Tribeca Interview: Michael Noer (Director – ‘Northwest’)

By IndieWood / Steve Rickinson



Territory, power and pride are the seismic forces in this adrenaline-fueled crime thriller. Living in one of the most impoverished areas of Copenhagen, Casper does what he must to survive. When organized crime grabs hold of the community, life becomes even more desperate. Casper must dig in or risk being run over by gangsters sure to remove anyone in their way.

Documentarian Michael Noer returns to the fiction of his amazing prison film ‘R‘ for an ultra-realistic thriller about two brothers attempting not only to survive but to find their own identities. Non-professional leads and real-life brothers Gustav and Oscar Dyekjær Giese are very convincing throughout the story´s intimate scenes, giving Northwest an instinctive and powerful force. Shot entirely in handheld, it provides an anthropological look at the Danish underworld, with a strong and sensitive portrayal of a collapsing family that eschews cliché while evoking the Dogma 95 of Von Trier and Vinterberg.

‘Northwest‘ screens as part of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival as part of its “Viewpoints” series on Friday, April 26 @ 7:30 and Saturday, April 27 @ 1:00 at the Clearview Chelsea Cinemas and Sunday, April 28 @ 6:00 at the AMC Loews 7.  We talked with Director Michael Noer about his experiences at the festival, the adjustments between filming documentary and narrative and he directs nonprofessional actors.


You come from a documentary background, how does your approach there compare with narrative directing?  What aspects of documentary filmmaking do you bring to the narrative set?
In Denmark there is a very strong documentary community.  In the post Dogme era we made many documentaries with small crews and consumer cameras.  For me, there is no difference, initially, in working on documentary or narrative.  It is not so much I come up with an idea for a script first, but rather it may be I read something in the paper or a previous film leads into another.  I did the prison film ‘R‘ with Tobias Lindholm and that led to a lot of the setting for ‘Northwest‘ in the sense of street violence and troubled homes.  In many ways some people opened there doors to us as they could relate to a film like ‘R‘.  As a documentary filmmaker you only need to open the door a little for me to be curious enough to walk in.  Even though I do not have any personal experience with crime I am still interested in the social issues going on around me.  That is what I love about documentary films and the realms of fiction narrative.  In Denmark we are not necessarily used to the idea that a film is supposed to relate to something real.  This works successfully in creating a debate withing the press, which I also enjoy.

What is the filmmaking attitude in Denmark? Personally, I am a big fan of Lars von Trier & Thomas Vinteberg but I feel the Dogme sensibilities may loom too large across the spectrum of Danish cinema.  Is this true?
The influence is less than one would think.  Of course all the superhero movies come to Denmark, but what kind of Indie movies do I see coming from America and vice versa?  There are a lot of mainstream films coming out of Denmark, as well as comedies, but they never really break into the American markets.  Denmark is known for having improvised, gritty, DIY films but it is not the whole picture.  For Tobias and I doing ‘R´, we wanted to revitalize the scene.  I was 17 when I watched ‘The Celebration‘ and ‘The Idiots‘ and I was like “wow, these guys are Danish and making some great films!“

Did you feel like you were “bringing back” the Dogme mentality with ‘R´?
We wanted to bring back the energy; not in a speculative way but in a production way.  The great, wonderful AND terrible aspect of fiction film is working within a budget.  When you do a documentary you have absolutely no money and now you have a little; there is a difference there and there is a difference in the approach.  I will always go for the lo-fi approach to production.


Speaking about funding, ‘Northwest´ is associated with the Danish Film Institute.  Can you give an idea as to how you went about your funding with DFI?
I am not a specialist on this as they are a lot of social and political reasons why Denmark has this state funding policy on films, but as a filmmaker I can say that the practical way to get funding is in diversity.  You apply to a variety of funding organizations that work within the realms of the Danish Film Institute, which are geographically placed in the same building.  Denmark and the community surrounding the film industry is extremely small so everyone knows each other; my collaborator Tobias wrote for Thomas Vinterberg; when I was a film student I visited Lars von Trier.

It´s all state funded, which is good because everyone gets a salary.  Our film is made by “New Danish Screen”, which is the debut and experimental funding department.  ‘Northwest´ was also funded under the youth funding department.  The politicians have decided that so and so much money has to be spent on so and so diverse films but you do not necessarily get diverse films.  They gets the films the filmmakers make.

Is it your responsibility to find these specific funding groups or do you apply to the DFI and it flows from there?
You have to figure out the political system by yourself.  One could say that one of the most important roles of the producer is to package the film so it is applicable. We had no problems getting the money for ‘R‘.  All it took was a good conversation with the film commissioner and, knock on wood, that is how it has been my whole career.

I always strive to take a small step at a time.  The first time I applied was with a short documentary, then short fiction, then a long documentary and so forth.  I cannot say that is how the system works, I can only say how it works for me.  This does not mean that if you make a hit you get money back either, but on the other hand, you have the opportunity to take a lot of artistic risk.  I know that in South Korea they have a system that is similar.  I know they are applying the same system to Norway, which made those films much better.  It actually helps that the weight of the economy is not on you.  It also means that we try and be responsible with the money because it comes from somewhere.  If the money comes from Warner Bros or DFI it is still money and should be respected.

It is interesting you mention South Korea, because they also have an interesting approach to theatrical distribution.  Essentially a multi screen theater must play an equal amount of Independent films as they do studio imports...
...We don´t have that in Denmark but but sounds amazing.  Undoubtedly one can say South Korean films have a high level of artistry.

Talking about ‘Northwest´, this is an actual neighborhood in Copenhagen and one distinctly multi ethnic.  What are some of the characteristics of the neighborhood that made you want to set your film there?
Coming to New York I actually realized how much I owe to ‘Mean Streets‘.  I reminded myself this as I got out of the cab watching Martin Scorsese´s American Express commercial.  The film is also very much based in research, though.  This part of Copenhagen is a melting plot of ethnicities, but since the city is so small you do not see it everywhere.

Another thing is, I would not have called the film ‘Northwest‘ if it did not have a dual meaning.  Northwest is the region but it is also a direction and this direction is the guide our main character is in need of.

How would you describe this direction?
It is a working class environment.  Through the years it has shown how Danish society has changed as well.  It also has shown there are people in Copenhagen who are in need of money.  That might not be something new in the US but in Denmark it is a new thing to say “money matters”.  We have this huge social net, but the more time passes it becomes an image.  I also do this in the crime movie so it is not a social film, but rather a social film within the crime genre.


Last year´s ‘Killing Them Softly´ was a crime film with a capitalism critical message...
Yes, you could say the reverse is the case with ‘Northwest‘.  Although we are not dealing with a capitalist system but it is a depiction of the fading image of the bullet proof Danish system.  Also, it talks about the idea of an open society who invites multi ethnicity but that is also a lie.

How would you describe you approach to the actors in ‘Northwest´, especially as they were non-professionals?
Being a documentarian I never had long standing works with professional actors.  We do research and outline based on the research so it has a certain logic.  If we start using our own imagination it is very hard to put back reality so it is important we base the first line on reality.  If there are elements within the film that remind you of other films it is not only because it is a genre film, but also because these two live a genre life.  After that we do a casting and we adapt the lines to the actors.  When working with the actors, half of the scenes are rehearsed and half are absolutely not; they are not even discussed.  This means some scenes come out terrible and some are beautiful.  It is an organic process.

How did you come across Giese brothers?
The fiction part of the film is actually the brothers have no relation to crime as many others do.  It is not a documentary so we did not want to cast locals for the lead.  I put an ad up on Facebook and their mother responded.  The first time we met they argued.  They kept arguing in front of the casting camera then looked at me and said they were ready, but I was already impressed.  My challenge was not to make them believable as brothers but rather to make them believable within the frame.

Finally, why were you keen on having ‘Northwest´ screen at the Tribeca Film Festival?
Like I said, the moment I got out of the cab with my 10 month old daughter and girlfriend, I realized ‘Northwest‘ exists on every corner of every big city in the world.  The moment I knew we were accepted at Tribeca it felt like the genre was coming home, but hopefully people would see it in a new light; in a social light.  I would also recommend watching my colleague Tobias´ film ‘A Hijacking‘ about the hijacking of a Danish film but Somali pirates.  This film is also within the realm of social context and the transaction of what money means.  Money is just a simple of what you can get for it.