Film buffs in Denmark could never overlook Mikkel Munch-Fals as a TV personality. His insistent voice, clear-cut opinions and slightly demonic aura made it impossible to doubt his love of film in general and art cinema in particular. Meanwhile, Munch-Fals always wanted to direct. The 38-year-old cineaste previously won critical acclaim and several awards for his two short films, "Partus" and "First Flush", both from 2006. Now he is putting the finishing touches on his first feature, "Nothing's All Bad".
Tight as a chamber play, "Nothing's All Bad" is the story of four variously lonely and emotionally crippled people. Ingeborg (Bodil Jørgensen – Munch- Fals wrote the role for her) is about to retire from the job she has given everything, even though no one ever cared enough to find out who she was. She is lonely after her husband's death. Her daughter Anna (Mille Lehfeldt), who just had one breast removed after a tumour was discovered and is undergoing a deep identity crisis, is unable to accept her mother's outstretched hand.
Anders (Henrik Prip) is fundamentally unable to feel happiness. Exposing himself and masturbating in front of strange women is the only way he can feel any kind of closeness. His son Jonas (Sebastian Jessen) sells himself "because he can". Their paths cross, although they are fundamentally alone.
Personally, I'm haunted by a basic fear of loneliness catching up with me, and I wanted to try and put that into film.
Loneliness a Basic Condition
Why did you choose to thematise loneliness so overtly?
"Loneliness is the problem I struggle with most myself. To me, it's the toughest human condition after basic physical needs like hunger and thirst. It has so many faces and no one can guard against it. Loneliness can come out of the blue. It can be a choice or self-caused. Personally, I'm haunted by a basic fear of loneliness catching up with me, and I wanted to try and put that into film.
"Loneliness is, in truth, not an easy thing to shake: ""In Nothing's All Bad", it spreads like ripples in water, because loneliness by definition begets loneliness. The characters in the film don't have the wherewithal to deal with each other, or even themselves for that matter, and there's no one to catch them when they fall.
"Taking loneliness as the basic condition for his four characters, Munch-Fals faced the challenge of giving an individual expression to each character's loneliness. Hence the controversial linking of loneliness, body and sexuality.
"In the case of Anders, I deliberately strove to externalise the reason for his loneliness. Anders' penchant for public masturbation is a very concrete act that makes his relationship to his surroundings deeply problematic. Essentially it's harmless, but the consequences for him could be disastrous. His emotional stuntedness makes it vital for him to expose himself or he wouldn't be able to feel himself or the joy or life that actually exists around him. Paradoxically, his yearning for closeness erects an even greater barrier between him and the rest of the world.
"Because of their loneliness, the characters put themselves at stake in various sexual transactions.
Why make that connection?
"I don't know how much it shows through in the film, but this is really a very amoral story of sorts, since their various ways of commodifying themselves ultimately work out to their benefit. They end up in a state of potential companionship and community. They are deeply flawed and they do things they shouldn't be doing."
"I definitely had my mind set on telling a story that's amoral but still makes sense. Although they express their sense of community in ways that are shady at best, theirs is still a community. They have bonded. Whether that bond holds is less certain.
It's enormously appealing to me that people can connect despite all kinds of obstacles, that love and realness can be found in the most unlikely places. There's something lovely and appealing in how a person has to change in order to connect with other people. That others can love you despite your flaws."
American Ensemble Heavyweights
"Nothing's All Bad" takes the form of an ensemble film, as we know it particularly from the American tradition and heavyweights like Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson. As the term implies, we're dealing with a narrative structure that isn't linearly or sequentially organised and doesn't focus on a single protagonist but branches out and draws in a larger group of characters whose fates are given equal weight.
What narrative advantages did you find in the ensemble genre?
"It was a deliberate and necessary choice for the film. I find that conventionally told films often fall back on highly simplified explanatory models where everything fits into a given causality: ‘My mom and dad drank, and dad was always working, which is why I'm alone.' It's never that simple, if you ask me. I didn't set out to find any big, gold-plated answers or solutions to why the characters are in the place they are in. It's the process that's interesting.
"Apart from interweaving the characters in the ensemble film format, Munch-Fals also lets the film thematise itself as fiction, employing devices like a framework story and chapter titles. "I never tried to make the film a slice of life. My film insists on being fiction, but even though it doesn't mimic reality, it's far from unrealistic. People like this really exist. I'm one of them myself, and all four at once."
In their blend of deeply vulnerable and deeply troubled, your characters seem to be a nod to Todd Solondz' "Happiness". Is that a conscious inspiration?
"I love that man to death, and "Happiness" is one of my absolute favorites, so it's hard to say how much of it was conscious. Solondz has an inimitable ability to write stuff that really shouldn't work and then translate it into film in a completely effortless way. In his hands we accept madness. And we keep feeling for his characters, no matter how much they screw up."
Is Munch-Fals anxious about exchanging the role of critic for the far more self-revealing role of director?
"If I hadn't directed anything before turning up on TV as critic, I'd probably be extremely nervous, but this, now, is what I do. Nothing's All Bad is a very personal story and it was imperative for me to tell it. I think that's sometimes missing from films. A personal imprint and intention. I've been indescribably happy about my collaboration with New Danish Screen, where I think my film got the best imaginable conditions for coming into being.
"Naturally, there is a certain anxiety about putting such a personal film out there to critics and audiences. Munch-Fals, a former painter and illustrator, has a big control gene when it comes to his films. Every shot is precisely storyboarded and written out in advance, so the film turns out the way he wants it.
"If for just one moment the audience think they maybe could be a little bit better about forgiving themselves and others, that's all I ask".