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The film kicks off with Robert (Jakob Cedergren), a cop from Copenhagen, being exiled to service in a small outpost in Jutland, a remote Danish hinterland. From the moment he arrives, the landscape (complete with a life-sucking bog) and the people are forbidding, wary, and just plain odd. As in any good noir thriller, there’s a mysterious dame (Lene Maria Christensen), with a thuggish cowboy of a husband named Jørgen (Kim Bodnia) and a maladjusted young daughter (Mathilde Maack) who roams the streets pushing an empty baby carriage. As Robert’s backstory begins to unfold, we are drawn into a sinister web of secrets, deception, and murder.
Tribeca Film recently sat down with writer/director Henrik Ruben Genz and his producer, Thomas Gammeltoft, for a talk about the film’s influences, the peculiar (even for Denmark) culture of the Jutland, and the uniquely collaborative writing process that brought Terribly Happy to the screen.
Henrik Ruben Genz
Henrik Ruben Genz: Yes, it’s tough, not a friendly landscape—it’s actually below sea level, so it’s really low, and really flat, with no trees, and the wind is coming all the time. So it’s cold, and it’s not pleasant living there. It’s only 3 ½ hours away from Copenhagen, but it’s as far as you can get...
Tribeca Film: What was it like growing up there?
HRG: Unpleasant. [laughs] I like that part of Denmark, but I think children shouldn’t grow up there. The tough landscape reflects on the environment—the locals, the way they speak, the language. They are really silent—they just say the words they need to say: “Hungry.” “Morning.” “Drunk.” [laughs]
Tribeca Film: Have you spent enough time in the US to draw a parallel to a similarly quirky location here?
Thomas Gammeltoft: We are doing a remake of the film, so we have been researching places—and the writer we are working with now put it in Alaska. But I think [northern] Michigan has a lot of the same [qualities]. The thing about it is you find these landscapes where you can’t hide anything, but everything is hidden, just the same.
HRG: So you have to invent a bog [if there isn’t one] to make the things you dislike disappear.
Tribeca Film: You and the writer of the original novel (Erling Jepsen) grew up together in Jutland. (More on that later.) Were the people that odd and quirky?
HRG: Of course, it’s dramaticized, it’s not one-to-one realism. But there’s a truth in it, of course, because [the people there] do not open their arms to embrace strangers into their environment. They are shy, and they keep a distance. In that sense, it’s truth. But of course, when you make a film, things are overdrawn.
TG: The first screening we ever had of the film was down in that area. We wanted to show them, to say thank you. The mayor made a big screening for us, and I was scared, because I am not from there, and I worried that it was too much. But he came out afterwards and he was like, “Well, this is how we are here. You just nailed it!” And we were like, “Oh, shit!” We got even more scared… [laughs]
HRG: And then two months later, he was [removed] as mayor, because he got arrested by the police for driving drunk around the town. So maybe that reflects even more realism!
HRG: Almost no one from Copenhagen has ever been to Jutland—the crew has been all over the world, but they hadn’t been to this area at all. So when we were [doing prepwork] in Copenhagen, we were telling them we should make it like a western, we thought about a cowboy hat, but rejected it as too cliché. But then we drove to Jutland to do research, and everyone there was wearing cowboy hats! And nobody walked—
TG: They drove tractors, or SUVs!
HRG: —and then we went to get food, and on the menu, everything was “cowboy burger” and “cowboy soup”! Everything was called “cowboy.” Of course this is the main cow district in Denmark—where you get the milk and the beef, from the grasslands—so they think of themselves as cowboys. So we realized we could give Jørgen a hat.
Tribeca Film: Did you not remember that from growing up, or was it different then?
HRG: No! I didn’t remember. I think it’s like looking at your own home when a stranger comes in, and suddenly you see, “Oh, I have to do the vacuuming.” You don’t see what’s in front of you. Suddenly I saw [Jutland] in another context.
Tribeca Film: What other genres/filmmakers inspire you? I see the Coen similarities—especially Fargo, and No Country for Old Men—
HRG: First of all, I have to mention Hitchcock. In most interviews I do, people ask about the Coen brothers, and of course, I have seen their films, but in my mind, I have the biggest influence from Hitchcock, because of course I saw his films when I was young. But of course the Coen brothers have seen Hitchcock, too, so it’s the same references. And Hitchcock’s influences might have influenced me too—I am just not aware of them. I think there is a certain tone you like and that feels familiar, and you grab it and use it. Of course, the Coens, and David Lynch, and Sergio Leone, Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch… these are guys I like.
Tribeca Film: What did you learn from your first two that you brought to this one?
Tribeca Film: How do you think American audiences are going to react?
Tribeca Film: To expand to Scandinavia, Let the Right One In was at TFF—
Both: —Great film!
Tribeca Film: —and we Americans don’t know anything about the Scandinavian culture, so peeks inside these little communities are very interesting. That one is being remade (as Let Me In), too—can you talk about the remake of your film?
HRG: My first opinion was that I don’t want to copy what I have already done. If it’s possible to take this story further, and maybe add 10%, [bring it to] to a higher level—it could be an artistic challenge for me. So far, it works. There are still things to be explored, things that could be told in a different way.
TG: We want to stay indie, and preserve the story, but you have to understand: when you come from a society where only 5 million people speak the language, you have an urge to get a bigger audience. The story is universal, and I think—like Let the Right One In—some stories deserve a larger audience. I have very good friends here in America—they are very intellectual, but they will not go and see a foreign language film, because they don’t read subtitles.
The trailer will get you in the mood!