Daring Dreams and Fraught Friendship

INTERVIEW. With a starry-eyed dream of being the first amateurs to fly into space, two Danes enthusiastically start building a rocket. But over time, their disagreements mount. Max Kestner, one of Denmark's foremost documentary storytellers, goes for comedy as well as complexity in his new film "Amateurs in Space."

Spaceflight and rocket-building probably aren't the first things that come to mind when you see a couple of guys go into a home improvement store and load a cart with double-sided tape, MDF boards and other off-the-shelf items.

They wanted to fly into space, but all I could see was these two guys with the same kind of tools I keep in my toolbox at home • Max Kestner

All the same, flying 100 kilometres into space and back in a homemade rocket is the dream of Kristian von Bengtson and Peter Madsen, the two do-it-yourselfers at the heart of Max Kestner's "Amateurs in Space." And they intend to do so using down-to-earth stuff from the local market. 

Assisted by a group of volunteers and using crowdfunding, Madsen and von Bengtson set to work to bring their childhood dream of spaceflight to life. 

They are hardly the only ones to dream of flying, of course. As kids, a lot of us dreamed of spreading our arms like wings and flying across the world or into space like the famous astronauts of the 1960s and 1970s. 

"The dream of flying is a very common one," Kestner says. "I sometimes think how great it would be to lift yourself up 10 metres or a kilometre. Above the clouds, the sun is always shining. I'd love to be able to do that." 

Madsen and von Bengtson are different from the rest of us because they are doing something about it – their way. Using things they make in their workshop and stuff they pick up at DIY stores, the two Danes set to work to rocket to stardom as the first amateurs to complete a manned spaceflight.

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Kristian von Bengtson, who has worked for NASA, is in charge of building the spacecraft itself in "Amateurs in Space". Photo: Stine Heilmann

First Classical Documentary 

It's been seven years since Max Kestner first met Madsen and von Bengtson. "Amateurs in Space" has been underway just as long, since Kestner had to wait and see how the project unfolded before he could wrap up his film. 

All along, he has been working on other film projects, narrative and documentary, the latter a genre Kestner has been practicing in his own unique way since graduating from the National Film School of Denmark in 1997. 

"'Amateurs in Space' is actually my first more classical documentary, where I follow a process and am very dependent on how it develops. Previously, I used to make more staged documentaries. But with this film, I had to take a different tack," he says. 

As it happened, Madsen and von Bengtson contacted Kestner first, through some mutual friends, to hear if he might be interested in making a film about their project. 

"I went over there, looked at their ideas and thought, This isn't for me at all," Kestner says. "I don't do reportage. I'm used to making films where I'm more in control of things. Working with Kristian and Peter, I'd be in the pocket of their project. I'd be left out of the decision-making. So, I wasn't interested at all, at first. But then these guys turned out to be so amazing that I thought, I have to make this film. This is too great." 

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A dream coming to life in "Amateurs in Space." Photo: Stine Heilmann

Filling In the Gap 

Meeting his two protagonists and learning about their project, Kestner was fascinated not just by the two obsessive space nerds but also by the magnitude of their dream. 

"It struck me that there was this vast gap between what they wanted to do and what I could see," the filmmaker says. "They wanted to fly into space, but all I could see was these two guys with the same kind of tools I keep in my toolbox at home. I thought you had to have 100 billion dollars and be a world power to go to space. Yet here were these two Danish guys with their regular old tools and a dream that was out of this world. And I thought, The film is in that gap."

Kestner rarely approaches a film thematically, which is also the case with "Amateurs in Space." He didn't tell himself that he wanted to make a documentary about wild-eyed crazy dreams. He wanted to make the film because the characters – Peter Madsen and Kristian von Bengtson – were interesting and fun to follow, and because of the huge gap between talking about MDF sheets, on the one hand, and the real-world experience of NASA and the great space missions of the past, on the other. This contrast – between shopping for double-sided tape and defying gravity – provides the kind of comic relief that we know from his past films. 

"Amateurs in Space" seamlessly folds archival footage from the period of the first moon landing into the ongoing story, with Madsen sharing his vast knowledge of the history of spaceflight. It's on this backdrop – the history of spaceflight and its inherent fascination – that we watch the two amateurs tinker with their rocket in their workshop outside Copenhagen. 

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Peter Madsen, a self-taught submarine builder and now rocket pioneer, is in charge of the booster in "Amateurs in Space". Photo: Stine Heilmann

Sad but Comic Conflicts 

"Amateurs in Space" is framed as both a fun drama and a painful comedy, the filmmaker says. Over the years, cracks started showing in the friendship between the two rocket-builders and tempers flared. 

Madsen is a self-taught submarine builder with an amazing knack for making the impossible happen. Von Bengtson is a family man who used to work for NASA. He's in charge of building the section of the spacecraft that will take Madsen into space. 

Some of the film's tension comes from Madsen's difficulties dealing with the fact that von Bengtson has a life outside their project. Also, they both think the other is being way too bossy. 

When they argue, they sound like an old married couple who are sick to death of each other's quirks and needs. At least that's how it sometimes looked to Kestner and his crew. Madsen carries on like von Bengtson is having an affair every time he spends time with his family. 

"It's a funny thing that when you're an outsider and watch two people who are at odds like this, you can usually see that they are both right. You understand them both. Kristian and Peter are both right that the other is fantastic as well as a fool," Kestner says. "For me, it's important to show that complexity. The audience should feel that things aren't black and white. That sometimes when things are the most fun, they are also the most painful." 

"Amateurs in Space" may be a more classical documentary than Kestner's other films, but his unique cinematic tone still rings out loudly and clearly. A characteristic of all his films is their narrative complexity. Since his days at the Film School, he has helped bring about a radical break with the idea that documentaries should first and foremost inform, and secondly, perhaps, entertain. 

"Amateurs in Space" is an entertaining story about great technical ambitions and victories and correspondingly great human limitations. Today, as the film premieres, seven years after Kestner first met his two protagonists, their issues remain unresolved. 

"I hope the film can be a step in the reconciliation between Peter and Kristian," he says. "That they'll see it and realise they had some good times, too. That before they started hurting, they had fun" •

More about the film 

"Amateurs in Space" is directed by Max Kestner and produced by Sigrid Jonsson Dyekjær for Danish Documentary Production with support from the Danish Film Institute. International sales are managed by Autlook Filmsales. Find more about the film and filmmaker in factsheets right.

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