Will is not a great guy. He’s actually a bit of an asshole. Across the world with his best friend on a quest to deliver a letter from his recently passed father to his grandfather, he can’t even be happy for his friend when he decides to propose to his girlfriend. Will even hits on her or at least tries to get her to admit that she liked him first. When his friend bails on the trip with his new fiancé, Will is left alone in Copenhagen with nothing but a letter in a language he can’t read. Then he meets Effy, a sharp-tongued local waitress, who ‘adopts’ his quest and forces him to make a journey of self-discovery that only being alone in a foreign place can allow.
Mark Raso’s beautiful film COPENHAGEN is a true festival circuit gem. It’s a small story with fantastic performances and gorgeous cinematography that rises above the typical ‘american indie’ and actually feels more like a European film than many films actually made by continentals. Premiering at Slamdance back in January, Copenhagen has racked up a number of festival appearances (Cleveland, Ashland, Dallas, Waterfront among them) and this weekend plays both the Portland Film Festival and Montreal World Film Festival. A US Theatrical release to the now-becoming-standard 10 cities and simultaneous VOD debut is planned for Oct 3rd. I’m just going to come out and say it: I love this film. It’s everything an indie film should be. It’s honest and represents a distinctive fresh voice in cinema. The fact that it was passed over by many larger festivals just shows one of the problems facing the independent film community today. You should already know about this film. It should have played Sundance or even been subject to a bidding war after premiering at a major European festival. If it had had one recognizable face in it, I’m sure it would have, but then again, it probably wouldn’t have had the same magic.
I had the opportunity to speak with writer/director Mark Raso a few weeks ago about his film and the difficulties and joys of being a Canadian filmmaker making a very low budget film about an American in a foreign country with a bunch of UK actors and an indie shooting style unheard of in Copenhagen. “I lived in Copenhagen for a year, my wife is from there, she was my girlfriend at the time,” Raso says about the foundation of his film, “I just sort of followed her there and I fell in love with the city.” The film pops around from location to location, really giving the audience a local’s view of the town. This, however, was not necessarily the original plan. “I lived there for a year and I’ve been there at least a dozen times and every time I go, I have my bike there that kind of stays there that I ride around, so I was very familiar with the city and really had an idea of what I wanted to do,” Raso explains, “but unfortunately I hadn’t been there in two years when we arrived six weeks prior to principle photography and they’re building a new kind of circle subway in Copenhagen and all the big tourist spots that I thought would be great to see were all filled with boards and cranes so we had to quickly change our game plan.” The trip turned instead to an almost scavenger hunt to obscure ‘townie’ treasure troves of the city. This actually makes Will far more dependent on Effy, who knows the city intimately. After tracking down the address on the letter, they find not the grandfather, but the great-uncle, who gives Will a stack of photos of his father as a child. It seems the past is much darker than Will could have imagined. He never really knew his dad, who basically abandoned him at age 14, but according to his great-uncle, Will’s grandfather is even worse, being tied to the Nazis, a point of contention between him and the rest of the family.
Will has nothing to go on now to find his grandfather except this stack of photos, and the locations they represent. “That came very late,” confesses Raso, “I was really struggling, I had ‘guy-meets-girl’ right away and everything that goes with their story, but I wasn’t prepared to make that movie. I didn’t think that that movie held enough substance behind it and it wasn’t until I kind of decided to really make his journey about discovering his past and kind of breaking that cyclical nature that I felt like the script really came alive.” The film takes on a fact-finding, almost fun quality to it. Will is unsure why he even wants so badly to deliver this letter from a man he hates to a man he’s never met, but Effy pushes him to at least keep on task. The photos give them a path that is sort of focused and directionless at the same time. They are searching through the past, but there is nothing to discover really, except in the present. “Just them travelling the city wasn’t working for this film and I know it’s worked for other films,” Raso says, referring at length to Linklater’s BEFORE SUNRISE, “but I felt like we needed motivation to go from place to place and once it came, it was a break through for me, it made the film work and I got excited about making it.”
I’ve actually read several reviews that compare Raso’s film to Linklater’s series, and, although that can be very flattering, I feel it is misapplied in this case. Those films are about a relationship between two people, and two people coming together at the perfect (or maybe imperfect) time of their life. Copenhagen is about so much more, and is grounded in a mystery. The city is such a part of the story, it’s actually a lot more like LOST IN TRANSLATION, a film where another asshole meets a much younger girl and she shows him the city but what he find is himself. Raso agrees: “Lost in Translation was a big influence, not so much when I wrote it, but after it was done and I was going to direct it. I wanted the feel, the soundtrack, I wanted the city Copenhagen to be in this film what Tokyo is in that film.” But people don’t walk around Copenhagen, they bicycle, which becomes a major part of the film both on screen and behind the camera. “When we landed there, everyone who came in from out of town, they got a bike, and that’s how they got to set,” the director says, “we had 60 locations in 24 days so we were averaging a location move every day but we were doing them bikes. It’s such a convenient, economic way to move around the city.” Can you imagine a major Hollywood shoot where they say ‘Sorry, we’re not doing limo service, but here’s a bicycle,’ I ask him. But in a film that is about that moment where childhood meets adulthood, the ride becomes a big part of the journey. “I don’t know when I stopped riding a bike but my youth was on a bicycle,” Raso says, “the second I went back to that city and rode a bicycle I felt like a kid again, just feel that kind of energy and that wonder just the act of riding the bike and then combine that with being in a new place and that kind of discovery, and I wanted to capture that in the film.”
In addition to putting the crew on bicycles, the production team did a number of things that would make many producers worry. They arrived in Copenhagen with little more than a script. They didn’t have any locations; they didn’t have a cast. This actually inspired a different way of working. “We broke the script into different moods and we tried to find space in the city that would reflect his mood,” Raso says. Scouting locations (and replacing a few on the fly) required them to do a few rewrites a couple days before shooting in a particular location. Even with the right script and location, the fact that this was a tourist city that never really sleeps would interfere. Raso remembers shooting at the Little Mermaid statue in the harbor: “at three o’ clock at night we were stopping every three seconds so a drunk person could walk by.” The crew came from all over. “We brought six people over from the States and Canada and a couple more came up from Germany that friends had met at film school there and then the rest of the crew was local, we probably had about ten to fifteen local crew just integrated into the film,” he says. But though they were excited to work on the film, they also regarded it as a bit of curiosity. Raso explains: “hey have a system to make films where you go to the film school and then the government finances your first feature and that’s how its done and people don’t really make those sort of ‘new york indies’ in Denmark so what we were doing kind captured the imagination of a lot of people.” They would often meet producers working on short films with three times the budget of Raso’s feature. “People were on board but I think they were a little skeptical with how it would work out,” he admits.
Casting was the biggest question mark. Effy came in to a reading in Copenhagen, where Raso tells me they audition slightly different, moving straight to a sort of selected call-back, giving actors more time. This worked well for Frederikke Dahl Hansen, the brilliant nineteen-year-old actress who snagged the role after having been nominated twice (and winning once) for the Danish Film Awards, the Bodil. “She was terrible the first three or four minutes because she had trouble learning the lines because they were in English and she had never acted in English before,” Raso says, “but after spending some time and after she kinda got it, it was the most impressive audition I’ve ever been apart of, you could almost feel the energy of the room changing.” It is sort of crazy to think this pivotal role was cast just a few weeks before shooting but the production team ended up very lucky. Hansen gives the role the right amount of youthful exuberance and innocence, mixed with an almost frightening understanding of the darker side of adulthood. Her performance is really special, and helps overcome the audience’s obvious, and quite intentional dislike of Will at the opening of the film. In talking about Gethin Anthony’s performance as Will, Raso says: “he was adamant that he can’t be sympathetic at the beginning, he does a lot of nasty stuff, and I’ve seen a few people walk out after ten minutes at festivals because they’re like ‘I don’t want to watch a movie about this guy’ but he didn’t waver from that.” This pays off when he meets Effy, a girl obviously too young for him but with whom he has an instant attraction. “We’re presenting this guy as is,” Raso says, “because it’s not like he has a moral code – he only has one way to go. He doesn’t know better.” We are a little more willing to just go with it, it’s not creepy, it’s just in character and kind of desperate, but “ it allows her to soften him up and take us to the sweet place … we want everyone watching him, fall in love with her so that will end up giving sympathy for him.” It’s a difficult balance but it really works. In the end, the audience is just as conflicted as Will is.
To cast Will, and the other ‘American’ roles, the Copenhagen team stumbled on another complication. “We had a little bit of difficulty with SAG because we weren’t filming in the US so we couldn’t use their low budget agreement,” Raso says, “so we ended up having to drop those people we were interested in and do the casting in the UK.” It’s a shame [this is me talking now and not Raso]that an organization that is supposed to be helping actors reach their full potential is keeping them from taking on such great roles on a really cool shoot. And probably protecting them from riding bicycles to work. Fortunately, according to Raso, the Brits “do our accent much better than we do theirs.” Anthony is put in a very difficult role, carrying the whole film and yet being, at times, a pretty questionable individual. His success has as much to do with Effy’s interest in him as our own admission that sometimes its easier to just act like a spoiled teen and not give a shit what the world thinks. The introduction of the photographs as a plot device also helps. “In conjunction with the photographs came the switch in the reveal… the discovery of her age,” Raso says, “originally it was at the very end of the film.” Now, coming a little more than half way through the film, we can watch Will struggle with it, and yet still have a reason to hang out with her. “If there was no photos,” Raso admits, “once he finds out, it kind of falls off the rails, so that’s why we had that at the end. But since the photos came into play, we were able to introduce that element a lot earlier, and still have the film working towards something.”
If the film doesn’t feel like an American film, it’s because it was never really intended to be, or, if so, at least one level removed. “That kind of American indie film, in my mind, actually comes from Denmark, like dogme,” Raso says, referring to the avante-garde filmmaking movement started by Lars Von Trier in 1996, “so I was sort of going there and kind of espousing these forms because I just felt that they fit this film.” He steered away from the typical on the shoulder run-and-gun two camera shooting that has become typical and tried to keep things planned and on the tripod. “I wanted it to be precise and articulate,” the director says, “so we suffered in the coverage department but I think the look makes it feel more of a big budgeted, more classic kind of film.”
One of the best moments of the journey, according to Raso, is when they were able to screen the film at CPH PIX in Copenhagen. He says: “It was the best possible experience possible because we were there for three months and these people became our family and just to bring it back and to show it to them and to have them be so excited about it.” But the film has received accolades at every stop on its journey. Last month Copenhagen won Best Narrative Feature at the Destiny City Film Festival as well as the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at the Woods Hole Film Festival on the same weekend. Josh Leake, Director of the Portland Film Festival, calls Raso’s film “a reboot of the Lolita story with subtlety. The travel energy and the cobble-lined-streets backdrop bring such a richness often missed in modern day film — but not just for show, the director intertwines the locations into the story.” He feels much about the film the way I do, continuing: “it reminds me of why I love movies — I connect with the story and love the characters. I feel we’ll be seeing more of the cast and production team in the future.”
Mark Raso’s COPENHAGEN plays this weekend at the Portland Film Festival on Sunday, August 31st at 12:30 (more info) as well as that same day at the Montreal World Film Festival at 10:40 am and 9:20pm and again the next day (more info) and in NY Septemeber 2nd on the Slamdance on the Road series (more info).