The producers with their fingers on the pulse - The Post

The producers with their fingers on the pulse

Four established names reveal the ins and outs of the trade

Producing: Lots to chew on (photo: Laura Tassicker)
September 28th, 2019 6:00 am| by Christian W

Film producers come in all shapes and sizes, and invariably in heavy numbers – we know that from watching the end of the Oscars.Rarely is there one person responsible for everything, although the cynics amongst us might question how much some of the celebrity name executive producers actually do (wouldn’t non-executive be more accurate?).

Sometimes the producer is also the director, like in the case of David Noel Bourke, a shoestring budget operator, but even he concedes that he needs a standalone producer to access decent funding.

On bigger projects, an army of producers is needed, like on ‘Shrouded Destiny: A Star Wars Long Tale’. Laura Tassicker, one of the co-producers, recalls what was a hectic shoot.

With a more sedate perspective now he has returned home from several years in Hollywood, Kasper Graversen – the producer of the forthcoming Danish film ‘Ninna’, which hits cinemas on October 31 – reflects on the differences between the two countries’ industries.

While Mette Norkjaer, still stateside at BOOM! Studios, a production company that specialises in comics and graphic novels, envisages a bright future as stronger links develop between her country and Hollywood.

Interviewer: Edward Owen

David Noel Bourke, an Irish resident in Copenhagen, both produces and directs – a true filmmaker! His most recent film, the Danish-language production ‘Bakerman’, won critical acclaim following its release in 2018, including the award of Best Foreign Film at the Maryland International Film Festival. Bourke is an avid advocate of making truly independent films made free of studio interference. Most of his budgets, perhaps unsurprisingly, are strictly shoe-string.

You take on the role of producer and director for your films – how do you balance the two?
Lots of planning and work. The most difficult part is during the production (shooting the film) as that’s when the director’s hat is on too – that can be stressful and exhausting to juggle, but I really enjoy it.

You make films on a shoe-string budget.  Can you tell us what sort of figures you are working with? 
I don’t really like to talk figures but overall the budgets and quality of my independent films are getting bigger and better for every new film I make as my ambitions grow – so it’s an evolution. My mantra is that the next film project should always raise the bar higher. It’s always a long game when you are making an independent film: you find ways to get things done, and there is always more than one way to skin a cat. On a lot of the big budget films, all the money is wasted: too many people, too many cooks. So we keep it simple and focused – and at this stage I know the ropes of making films very, very well.

How did it work out with your latest film, ‘Bakerman’?
The main star, Mikkel Vadsholt, who has won several best actor awards, said it was one of the best projects he has been a part of, in terms of recognition and work, during his 30 years working professionally in the film industry. It’s opened many doors, and he is now getting calls from London/LA casting agents and rumoured to be starring in a big Netflix TV series.  I’m also getting a lot of different offers, although I have many of my own projects. I’m always open to a challenge though. At the end of the day it’s not all about what the budget is, it’s about the overall value and the final quality of the film.

When you’re making a film, how would you describe a typical day?  Is there such a thing?
Write. Plan. Worry. Go to location. Shoot/film. Have fun! Eat. Worry.  Shoot/film. Try to have more fun but sweat. Then cry. Shoot/film. Wrap and clean up. Go back to office. Check the day’s footage/dailies. Enjoy. Then panic. Rewrite. Re-plan.  Repeat X 60 days.

Have you ever encountered any unwanted attention when shooting on location? 
Too many to mention! We had a scene in ‘Bakerman’ in which a woman is assaulted by her brother  before being saved by Jens (Vadsholt). It was a cold external night shoot on location in Valby, just around the corner from Valby Bowling. Someone shouted from a window saying they just called the police! They arrived and I explained we were a film crew with permission and asked them if they wanted to be in the movie too – and they kindly and amusingly accepted. That was great production value on the spot. You need to ask!

Where do you find support and funding for your films, and how difficult is it to secure?
You need a separate producer to get any decent funding, so I now have a cool and very good producer, and we are trying different ways and different things. The big streamers like Netflix, Viaplay and HBO are opening up more opportunities. It’s never easy – but that’s the nature of the game; you find a way.

How do you go about finding actors for your films?
There is the official Danish actors database, casting sites, social media, IMDB and recommendations from friends, cast and crew.  Only 8 percent of Danish actors are actively working. The rest of them, 92 percent, are looking for roles. That’s a lot of actors to choose from, but the key is picking the right ones for the character of your story.

Are you working on anything at the moment?
An ambitious science fiction/fantasy project, ‘The Boy who stole the World’, which is very exciting and almost cast, although we need help to raise some more funds. The idea is to make a popular mainstream Danish sci-fi film with an edge – inspired by the works of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. Then, there is the upcoming special blu-ray release of Bakerman itself (late 2019/early 2020), which will include a 20 page booklet and a ton of extra material including a fun commentary track by myself and Mikkel.

How would you describe the scene for independent filmmakers in Denmark at the moment?
With equipment becoming cheaper, it’s easier than ever. I wish there were more independent Danish films, but unfortunately they are few and far between – which is a shame as we need more diverse film voices in Denmark.

Has the term ‘independent film’ become too loosely applied?
Yes. And it depends where you are. In the US, it’s anything under 10 million dollars. In Denmark it’s working and making stuff independently, not underground! Some folk have a snobbish attitude to independent films: if it’s not Hollywood = it’s not good. Maybe it’s a lack of open-mindedness, but who cares – we keep on going.

Interviewer: Ben Hamilton

Straight out of film school, the first job that Laura Tassicker (cover photo) got in the industry was a Star Wars universe project, and she hadn’t even seen any of the films before! As co-producer on ‘Shrouded Destiny: A Star Wars Long Tale’, a fan-made, non-profit pilot created by, directed by and starring Danish actor Shahbaz Sarwar (alongside Lars Mikkelsen and others), she became adept at solving problems relating to the set, crew and filming schedule.

How did you end up producing the pilot to a Star Wars series?
I had just finished my education at the European Film College and I was looking for work in the industry. There was a post from Shahbaz Sarwar, the creator of ‘Shrouded Destiny’, on the Facebook group ‘Find Dit Film Crew’ looking for producers. Since I hadn’t really seen ‘Star Wars’ before, but only knew about it, I hesitated to apply, because I was afraid that being a ‘Star Wars’ fan might be an important factor in the selection process. What especially drew me to the project, however, was the fact it was sci-fi, which we unfortunately don’t have a lot of in Denmark. So I ended up applying, seeing as I knew that I would regret not taking a shot at such an ambitious sci-fi project. To my relief, my lack of Star Wars fandom didn’t lower my relevance as a crewmember, as there was a higher focus on what I could bring to the table.

Many of us grew up dreaming we were Luke Skywalker, but you’re more like the commander of the Death Star. Presumably you’re working under heavy pressure?
As it’s a very big project with a lot of people, who are all working for free, we are a group of producers who work together to make everything run. As such, the tasks and pressure is shared between us, and that has made it a lot more manageable. With that said, it has definitely been one of the most challenging and rewarding projects I’ve worked on so far. There’s so much to do, from finding crew and getting funding to making schedules, and I am very grateful that we’re a strong team of producers who can share the workload.

Were you already on board when the team behind ‘Shrouded Destiny: A Star Wars Long Tale’ released a five to six minute promo. What was the game plan at that stage?
I wasn’t on the project back when the promo was released; however I know that back then the vision was a little different. It was simply meant to be a Star Wars fan film of high quality to entertain fans through a thrilling story with great acting. However, the result of the promo gave fruit to higher ambitions, which could take the story further.

You recruited Lars Mikkelsen to star in the pilot. As producer, what part did you play in landing such a big name?
I didn’t actually come on to the project until around the same time as Lars did. I know that Lars didn’t say yes the first time around, and that the creator, Shahbaz Sarwar, did a lot more writing and shot the promo, before asking Lars again. The two of them had started working together on the Danish TV series ‘Herrens Veje’ by this time, and so Shahbaz gave it another shot and showed Lars the new script and the promo. After seeing this and hearing about the new vision for the project, Lars said yes.

And what role did you play in sourcing funding for the pilot?
Since I am a co-producer I had the advantage of getting to do some of the more fun jobs (I think). Since it’s a fan production and Disney owns all the rights to ‘Star Wars’, we are not allowed to earn money off the production. Therefore, everything is driven by the many people who donate their time and talent, as well as sponsors who support the production through their services or financing. In regards to sponsors, I have mainly dealt with those who donate their services, such as catering, hospitality, storage etc. A thing that has been of big importance, in regards to sponsors, is seeing how we could help each other.

Presumably you’ve had to keep costs down – particularly as it’s a pilot. Does this change the way you produce?
I would say that since we unfortunately don’t have the budget to pay people, it does change the way you produce. It can be challenging to ask people to donate so much of their own time and talent for free – especially since you would love to be able to pay them for their hard work in more than experience and gratitude. It has definitely helped splitting the shooting schedule into blocks, so that people could have time to do some paid jobs in between. Of course this is also a challenge for the scheduling, since there’s a lot of co-ordinating that has to be done. However, you also know that the people you’re working with are really passionate about the project, and everyone tries hard to make it work.

Can you give us any details regarding your spending – costs that might surprise our readers?
As a co-producer, I haven’t had a lot to do with the budget, which has mainly been the responsibility of producers Jasmin Christensen and Rasmus Doolengs. What I can tell you is that the entire budget for this pilot episode is the equivalent of 1 percent of the budget for just one episode of ‘The Mandalorian’. The only reason it has been possible to produce ‘Shrouded Destiny’ on such a low budget is due to the generosity of the people who have accumulated behind it: every single crewmember working for free, people donating money or resources, and using a whole lot of recycling skills. Because of the low budget, you could say that the project is made possible by people’s generosity and ability to think out of the box to find effective and low-cost solutions.

How did you keep a handle on expenses during the shoot?
Managing the budget wasn’t really in my job description. The way I helped keep the costs down was by contacting potential sponsors, finding places that had scraps we could recycle to build the sets/props, and finding crewmembers who could bring their skillsets onto the project to help lift the production to the level it needed to be at. Whenever money had to be spent, I would consult with the producers, Jasmin Christensen and Rasmus Doolengs, and they would make sure we had the budget for it.

Did you enjoy the overall experience?
It has definitely been the most challenging project I’ve ever worked on, and we’ve had to face a lot of challenges along the way. From building entire sets in just a week, to shooting two days’ worth of footage in just one day due to weather conditions. I have had the pleasure of suffering from a great lack of sleep with some amazing people, and I would do it all again if I was given the choice. Despite the hard work, I have also learnt a great deal – both about the job itself but also about myself. Though I enjoy parts of producing, I enjoy being creative more, so when I told the production designer, Heather Meister, that I missed the creative work, she allowed me to migrate over to the art department during the course of the production. It has been a long and hard journey so far, and we’re not quite done yet, so I look forward to walking the last trek of the journey – both as co-producer but mainly as set decorator – as I have found that this is where my passion lies.

Any future plans?
Since the previous block of shooting on ‘Shrouded Destiny’, I have done some work as a set decorator. Right now I am working with production designer Heather Meister on a short film and plan on finding employment in which I can work for the art department.

Interviewer: Ruchi Pujari

Mette Norkjaer has worked for BOOM! Studios, a production company that specialises in comics and graphic novels that has a first look deal with 20th Century Fox, since 2016. Widely travelled as a child, the Dane developed a passion for film production during a one-year stint at UCLA, which led her to USC, where she studied to become a producer. Last year she was promoted to the role of creative executive. She envisages a bright future for both the film and comic industries with more female representation and a stronger connection between Denmark and Hollywood.

Tell us a bit about yourself
I was born in Copenhagen, but we moved around a lot from Denmark to Israel to Switzerland and back to Copenhagen when I was 15 years old. I studied English at the University of Copenhagen and then had the opportunity to spend my senior year at UCLA through an exchange program, where I took several classes in film developing and producing. I was introduced to a side of the film industry that I didn’t really know a lot about, and I finally knew what I wanted to do with my life. When I went home I worked on several short films and applied to various film schools. I ended up choosing a great offer from the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC. During my two years at USC, I interned at production companies such as Red Granite Pictures, Atomic Monster, MGM and 20th Century Fox.

How did you get into BOOM! Studios?
It was mostly thanks to my internships at Atomic Monster and Fox. I started working here shortly after graduating in May 2016 as the assistant to the CEO, president of development and head of the Film Division. After two years, I was promoted to creative executive.

What is your job role?
I work in the Film Division where my role consists of reading material such as scripts and short stories. I am always on the lookout for new talent and to see which writers and directors we should be working with.

What is it that you love about your job?
It is very creative and gives me an opportunity to work with people from all over the world. I meet talents and writers from different backgrounds almost every day, and it is fascinating to work with them. I love it that I get to explore so many things, like very recently I organised and took part in a panel for the San Diego Comic-Con where we discussed female representation within the film and TV industry. We talked about the celebration of positivity and about how things are slowly changing in the industry. It was a huge success and I loved every moment of it.

Do you think things are changing for women in the comic industry as well?
Yes, there is a ripple effect. What I love the most about BOOM! Studios is that it sets itself apart from Marvel and DC. For example, take our comic, ‘Lumberjanes, Imagine Agents:’ it is all about female friendship. At BOOM! Studios, we have no male hero stereotypes. Instead, we favour female and LGBT characters, as we are trying to change the way the world views comics and be more inclusive. Most comics play it safe and avoid major changes, but we comprehend that changes will get you noticed and encourage people to shed their narrow view of comics being associated with the male gender. BOOM! Studios is very inclusive and progressive, and I am happy to be a part of it.

What are your plans for the future?
Eventually, I want to earn a name and reputation for myself here and start something of my own. But until then, I want to demystify the way things work in Hollywood. Our lives may seem shiny, but there is so much hard work that goes behind it. I also plan to get more involved with Danish Film schools and build a bridge between Danish talents and Hollywood – to give them an opportunity to understand more and work here.

Interviewer: Danielle Drake-Flam

Kasper Graversen got his first big break in the industry as an extra on a daytime children’s Danish TV show when he was 12. Now, after ten years of experience producing in Hollywood, he has moved back to Denmark and works for Milk & Honey. His next film, ‘Ninna’ – the story of a single mother trying to convince her 18-year-old son not to move out, whilst simultaneously falling in love with her new next-door neighbour – is set to be released on October 31.

When did you realise you wanted to work in the film industry?
I was travelling around the US. It was one of those trips where I was figuring out my next step in life. I was in Hollywood – where everything is filmed! – and I was just like: that’s what I want to do. I haven’t looked back since.

What set you off on the path to becoming a producer?
After winning an award for my short film ‘The Deserter’, I attended film school at the American Film Institute in LA. It was there that I realised that I wanted to work on the production side.

What do you most love about film?
The more storytelling and cinematic visuals, the more interesting I find it. And I like how you make films in the same way, but it’s never the same. Whether you’re in a different part of the world, a different part of a city or in a different room, it’s lit differently, acted differently, told differently, directed differently every time. I’m drawn to new challenges, inspirations and people.

What’s it like working in Hollywood?
It’s a crazy place – a dog-eat-dog, cut-throat environment. Everybody comes with a dream that few achieve. Everybody is desperate to get to the next level and they want to figure out how they can use you to do that. It’s hard to be in all the time – for me anyway. So the older I got, the more I was like ugh, I don’t want to be a part of this all the time.

So you’ve worked on some big productions
I’ve had films where I’ve had 80 people working on the crew. If that gets out of hand, it gets very expensive, very fast. Some people can create a lot of drama and obviously that’s not fun. I prefer to work on productions where people work together.

What’s the key to being a good producer?
Staying ahead of all of the problems – because if you solve them before they happen, then they don’t hurt the film. As a producer, you have to know the end-goal and you have to pick your battles based on that. You have to work through disagreements with that in mind. Sometimes people are just unreasonable. I don’t yell at people – I’m not that kind of guy and I don’t think it helps. But I’m also not afraid of conflicts. If people are unreasonable, you have to figure out why.

What personal qualities are important?
Being a leader comes naturally to me, so I’m not afraid of responsibility. I’m good at organising, and I’m also good with numbers and budgets.

How does the US film industry compare to Denmark?
There’s a lot more hierarchy in the US, and producers are less hands-on. In Denmark, you have to tone it down a little bit because if you’re too “I’m going to conquer the world”, people won’t like it. Sometimes, though, it’s good to have an attitude because in Denmark it’s too laid back.

What brought you home again?
Living in LA, I sort of learned that I like the European lifestyle better in the long run. I liked LA when I was young and I was working hard, but when you get older you also want to have a life that’s not work. In America you live to work; in Europe we work to live.