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Interview: Jesper Isaksen about his feature debut and the Danish independent film scene

For our independent film festival Annual Copenhagen, we are privileged to have a special jury of industry professionals to choose winners. This jury will feature the widely critically acclaimed film director Lone Sherfig, film critic and professor Peter Schepelern, animation director and scriptwriter Karla von Bengtson, film editor Thomas Krag and film director Jesper Isaksen. 

Who is Jesper Isaksen?

School teacher and self-taught director, Jesper Isaksen had the premiere of his debut feature film Victim of Love at CPH PIX Festival 2019.

I first met Jesper at the previous edition of Annual Aarhus Film Festival. There I had the pleasure of inviting him on stage and giving him the Best Comedy award for his short film The Visitor, starring Elsebeth Steentoft and Moussa Daibes. 

A few weeks afterwards, Victim of Love premiered at Empire Bio, in Copenhagen. In his first feature film, Jesper Isaksen blends thriller and horror and creates a dystopian universe shaped with authorial touch and served by amazing sound design and cinematography.

Produced by his own company, Bleed For This Picture, Victim of Love tells the story of Charly  (Rudi Køhnke), who is looking for his girlfriend Amy, mysteriously disappeared while on vacation in Copenhagen. Charly is back in the Danish capital city to look for her and finds himself trapped in a loop of nightmares designed by the Danish director with visionary shots and visual mastery that captures the viewer’s attention from the first minute until the end.

Victim of Love goes deep in Charly’s mind and takes the viewer through the psychological puzzle of the protagonist’s fantasies, nightmares and subconscious thoughts, creating an intense and, at times, disturbing experience. Bloody, cunning and beautifully framed, Victim of Love is the result of the inspiring combination of talent and freedom that independent film production can give its creator.

still from Danish independent film "Victim of Love"

I had the chance to interview Jesper about his debut feature film and to talk with him about his visual references, the challenges of independent production, and the struggles to achieve distribution.

How do you independently produce a horror-thriller in an industry dominated by Nordic social realism?

Valeria: Victim of Love is a psychological horror-thriller, a brave choice for the first feature. What led you to this decision? 

Jesper Isaksen: Well, sometimes you need someone to show you the way. In my case it’s the many different takes on horror movies I’ve seen the past 4-5 years both creatively, visually and story-wise. Films like The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn), Mandy (Panos Cosmatos), Get out (Jordan Peele), The Witch (Robert Eggers), Hereditary (Ari Aster) and of course older pieces like The Shining (Stanley Kubrick) and the works of David Lynch, especially Twin Peaks, have all been major influences in the process that led to Victim of Love, but made with a fraction of the budget that was given to the films above. That has been the ultimate challenge for me, but luckily the horror and thriller genre often work well within these financial limitations.

V: In other interviews you stated that the horror genre is not well explored in the Danish film market—do you see this changing in the future?

JI: No, I do not. What has made the Danish film industry a force to be reckoned with abroad is social realism. That is by far the most popular, most used and most sought after film genre in Denmark and I understand why. Often, a social realist film has a great story combined with a low budget, which is perfect for the conditions in Denmark. We are, after all, a very small country and a film like Victim of Love might not be suited for Denmark, but could have more success in USA, Asia and the Baltic countries.

Also, we’ve made some big splashes around the world with our special kind of Nordic social realism, so Danish production companies and Danish distributors have a natural tendency to direct their focus at this particular genre and not the horror and thriller genres, though various attempts have been tried in the last 20-30 years. However, the track record is not great in terms of ticket sales and reviews, so it’s understandable why production companies are reluctant to jump on board. 

V: Victim of Love had its premiere at CPH PIX, the biggest feature film festival in Denmark. Do you think this will help you find a distributor? Are you already in contact with any distribution channels?

JI: It was great to participate in CPH PIX and have my film screened at the festival, but it’s not the one thing that seals the deal, it’s the combination. In order to get a great distribution deal with a company that truly believes in your low budget arthouse-film and will fight for it and get it into the cinemas, you need a combination of at least a few great reviews (if not many), participation in at least a few of the big festivals like Sundance, SXSW, Berlin, Tribeca, Toronto, Cannes etc. or some of the smaller, but also prestigious festivals like, let’s say BFI, Sitges, Locarno, Leeds etc. and sometimes it’s not even enough to be a part of the official selection, you need to win as well.

However, if your film is designed to be a ticket-selling “blockbuster”, then it’s another game entirely. A lot of Danish movies receive very poor reviews, but they sell tickets nonetheless. It’s often comedies, family-oriented and historical films, or movies for kids. It’s difficult to get a great distribution deal with any arthouse-film, but if your film is also low-budget, made without the help of The Danish Film Institute and a seasoned production company, you have to fight for your film on a whole other level.

profile picture of Danish director Jesper Isaksen

V: In the last decade, the number of Danish independent production companies grew considerably, and most of them were born and survive by producing only their own projects. You funded yourself the production company 9mm Film, which produced your short films Nima, Later shown on DR), No Exit and No Exit 2 – Rise Against, both of them in the top 10 for several weeks in the EKKO Shortlist festival, while Victim of Love was produced by your new company Bleed For This Picture. It looks like independent production is the answer to the tendency of big production companies of minimizing the risk and therefore investing less in independent projects. How do you think this affects the market and the chances of distribution?

JI: As it regards the excessive level of new companies, films, tv-series etc. that come out every year, it unfortunately produces a natural schism. On the one hand it’s great that everyone can get their hands on some great equipment and just make their own films, and I really mean that. Now you don’t have to wait for “permission” to create, you can just do it, which I do. However, the insane amount of content that’s being produced every year makes the competition even more fierce. Victim of Love just received a rejection from Sundance and in their letter to me they wrote that a staggering 15.100 feature films had been submitted this year and they only select around 250.

With the massive amount of high-quality content for consumers to pick and choose from, it’s very difficult for a low budget film to rise above all the other great films out there. That requires something more than just the film itself—like a great production and distribution company, someone who can lobby the film to the many programmers of each film festival and the decision makers at Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime etc. 

V: Among your visual references you mentioned Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon and the remarkable work of your DOP Mathias Tegtmeier and grader Norman Nisbet played an important role in giving Victim of Love its mystical and surreal atmosphere. As you are a self-taught director, what shaped your taste in film and which role did the Danish film industry play in it? 

JI: Well, as for many before me, it was actually Pusher by Refn that made it abundantly clear that it was possible to make a Danish film with the immensely raw visual storytelling and acting that became the driving force behind my own career. A lot of great things happened in Danish film in the mid-90’s and it came to be a huge turning point for Danish cinema. Before Pusher, Bleeder and the whole Dogma-concept, I had only looked towards American films, but with this new growing hope that it was actually possible to create Danish productions that contained the same raw integrity as the American films, it brought out a whole new inspirational drive in me to begin making my own movies, and so I did. 

V: Refn shot his debut Pusher entirely with hand-held cameras, whilst your first feature film is highly polished and stylistic, but both debuts seem to show Copenhagen city as a hell that captures its inhabitants and makes them desperate and miserable. Is the Danish capital just a background for the events that trap the characters, or was it also some sort of inspiration? 

JI: Well, in Victim of Love, Copenhagen is more used to depict a dystopian European city that could be anywhere. It’s an imaginary place designed to be the backdrop that reflects Charly’s journey into his psychological hell. The similarities with Pusher are more of the raw grittiness that Refn, as well as other hard-hitting directors, incorporate into their movies, combined with a distinct visual style, sound design and music. 

V: Victim of Love is now competing in Robert Prisen, the Danish Oscars, and we heard you are already working on a first draft of your second feature. Any spoilers? 

JI: Well, I’m working on multiple projects at the moment. All feature films—however one could easily be converted into a Netflix series. It has great potential to be a TV series. One of the feature films is about a man that leaves prison after a long sentence and now he’s trying to reconnect with the world that continued on without him. It’s a film about hope, redemption, loneliness and the ability to create a new future.

The other one is a gangster film with a spectacular evolutionary twist. The last one is about a father who moves in with his estranged son and his wife and kids after a stroke. The son and father are disconnected due to the father’s blunt nature, but as the film progresses, they eventually find each other. It’s a film about the tragicomic nature of human lives, family-issues and again, about reconnecting—with yourself and the people around you. 

Thank you so much for your time, Jesper, we wish you the best of luck with Victim of Love’s journey!

We can’t wait to have you with us at Annual Copenhagen Film Festival in March, as special judge for the category Best Short Film.

  1. Quindi anche giornalista?

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