Officially Selected Alumni Interviews

Stefan Kjær Olsen: Lift-Off Filmmaker Interview

Danish Filmmaker Stefan Kjær Olsen’s feature narrative “Gælden (The Debt)” follows the journey of Michael, finally leading a stable life with his girlfriend, when his big brother Johnny suddenly re-appears. Johnny’s in big trouble because he owes a lot of money to some criminals. Michael reluctantly agrees to help… but you don’t get that kind of money in a short time without getting your hands dirty.

After a hugely successful screening at Berlin Lift-Off, “The Debt” won the festival’s Best Feature Narrative award, and will therefore be screening at Manchester Lift-Off Film Festival next month. We interviewed director Stefan to hear a little more about how this film came to be, and his path as a filmmaker.

Interview by Sneh Rupra

First of all, how did it feel for The Debt to be screened at the Berlin Lift-Off, and to win Best Feature?

It was just fantastic. It is hard to describe, but you spend so much time making a movie and you really don’t know if it will be any good! So just to be screened is an honor.

Did you enjoy the Lift-Off experience, and meeting some of the other filmmakers also screening? 

I did. As a director it can sometimes get a little lonely because you make one movie and then have to wait quite a long time to get the next one started. Between the movies I am doing a lot of work on my own, so it is nice to get out and talk to others who share the same passion for movies as I do.

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

The idea for The Debt started some years ago when I wrote a short called Bloodbrothers. That short was used as the blueprint for The Debt. The idea for Bloodbrothers came to me when I read about an incident here in Denmark where a man owed money to some drug dealers. They actually fried his ear on the stove because he couldn’t pay what he owed. After that I started thinking about what I would do to help my own family if they got in some kind of trouble.

How did you go about casting the roles, especially the young boy at the beginning of the film?

I knew I wanted Bjarne Henriksen, probably best known outside of Denmark for his role in The Killing, as the bad guy of the movie, Henning. Most of the other roles were cast through casting calls or because I knew the actors and liked their work. The young boy, Oliver, was found through a casting.

The landscapes and sets used in the film create such a strong atmosphere – how did you go about getting that so perfect?

We used quite some time finding the right locations and sets because it was so important for the mood and authenticity of the movie. With the father’s house, I had a very specific look in mind. I wanted a place that had an aura of loneliness, and that time was standing still. I think we were very pretty successful with that. But sometimes it just comes down to luck, and sometimes you just have make do with what you can get. When you are making indie movies you don’t have a lot of money for locations.

Were there any unexpected challenges you faced during production?

Without sounding arrogant, I actually think I expected most of the challenges. That does NOT mean it made it easier, but when you expect something you are going to be extra prepared for it. One of the biggest challenges was lack of sleep. Thank god for coffee!

How did you go about choreographing the fight sequences?

Using A LOT of takes. We didn’t have a stunt coordinator, so we just tried our luck and it worked out okay. Next time I would really like to have the opportunity to use a stuntman to make those kind of scenes more realistic and exciting.

The relationship between the brothers is so complex and powerful — was that something you were keen to explore?

That was without a doubt the most important part of the movie. Some people categorize The Debt as a gangster movie, and even though I love that genre, it irks me a little. I don’t see it as a gangster movie, but a drama about two brothers and the lengths you would go for your family, and how your past affects your present.

How has the experience of making this film changed your perception of family?

I don’t think it has changed my perception as such, but it has made my love for my family even stronger. I have a 6 year old daughter and I don’t think there is anything I wouldn’t do for her.

Are there any new projects on the horizon that you can tell us about?

There are. I have two projects I’m currently working on now. A short that will hopefully be shot this year, and a feature about a serial killer and a retired policeman. I’m hoping to start pre-production on the feature next year. I am really excited about both projects and hope to make more movies that challenge the way we think about each other and life in general.  

The Debt” will next be screening at Manchester Lift-Off in March. Full programme coming soon!