Director Daniel Joseph Borgman and producer Leanne Saunders picked apart the production of Borgman’s debut feature, also the debut of NZ-Danish co-production activity.
For the benefit of those who hadn’t seen the film at its NZIFF screenings, the session kicked off with a couple of clips.
Borgman presented his journey, from Southern boy to The Weight of Elephants, as much as a series of happy accidents as any more calculated plan. At university he studied engineering but took some film classes because he’d met Tim Sanders’ daughter and “I thought she was cool.”
After uni, he went to Auckland and ended up as a runner at Silver Screen. Since every cloud has a silver lining. While there he met and fell in love with Katja Adomeit, then moved to Germany with her when her NZ visa expired.
After some time in Germany, she wrote to Lars von Trier to ask for a job. LvT said yes, so Borgman and his girlfriend moved to Denmark, and suddenly Borgman was studying at the Danish industry’s training school Super 16 and working at Zentropa.
Zentropa produced his short Berik, which Borgman assessed as a film he “wrote and shot very quickly in Kazakhstan”. It won the Canal+ award at Cannes.
Producer Leanne Saunders also had experience of Zentropa, having visited the company some years prior to meeting Borgman. Apart from the Zentropa association, Saunders noted that Borgman and Adomeit’s commitment drew her to The Weight of Elephants. “They were full-time filmmakers,” Saunders said, which made them a good fit for her.
During some to-ing and fro-ing between NZ and Denmark, Borgman was writing a feature about a boy struggling with isolation. During a trip to Christchurch he happened to pick up a copy of Sonya Hartnett’s Of a Boy (published as What The Birds See in some territories). “It seemed to speak to what I’d been trying to write about.”
And so, The Weight of Elephants came to be. Borgman retained the title from a pre-Of a Boy draft of his own script.
Because both the NZFC and the Danish Film Institut (DFI) were keen on having a piece of Borgman’s feature after his Cannes success, Elephants became the first co-production between the two countries.
During development, Borgman described the NZFC as “much more hands on”, although that seemed appropriate as they were the lead financier. Borgman noted that the NZFC was sometimes interested in lightening up the story, whereas the Danes were never bothered by the darker elements.
The rough work split, doing development and post in Denmark and production in NZ, worked most of the time. Since the DFI puts more money into development, Saunders used some of that money to bring some key crew over to NZ, partly to be better prepared come pre-production, partly as a strategic move to – as Saunders put it – “make production finance inevitable”.
Bringing on board Lars von Trier’s editor Molly Malene Stensgaard (Nymphomaniac, Melancholia, Dogville) also didn’t hurt. Stensgaard already had a NZ association, having previously edited Pietra Brettkelly’s Maori Boy Genius.
As with a number of NZ films, casting the children, particularly the lead, was difficult. Despite other aspects of pre-production having been made easier by doing some of the work during development, the shoot dates were pushed because the production couldn’t find a lead actor in time.
During production, the Southern Institute of Technology was on board, among other tasks logging and loading dailies to send to Denmark. As it turned out SIT had a very good pipe, but the international one was a problem. The process was “really challenging”. The best Borgman could say was, “We got there in the end.”
Saunders noted that it was a case of trying to perform to Danish expectations, because they invest heavily in technology and are used to working with the latest and best.
Although Borgman and Saunders both spoke positively of the process of posting in Denmark, it wasn’t without its frustrations.
Borgman and Stensgaard were working full-time, so whenever material was sent to NZ, viewed, and returned with notes, Borgman had often already changed what the NZFC was commenting on.
Back in Denmark, Borgman and Stensgaard cut the film in nine weeks. NZFC and DFI both saw an early cut. NZFC had seen dailies and been offering input. Invited people back when we were lose to closing. Molly and I wanted to shut out everyone else. When NZFC came back we had to take them on the journey we’d already been on. It was frustrating because nzfcwas behind. We were a couple of moves ahead.
Now that the film has been released in both territories and it’s possible to get a bit of perspective on the experience, Horrocks returned the discussion to the session title: What Denmark does right.
Denmark has a slightly larger population base (5.4 million) than NZ. The DFI runs a budget of NZ$104m, which includes development and production finance of cNZ$70m. It’s difficult to make direct comparisons, because Danish TV is an investor in local production to a degree that doesn’t happen in NZ.
But, in addition to the NZFC, we have SPIF and NZ On Air, so the $70 million production fund isn’t as far above NZ’s production spend as it might appear. (And, it should be noted, the NZFC was the majority financier on The Weight of Elephants.)
In Denmark there’s a requirement for 25% of DFI production spend to go on kids content, and Elephants was funded through that tranche.
Like other non-English speaking territories, Denmark sees a higher level of return on its investment in local production. Last year, 29% of cinema admissions were for local product, which Saunders claimed as being considerably higher than the NZ audience for local films.
None of that made any real difference to Elephants, since for its Danish release (eight screens) it was essentially a foreign arthouse film – albeit a critically well-received one.
Here, The Weight of Elephants is playing the NZIFF. From the end of August, it will commence a limited release in Auckland and Wellington, and then move into other parts of the country following the NZIFF.