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Göteborg: Fredrikke Aspöck Discusses ‘Out Of Tune’

‘I believe that comedy and tragedy always go hand in hand.’

GOTEBORG, Sweden — One of the hits of the Göteborg fest’s Nordic Comedy section, “Out Of Tune” is a cleverly stylized dramedy about a charismatic but manipulative celebrity entrepreneur, Markus Føns, stuck in a remand prison, awaiting sentencing for financial crimes. When life on the yard with the regular prison population proves too dangerous, he moves to a closed unit inhabited by rapists and pedophiles, where his selfish, Machivellian ways upset the social order amongst both inmates and guards.

“Out Of Tune” marks the third feature from talented Danish helmer Fredrikke Aspöck. She holds an MFA in filmmaking from Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, and a BA in Theatre Design from Wimbledon School of Art in London. Aspöck’s thesis film from Tisch, the short “Happy Now” (2004), won the Premier Prix de la Cinéfondation in Cannes. Her first feature,“Out of Bounds” (2011), premiered in Cannes and won the Golden Star Award at the Marrakech Film Festival. Her second feature, “Rosita” (2015), nabbed the Best Director Award at the Moscow Intl. Film Festival.

What have you been doing since your second feature, “Rosita” (2014) came out?

Since “Rosita,” I have worked on “Out Of Tune,” which was not easy to define tone-wise nor easy to fund. I have also worked on my next feature, which I hope to shoot later this year.

Movies are time consuming to develop and some do not happen, so I have taken four years between my features so far. I have a strong urge to express myself, so I dream of making movies with a higher frequency.

Tell me about the world of remand imprisonment and what kind of research you did for this film. 

Awaiting one’s conviction in remand imprisonment feels like limbo. It can be easier to know that one has to serve decades in prison than not knowing one’s destiny. The screenwriter Lars Husum and I visited Danish remand prisons and had a long session with five inmates, who told us how they coped by creating a fitness and work routine that would structure their day and give it a sense of meaning. By work I mean the handicrafts the inmates can do to earn pocket money, in this case, innocuous yarn pompoms to be sold as decorations. The fitness routine and pompons made it into the movie as did the choir, which is a big thing in Danish prisons.

Was the Markus Føns character inspired by a real person?

Markus Føns is inspired by several Danish financiers, who served time for major fraud over the last decades. They all seem to have certain traits in common: They are charming as hell, look intelligent and seem to be made out of cork: They always float back to the surface no matter how far they sink. Markus needed not only to be charming in order to manipulate his fellow inmates, he also needed to be charming and handsome, so the audience would emphasize with a main character who is obviously a criminal from the get-go.

It seems that your three feature films deal with relationships that play out in confined spaces and psychological power plays: What attracts you to this subject?

I am attracted to close relationships between people, and until “Out Of Tune,” my arena has been the family and couples. I am fascinated by people doing their best to get along in settings they cannot easily escape, be that the confines of marriage or prison. There is endless inspiration for me in human psychology and the inevitable power plays that arise in any situation where there is more than one person.

This film is a lot more stylized than your previous films, but it rings very true psychologically. How did you work with your actors to get them to understand their characters?  Do you do a lot of rehearsal before shooting?

For this film there was no time for rehearsal before shooting, but I held one-on-one conversations with each actor about their character and about how I wanted them to act as if it were drama, despite the fact that some situations are quite absurd and funny. They needed to trust the psychology in the script and not play the comedy. It is the same way I directed my actors in my previous films, but the visual stylization of “Out Of Tune” may make it look as if the acting here is different. It is not, but the situations are certainly crazier and more absurd, yet anchored in something that could very well be real, for instance, that the choir conductor conducts every song too fast.

Any improvisation?

Very little, only a few things here and there, as it is not part of my process to improvise. The tone of the Danish dialogue is also quite unique in this film, so to risk watering it down by improvising was not something I wanted. It is the first screenplay by writer Lars Husum, and his language has a style of its own.

The performances are so nuanced. And viewers wind up feeling sympathy for everyone (although increasingly less for Markus).

That is indeed the purpose. I believe that behind every criminal there is also a human being, one that can be something for somebody else. I do not defend anybody’s crime, but it was my goal to have a film packed with flawed characters that were both lovable and despicable. This is always something I strive for, but it became even more acute after my research in prison, where I had the loveliest time with the inmates, of whose crimes I was not allowed to know the specifics besides the fact they were severe. The only thing reminding me that the fellows who made me laugh and with whom I loved chatting over coffee were criminals was the thick chain with which the knife for our cake was attached to the wall.

The music elements are so perfectly woven into the story and so essential to it.

Danish composer Rasmus Bille Bähncke has been my only composer since I met him in 2003 in New York, where he continues to live. He is a very talented multi-instrumentalist, whose pop and R&B hit compositions have won him numerous platinum records. My short film “Happy Now” (2004) was his first venture into the world of film scores and he has since composed wonderful music for all kinds of films and TV series for other directors.

He and I always work with a bittersweet tone. One that avoids dictating how the audience should feel. He puts together a “band” for each of my films, meaning a set of instruments that are particular to the project. He records all the instruments himself, apart from the rare cello or drum solo that someone can do better than he can.

Since “Out Of Tune” is set solely in a prison, the locations are limited to prison cells, offices, visiting rooms and other confined spaces. From early on it was obvious that the sound track needed to be rich and textured in order to outweigh the monotony of the visuals and help propel the story forward. A predominantly percussive score seemed right. The sound designer, the composer, the DP and I held several meetings prior to shooting to discuss the script in detail and figure out how a sound could inform our shot list, where a choir song could be extended into the score and at which particular speed should be the footsteps and percussive score. The sound effects — slamming doors, clocks ticking, footsteps — make their own subtle music and often blend into the score. Rasmus Bille Bähncke’s “band” consisted of further sound effects from the prison — the hitting on window bars, the sound of the metal detector –- that made their way into not only the percussive passages but also into the melodic score.

Jonas Holmberg, the artistic director of the Göteborg Festival, says that for him, two of the characteristics of Nordic comedy are that it is dark and that it incorporates a lot of humanist drama. 

I agree with Jonas, and this combination of the dark and the humanistic is something I really honor. I am a great believer in human beings, no matter how badly they mess up in life, and I believe that comedy and tragedy always go hand in hand. Getting the combination right is a balancing act though, one that I work hard at in the screenwriting phase, while shooting and continuing into the editing room. I am not afraid to mix humor and drama within a scene. In fact, I insist on it and have often found myself in a situation on set, where well-meaning colleagues have warned against mixing comedy into the seriousness of a particular situation. But if executed without reservation, it can really work and be the sugar that makes the difficult subject matter easier to swallow.

In a film that is as dark as “Out Of Tune” turns out to be, I wanted to treat the eye to colors and lightness. Prison is most often portrayed as grey and gritty in movies and on TV, but I wanted to do something different. Something that would go hand in hand with the comedy of the film and would be a counterpoint to the heavy realism of the handheld camera typically used to tell prison stories. We shot everything on a tripod and used long takes, but the dialogue-driven scenes and shifting power plays make up for the relative stiffness of the visual style and invite the viewers in.

I especially like the way you used TV programs and books to comment on the action and move it forward.

Whenever we could, we would have the TV on in the prison cells to show the world outside prison, full of open landscapes and big skies. It was the life the inmates longed for but also a chance to give the viewers some fresh air to avoid claustrophobia. The news on TV also helps comment on the story and gives the necessary exposition.

Would you talk a little about the battle of self-interest vs. the community that takes place here?

The prison in “Out Of Tune” is a microcosm resembling society outside the walls. There are the ones who do all they can for the community – Niels and his choir in the case of this film – and the ones, like Markus, who only think of themselves and even exploit the community as a means to obtain their own goals.

I am very much pro community in life and in society. I take pride in helping others and paying high taxes in order to give everyone a decent life through free education and health service. And it makes me really mad when people only have self-interest in mind or when they cheat with their taxes. But my film is a comment on society, and society does not judge criminals equally. Financial fraud leaves no blood on the hands and the ones committing the fraud are looked upon with fascination by society. This explains some of the characters idolizing Markus.

The people that Markus’ character is inspired by got book deals and their own TV-shows after having served time. They show up on the red carpet and crowd the gossip magazines. Their inherent charm, which manipulated people into trusting them with their millions, is what transcends their crime and make them stars in the eyes of society.

The ensemble cast is amazing.  How did you cast?

Søren Malling is perhaps the best known of all the trained actors in the film, but more famous than he is Anders Matthesen, who plays Niels. Matthesen is not a trained actor, but rather an extremely well known and beloved Danish comedian, whose comedy often incorporates these crazy characters he has developed over the years in stand-up routines, TV-shows and the animated movies, he has created.

We knew that in order for the film to work, we needed Markus and Niels to be two powerhouses each in their own way, between whom sparks would fly. It was not an easy job casting, as Niels’ character kept squashing whoever auditioned for Markus, and we were also on the lookout for something modern and fresh. After numerous rounds of casting it was obvious that Matthesen was the right one for Niels, but we needed to think outside the box with Markus and find someone who had the psychological strength to match Matthesen’s Niels. The casting director suggested casting against type and stop looking for a suave financier-looking type and to go for Jacob Lohmann instead. He is known for his roles as threatening underworld criminals, but he turned out to be exactly right for the part of Markus. The energy that flew between him and Matthesen set the tone for the rest of the cast.

Denmark is a small country, so most of the actors’ paths have crossed but the combination of them in this ensemble was new.

What is next for you?

A black comedy set in 1848 in the former Danish colonies, the West Indian Islands (now the U.S. Virgin Islands). The film is based on real people and tells the story of Anna Heegaard, a free, powerful colored woman who has made a fortune trading slaves, and of her closest friend, Petrine, her house slave, whom she has owned since she was a teenager and Petrine was a little girl. The two women are utterly dependent on each other and are intrinsically bound in a dysfunctional, sister-like friendship, where one is the other’s property.

Things explode when Petrine has saved up enough money to buy her own freedom, and rumors of a slave riot threaten to harm the very system that has made Anna’s charmed life possible. The two women have to go through hell and a riot before they can find their way to an equal sisterly symbiosis in this story of friendship, race and the inhumane system that brought them together in the first place.

The project is a new take on the Danish abolition of slavery and will be my first period piece. We take liberties with historic events and I take my usual blend of comedy and tragedy to a new level.

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