In Denmark, the Nimbus Film production company is synonymous with a highly developed sense of cinematic quality. A broad cross section of Danish directing talent works for, or has worked for, Nimbus Film, including Thomas Vinterberg ("The Celebration"), Nikolaj Arcel ("King's Game"), Søren Kragh-Jacobsen ("Mifune"), Ole Christian Madsen ("Prague" and "Flame & Citron"), Dagur Kári ("Dark Horse"), Pernille Fischer Christensen ("A Soap") and Natasha Arthy ("Fighter").
Nimbus Film's line-up of producers likewise includes some of the most respected names in the business, very different personalities with their own special skills united by their remarkable commitment to working together – with the directors, whose visions they will be midwifing, and among themselves.
Nimbus Film above all stands for compelling stories done with the utmost professionalism and unwavering quality in all aspects of production. Having spoken with three of the company's leading producers, it does not seem surprising that Nimbus’ bar is set so high.
THE HOLY TRINITY
Nimbus puts a priority on production not ego, on fruitful collaboration not draining rivalry. Although its producers may, in a sense, be competing for the same state subsidies, which are necessary to even be able to make movies in Denmark, they are colleagues first and foremost. They are happy to share their experiences with one another, and sometimes one producer will even ask another to collaborate, as Morten Kaufmann and Birgitte Skov did on two features, Dagur Kári's "Dark Horse" and Jannik Johansen's "White Night".
The holy trinity of director, screenwriter and producer has pride of place at Nimbus, with the director having the final word on all artistic matters.
Maintaining this principle and always keeping quality in mind, Nimbus Film and its producers have attracted some of the most creative people in Danish cinema. The company is starting 2008 on a strong note, launching the most expensive domestically produced, Danish-language film ever, Ole Christian Madsen's occupation-era drama, "Flame & Citron", a story of two Danish resistance fighters and desperados who became legends by liquidating informers.
What is the decision-making process like at Nimbus Film? Who decides what films get made?
"I have always had a very close working relationship with Birgitte Hald, the Nimbus executive," Kaufmann says. "You can't unilaterally say who decides what, because we have a very fluid and creative back-and-forth, where Birgitte might be involved in certain stages of the production process.
"Ideas might come from management, from the director or a producer. Also, the producers are very different. Birgitte Skov and Lars Bredo Rahbek are a lot more aggressive than I am, for instance – they might grab a director by the sleeve and say, 'I want to work with you!' Personally, I’m more passive, but it's my good fortune that people come to me, asking me to be a part of their projects," Kaufmann says.
Peter Aalbæk Jensen, who heads your neighbour and competitor Zentropa, says it's solely up to the producers what films get made. Is that what it's like at Nimbus, too?
"No, it's not that simple," Kaufmann says. "The Danish Film Institute is another factor. We apply for subsidies from the Film Institute only after the project has been approved by the management – that's Birgitte Hald, Bo Ehrhardt and Jørgen Ramskov.
"Then, if we get a commitment from the Film Institute, which is basically always the foundation of our financing, a final important decision-making stage follows: a green-light meeting where the worked-out project is presented to management with all the financing in place. Then, management can hit a button and either launch or sink the film," he says.
What aspect of production are you most involved in?
"Working with screenplays, shooting and editing – for me, that's the cream. That's also why I like to serve as production manager on the set of my films, unlike Lars Bredo Rahbek and Birgitte Skov, say, who for their part are a lot more involved in financing and promotion than I am," Kaufmann says.
THE TURD ON THE TABLE
Describing the producer as a combination of the director's closest confidant, his rock in the time of need or a whip when that's required, would you say that just about covers it?
"Sure, those three functions are certainly part of the job. But it's really hard to sum up the producer's role in one fixed formula, for the simple reason that directors are so different," Kaufmann says.
"I have mainly been working with Thomas Vinterberg, Ole Christian Madsen, Natasha Arthy and Katrine Windfeldt, and they all bring entirely different requirements and expectations to the partnership. While one only wants half a page of notes for a screenplay, another wants you to help write the lines. Some you have to be a father to, others expect a workmate. The great thing about this job is how you step into a new concept, a new universe, with each new project. One of the most important things is getting people to work together. You have to realise that no one can keep lying to someone forever. Everyone talks with everyone else on a production, and the truth will out," he says.
"That's why it's so important to realise that you sometimes have to say unpleasant things – and say them in a constructive way, so the partners can work together creatively, even when there are real conflicts going on," Kaufmann says.
"Getting a handle on all the little games being played between the main forces on a production I've come to think of as the most exciting thing about production work. Basically, it’s about confronting people with the truth instead of protecting them. If you hush conflicts up, everything drowns in padding. Being a conflict manager and a mediator when contentions erupt among people in the crew I find immensely interesting. Not to experiment with people's feelings but to unleash their creativity. Creativity has much better conditions when everyone realises exactly where everyone else stands and no one goes around with any hidden agendas. You keep on working, even when the turd is on the table! You put a cheese dome over it and move on," he says.
"Things can go wrong, of course, and miserably so, when you go for that level of honesty. But when it works, it makes for so much better collaboration."
SERVING TWO MASTERS
You have been both a line producer and an ordinary producer at Nimbus. What's the difference?
"The line between being a line producer – that is, mainly a Mr Fixit – or an actual producer has been kind of fluid around here. After serving as a line producer on "It's All About Love", I said that I wanted to limit myself to producing. Fortunately, people like Thomas (Vinterberg, ed.) and Ole Christian Madsen wanted to continue working with me in that capacity," Kaufmann says. "It’' great to work with the same directors over an extended period. You get to know each other so well. You learn how to handle a problem – if the director is worn out, if he seems distant – with time you learn it has nothing to do with you, it's because he has real problems. You take it from there, instead of taking it personal. When you are younger, you might think it’s all about you," he says.
Is the producer the company's or the director's man?
"Can he serve two masters, you mean? For my part, I can only say that, if I really believe the director is right about his vision for the film, I will support him, even if the brass is against it," Kaufmann says. "All the while, my job essentially is to make sure that the film gets made within the framework laid out by the company. It's my call whether to do the director’s or management's bidding."
"There are times when I think management is right in judging that certain scenes simply aren't essential cost-wise and will likely end up on the cutting room floor anyway. In those cases, I side with management over the director," he says. "It' a tough balancing act at times. The director shouldn’t get the sense that his producer automatically does management's bidding."
"In general, it's hard to completely avoid that situation, to be honest, but when we do, it’s immensely satisfying," Kaufmann says.
"Sometimes, it's a matter of getting the director to give up a wild goose chase, at times when the producer can take a more detached view. I’ve done that, but how often, or how often I've been wrong, I really can't say. You'd have to ask someone else," he says.
What aspect of the producer’s job interests you the most?
"Mainly, developing the story within the triad of writer, director and producer," Birgitte Skov says. "In Denmark, that combination originates at the National Film School. The school gave us the tools to read screenplays on the level of a writer or director. We learned a common language that has been incredibly useful."
"In film school, that was the aspect that engaged me the most, and it still does in my work today. The fuel for my work comes from dealing with stories that I feel are important. We take those stories and improve them, in collaboration and by outside input," she says.
"Once shooting begins, a train is set in motion that I have less influence on," Skov says. "The production manager deals with all the practical issues. Of course, I have a dialogue with him and the director and love to watch the rushes, but only when the time comes to retell the story in the editing room I come back into the picture and feel I can contribute with an essential role as the film’s first audience."
THE ROLE OF INITIATOR
Do you initiate projects or do you sit around and wait for them to come to you?
"I'm probably more of an initiator, in the sense that I get in touch with directors I would like to work with," Skov says. "That's what I did with Dagur Kári. He and his screenwriter had a hundred ideas, which led to "Dark Horse". And that's what I did with Jannik Johansen when I hooked up with a project we were developing, "White Night", written by Anders Thomas Jensen. Jannik got involved in the screenwriting and ended up directing the film, even though his real home is with another production company, Fine & Mellow. There are no fixed rules for how a film gets started or who I will be working with. The only requirement, really, is that I see something in the material that makes me want to work on the film. Desire keeps the train running. After all, a film can take two to three years to make, from the first four lines of the screenplay are written to opening night."
"All the while, the producer has a double-sided partnership with her company and the director," Skov says. "I have to mediate a dialogue between art and money, between the director and management, so both parties feel that the decisions that are made are what's best for the film."
You twice worked with another Nimbus producer, Morten Kaufmann, on other films. Why?
"Working as a producer can be incredibly social. You have access to hordes of people, but the role of the producer is basically a pretty lonely one. You’re the one who is in charge of everything," Skov says.
"I asked Morten Kaufmann, my colleague here at Nimbus Film, if he wanted to make Dagur Kári's "Dark Horse" with me. So I could play ball with someone I respect. Also, I had a powerful sense that Dagur would bowl Morten over with the things he can do.
"Correspondingly, Morten asked me if I wanted to do Jannik Johansen's "White Night" with him – because we have similar tastes and supplement each other well – though that doesn’t mean we’re a steady thing," she says.
"A major quality about working here at Nimbus is that we, as a producer group, are generous with one another. We know how to draw on one another's qualities, we read one another's scripts and call around if there’s a problem. This goes on, even though we know that we are competing for the same funds. We really have a collaborative spirit that makes us want the best for one another," the producer says.
Who has the final say whether a film gets made?
"It's hard to say. A big factor is whether we get the funds we apply for from the Danish Film Institute and the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) or TV 2. The three of them really decide the fate of any project, since, without their commitment, we have no platform for taking the project to Nordic subsidy schemes and private investors," Skov says.
LARS BREDO RAHBEK
What aspect of production interests you the most?
"I like to be around when the lights are turned on, and when they are turned off," Lars Bredo Rahbek says. "That is, at the very beginning, when the idea is conceived, the screenplay developed, and financing and casting fall into place – and at the end, when the film is marketed and positioned at festivals. "It's fun to be in the vanguard and lay out domestic and international marketing strategies, thinking Berlinale and so on, a full eight months before the film opens. That game turns me on," Rahbek says. "But the most important part of the whole process for me is engaging with the director. It's essential that we’re on the same page and respect each other, and that I'm able to tune into the director's vision or idea. It's not simply a matter of getting started at any price. I know that I will be living with the film for a really long time – up to five or ten years – after it's been made. Case in point, I still have tasks to do regarding "It's All About Love"."
How much of an on-set presence are you?
"I typically visit the set about three times a week and talk with the director about how things are going: Are there any problems, does anything need to be changed? It depends on the shooting process, too, which varies a lot from film to film. "A Soap" was a very small, intimate film that was shot mainly in a two-room apartment. Physically there was no room for me on the set. I had to peek in through the mail slot!" he quips.
"Conversely, in the case of "Flame & Citron", which was shot on location all across Europe, I sometimes had a hard enough time just finding the crew!"
INNOVATION FROM WITHIN
How do you experience your position regarding the director and the company?
"I'm between a hard place and a rock!" he says. "But really, the most important thing is having the directors' back. It's my job to understand their ideas. I have to decode the directors – what makes them tick? – and then share my enthusiasm for them with the world, telling all the world that they can't live without an Ole Christian Madsen or a Søren Kragh-Jacobsen.
"It's so important that the director's idea, his story, clicks with me. If it doesn't, I will consider which other Nimbus producer might be turned on by it and hear if they want to take over the project. We have a very strong sense of community here at Nimbus," Rahbek says.
"We producers use one another as sounding boards in all sorts of situations. A producer's job can be a very lonely one. You have huge financial responsibility and feel the anxiety that a financial gamble arouses in management," he says. "That was the case when we started "Flame & Citron". It's so important for the producer not to pass that anxiety on to the creative forces – the director and the crew – because that would create uncertainty and fear of limitations being imposed on the work.
"You have to toe a delicate line. At such times, it's really good to have the other producers to talk with," Rahbek says. "Nimbus is a real chatter place with a lot of feminine values. We're a small house with big ambitions".