INTERVIEW. Diving deep into the intimate life of its protagonist, "The Will" is a documentary with all the energy and presence of a narrative film. We watch a guy have sex, crash his car, be disowned by his father and much more. How far can a documentary go in terms of revealing the most intimate details of someone's life? Per Juul Carlsen put the question to "The Will's" director, Christian Sønderby Jepsen, who takes a long, hard think before answering.
41.76 seconds. That's how long he takes to think about it, as he stares up at the ceiling of his kitchen in Copenhagen. Maybe Christian Sønderby Jepsen is rewinding back to the weeks he spent filming in Skals, at the far end of the country, in "marginal Denmark".
"He told me he was ready to kill himself when we started the film. The film was a way for him to get it out. He's a real performer."
Maybe he's thinking about all the days he spent probing every recess of Henrik Steffensen's private life, docu-menting every little piece of the puzzle, every burnt-out joint, every empty beer bottle, every text message.
Maybe he realises that he is dealing with one of the most critical questions of the X Factor age, when everyone wants to be intimate in the media and the media wants to know every intimate detail. Maybe he just doesn't know how to answer the question, "Was anything too private to include in your film?"
Attending a Funural on Recovery Beer
It's not a simple question. In "The Will", Jepsen gets to live out his old dream of making a documentary of events
as they unfold. The film follows Henrik, a young man
biding his time as he waits for an inheritance from his grandfather, who made millions running a seaside hotel on the north coast of Germany. Ever since Henrik
and his older brother, Christian, were little, they have heard endless stories of the fortune they had coming to them. Over time, the inheritance became a fairytale castle where they would live happily ever after.
When "The Will" opens, Henrik and his brother are speeding to their grandfather's funeral in Henrik's car, with breathless eyes and buzzed on "recovery beers". They are about to bury a family member whose death
they have been looking forward to their whole lives. That sets the tone. For the next hour and a half, we follow Henrik as he struggles to get his hands on his jackpot, his "dream castle" that's probably why he never really got a move on in life. He is unemployed and uneducated, his wife has left him and he is up to his eyeballs in debt, just waiting out the clock until his big payday.
Straight out of a Soap Opera
"This is a really important story about unhappy people on the margins of the nation," Jepsen says. "There are a lot of great themes: the rags-to-riches dream, the human search for something greater and the family conflicts that the inheritance catalyses."
Only a few minutes into "The Will", it becomes apparent that Henrik's family is like something straight out of an American soap opera, regardless of the thick Jutlandic burr. Passing a pile of chopped-down trees on his way to his father’s farm, he quips that it reminds him of Isengard, the fortress of the evil wizard Saruman in "The Lord of the Rings". When the farm appears on the horizon, he dryly states, "There's Fort Steffensen". These comments reveal three great qualities of "The Will's" main character – his self-deprecating charm, his eye for dramaturgy and his willingness to reveal all, even the most intimate detail. The last quality, more than anything, is what gives Jepsen pause to think.
"There were no boundaries in our relationship," he says. "When he crashed his car and was bawling his eyes out, I asked him, 'Is it okay if I film you now.' And he said, 'Sure, go ahead, this is one of the most important moments in my life.'"
"The Will". Photo: Henrik Ernst Steffensen.
Doc Version of "The Celebration"
Henrik asked to be put on display. He responded to a listing asking for good stories from the real world that Jepsen and his production company, Bombay Bully, had posted on various websites, writing:
"I'm from a well-off family and my whole life growing up was full of letdowns and scandal. Now my grandfather is dying and I stand to inherit millions. A new beginning?"
Jepsen, who comes from that part of the country, flew to Skals on the Danish mainland of Jutland and found that the story was growing in intensity every day. Faced with this unfolding family drama, he got the idea to make a documentary counterpart to Thomas Vinterberg's classic "The Celebration". Its hard to say anything other than he has reached his goal. "The Will" is a documentary, but it has the engine of a narrative film, thanks to its protagonist's dramatic flair and desire to disclose everything.
Two scenes, in particular, have a dramatic construction that would get nods of respect in a narrative film. One comes at a point when the audience assume that Henrik and his brother always stick together. Christian, a recovering drug addict, calls up and tells Henrik that he "never cared much for Ceci", Henrik's wife. He doesn't know she's listening in. The friction between Henrik and his brother not only adds fuel to an already inflamed family dynamic, it is also extremely cringe worthy. Yet no one turns to Jepsen and asks him to turn off the camera.
Disowning Your Son by Text
Equally cruel is the sequence where Henrik's father disowns him. A trained screenwriter might contrive a scene where the father barges in, crushing the last remnants of his son’s self-worth in an argument that ends with the son stabbing his father to death with a kitchen knife.
"The Will" presents a much more powerful
solution: Henrik's father sends him a lousy text message,
informing him that he doesn't want to see him anymore. Henrik holds his phone up to the camera, half laughing, half crying, showing us the full text.
Disowning your son by text speaks volumes about
the father's mindset. Later on, Henrik shows us videos from a Bildungs-trip to Thailand that the father took his two boys on. In one video, a prostitute is sucking Henrik's fully erect member. In another, they are having intercourse on a sofa. It comes as no surprise when Henrik shows us photos of his parents' wedding and says that his mother married a "demon" who drove her to fatal alcoholism.
"The Will" is about to be unleashed in Danish cinemas and at IDFA, the world's most important documentary film festival. Is it healthy for someone to witness the world's reactions to scenes of him having explicit sex in Thailand and being disowned by his father?
"Henrik told me that one of the first things he did after meeting Ceci was show her the videos from Thailand. If he had shut himself up in a little bubble, his demons would just have kept growing," Jepsen says. "He told me he was ready to kill himself when we started the film. The film was a way for him to get it out. He's a real performer. He used to dream about becoming an actor. A lot of people with his kind of history do. They want to be seen and heard."
Back to the question Jepsen took so long to answer. Was anything too private to include in "The Will"?
"No. The ethics was: If it's the truth to Henrik and everyone else, it's going in the film,"Jepsen finally says. "I could have gone much further with Henrik, but I saw no reason to."
That's worth thinking about for 41.76 seconds.