started to make movies in the first place, because they are getting more stereotypical and mainstream. So it’s nice to see these independent films and know that they still exist. It’s a wonderful jury – they’re very disciplined, which is important. I’ve been on some juries where the chemistry is just wrong and it’s like civil war.
You’re also here for a screening of A Fortunate Man. The young lead actor, Esben Smed, is charismatic and seems perfectly suited to the role – how did you settle on him?
Most of the time when you make a movie, the producers, distributors and financiers want some big names or stars in order to sell the picture. With A Fortunate Man, the producer just said, “Find the best people for the roles; we don’t care, because the story is so strong.” So I went out casting. I didn’t know anything about Esben or the female lead, Katrine Greis-Rosenthal, who plays Jakobe, so for me they were totally unknown. It was such a great experience to work with them because they had not done many films, and they were not so self-conscious about their performances. They’re very good actors, but they had this openness and innocence in the way they approached the parts. There’s one thing the camera likes, and that’s innocence. You cannot fake innocence – either you’ve got it or you haven’t. Since they are so fresh and unspoiled, both Esben and Katrine still have that innocence in their way of performing, which gives it such a great quality.
Bille August • Director of A Fortunate Man
There’s a lot of tension in the dynamic between the characters, with lots of intense looks – how did you work with the actors to establish such a dynamic?
I don’t like to rehearse, really, but we just spent time together before filming, and we did a lot of readings. But I want to keep the actual moment for the day when we’re shooting. I don’t like to reproduce things. There’s one scene where Per is telling Jakobe that they should split up, and that scene is not actually in the novel. So I spent a long time writing and working on that sequence because I thought it was important. It’s a devastating moment for her, of course, and I knew that I could only do it once with Katrine. So we started with her close-up, and I knew it would be the first take. It’s all about building up the situation and the atmosphere, and making sure the camera is there and everyone is ready. When I felt Katrine was in the moment, we just did it. And then it’s gone, and you can never do it again. That’s what I like about making movies: you can build up great moments that can only happen once, and the camera sees it, then it’s gone.
You co-wrote this movie yourself, so would it be fair to call it a passion project?
Yes, it was an important film to do. I liked the story, of course, but I also find Per to be a very modern character. Because he’s so self-centred and self-obsessed, he reminds me of the modern selfie generation who can only think about themselves and asserting themselves. And what I like about this story is that Per, being so selfish, has to pay such a high price for that, eventually. It’s hard for him, but he cannot socialise with anybody; he has to isolate himself far away from other human beings. And I was wondering about the younger generation today, who are always on their iPhones and are obsessed with social media – what will happen to them, psychologically? What does it mean for your image of yourself, your self-esteem? So that’s one of the reasons why I think the film is relevant today, but Per’s childhood and the way he grew up reminds me of my own childhood as well, so it was also a personal thing.
You co-wrote the script with your son Anders – is this the first collaboration you have done, and do you intend to repeat it?
It is the first time we have worked together. Actually, I more or less wrote the screenplay for the feature, and when we decided to make a television version, Anders came on board because he’s done so much TV, so he was very good at structuring the episodes. It would be lovely if we could work together again in the future. I mean, I don’t want to be accused of nepotism, so when we knew we had to do a TV version, I asked different people who they thought would be the right person, and they said, “Why don’t you take Anders? He’s one of the most experienced writers in Denmark.” But working with him is not like a father-and-son relationship. Creating a story is like building a house, brick by brick; it’s very concrete. So it’s professional – that’s how it is, and that’s how it should be.
Do you have any other projects on the horizon? Will they be English-language or Danish-language? In general, do you prefer period pieces or contemporary ones?
I do, and the next one will be an English-language project, which will be shooting in the spring. I can’t tell you what it is yet, because we’re currently casting. In terms of period or contemporary, it’s just however it comes. What really matters to me is the story – what I really like is stories about relationships. I couldn’t do an action film or what have you; it’s all about relationships. I’ve been offered all types of films – crime, thrillers, action films – and it’s just not for me. I don’t know how to do them. I admire directors who really like doing these kinds of movies, but I don’t find an action film dramatic when I watch it – it just doesn’t engage me. In A Fortunate Man, the relationship between Jakobe and Per engaged me a lot. It’s powerful. That’s where the drama is for me.
You recently shot a film in China, The Chinese Widow. How did the process differ from working on your other movies?
I’ve worked in so many different countries, and once you have a great film crew, you have the actors and you have a story, that’s always the main thing. I think the big difference is really when you have big movie stars with all the entourage. It’s just a different set-up, it’s much heavier. Other than that, for me it’s always about finding a professional crew, but it’s also about the attitude – I don’t want any ego or any prima donnas. I want people who are there to do their job and stay in the background, or just be focused on what they’re doing. And I want a nice atmosphere on set, with no dramas. The drama should be kept in front of the camera. When you pick the right people, you have a great time, no matter where you are.