Only when the first door behind you is securely shut, the next door is opened.
"We're both extremely fascinated by real life and much less fascinated by lies and entertainment." – The director duo Noer and Lindholm
That's what it's like to move through a prison. This claustrophobic feeling – like being inside a flood lock, enclosed by steel doors at either end – was a touchstone for the two filmmakers Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm when they set out to make a prison film that would look like no other. "R" would be a prison film without the genre's usual clichés, with a dramatic core encapsulating the experience of what it's really like to be behind bars, to be deprived of your freedom for months and years.
A vital documentary wave has been washing through Danish cinema in recent years and Michael Noer is one of the movement's most thrilling young filmmakers. In "R", he and his co-director, screenwriter Tobias Lindholm, endeavour to transfer the energy of documentaries and their interest in real life to the world of cinema.
"We're both extremely fascinated by real life and much less fascinated by lies and entertainment," they say.
The two filmmakers met when Noer was working on "Hawaii", a film set far from any holiday paradise, in Copenhagen's oldest porn theatre, Hawaii Bio. Hitting a block, Noer remembered hearing about a young writer said to be both skilled and pleasant. His collaboration with Lindholm turned out to be so successful that they decided to resume their partnership once Lindholm graduated from the National Film School of Denmark, and "R" is the result.
Dogma rules behind bars
"We were burning to do a film about the criminal underworld, a film that observed without romanticising like gangster films do," the director duo says. "A Tarantino gangster is exciting, but it's never long before a real gangster on the street starts mimicking either him, or Scarface. Like so many criminals, people who imitate Scarface are full of clichés. We wanted to do something with a more cynical eye, a film saying, No, it's not particularly great to be a strong prisoner or a weak prisoner. Doing time isn't cool. And this is what it's like."
To create a consistent documentary fiction, Noer and Lindholm laid down some Dogme-like rules. Everything had to be as lifelike as possible. And so, when the gloomy old state prison in Horsens was abandoned and the prisoners transferred to a new hi-tech penal facility, the film crew moved into the old prison, where so many prisoners have served time since 1872.
Moreover, they decided to set the entire film inside the prison. The production itself would literally be contained, which jived well with the film's tight financial restrictions. "R" was made under New Danish Screen, the DFI fund whose two pillars are innovation and small budgets.
Two inmates (Dulfi Al-Jabouri and Pilou Asbæk) in "R". Photo: Magnus Nordenhof Jønck
Ambassador of crime
The initial germ for the concept sprang from a correspondence Lindholm was having.
"A friend of mine was convicted on drug charges and sentenced to four to five years in prison," Lindholm says. "We started corresponding while he was held at Police Headquarters, the toughest solitary confinement facility in Denmark."
"I started thinking about what Danish prison films had been made before and I couldn't really come up with a lot. Then I heard that Horsens State Prison was being closed down and I thought, Shit! There's a whole empty prison sitting around! Shouldn't we do something?"
Through a mutual friend, Lindholm met Roland Møller, a real tough guy who had done time in Horsens. Lindholm's graduation project at the National Film School was a prison story, a rough sketch for the project that has now become "R". Møller ended up playing a character in the film, a strong con known as The Mason, while also serving as the two filmmakers' 'expert consultant' on prison life.
"He became so to speak an ambassador of crime," the director duo says. "He could tell us what someone would do or not do. He was always pointing out what the criminal logic dictated." Noer has worked in both fiction films and documentaries, but no matter the genre, the potential of real life is what grabs him. That's where the two filmmakers come together.
"Tobias is a pretty atypical screenwriter," Noer says. "He's not content to sit in his garret nursing his fantasies. He wants to go into the real world. As a documentary filmmaker I'm always restricted by real-life conditions, and Tobias looks at things the same way. We're interested in the documentary conditions as a framework. We would rather listen than ask questions and we're both observers. We strive to be servants of reality."
Six kinder eggs in your rectum is worth more than 10 tired clichés
"R"'s story about a new arrival, a weak convict caught between two groups of strong prisoners, comes off as remarkably authentic down to the smallest detail. "We watched a lot of prison films, and there were so many things we wanted to do differently. We had to have a showdown with the clichés," the director duo says.
In "R" you will look in vain for the Birdman, the Evil Prison Guard and other stock characters of prison films.
"A big part of the story is inspired by stories Roland Møller told us or stories we heard from other ex-cons from Horsens, strong and weak prisoners alike," the director duo says.
"When we did the story of someone smuggling in hashish in the plastic capsules from hollow Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs, stuffing them in condoms and sending them down the toilet waste pipe, that really happened. It was shown and demonstrated to our actors by people who used to do that."
Isn't it too constricting to deal with real life as rigidly as you do? Normally, you would be paying attention to what the narrative arc, and not just authenticity, demands of a story?
"You might think so, but I actually think it was a gift," Lindholm says. When the two directors started writing the screenplay, their central character wasn't even a person but 'The Castle', the old prison that still towers over the town of Horsens.
"Plus, it gave us an endless universe of details. People in prison have a lot of time to think, so everything has been thought through. I'm convinced my own ideas would not have been nearly as good," Lindholm says.
"For example, it is unlikely Tobias would have thought a prisoner had room up his rectum for six Kinder eggs – Kinder eggs, no less, the kind kids love! Plastic eggs with a surprise toy inside, filled with hash instead and stuffed up your rectum. That may not be very exotic, but, all in all, real life is still pretty weird!
"Then it would have been a different kind of film than the one we wanted to make. There is a lot of talk in politics these days about tougher prison sentences. But how many people really know what serving time in prison is like? People may read somewhere that it's a farmhouse holiday with people sitting around smoking hash all day. But when you get entry into this universe, you realise prison is anything but a farmhouse holiday. It looks vicious. And it is."
The protagonist and inmate (Pilou Asbæk) og "R". Photo: Magnus Nordenhof Jønck
Claustrophobia makes for good economy
"When we discussed the story, we were always going, Is the motive powerful enough? Do we have the necessary sympathy for a character? Is this scene dramatic enough? Those are constructive things to discuss."
"We very quickly decided to have the entire film take place in prison. We didn't have a lot of money, but doing so also stoked the claustrophobia." Shooting entirely inside the prison became the film's production concept.
Has Danish film accumulated experience from Dogme 95 that makes it possible to think creatively with limited funds instead of just thinking, low budgets suck?
"Yes, you could say that," the director duo says. "A lot of Danish filmmakers have lost the inspiration from Dogme 95, but we really wanted to stand on the shoulders of the production sensibility of the first Dogme films. If your production concept is good, you can tell a good story with very simple means. It can give you a clarity of vision that's a lot like making a documentary.
Apart from Pilou Asbæk, who delivers a powerful performance in the lead, the film features a cast of non-actors. Most are ex-cons and prison guards from the area, and of course they come cheaper than hiring big stars. The budget was so small that they simply could not afford to move a lot of people from Copenhagen to Horsens, in Jutland. So they had to find interesting non-actors who lived close enough that they could bike to the prison. Or who thought being in the film was so interesting that they were willing to pay their own way. A crowd of more than 200 people showed up for the casting call. Roughly 70 of them turned out to have a past on one side or the other of the bars at Horsens State Prison. In one stroke, a substantial measure of authenticity fleshed out the film's universe.
Turning film production upside down
"If we had had more money, we might not have known what to use it for, in a sense. We didn't want to work with a bigger crew. We could have made five features like this for what it costs to make one regular Danish film. Working with a production concept like ours is pretty much virgin soil," Lindholm says.
While the film was still on the drawing board, it had a minimum budget of 25,000 euros. That's what Lindholm would get if he sold his coop apartment. If they hadn't received a production subsidy, they would have made the film with the money from the apartment. Noer and Lindholm had two plans: one with money and one without.
"The point is that we could have done it the other way. It wouldn't have looked like the film we have now, but we could have pulled it off," the filmmakers say.