I'm not looking to push through my own personality

Thomas Heinesen is a key producer at Denmark’s oldest and biggest production company, Nordisk Film. Standing out in the press is not for him. Each new film is challenge enough. "Aching Hearts" is Heinesen’s second collaboration with Nils Malmros, a director who usually ends up getting it his way.


Producer Thomas Heinesen and Nordisk Film's well-known trademark, the polar bear (photo: Per Morten Abrahamsen)

Thomas Heinesen is not the kind of producer who tries hard to draw attention to himself. Contacted about an interview, he’s accommodating, but he also points out how annoying it is to him when producers are singled out as though they were the most important people behind a film.

"During a shoot, I try to drop by the set for an hour or two every day to see how things are going. I need to be able to come up with solutions if crises occur, and I can only do that if I'm in touch with the production."

“Of course the producer is important,” Heinesen says, “but mainly as an intermediary between the real creative forces. They are the ones that matter.”


You don’t have to look far to see that Heinesen was a central figure in the flowering of Danish cinema in the late 1990s.

He produced the most seen Danish film in the last ten years, Susanne Bier’s romantic comedy "The One and Only" from 1999. His success with that film catapulted him into a central position at Denmark’s oldest and biggest production company, Nordisk Film.

At Nordisk, he has produced a string of diverse films that have artistic merit as well as popular appeal. Apart from Bier, who has since moved on to an international career, he has worked with such prominent Danish directors as Nils Malmros ("Facing the Truth", "Aching Hearts"), Niels Arden Oplev ("Worlds Apart"), Åke Sandgren ("Flies on the Wall") and Morten Arnfred ("The Big Day").

Several other highly talented directors have debuted under his wings, including Jacob Thuesen ("Accused") and Paprika Steen ("Aftermath").


Nils Malmros, the director of "Aching Hearts" and probably the foremost auteur in Danish cinema, is known as a stubborn, perfectionist cultivator of detail. Is he difficult to work with?

“I don’t think so, mainly because he’s such a veteran and knows himself incredibly well. He knows exactly what he wants. Certainly, he’s demanding, but once you agree to the framework of the production, with very few exceptions he sticks to it,” Heinesen says.

“Artistically, he never compromises. He may end up spending more time than planned, but never without being extremely aware of the possible impact on the production. And he’s never lax about financial aspects. That way he’s responsible.

“Other directors sometimes have a bad habit of agreeing to everything before they start shooting, because they know they can’t be stopped once the train is rolling – then deals slide and big budget overruns occur.”

Do the two of you discuss a lot of things during pre-production?

“Yes, for sure, we have a lot of discussions. Though I’d like to add that Nils usually ends up getting it his way.

“That’s how it went when we discussed whether it was possible to shoot "Aching Hearts" over three years, like he wanted to. I insisted on shooting over ten weeks in one go, but Nils wanted to see his characters age over three years. I figured that would be easier to do with makeup and other effects and save us three million kroner (402,000 euros, ed.) – money we sorely needed.

“Nils went back to Aarhus to think things over, but he called me back the very same day and said he felt his motivation for making the film would disappear if we shot in one go. So we came up with the last three million.”


What is your background?

“Since I graduated high school, I’ve never done anything but filmmaking. I started out in the early 1980s as a kind of jack-of-all-trades. But I felt my strong suit was production planning, and in 1985, I was admitted into the new producing programme at the National Film School of Denmark.

“I had extensive experience in the business and a film school degree before becoming a producer at Metronome in 1999, where I helped launch two projects: Susanne Bier’s "The One and Only" and Ole Christian Madsen’s TV crime series "The Spider".”

"The One and Only" was Bier’s first commercial success. How did it get off the ground? Romantic comedies were never much of a genre in Denmark before.

“No, exactly. But I was always fond of the genre, especially in its American and British forms, and Susanne Bier and I discussed the possibility of doing that kind of a comedy here in Denmark.

“We both agreed that Danish cinema needed to become a bit more genre oriented, and Susanne Bier loved romantic comedies, too. So I hooked her up with the writer Kim Fupz Aakeson, who at that point had only written a few things for the screen but since then has become one of the most influential screenwriters in Denmark.

“The project raised a few eyebrows before it premiered. It had several intrinsic risk elements, but fortunately everything worked out fine. As I see it, with a project like that it’s not enough simply to make a good picture – you also need a big audience, because the genre inherently has broad appeal.”

You like genre films?

“Certainly. "Room 205" (2007) by first-time director Martin Barnewitz was another stab in that direction. In that case, the concept was to make a crazier horror film than we are used to in Denmark. Otherwise, there’s no particular thread in the things I produce. I’m not interested in pushing through my own ersonality, and I easily relate to all film genres.”


A producer’s job is multifaceted. What are your top priorities?

“That depends on the project. Generally, it’s important to get to comment on the screenplay development all the way through, from the first outline to the finished script.

“During a shoot, I try to drop by the set for an hour or two every day to see how things are going. I need to be able to come up with solutions if crises occur, and I can only do that if I’m in touch with the production. It’s hugely important to stop by almost daily. If you only drop in on a production once every four days or so, everyone looks at you with fear in their eyes, and that’s not very constructive, of course.

“The financing itself actually concerns me less. I rarely see any great advantage in trying to raise capital outside Scandinavia. It seldom generates any significant amounts, say, if you need some extramoney for an average Danish production of 2.5 million euros or so. If we’re talking 5 million euros, naturally we need to expand our circle of investors.”

Zentropa, Nordisk Film’s new partner, and Nimbus Film both have actual in-house directors who do several films in a row for their company. What’s your take on that?

“It’s definitely an advantage. A partnership usually runs more smoothly on the second or third film, when everybody knows each other better.

“When I started at Nordisk Film almost ten years ago, it was a pretty conservative place, with very few young directors and producers. That’s changed now, fortunately. Sure, I’d like to see even more of our young first-time directors stay with us. But we don’t do contracts for more than one film at a time”.


Born 1961, Denmark. Graduated as producer from the National Film School of Denmark, 1989. Producer credits include films by Susanne Bier, Nils Malmros, Paprika Steen and Jacob Thuesen. Heinesen also produced "Worlds Apart" (Niels Arden Oplev, 2008), selected for Generatoin 14plus at Berlin. This year will see the release of two films: "Aching Hearts" by Nils Malmros and "Karla and Katrine" by Charlotte Sachs Bostrup.

Founded 1906, defining it as one of the world’s oldest production companies. Nordisk produced high-quality films for a worldwide market during the silent era. Today, the company is part of the Egmont media group and a market leader within the development, production, post production and distribution of electronic media in the Nordic region. The company owns cinemas in Denmark and Norway as well as production facilities throughout Scandinavia. Produces animation through its subsidiary A. Film. From 2008 co-owner of Zentropa with a sharehold of 50 percent. Legendary films include Carl Th.
Dreyer’s first silent features, Oscar winner "Babette’s Feast" (Gabriel Axel, 1987), Oscar contender "Waltzing Regitze" (Kaspar Rostrup, 1989) and, together with Obel Film, the Cannes winner "Europa" (Lars von Trier, 1991). The catalogue from 2000 onwards embraces veteran filmmakers such as Nils Malmros, Kasper Rostrup and Morten Arnfred, alongside first-timers Paprika Steen, Christina Rosendahl, Ulrik Wivel and others. Documentaries include Tómas Gislason’s Tour de France epic "Overcoming" (2005), one of the most ambitious Danish documentaries to date, and Asger Leth’s exceptional debut "Ghosts of Cité Soleil" (2006). Niels Arden Oplev’s "Worlds Apart" (2008) was selected for Berlin’s Generation 14plus. Awaiting release in 2009 are Rumle Hammerich’s "Headhunter", Birger Larsen’s "Super Brother" and Nils Malmros’ "Aching Hearts".


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