There's a hint of surrealism but definitely no skyscrapers in the small-town setting of Rune Schjøtt's first film as a director. The distant skyscrapers of exotic New York and their promise of a less confined life are all in the mind of a boy struggling to grow up as an even remotely welladapted individual.
The princess is blind and horny, the prince has a constricted foreskin and the king has no penis at all.
Basically a good-natured kid, Jon is under pressure from all sides. He's indirectly to blame for his father's castration by liquor bottle. The debilitating accident occurred after his father, in a gesture of macho overconfidence, stuck a bottle down the front of his pants when he got behind the wheel of his car. Before that fateful day, he was the village king and alpha male. After his emasculation, he settles for hamming it up as media mogul behind the mike of his own local radio station. To compensate for his humiliating dethronement, the autocratic father keeps his son in a state of pre-sexual paralysis.
Tugging at Jon from the other end is the blind daughter of the village grocer. She can't wait to lose her virginity and has picked Jon as the man to do it. But it's hard to be a man when it was always pounded into you that you are just a worthless little kid. Nor does it aid the consummation of his desire that Jon suffers from a constricted foreskin, a pretty common but painfully secret ailment in countries where circumcision is not routine.
The princess is blind and horny, the prince has a constricted foreskin and the king has no penis at all. Plainly, Rune Schjøtt, 39, has cooked up a rather unconventional coming-of-age tale!
Symbol and Reality
"I wanted to do a story about how I used to be scared of girls," Schjøtt says. "There's a weird power imbalance for teenagers. As a boy, you have a lesser hand. You fear rejection. You have to show what you can do, while the girl can take more of a waiting position. If you're not able to take care of business, there has to be a pretty good reason why. Constriction of the foreskin would seem to qualify," Schjøtt says, describing the small autobiographical defect that can be such a big hurdle at a very delicate time in a boy's life.
"In the film, of course, it's a metaphor for something preventing him from unfolding," Schjøtt says. A graduate of the screenwriting programme at the National Film School of Denmark, Schjøtt cowrote "Dark Horse" with the film's Icelandic director Dagur Kári ("Noi Albinoi", "The Good Heart"). Now, after some hesitation and a few false starts, he is finally coming out as a director. He wrote the screenplay, too, of course.
"Skyscraper"'s style is a kind of naïve realism and the story is populated with characters that have mythical and symbolic undertones – the castrated father, the blind woman who "sees" clearly. For Schjøtt, though, the film is more real than symbolic. There is a blind girl in the story because he once met a blind girl when he was young. For a long time, he was casting around for a real blind girl for the part. Because the film's universe is a bit surreal, it seemed important to get the details right. Eventually, he abandoned the search, but it wasn't a waste. The casting process doubled as the research that enabled him to make the blind girl seem real instead of merely symbolic.
"Of course, I see the archetypal elements, but I was interested in real things first. I simply take things I find interesting and mix them up. All the weird things that happen are really just the story of a teenager who wants to try new and exciting things, which are weird because they are new," the director says. Skyscraper is a fantastical fable detailing the rites-of-passage mysteries of sexual maturation in a claustrophobic small town.
One Day You Get on the Bus,..
"I initially set the story in a suburb. I grew up in a suburb of Denmark's second city, Århus, so that was the natural thing for me to do. A bus left for the city every 15 minutes. Getting there was easy. But the more I wrote, the more I realised that the place I was writing about was more like a tiny, remote island in a vast ocean. Or, like a puppet film with the figures moving around individually on a black ground."
One day, you get on the bus to the city and you never look back. The director got on that bus when he was 15. On his first night on his own in the city, he ran into ghetto types, thieves and sexually advanced urban teens. He ended up playing a game of truth and dare with a girl three years older than he who brazenly announced that, if she was ever going to try anal sex, it had to be that night and it had to be with Rune. At the time, he hadn't even seen a girl naked! From that point on, the suburb lost both its innocence and its attraction. He had set his course for a bigger world and by the time he was 17, Schjøtt was in Copenhagen doing shows for kids on DR, Danish public radio.
He stayed on at DR until the late 1990s. In 1999, he was admitted to the National Film School. But his years growing up in the suburbs still itched and irked him.
And so it was that Schjøtt returned to his roots in a way, conjuring up an almost cartoony small town as the setting for his drama about escaping the suburbs. A town without cars, where a single bus is the only means of escape. A place where every story begins, "Fields, nothing but fields, as far as the eye can see." A place where a father can still sit heavily on his son and where a girl's erotic longing is an absolute mystery to a boy.
Life Without an Owner's Manual
"Ever since I was 15 and started writing, all my stories have basically been about 17- to 18-year-old kids. That came naturally to me. Probably because that's where my own story lies. A story about performance anxiety and the fear of standing up for who you are. It's a story that's more organic when you're 18 than when you're 40," the director acknowledges.
"Those were the worst years! Everything was so intense. What seemed like a lifetime probably lasted just one summer. I think I have been going around with my own little bank ledger, filling it with anecdotes and observations. Now stories come gushing out about a time in life when you think life comes with an owner's manual and everyone has one but you"