Applause for a funnyman

INTERVIEW. After a spin around the festival circuit with "Applause", Martin Pieter Zandvliet set his sights on directing a warts-and-all biopic about Denmark's greatest comedian, Dirch Passer. Three decades after his too-early death, "A Funny Man" tells the tragic story of a man who lived for attention and found himself trapped in his own legend. By Jacob Wendt Jensen.

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"A Funny Man". Photo: Bjørn Bertheussen

Everyone agreed: director Martin Pieter Zandvliet, screenwriter Anders Frithiof August ("SuperClásico") and producer Mikael Rieks ("Ghosts of Cité Soleil"). Working on "Applause", they happened to watch a show about the Danish comedian Dirch Passer on TV and knew they had found the subject for their next movie, "A Funny Man", out in domestic theatres in August.

Dirch Passer was Denmark's number one funnyman on stage and screen in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s until his premature death in late summer 1980. His heart gave out at just 54, during a performance of a revue in Copenhagen's Tivoli. While Passer had been making Danes guffaw for three decades, he had also been leading a life of hard drinking, multiple failed marriages and constant, wrenching doubt about his talent, even as everyone in his circle praised him. Including, of course, those who lived off him. Who paid him fat checks before they had even read the script for the movie and didn't flinch at dispatching Dirch to shopping malls to be dunked in barrels of water. No job was too small, as long as the check was big enough.

Zandvliet and his close collaborators were struck by the journey Passer made in his life more than by his revue skits and films, which remain very popular on DVD, TV and YouTube.

"We zeroed in on the stage production of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" as the hinge. That's when Passer put his dream of becoming a serious actor to the test and failed," Zandvliet says.

CRYING REAL TEARS

The year is 1961. After years of making cash registers ring at Copenhagen's ABC Theatre in revue after revue with his comic sidekick Kjeld Petersen, Passer is now playing Lenny, the dim-witted hulk who strangles a puppy and a woman in "Of Mice and Men".

The reviews are favourable, as critics predict that his career from now on could very well embrace both humour and serious theatre. But that's not how it turns out.

The audiences laugh too much, especially during special performances for school children, and Dirch gets nervous. When Lenny cries in George's arms, that's Dirch crying real tears at the cul-de-sac he is finding himself in. He starts playing for laughs, which there's no basis for in the story. The play is a flop and quickly closes. Ever since, Passer always referred to that play as the moment when he gave up on serious acting, choking back sadness behind his facade.

Passer wanted to reach beyond the audiences he knew loved him. He wanted to be taken seriously, by the critics and by himself, says Zandvliet. It hurt him to the core that the elite looked down at the world of theatrical revues.

"He wanted to be accepted in better circles. Dirch Passer is the class clown who will do anything to get attention. But once he got it, he didn't want it anymore – he wanted to be taken seriously. He always doubted if he was doing the right thing and he despaired at having to live up to his own legend. You can see the laugh-getting gimmicks change over the years. In the beginning, it was enough for him to go on stage in a suit and hat, but later on he wore drag, clown costumes, even bounced up and down in a giant baby bouncer."

"There is a pathological desire to please in how these gimmicks evolve," Zandvliet says.

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"A Funny Man". Photo: Bjørn Bertheussen

DREAMED OF MAKING IT BIG

"A Funny Man" has parallels to the dilemmas that Jerry Lewis, Andy Kaufman and other great comedians have tangled with.

"'Man on the Moon' and 'Lenny', the Lenny Bruce biopic, are amazing films. In general, I love characterdriven dramas that take you behind a person's facade.  It's a privilege to get to do a film about an actor who so desperately wanted to play serious roles – and now, in a way, our film is finally giving him that role. It's the story of a comedic duo, along the lines of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, and the story of a weeping clown we get glimpses of in Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller. Bob Fosse's 'All That Jazz' is another reference point for us," Zandvliet says.

Passer dreamed of making it big abroad and he did get several offers, but nothing ever panned out.

"I think it would be great if I was the one to finally take Dirch beyond Denmark. He deserves it. He certainly had the skills. He got a few offers over the years, but he was always afraid to make the leap. Partly, he was worried that his borrowings from other artists would be found out. He outright stole the concept and much of the content for his famous finger show from the comedian Art Metrano, after watching him perform in Las Vegas. Dirch really wanted to make it abroad and he had boundless admiration for Victor Borge, the only Danish comedian who was ever successful in the US."

SON OF A REVUE STAR

From day one, Nikolaj Lie Kaas was mentioned for the lead. We know the actor from such films as Lars von Trier's "The Idiots", Christoffer Boe's "Reconstruction" and Susanne Bier's "Brothers". He also played a killer in Ron Howard's "Angels & Demons".

"Nikolaj is an interesting person, and he's shown that he's both a great character actor and a master of comedy. He has comedic talent and depth. I wasn't out to make a funny film, after all, but a film about the seriousness amidst all the fun. Nikolaj is a child of the revues. His father was a Danish revue star who worked with Dirch Passer. When I offered him the part, I could tell he was thinking, "Wow!" Like everyone else, he approached the task with great awe. Dirch is almost like royalty in Denmark. Everyone still loves him. So you have to be delicate when you start questioning the choices he made. His life may be a kind of tragedy, but we have tried to make the film an ode to life," Zandvliet says.

Factbox

KONCERN FILM

Founded 2008 by producer Mikael Rieks and Koncern TV- og Filmproduktion. Rieks, formerly from Nordisk Film, produced the documentaries "Overcoming" (Tómas Gislason, 2005) and "Ghosts of Cité Soleil" (Asger Leth, 2006) and the feature film "Karla's World" (Charlotte Sachs Bostrup, 2007). The company's inaugural production was Martin Pieter Zandvliet's first feature, "Applause" (2009), an awardwinning critical success with actress Paprika Steen. Out in 2011 is Zandvliet's second feature "A Funny Man" (2011). www.koncern.dk

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