"Unless you have the money, don't try to do anything like 'The Avengers' and 'Iron Man'. Do your own concept."
First-time feature-film director Ask Hasselbalch's moviemaking maxim makes a lot of sense. A young director from a small film nation like Denmark, where raising funds for a superhero movie is no mean feat, has to serve up something different than the Americans on their bloated budgets.
So, what exactly does a director do when turning the popular Danish children's books series "Antboy" into Denmark's first real big-screen superhero?
Story over Effects
Giving the world of American superheroes a local twist, "Antboy" follows the adventures of Pelle, an ordinary 12-year-old boy who dreams of doing great things – and gets a chance to do just that when he is bitten by a genetically engineered super ant.
"I actually don't think my approach to the story would have been all that different if I'd had another 10 million euros or more," Hasselbalch says. "I am a great fan of films from the '80s, like Joe Dante's 'Gremlins', where the effects supplement the story and don't overpower it. I always figured I would resolve Antboy's superhero story by using the camera itself, through the editing and sound, not by using expensive CGI effects. Basically, it's about appealing to the audience's imagination, making them believe they see amazing things."
Back to being 10
Hasselbalch, 34, discusses his film with the kind of enthusiasm that is unique to young directors who at long last, with a mighty hallelujah, arrive in the promised land of features after making short after short. Since 2000, Hasselbalch has been a prolific director of shorts, commercials and music videos with a penchant for entertainment in familiar genres like thrillers and adventures.
"The first thing I thought when I started working on 'Antboy' was, 'Alright, I'm 10 years old now, what kind of movie would I like to see? What kind of movie wasn't around when I was 10?' I knew I didn't want to make a film for children. I had to make the film for me instead of worrying about what others wanted to see. The point, above all, is to give people the same sense of adventure I got when I watched 'Batman' and 'E.T.' as a kid. Getting away from the realism that characterizes so many superhero movies today and back into fantasy."
Friendship and Candy Bars
When Pelle acquires unheard-of superpowers after the ant bites him, he gets a helping hand from his friend, another outsider, the comic-book geek Wilhelm, and together they craft Pelle's secret identity as Antboy the superhero.
"I love genres. Initially, the ambition was to make 'Antboy' a genre film, but as the work progressed, what really stoked me was the friendship theme," Hasselbalch says.
"As soon as the story of Pelle and Wilhelm and their Antboy project started taking shape, something clicked for me. It may sound a bit maudlin, but I wanted to say that the greatest superpower is the friendship the two boys build, their sticking together. From that point on, 'Antboy', for me, was more than just a popcorn movie with thrills and spills. The idea that friendship gives you superpowers is fun and original, I think. At least, I never saw it before."
At this point, some might argue that the American superhero movie "Kick-Ass", with its group of friends playing at superheroes, has a similar theme. But that's not how Hasselbalch sees it. Unlike "Antboy", "Kick-Ass"'s heroes don't have actual superpowers. Antboy isn't a parody: he can pee acid, crawl on walls and bite a book in half – if he's fed enough candy bars, that is.
Literally at Eye Level
It's not Hasselbalch's bag to spoof and wax ironic on the world of superheroes. He's out to make a real superhero movie – one that takes its hero and theme seriously.
"Personally, I'm a long way from all the irony jazz," he says. "It was enormously important for me not to talk down to children. Consequently, the parents aren't a big part of the film. I wasn't interested in them. We never see Wilhelm's mother. She's just a voice on the other side of the wall."
"I wanted to make a family film that has its focus entirely on the children. That's why the camera doesn't rise above the eye level of a 10-12-year old unless it's dramatically called for. Oscar Dietz, who plays Pelle/Antboy, was 142 cm tall when we shot the film, and the camera never goes higher than 142 cm. You don't think about it when you watch the film, but the film is literally at its audience's eye level."
"Antboy" is produced by Eva Jakobsen, Lea Løbger and Birgitte Hald for Nimbus Film. The film enjoys its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.