Officially Selected Alumni Interviews

Jacob Pilgaard: Lift-Off Filmmaker Interview

Danish Filmmaker Jacob Pilgaard’s short narrative “Behold, such Clown” is a story about grief, family, and atonement. On his very last day working as a hospital clown, Elias encounters his past when he meets a dying girl. A meeting which may finally give him redemption for his mistakes.

Ahead of its screening at Manchester Lift-Off, we interviewed director Jacob to hear a little more about how this film came to be, and his path as a filmmaker.

Interview by Sneh Rupra

How did you come up with the concept for this film?

Actually the idea came from another script: a quite dark Paul Auster-ish comedy, but the finance of the film fell through just a week before filming, sadly. However about a year later I revisited the script in which there was a character who wanted to become a hospital clown, and gradually this character got a life of its own and ended up as Elias.

Did you contact any real clowns for advice?

Yes, there was a lot of research for some months prior to shooting. We visited the children’s ward at the local hospital a couple of times to talk to the nurses and to observe two clowns while working. It gave me a lot of inspiration for writing the final script and gave me quite a lot of insight into the people actually working as clowns.

Empathy being the keyword. As they told me – they can teach an applicant to make a balloon animal but they can’t teach them empathy, so obviously this is very important. Actually I found out that it is quite difficult to become a hospital clown. Out of a 100 applicants only a handful are selected each year. So my research has given me a lot of respect for these people and their craft.

How did you go about casting the roles, especially Ida?

We contacted a very skilled caster who has been casting children for decades in Denmark. She was very helpful and found Celine for the Ida character. And Emil for the little boy part. As for Tommy Kenter, he’s quite a legend in Danish film, having been working for 4 decades now. To be honest, we decided he was right for the part and I simply sent him the script. After he read it, he just rang me and told me he would like to do the film even though we couldn’t pay him. He really was a strong supporter of the film right from the start and I owe him a lot. He was very generous on set to me especially as a quite new director. We kinda shared the same vision, so it really was a fruitful collaboration. And the same goes for the other actors. I loved working with Anne Reumert as Stine.

Elias’ costume is so perfect — how many options did you go through before choosing that jacket?

Haha only one, to be honest. We were having a reading at Tommy’s house and suddenly he came into the room with this jacket and suggested we use it. Perhaps this is mostly only known to Danish people, but Tommy actually got the jacket from the likewise legendary Morten Grundwald who played Benny in the Danish “Olsenbanden” series. Morten did indeed wear this jacket in one of the Olsenbanden movies and then gave it to Tommy later on as a present. Obviously, we decided to use it right away. It’s one of those things you can’t predict or plan for and the jacket really became such an integral part of Elias’ character and had a huge influence on the colors used in the film.

Were there any unexpected challenges you faced during production?

Well, when you have to shoot 25 pages of script in 4 days there are bound to be some problems – time being the most obvious one. In the end we just, you know, did it and worked through it. Thank god for energy drinks…

That said, everyone did their part, crew and cast alike, because people really liked the script and wanted to help make this film as good as possible. As for things that went well, we were very lucky with our location. We found a closed hospital and rented it for a week. It was empty when we rented it and by empty I mean EMPTY, so everything you see in the film is thanks to the wonderful art department.

Storytelling is so important in this film — did you always intend to use stories within this story?

Not from the beginning, and I really wish I could remember exactly when I decided to let Elias use his own story as a part of his work. Anyway, suddenly it just made sense and it solved a lot of narrative problems. Let’s be honest, exposition is very difficult, but by doing it this way it gave the audience the information they needed while is also became a way for Elias to deal with his past. So it became a vital part of his character and probably the only way he would be able to tell his daughter how he has felt for all these years. In real life we seldom express how we really feel, especially when you have to admit to yourself such a terrible thing, as Elias did, but using the puppets gave him a way out.

I just shot my next film this week actually, and here storytelling is even more integrated. It’s all about telling stories without the audience ever really knowing precisely what the truth is.  

The relationships between Elias and Ida and her parents are so powerful — was family a theme you were keen to explore?

Very much so. And redemption. The core seems to be characters trying to atone, much like in “Manchester by the Sea” which for me was the best film of 2017. And then family, which also was the theme of “To the top of the Mountain” which I made before “Behold, such clown”. I am working on a feature about a young woman having to come to terms with the death of her brother, so that continues the family theme.

Tell us a little more about your upcoming projects.

Well, as mentioned before I just shot my next film this week. Drama once again, but more unpleasant actually, if you would believe it! We are aiming for a Michael Haneke tone this time. It’s a film about abuse, so it needs to be disturbing to watch, out of respect for the subject.

And then I am planning to shoot a new short at the end of summer. A comedy though, just in case people are starting to wonder if all my films are going to be so dramatic!

“Behold, such clown” will screen at Manchester Lift-Off Film Festival 2018 on Wednesday 27th March as part of Shorts Programme 1, alongside Oscar-winning The Silent Child” (dir. Chris Overton) and the multi-Lift-Off Season Award winning The Peculiar Abilities of Mr Mahler (dir. Paul Philipp).