After watching Mikkel Norgaard’s Klown, I didn’t know what to make of it. And upon a second viewing, I still don’t. It’s hard to articulate the precise moments that were just so hilarious that I found myself doubled over weeping tears of laugher or audibly gasping because I was painfully embarrassed, even though I was watching it alone in my bed. But what I do know is that Klown has proven to be one of the funniest and most pleasurably painful films I have seen in a long while. Based on the Danish television sitcom of the same title, the film stars Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen, two of Denmark’s most beloved comedians. The deliciously humorous film follows Frank and Casper’s misadventures on a debaucherous canoe trip after Frank kidnaps his unhappily pregnant girlfriend’s nephew in an attempt to prove he can be a good father. What ensues is one pratfall after another as Casper and Frank set out on a journey for what they want while following their worst instincts. I caught up with Norgaard about bringing these characters from the small screen to the cinema, the consequences of being an asshole, and adapting for the American audience.
You directed most of the TV show. How did you decide you wanted to top off the show with a feature?
We did six seasons of the show and I think after we did season three or something like that we started talking about doing a film. But we were a little afraid that we would fuck it up. It was going really well on television, and we thought that 25 minutes was kind of the limit this universe could carry. Then we talked about it during the last three seasons, and every time we talked about it we decided it was a bad idea. We finished the show and kind of put it aside and went our separate ways. Then a year went by, and Casper and I were talking about how we really liked the characters and the universe and kind of missed it. And I think it was because it was a year after we finished the show that we actually saw it in a new light, and then we decided to just has a go on it.
How did you go from changing it from a tight 25-minute sitcom to a feature?
That was huge, huge challenge. The sitcom in general has no development; you have a character that ends up being the same character as when you started the episode, and the next week you’ll do the same. And in a film, you want the character to develop. We had to sit down and figure out what’s really important to this character and how should the development come. Then we figured out that the most important thing in Frank’s life is his girlfriend and that if she left him it would really rock his world. We had to figure out a good reason for her to leave him and then we came up with the idea that she didn’t believe he would be a good father for that child. A girl leaving you because she doesn’t believe you can be a father? That’s kind of too hard for any man. The really important thing for me was the real heart in Frank’s character. He really tries to do the best and ends up doing really bad things, but he’s doing it out of the ambition to do good.
How much of the film is scripted and how much is improvised? I know you have these themes you’re going off of, but was the script mostly just as you went along?
Our script was just storylines, so I think it was about 30 pages. And in the script each scene is just the description of what happens in the scene: “Frank comes home. Mia is upset because he’s too late. They had an agreement to go to dinner. Frank forgot because he was out swimming with Casper.” And then we just did simple blocking. And then we started shooting and they would improvise all the dialogue.
And as a director, do you find that easier or more difficult or more enjoyable than working with a set script?
In the beginning when I would do the show I was terrified, of course, because you’re like, is this working or is it not working? Is it charming, do we get what we need?
Because you have to improvise with them, too.
We’ve done the show so many years, so I’ve learned to work with it. But as you say, I have to improvise as well. Like with a normal script with dialogue I’m about 90% prepared and when I do Klown I’m about 60 or 70% prepared in the morning and I have a small open space to see what happens. And then we use the first and second take to let them do whatever they want, just to go ahead have fun. After four or five takes, we kind of know what we need. Then we do a couple of takes that are quite tight and focus on the essence. And then when we edit, sometimes it’s the very tight versions that are nice and sometimes some of the loose things we did in the beginning are just the right thing to give it that feeling of real life.
I read that you wanted to make a road movie but you said there weren’t many roads so you decided to do a canoe trip instead. But that works out perfectly because being in a canoe allowed for a lot more comedy.
Exactly. I had two inspirations when we got the canoe idea: one was Deliverance and the other was Apocalypse Now. And that’s also why when they’re in this book club they’re reading Heart of Darkness. So this big river that we could go down in Denmark is a small piece of still water that you drift down. There’s a funny contrast. I actually spent a lot of time on that; in the beginning they’re sitting on very subtle water on a very open landscape with big fields and then it actually gets tighter during the film and there are more trees. We had a lot of talks about that with my production designer. We were sailing up and down this piece of river we had, figuring out how this journey should be.
I read that Casper and Frank, when they were doing the show, had a certain amount of taboos they wanted to cover but no matter what, they said the worst thing was to bring a child into it. And you did that for the film. Why did you make that decision?
We wanted to expand our universe in different ways when we did the movie. A lot of the show is shot in Copenhagen, so one thing was that we wanted to go to the countryside. We wanted to bring in a third character to kind of come between the two guys and we were talking about bringing in one of their friends, but the idea of bringing a child really put everything on the edge. When a child is in the middle of it, it’s like, are you sure you want to say that or perhaps we should wait? That kind of really pushed us into an interesting direction.
Did you test them as well to see how far they would go?
For me it’s not interesting to see how far you can go just to go there.
There always has to be a reason behind it.
Yeah, and it comes back to the heart thing. It’s about these characters, especially Frank, who is trying to do good. He’s trying to get his girlfriend back because he really loves her. Casper, it’s more difficult with him because he’s actually an asshole.
But even in his character’s arc there are still themes of masculinity and fatherhood. They’re just not the same as Frank’s though because there aren’t really any stakes to them as much.
I think it’s very important that everything you do is done for a reason. You can always do something that is really crazy and that’s over the line and too much, but for me that’s not interesting. There has to be a reason for it and these two guys have pretty clear visions: Frank really wants his girl back, and Casper really wants to get laid. But it’s not out of bad will. There’s some kind of charm to Casper and he can get away with a lot. I don’t know why. And one other thing I think is very important is that the work—throughout all the show and the film—is that all the bad things they do end up coming back and hitting them. I think it’s very important for us to like the characters.
Because they do have consequences.
They do! You just don’t point fingers at the fat guy and say you’re fat and then laugh and everybody leaves. Doing that has consequences later in the story or later in your life. I think because these consequences always hit them, we kind of love them more. I think that’s important.
The film was a huge success in Denmark, but here it will have a small release. How do you find the difference like that?
In Denmark it’s huge; it’s the most-seen film in the last 15 years. I’m just so happy to bring it here. Denmark is a very small country so bringing a small language like Danish to America…it will always be an art-house film.
Also, censorship is a little more liberal in Denmark.
The Danish censorship is very liberal, and then I think of course there are some consequences when a film like this has to travel. I was in Austin last fall watching the film with an American audience and it was a great experience. I think what they reacted to was this basic story of a man wanting to fight for his wife and for his unborn child, and that’s kind of a story that we all can understand.
I feel like there are so many unnecessary American adaptations of foreign films. Are you concerned abou the American version of Klown? Are you involved in it?
I have no involvement in it. That’s also because I believe that when somebody’s doing a remake, they really have to do it their way. I think that’s very, very important. I just hope they’re really going to have the greatest respect for it and I hope they take what they like, make it American, and find the heart in it for them. From my point of view, I think they should take it and do what they think is right. I think that this the only chance you have to do an interesting remake.