If you’re a regular reader of this column you’ll know that I rage quite regularly against padding. Superfluous sequences or characters that exist merely to stretch a modicum of plot into the requisite 90 minutes expected by most viewers, but which inevitably serves to bring the momentum of the film to a grinding, frustrating halt. It’s all-too common in no-budget productions, where scripts are inevitably underdeveloped and end up running ten or twenty minutes shorter than originally planned.
Which is why I LOVE me some shorts! Yes, the microbudget short film has been sadly devalued, but the preponderance of short genre film contests around the globe have thrust it into the forefront in recent years. Too often I’ve watched a feature length ultra low-budget production and thought that what was an average (or below average) film could have made for a great short, and I give credit to those looking to polish their skills on a shorter running time.
Over the following week I’ll be posting a few articles featuring individual film-makers and their short films. Today we’re starting with:
Danish film-maker Bjarke Johansen has spent the last few years making shorts in his native Denmark, usually variations on slasher tropes. His first film MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (2011) plays like sort of a Danish take on DEATH METAL ZOMBIES, with a group of friends getting together to drink and party in a (apparently very cold) remote garage. One of the women has recently found herself the victim of a stalker, who calls and texts her continually. When the group starts to get picked off one-by-one by a masked killer, it’s natural to aim suspicion at the caller – though things might not be exactly what they seem.
Johansen followed up MIDDLE OF NOWHERE with two extremely short films for the FilmFights.com website. CHIMNEY is an enjoyably messy bit of Christmas horror, while BROTHER IN ARMS (2013) takes a different approach – telling the story of a brother’s death during what appears to be some sort of viking battle. It features a big ol’ gem, which helps take the edge off the maudlin subject matter.
Finally, we have Johansen’s second longer project PIG STY, which again follows many of the familiar slasher film tropes, but this time the location (an abandoned slaughterhouse) and killer (wielding a sledgehammer and wearing a distinctive red hood) make for something a bit more visually interesting. Unfortunately there are persistent sound issues for most of the film, and the obvious dubbing is distracting for much of the talk-heavy first half. We’re also saddled with a main character that is so thoroughly unpleasant that we want to see him punished, which mutes a bit of the tension near the end. Unlike MIDDLE OF NOWHERE, it also has a strong – and quite bizarre – ending sequence that caps things off nicely.
Bjarke took some time to chat about his short films, and what it’s like making American-influenced exploitation in Denmark.
Sweetback (SB): Your shorts show a lot of influence from American exploitation and b-movies, though you yourself grew up in Denmark. What sort of films did you grow up watching, and were there Danish films and filmmakers that influenced you as well?
Bjarke Johansen (BJ): Most people are surprised when I say this, but I actually didn’t get much into horror until I was 15-16, aside from really liking the scarier episodes of cartoons and looking at monsters. I mostly grew up on animated family films, action movies, westerns, dramas and comedies, due to both of my parents being rather fond of watching them. It was after seeing WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE with friends I got interested in horror and sought out all kinds of obscure corners of the film world, so my influences mainly come from there rather than any Danish filmmakers in particular, though Ole Bornedal (NATTEVAGTEN/NIGHTWATCH, THE POSSESSION) and Martin Schmidt (SIDSTE TIME/FINAL HOUR, MØRKELEG/BACKSTABBED, EDDIE THE SLEEPWALKING CANNIBAL) have made some great horror films that stick in the back of my mind.
SB: MIDDLE OF NOWHERE was your first short, and is obviously borne out of a love for slasher films. How long did it take to film, and talk about the locations.. It definitely appeared to be cold.
BJ: Yes, it was. I was 21 and wanted to finally do my first short, and after reading Lloyd Kaufman’s “Direct Your Own Damn Movie”, I realized that I needed to just nut up and get it done. So I wrote a deliberately simple slasher to get me started and gathered my friends, who all chipped in. We spent about three days in total on filming it, spreading over two weekends, though we did spent up to 16 hours on one day doing it.
The location was the childhood home of Anders Lundtang Hansen, who plays Laurits in the film. The party in the film takes place in the old barn attached to it, where we held his 20th birthday party, and I just remembered how open it was, and how it had plenty of excuses for old murder tools to lie around. I figured it was perfect. And God yes, it was cold – I still get complaints from the gang about that. That’s what you get from filming inside an old barn in early March in the cold north.
SB: Your two FilmFight entries are both extremely short, and cover some really different subject matter. Do you enjoy coming up with these sketch-length concepts, or is it difficult to come up with something interesting that would fit into the restrictive running times?
BJ: The main reason I take part in Filmfights is because it is a good source for ideas and it keeps me working on something. It’s definitely a challenge to come up with something so short, but at the same time, it’s really exciting when an idea that can hits you, because you can set everything up so fast and basically film it in a few hours. BROTHER IN ARMS was filmed in approximately five hours and was born out of my knowledge that my friends are LARPers so I could borrow their stuff for it, and Chimney just sort of occurred to me when I read the terms for the fight (come up with a Christmas themed horror short) and knew I wanted to avoid using the tired old Killer Santa thing. So all in all, yeah, I do enjoy it – once the idea hits, that is.
SB: You mentioned to me that you ran into a lot of technical and scheduling issues while filming PIG STY. What were some of the biggest lessons you learned when putting it together? In some ways, it still seems more technically polished than your other shorts.
BJ: It is more technically polished, but that is largely because of me managing to work around a lot of the problems in post. The biggest problem was that I was a fool and didn’t check the equipment: it turned out halfway through the first day of shooting that the cable for my new microphone, attached to a simple Kodak Playtouch camera (that constantly ran out of batteries and took forever to charge), was broken, so we had to spend the next half day re-shooting a lot of stuff, meaning we got off our one-weekend schedule and had crappy sound. THAT in turn led to it taking a whole four months before the guys had time again, and even then only the three most essential of us had the time. On top of that, not only did I drop and break one of our lights, the Kodak Playtouch broke! Luckily, Mark Stoumann (Mogens in the film) had a Canon 600d. I have since bought one of those myself. And even with all that, the sound was still awful, resulting in me having to ask the actors to dub it all! So basically: Run sound tests and be careful with the equipment!
SB: Are you working on something new at the moment? Where can interested readers check out your future written and/or filmed work?
BJ: I am writing a superhero short at the moment that I hope I can film as my final project at my current school. It’s basically a shorter, simpler version of Craig Mazin’s THE SPECIALS from 2000 with more of a basis on Danish attitude, but without truly being a superhero parody or mockery. I am still in the conceptual writing stages, though. Other than that, I have a campfire script I never got around to and several feature ideas, but I won’t get to work on those fully for quite a while yet. I have school to finish and much more to learn first, after all.
SB: Any advice for young or inexperienced directors trying to tackle their first project?
BJ: Do sound tests! Bad sound can really kill a film and besides, look at all the shit I had to go through with PIG STY!
But more importantly: try to work with the things you already have, or know you have free or cheap access to. They can spark a lot of ideas and save a lot of money. Be well prepared – think about your shots beforehand, even if just for key scenes. It gives you a working structure and still allows you to improvise when a better idea strikes, without having you wing it through the whole thing. And make sure to set plenty of time aside for shooting, or you end up with a massive schedule slip once something goes wrong (and it will).
The final and most pivotal piece of advice is “get it done and don’t give up”. Even if your film is not exactly great, you’ve made a film. That’s more than a lot of people who keep talking about doing it have, and you grow with each one as you overcome the challenges the shoot throws at you.
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