June 3, 2003

Behind the scenes with The Road to Europe director, Christoffer Guldbrandsen: a greg.org exclusive

Fogh and Guldbrandsen, image: drsales.dkHearing a story on the wide-ranging political turmoil which followed The Road to Europe, a documentary on the Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, I wanted to know more; but the reports I found still left me unsatisfied.

Deutsche-Welle, The Economist, even NPR's On the Media, referred to the documentary as "reality TV," a term which belittles both the film's message and impact and which ignores the history and context of "fly-on-the-wall" filmmaking.

To get the still-untold story of how The Road to Europe was made, I contacted the film's 32-year old director, Christoffer Guldbrandsen, at DK, the Danish public broadcaster. Here are my questions and his responses:

G: How did you develop the idea for The Road to Europe, and what challenges did you face in gaining permission and access from prime minister Rasmussen?

C: I wanted to make a portrait of Rasmussen and the anatomy of decision making in the EU at a historic moment in time. To make a political documentary that also worked as a well told story. The idea had simmered in me for years, but [had] never been possible to realize until last year, when Denmark held the [EU] presidency.

The process of gaining permission and access to Rasmussen consisted of four meetings with his head of communications and an e-mail correspondance. We discussed in detail what kind of access I would need to make the film. The prime minister had the following conditions: he wanted to see the final film before is was aired. If there was material that, according to Danish law, threatened the "national security" he could ask to have it cut. Furthermore, civil servants [who] wished not to be in the film should be respected.

I was concerned that the issue of "national security" could be used as a loophole for the prime minister to have controversial material removed. We discussed it in detail, and his office made it clear that the spirit of the deal was to interpret "national security" in a very narrow way and not abuse the clause.

G: How did you shoot it? What was your crew and equipment? What restrictions or limitations did you have on equipment and access?

C: I shot it myself on a Sony PD-150, with a Sennheiser [416] camera mic. I used a monopod to increase stability.[that's him in the pic. -greg.] There where no restrictions on the equipment. I chose the compact set-up because I wanted to be as discreet as possible. Another problem was that Rasmussen did not want to carry a microport [ie., a wireless mic]. This meant that I had to be close to him all the time to pick up the sound and always point the camera/mic at whoever was speaking. This, of course, limited my freedom to shoot.

In terms of restrictions: there were a lot of people trying to stop me from working, ranging from bodyguards to various secretaries -- I worked in all fifteen EU countries, and not everybody welcomed my presence. However, the staff of Rasmussen quickly got used to me and began to help me out in difficult situations. The rule was that I could film Rasmussen all the time, but that he could, as an execption, ask me to leave.

G: When did you start to identify the key elements of the program? Did they reveal themselves as you were shooting, or in the editing process? Did this influence how/what you shot?

I made a series of interviews before I began shooting. I tried to analyse the process, to see were the challenges were for Rasmussen. I looked at who his allies and enemies would be and tried to locate the conflicts. I don't think it influenced the shooting too much, but it gave me something to steer by when I got lost. A lot of the key elements only surfaced in the editing room, but I always like to have a script when I start out, because I find that it gives me focus.

For me the script mostly works as a starting point. I had decided to let the camera roll virtually all the time, and then pick up on what I could. In my opinion, the best political documentaries are those that capture the human relations in the story. In my experience, politicians try to control the situation when the camera is rolling, but when they interact with other people, this control erodes. And sometimes, if I'm patient, I can get a glimpse of who they are.

4. What are the influences or models you used for the program? In the English-language press, the phrase "reality TV" is used frequently, but descriptions of the program make me think of The War Room, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' documentary about Bill Clinton's first campaign for US president. Are you familiar with this film, or other works by Pennebaker or Albert and David Maysles, who also became very well known for "fly-on-the-wall" documentaries, beginning in the 1960's?

The War Room has definitely inspired me. It's a brilliant film that uses human relations to tell a fantastic story. I draw heavily from the tradition of the American Direct Cinema filmmakers. Not directly, but I have their work in the back of my mind. Pennebaker is, in my opinion, outstanding. Another source of inspiration is the Dogme movement -- mostly in terms of aesthetics, particularly the camerawork of Anthony Dod Mantle ( The Celebration, etc).

G: In the US, George Bush's team is becoming known for its elaborate preparations or productions of imagery, especially for TV. What does your experience show about politicians' attempts to take advantage of film/entertainment techniques?

C: That it can backfire badly. I think it is almost immpossible to control a filmmaker if he takes his job seriously. I always search for the honesty of the moment. And even the most staged and controlled situations can contain this honesty - if you deal with them in a right way.

For news, stories and links, check the earlier post.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: June 3, 2003.

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