2012 in Indie cinema: Mads Matthiesen on Teddy Bear

At a time when the Danish film industry is churning out one remarkable thriller after another, be it in films or on television, Mads Matthiesen surprised the world with his small, intimate love story, Teddy Bear, about a Danish bodybuilder who has problems in talking to girls and goes to Thailand on a quest for love.

The simple and sweet film was one of the best debuts of the year, picking up the World Dramatic Award in Direction at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and many other awards since, in various festivals across the world. In an exclusive interview, Mads talks about his viral short film that inspired the movie, about the stories that interest him and why Dogme 95 rules have stopped working.

Denmark has a population of around 5.5 million people. Your short film, Dennis, has over 4.5 million hits on YouTube. How did it go so viral? And has as everyone in Denmark seen this movie?

(Laughs) No, many people from different countries have seen it too. A lot of the US and Europe has seen it, but yes, a lot of people in Denmark have seen it too. It’s become an art school exam tradition now. Every year during the examination period, I get a lot of emails from students saying they want to write about it or interpret it.

Mads Matthiesen. Photo credit: Theodor Synnestvedt.

It went viral because Youtube sort of bought the film. It premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival as part of the Short Films Competition and Youtube had collaborated with them that year. So we made a deal with Youtube, and they promoted and pushed the film quite a bit, and we also made some money out of it too. Within the first month, we had over a million hits, and after that, it took off on its own.

Dennis was the foundation on which your feature film, Teddy Bear, was built. Where did the seed for Dennis come from at that time?

Initially, I wanted to do a film about a 30-somethig guy still living with his mom who had trouble with girls and though he is very close to his mother, he has a troubled relationship with her. Now, normally, if you go with the cliché, you’d think of the person being a little overweight with glasses, and not very good looking. But I didn’t want to go for something so obvious. When I was discussing this idea with my co-writer Martin Zandvliet, who also co-wrote Teddy Bear, we came up with the idea that the guy would actually be the opposite – a huge, masculine bodybuilder. And while it was not an obvious take, it was still something I could connect with. Because I can understand the psychology of a person who’d start pumping iron to make his presence felt to the world, but still has problems inside.

Kim Kold wasn’t a professional actor when you cast him in Dennis. What made you believe you could make him act and how did you go about making him?

Since we didn’t know where we could find a bodybuilder for our short film, we put up casting ads in gyms across Denmark. Kim saw it and came for the auditions. Initially, I took him on more for his muscles and looks than talent, since as a person, Kim is nothing like Dennis – he’s very open, talkative, has been married a couple of times and has kids. He’s also very different from me, but when we started working together, I realised that we had something in common. Kim understood Dennis. He understood how hard it can be to communicate with girls, with your parents, and being an outsider.

When you are working with non-actors you try and work around with what they can do and what they are comfortable with. But I realised going ‘wow’ at his very first scene. He wasn’t like a non-actor… he could build the character, talk about his psychology, his background, and his feelings. He was focused and wasn’t acting just because he had got the chance – he was determined to act well. He gave his 110% and that shows in his performance.

How did the short film evolve into a full length feature film? Wasn’t it difficult to keep yourself inspired about the same subject for four years?

The reason I stayed inspired and excited about the subject is because I decided the feature film won’t be a remake or an extended version of the short film. It would be a sequel to the short. So Teddy Bear starts where Dennis ended. The character, the setup and the conflicts are the same, but it has new scenes. Martin came up with the idea of sending Dennis on a quest for love to Thailand, and how it affects his relationship with his mother when he does find love.

Even though the film took about three years to finish, I was excited because it was my first film and a story I understood very well by now. I also learnt a lot from it – like the fact that you can’t be stuck at any time. You need to keep moving, the film needs to keep evolving. Also I think that while making a good short film is as difficult as making a good feature film, the feature film is a more complicated process and for a first-time feature filmmaker, it’s a whole new world. There’s more money, more people, more expectations like ticket sales, distribution, etc. So it’s more work but the gist is the same – you have to tell in an exact and precise way, so the message gets across well.

Is your film made under the Danish Dogme 95 rules? It seemed inspired by them.

No, it’s not. Dogme was never a new thing, in a sense. It was taking some of the old ways of doing films and making some rules around that. I have always thought that Dogme was a good thing because it taught us to focus on the story, and how it’s told, and on getting close to the actors, rather than on the technical aspects. When you are focussing on big action scenes and cranes and big crews, your core tends to shift from storytelling. When you are working with a small crew and it’s like a family, then the storytelling is also more intimate.

So I think it’s great that filmmakers like Lars Von Trier, who I’m a big fan of, made films under those rules all those years ago, because those films are important for our culture and history. But I think the movement didn’t last because the filmmakers started repeating themselves and so, people got bored.

In most of your short films so far, the themes surround love, happiness and troubled relationship with parents. What fascinates you about these themes?

I think I have a tendency to write about people who are outsiders in the community surrounding them. People who are making efforts to be part of society, trying to become a part of the social life surrounding them. And how these people deal with love and family. I don’t know why I find these things fascinating… they have nothing to do with me. I’m not analysing myself here, I’m just picking up stories that make me interested or curious.

A still from Teddy Bear. Photo credit: Linn Sandholm

For example, with Dennis and Teddy Bear, I wanted to explore bodybuilders, because I’m curious about what they do in life. Why would they just want to pump iron and make themselves bigger? Why do they spend all those hours doing just that? I’ve been to a gym only once in my life, so I never understood this. And with all my other films too, I explore people, characters or environments that I’m curious to know more about. In Teddy Bear, Dennis goes to Thailand to find a girl for himself. I wrote about Thailand because I don’t get why people go there. They call it paradise for love, but in my eyes, I don’t see it as one. So I wanted to understand that too.

You say all your characters are outsiders. Do you consider yourself one as well?

No, I don’t really. But still, you know, there’s a feeling of loneliness that’s in all of us, that almost everyone experiences at some time or the other. That we are not understood and that in many a sense, we are alone in the world. I see it and feel it too, in relationships, families and life in general; having a hard time communicating what you really feel. But it’s not exactly all about me.
I mean, I have done a couple of shorts maybe 10 years ago that were based on private stories. But that didn’t work well for me. I’ve come to realise that my films should be personal but not private, as clichéd as that sounds. There’s probably a lot of me in my films but it shouldn’t be so close to me that I am not able to analyse it or even understand it myself. Now I only want to tell stories about others, who probably feel in some way as I do.

After winning the World Cinema Award for Direction at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and being nominated for a Europe Discovery Award, where do you go from here? Will you continue making small, intimate films, or will we see you doing trademark Danish thrillers?

I don’t know what my future is, but I’m not going to make big commercial films for selling tickets. (Chuckles) I mean, I hope I can sell tickets too but I want to keep trying to do something new with every film. I don’t want to do what others are doing but want to tell stories about things that interest me, about people who interest me. And since my films won’t be sequels or popular genres or action flicks with half-naked women, I just have one thing to remember… I will have to try and make films with small budgets. If I could be someone like a Michael Haneke in my life, that would be a dream come true!

Nikhil Taneja is doing a year-end series of interviews with the people behind some of the most interesting indie films of 2012. Coming up next is a list of the best films is 2012 that you haven’t seen. You can tweet good, bad and even ugly comments (if you *must*) to the piece to Nikhil on Twitter: @tanejamainhoon.

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