There are way too many nice Danish family films, Christian Dyekjær says. Now he has made "The Bird Chase", a film for the whole family that he hopes will ring true with young audiences.
"I think we are lacking some challenging films in the genre, films that recognise that the world of children is as complex as the adult world."
"My basic ambition was to make a less didactic family film with psychologically complex child characters," the director says. "I think we are lacking some challenging films in the genre, films that recognise that the world of children is as complex as the adult world."
"The Bird Chase" follows Victor, a 12-year-old boy whose great passion is birdwatching. The story is set at the annual get-together of the Danish Ornithological Society, where kids compete to spot and photograph the rarest bird, an activity known as "twitching." Victor desperately wants to win. Not least to cheer up his dad who has been feeling down since Victor's mother ran off with another man, Steen, who is also a bird lover. When Victor's archrival, Daniel – who just happens to be Steen's son – brings in a picture of a golden eagle that has settled in the nearby woods, Victor's chances are looking pretty grim. As it comes down to the wire, Victor gets a little too creative trying to come up with the winning picture – he might even cheat a teeny little bit.
Is it okay to cheat?
Dyekjær early on ran into some etched-in-stone ideas about what you can and cannot show in a family film. Several of those who read his screenplay reacted to Victor's cheating. It's not a good moral to dish out in a film for children, they said. But Dyekjær stood his ground. Children understand why Victor does what he does, the director says.
"I grew up with 'Emil of Lönneberga' and 'Pippi Longstocking', real brats, who are always up to something and steal and cheat and trick the grownups and each other. All day long. You don't see that so much anymore, which shows that family films have simply become too nice and genteel," the director says. The challenge for him was to make a film that resurrected some of the anarchy of the films from his childhood.
"For me, childhood is a secretive and lonely time, where you try to get to know the world by experimenting. Kids are full of curiosity and a desire to understand how things work. The anarchic element of that project is evident, for instance, when you fiddle with the electrical outlet even though you aren't supposed to. Or you cheat in a contest like the one in 'The Bird Chase'. Children use their unlimited imagination to explore a complex world. But what they do is rarely very well thought out or correct. You need to keep that in mind."
Keeping a casting director on hand
For Dyekjær, whose first feature, "Moving Up" (2008), was a film for adults and starring adults, working with children was a real challenge.
"I surrounded myself with top-notch adult actors, so I could concentrate on the children," he says.
As it was essential to find a young boy for the lead role who could really act, the directed allied himself of Jette Terman, a widely respected and experienced children's casting director.
"She is incredibly skilled," Dyekjær says. "She served as an extra set of eyes on the shoot, which gave a good feeling of security on set." The director quickly realised that there is no one way to direct children.
"The boy we cast in the lead, Oliver Methling Søndergaard, was amazing at intuitively understanding what to do. I didn't have to tell him very much. In fact, the more I directed him, the worse he performed, because then he got self-conscious and tried to second-guess me. But when he approached the role intuitively, he was completely natural and brilliant," Dyekjær says.
"Georg Hvidtfeldt Treschow, who plays Daniel, is a different story. He had to rehearse his lines and be really sure of them to be sure in his scenes, as well. Taking the time to do a lot of rehearsing before we started shooting turned out to be really important. That way, we found out who the children were and what worked for them individually."
Dyekjær as a child and as an adult
The story of "The Bird Chase" is really Dyekjær's own story, or an interpretation of it.
"I originally wrote a little story about something that happened to me when I was 12, when I was an active twitcher and competed in similar contests. The reason I even started writing the story was I was going through a divorce, which is a well-known occasion for going over your own childhood," he smiles.
"I know the birdwatching scene really well, because I was part of it from the time I was 11 until I was 15-16. When I had some distance from the divorce, the story ended up being this strange mix of my life as a child and my life as an adult."
There are a few serious scenes in the film. In one, Victor has to put his father to bed when he's had too much to drink. But Dyekjær isn't worried that these scenes will be too much for his young audience.
"One of the basic ideas of the film is that grownups are more immature. So there are several scenes where the roles have been reversed. Of course, it's the father who should be putting his son to bed. I didn't try to shield the children from anything. I don't think you should. Children generally know when their parents are being embarrassing. The thing with kids is they don't like to stand out, so of course it's really embarrassing when your parents do."
Victor's dad clearly has a big issue with abandonment. So he builds up this illusion that it's cool to be a lone wolf, which he projects onto his son. But Victor doesn't like to be a loner. His dad's problems with the divorce are apparent in how he treats his son. At times, that gives the film a sad feeling. While "The Bird Chase" hardly adheres to a hardcore social-realist style, it does have an undercurrent of gravity.
Do we have a tendency to underestimate what's okay for kids to watch?
"I think so," Dyekjær says. "Kids can stand to watch a lot more than we think."
This is a slightly altered version of a story from the May issue of the Danish Film Institute's printed festival magazine, FILM#75.