Real Life Rarely Does What You Want It To

INTERVIEW. Nicole N. Horanyi has played with the line between reality and fiction before. In her new film, 'The Stranger,' she aims to bring the best of the documentary and the narrative together in the story of Amanda, a single mother, and Casper, a conman. IDFA Panorama 2017

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THE STRANGER. Nicole N. Horanyi's film is based on a true story of fraud and make-believe. Photo: Made in Copenhagen

Amanda and her daughter live in a Copenhagen suburb. One day, Amanda runs into a guy on Facebook, and three months later she agrees to go on a date with him. Casper is fun and considerate, and she falls for him head over heels. He reveals that he is a scion of one of Denmark's wealthiest families, but he would rather do without his inheritance. Soon, he moves in with Amanda in her small apartment, and in the beginning everything is rosy. Then one day, the phone rings …

This is a woman who was subjected to something extremely hurtful and strange, which she describes with great power. I found that very intriguing.

This true story of a single mother who falls for a Prince Charming and conman is the basis of Nicole N. Horanyi's documentary, 'The Stranger.'

Horanyi was inspired to make the film after listening to a 2013 podcast about Amanda and Casper. To realise this complex story of truth and make-believe, the director decided to let Amanda and other key characters play themselves in the film, while Casper is played by the actor Esben Dalsgaard.

The result is, in essence, a series of re-enactments telling Amanda's story from her first meeting with Casper to his shocking unmasking.

We talked with the director about how she got the idea to turn the podcast into a film and about her singular approach to the documentary genre.

'The Stranger' by Nicole N. Horanyi. Framegrab

When did the idea for a documentary emerge and how did you get involved?

"When I listened to the podcast, I was immediately captivated by what is, above all, an amazing story. But actually, Amanda was the crux for me. I could tell that she was up to retelling and reliving her story by re-enacting it.

"Moreover, Amanda tells her story in the podcast with tremendous humour, which was refreshing. This is a woman who was subjected to something extremely hurtful and strange, which she describes with great power. I found that very intriguing."

Almost all the central characters in the story play themselves in the film. You even step into the re-enactments yourself sometimes, as the director. Why did you choose to tell the story this way?

"The idea came out of the realization that we're working with memory, which can often be very inaccurate – after all, we're asking the participants to remember some pretty detailed things. So it was actually an attempt to guard against that uncertainty by letting the cast know that it was okay to break the illusion and correct us if the scene didn't correspond to their memory of it. Would a documentary moment emerge from that?"

What were the challenges of doing this kind of documentary?

"First and foremost, I'm not a trained fiction-film director, so I had no skill set when it came to working with a professional actor. I'm well versed in real life, real people, and I can tell when something is authentic. I knew I could do that, which I then had to bring into the fictionalised part of the story. Together with Esben, who plays Casper, we developed a kind of language for going about it. The method evolved along the way as we slowly found our feet. And it just kept getting better as the film progressed."

'The Stranger' by Nicole N. Horanyi. Framegrab

What did that demand of you as a director?

"Mads Matthiesen, the fiction-film director, gave me some very insightful advice, which in many ways determined my approach: my task was to make the two realities come together in one scene – that is, the reality of the non-professional and that of the actor – to keep them from acting in completely different directions. Actors tend be very dramatic and much more expressive, so it was a matter of tuning it down in relation to real life, which tends to be a lot quieter and calmer."

In your first documentary, 'The DeVilles' from 2009, you were also working the boundary of fiction. What can fiction give documentaries?

"Clearly, it's about having complete control of the story, which you don't in a documentary, and which I think is an amazing thing to work with. Real life rarely does what you want it to. It's impossible to plan anything. But this control was also incredibly frustrating, because you have to weigh everything, while in documentaries a slice of life is handed to you. Then again, real people are a lot more complex, weird and irrational than anything you'll find in fiction. I hope the film will get something from both worlds and fuse them into one thing" • 

About the film

'The Stranger' is directed by Nicole N. Horanyi and produced by Helle Faber for Made in Copenhagen with support from the Danish Film Institute. LevelK is handling international sales. 

IDFA premiere

The director's previous film, 'Motley's Law (2016), screened at IDFA and won the Alliance of Women Film Journalists' EDA Award. 

'The Stranger' – international premiere at IDFA 2017 (15-26 November) in Panorama, showing films that are thought-provoking in style and topic.

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