There’s an incredible moment in Danish actor-turned-writer/director Charlotte Seiling’s second feature The Man (Mesteren) that neatly encapsulates the rampant ego of the film’s protagonist.
Played by Søren Malling, star of Scandi Noir Troika Borgen, The Bridge and The Killing, Simon is a mega-rich contemporary art world darling who rules the roost in a Copenhagen warehouse that doubles as his studio and home. The sort of self-centred person that sees him ask his second wife Darling (Ane Dahl Torp, The Wave, Dead Snow) to tell an employee to stop wearing the same sweater as he does, he’s also an absentee father. Thoroughly discombobulated by the return of his now street artist son Casper (Jakob Oftebro, Kon-Tiki), he unleashes a paranoid territorialism and almost Shakespearean-level family dysfunction.
Discovering Casper alone in his bedroom with Darling, the older man storms downstairs in a fuddle, questioning what might be going on between them. “I love that moment,” Seiling agrees, ensconced in a bar across the road from Melbourne’s Arts Centre. Showing nary a trace of jetlag after touching down in Australia, where she celebrated her 57th birthday in Sydney, Seiling is here as a guest of the Scandinavian Film Festival, screening The Man.
“He’s questioning what that was all about, while we’re going, ‘come on, they wanted to fuck,’ and in two seconds he forgets all about it and is asking why his son is here. It’s all about himself again.”
Seiling has taken a turn in the director’s seat for each of the Scandi Troika as well as US series' Homeland and The Americans and has several big projects in the pipeline, including a movie for Amazon studios and a TV series that will be HBO’s first expansion into Denmark. She spent eight years working on the script for The Man, the follow up to her 2009 debut feature, the divorce drama Above the Street, Below the Water (Over Gaden Under Vandet).
Drawing on her observations of men during the course of her own illustrious career, Seiling offers that her father was a musician, her first partner Peter Langdal a theatre director and current husband Kristoffer Nyholm also a screen director who recently worked with Tom Hardy on Taboo and completed his first feature Keepers. In other words, she’s had a lot of experience observing male egos at work in the creative industries. “I see the world, all the egos and the beautiful work they are making, so I thought, ‘okay, if I make it an artist, I don’t know that world, so there’s good distance, but still I know how his brain works.’”
Though Simon, who favours wearing pyjamas in a visual reference to artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel – an analogue of whom also appears in Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winner The Square – is atrociously self-centred and openly hostile to Casper, Seiling rebuffs her closest friends who have branded him a fool.
“He’s not an idiot,” she insists. “I just love to challenge the lead character. You have to put him in the corner and see what happens. I think my real theme is parenthood and being the child of an abusive parent. It’s something I know of.”
Referencing her mother’s alcoholism, Seiling suggests that Simon is terrified; unable to process the return of a son he hurt so badly and unsure how to communicate with him. “It’s really about trying to go behind the king.”
When Seiling took on directorial duties for two episodes of the third season of Borgen, she was asked to request Malling rein in his proclivity for improvisation and stick to the script. “I said, ‘no, this is the third season, you should have done that from the beginning.’ He’s a big actor, I’m not the director who’s going to come in and tell him.”
But things were different with The Man. “I’ve been working on this for eight years and there’s a reason for everything in the script now. I can explain every single little word and situation. I can see in an actor when it doesn’t work, but we would never change it until we tried it.”
Malling was compliant, with he and Oftebro spending every minute off set together in their trailers, going over lines. Seiling rewarded him with one red wine-swilling, cigarette-smoking scene in an oversized chair where Simon gets to hold boozy court. Of course, it’s her favourite scene.
A commanding presence, Seiling radiates warmth and a cheeky sense of humour. One can see how the admitted workaholic, with a fast-paced schedule that she’s repeatedly told is impossible, gets things done and pulls people in line. That includes the Czech crew on a breakneck 19-day shoot, with Prague doubling for Copenhagen. With a very macho vibe, the AD initially insisted her shooting schedule took in way too many scenes. By the end, he was racing to keep up with her and gained a newfound respect.
Seiling's speed – partly her nature, and partly from her television background - comes with a caveat. “You cannot be fast with actors, they would hate you. I just know where I’m going, but I spend a very long time talking to them. Once the actors feel good and that they own what we’re doing, then I have no problems with them.”
Oftebro, who also had a small role in The Bridge season two, impressed Seiling, not least because the Norwegian worked seamlessly in Danish. In truth, the strength of the guarded role of Casper lies in what he doesn’t say. “He’s an amazing actor who shows what he can pull off, staying behind those glasses. That’s acting. I hate big performances. It’s boring, especially if they don’t let you in. It’s the listening that is beautiful.”
The Man screens as part of the 2017 Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival. More details and session times here.
Follow the author here