Since making his feature screenwriting debut in 2003, Rasmus Heisterberg's name has most often been found on film credits next to director Nikolaj Arcel's. The pair co-wrote Arcel's Oscar-nominated period drama "A Royal Affair," for example, and together scripted the 2009 adaptation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." They have collaborated on political thrillers ("King's Game"), family fantasy adventures ("Island of Lost Souls") and animated science-fiction ("Return to Saturn"), exploring together a whole range of genres.
Yet, when Heisterberg decided to strike out on his own and direct for himself, he was determined to achieve something that would stand entirely on its own merits.
"I didn't want to make a Nikolaj Arcel-lite version of what he usually does," says Heisterberg. "We're very different people, and this had to be a completely different project to the stuff that we usually write together."
And, though Heisterberg feels "a lot of my craft as a director comes from my experiences with Nic," he insists his directorial debut "In the Blood" is a film for which an Arcel-style approach wouldn't make sense. Besides, the 41-year-old Copenhagen-native jokes, "I'm not sure I would have the technical skills for all the green screen stuff and costume settings. It needed to be a small film, really." Small, and personal.
Close to Home
"In the Blood" was born of a mild bout of homesickness. Heisterberg had been pursuing work in Los Angeles when he found himself thinking wistfully about his home town. Which in turn made him think back to his youth. Feeling it might make for a good script, he began writing something he describes as very much "a personal story."
It focuses on a medical student named Simon (Kristoffer Bech), who shares a house with a group of friends. He and his closest pal Knud (Elliott Crosset Hove) have plans to travel to Bolivia together at the end of the summer, but life begins pulling them in different directions to the one they'd been planning, especially when they realise they have to break up the house-share and Simon starts to develop a worryingly destructive streak.
In the Blood Photo: Profile Pictures
Though Heisterberg himself shared a flat with four friends, and comes from a family of medical professionals ("I'm the only one who decided to make movies"), he says the personal nature of the film arises less from specific incidents in his life than the feelings he re-conjured. "It is purely emotional. These are the emotions I went through myself in my 20s – the whole way life changes and how you try to prevent that, or how you try to be in the moment and make that moment last for a long time, if not forever. I wrote with a sort of a melancholy, even nostalgic feeling."
Interestingly, his nostalgia didn't compel him to set the film during the late '90s, when he was the same age as the characters. Simon and his friends are very much of the millennial generation; in one scene, for example, they discuss the merits of Tinder. "I didn't feel that it needed to be set in a different time in order to communicate itself," says Heisterberg. "I wrote it from a thematic standpoint. I just wanted to make a film that felt as timeless as possible, really, and putting it in a historical context often makes it less timeless, I think. If you look at the New Wave films from France, which were also contemporary, they are very timeless because they are so thematically driven and there's so much emphasis on character and the sensibility of them. That's the approach I tried to copy, really."
"In the Blood" is a deeply naturalistic film. Its cast are virtually unknown, most of them fresh out of theatre school (though Bech is lead singer in the punk band Shiny Darkly) and, filmed over six weeks in the summer of 2015, it is shot entirely on location – in Copenhagen primarily, with some scenes shot in Sweden and a few in Thailand, standing in for Bolivia. Heisterberg wanted to keep the script loose and the scenes organic, and encouraged the cast to improvise. Most importantly, he felt the chemistry between his actors should feel entirely believable.
"I think in many films you tend to show friendships in a dramatic context where you know they're really very different people, and it's sometimes a fragile illusion that these guys are really friends. We wanted to go the other way. You just want to look at these people and feel they have a chemistry, and you want to believe in their friendship by just looking at them walking down the street talking." Heisterberg achieved this during the casting process by seeing how the actors reacted and spoke to each other in the waiting area outside the audition room. "You could very quickly sense whether there was something between them or not."
In the Blood Photo: Profile Pictures
It's not surprising to learn that British social-realist filmmakers like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh were a key influence on him. “I looked a lot at [Mike Leigh's] 'Naked,'" he says, "for how to engage with a character who sets himself on a destructive path." He also cites filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague: Truffaut, Rohmer, Resnais ("it always comes back to the greats"). But his key inspiration was a movie which had made a huge impact when he was Kristoffer"s age, namely Danny Boyle's "Trainspotting."
"I think 'Trainspotting' is still a very inventive and truly great film," he says. "It has such a playfulness with the camerawork, and how everything is shot and done and told. And I think that's where a lot of the expressiveness in my film comes from. Not from specific places in 'Trainspotting,' but just the whole vibe of how it felt when I saw it as a young person."
Despite its realism and semi-documentarian feel (even featuring, in one scene, real footage of a caesarean-section birth), "In the Blood" also has an enticing dreamlike quality. The nostalgia which spawned the film, and which infuses it throughout, makes it feel like you’re watching something remembered, even though it's unfolding in the moment.
"First of all it is told from my point of view," says Heisterberg. "I'm not young anymore, so it is told through a sort of gaze that is looking back at a time gone by. So that feeling was intentional. And I've always liked this mix between naturalism and something that's very expressive. It was very clear for me from the beginning to do that, to have a very expressive inner life of the characters, but to show what they're doing in a very naturalistic setting. I like that combination when it works in films like 'Trainspotting.' It's just my taste, I guess."
While "In the Blood" proved a relatively painless production process for Heisterberg, he does admit it required him to adapt his usual approach to problem-solving. "Of course there were days that were hard," he says. "I'm used to being able to drink coffee and eat a muffin and then crack a problem. But when you're shooting and a scene isn't working, you have to crack the problem straight away."
The biggest difference from how he usually works, he says, was finding himself at the centre of the crew's attention, being asked questions all the time. "Every time you say 'cut,' people look at you and expect you to say something," he laughs. "I mean, I had to talk all the time. And I don't like talking! I'm a quiet guy." He likens directing to playing sport, where you have to solve things in the moment. "It reminded me of the energy when you play soccer."
Director Rasmus Heisterberg Photo: Thomas Marott
While "In the Blood" doubtlessly evolved Heisterberg as a filmmaker, he doesn't see it as an international calling card, and isn't expecting Hollywood studios to come knocking once it's released. "This project was done in the complete opposite way any kind of studio film would have been done," he says. "It was more of a personal fulfilment than anything."
Still, it has given him something to build upon, and which he wants to combine with his earlier adventures in genre with Nikolaj Arcel. To make films, he says, like "'A Prophet,' or ultimately 'The Godfather,' which are able to be strong character pieces within a genre framework. That would be really fun to explore for next time."
Whether it's another small-budget film or a bigger, studio-backed project, Heisterberg doesn't mind. Just as long as it fulfils one, single, all important criterion. "I'm at an age in my life where I just want to have fun doing what I do," he insists. "That was a key element in choosing to direct: it had to be something that was really worthwhile for the effort. And at the end of the day, what makes it worthwhile is having fun doing it. If I can keep on doing that I would be a happy man."
Like his main character, Heisterberg is at a crossroads. The difference is, he knows exactly in which direction he wants to go.
More about the film
"In the Blood" is produced by Caroline Schlüter Bingestam for Profile Pictures with support from the Danish Film Institute. LevelK handles international sales.
The film is world premiering at Toronto Film Festival in the Discovery programme (8-18 September).
Find more about film and director in factsheets right.
Playing the lead as Simon is Kristoffer Bech, who is selected for the International Actors Programme, a promotional platform for young acting talents set up during the Toronto Film Festival. "In the Blood" marks Bech's screen debut.