'Forever Now': The Heartbreaking Short That Won SXSW Was Entirely Improvised
Kristian Håskjold's SXSW Jury Prize-winning short is a portrait of a dying relationship.
When a relationship ends, closure can be a chimera. Often, at least one party is left alone in a room with questions that may have no answers. But what if you had one weekend to unpack it all—the infidelities, the insecurities, the shortcomings, the emotional missteps?
It's not surprising that Kristian Håskjold's nuanced SXSW-winning short film Forever Now is based on real heartbreak. The film is visceral and raw, rooted in that intimate realism known only to low-budget stories about troubled love, such as Blue Valentine or Like Crazy. Like those films, Forever Now is personal and, therefore, universal: it will cause every audience member to reflect on the pain and passion of their own past relationships.
When Håskjold broke up with his live-in girlfriend two years ago, he endeavored to record their final weekend together. Based on those recordings, he built the skeleton for what would become the improv-based Forever Now, shot with an 11-person crew (including the two lead actors) and almost entirely natural light.
At SXSW, No Film School sat down with Håskjold, a film autodidact who was mentored by Danish directors Tomas Villum (Oscar-nominated Ernst & Lyset) and Michael Hegner (Help! I’m a Fish). Håskjold revealed how he directed his actors toward idiosyncratic, believable performances while undergoing improvisation, how he threw out his shot list, and what winning the highest short film distinction at SXSW meant for his email inbox.
"When we started shooting, we more or less threw the script away and only had some scene descriptions."
No Film School: What was your inspiration for the film? It felt so deeply personal. It made me cry, thinking about the ends of my own relationships.
Kristian Håskjold: It's based on my own personal experience. My ex-girlfriend and I broke up two years ago. We were living together at the time and, two hours later, she asked spontaneously if we should do MDMA to treat the situation with love. It's a really weird thing to do, but we did it. And the amazing thing was that we were able to talk about all the things we'd never been able to tell each other before. All the things you maybe only would tell your friends, since the honesty would be too painful for the other person. It was very therapeutic and gave us closure.
Afterward, I was really moved by the whole experience and wanted to adapt it to film. My goal was to portray a mutual breakup as honestly as possible.
NFS: You used improvisational acting. How much of a script was there, if it all?
Håskjold: While my ex-girlfriend and I were on MDMA, I had asked her if I [could] record the whole weekend on a voice recorder. I spent two painful weeks writing out all this material and picked out all the strongest pieces. This became more or less our skeleton for the film.
The actors got to read it once to get a feeling of the scenes and the mood. But when we started shooting, we more or less threw the script away and only had some scene descriptions. We shot all the apartment scenes chronologically, so we able to change the direction of the film as we were going, which made sense for this kind of film.
NFS: How did you direct your actors? What would you do when a scene wasn't working?
Håskjold: The actors and I spent a lot of time in pre-production figuring out who the characters were. So when we started shooting, it was easier to direct. That said, most of the film is based on 10- to 30-minute takes.
The toughest scene to do was definitely the first scene. I was trying to figure out what the mood and energy of the film was, so we did maybe eight 30-minute takes where I directed the actors Ferdinand [Falsen Hiis] and Frederikke [Dahl Hansen] on their energy level and mood. It was the first scene, so it had to be right. It was important to involve the actors a lot in the discussion of what felt right and what didn't.
"Each short film I've done has worked as a 'school' for me."
During the MDMA scenes, I just talked with the actors about what silly, quirky things they usually do with their girl- and boyfriend, and from there on, we more or less just played around.
Regarding the dialogue, we picked some subjects for them to improvise with, such as being unfaithful and the time they first met. It usually took them 10 minutes to get completely in it, but they were amazing.
NFS: Did you follow any guidelines for cinematography while shooting the improv?
Håskjold: Yes, the DoP, Christian Houge Laursen, made two clear guidelines for shooting improv. The first was to almost only use practical lights. The only scenes where there are added artificial lights are the talking shots during the MDMA sequence.
The other guideline was that the actors should be able to move as freely as possible. We tried to make some markers, so the light wasn't all messed up, but they could more or less go wherever they wanted. This helped them focus more on being present than on where to move.
NFS: Did you plan any shots?
Håskjold: Before shooting, the DoP, Christian Houge Laursen, and I had made a plan for the visual style and camerawork on the different sequences. On MDMA, we would try to have closer, warmer shots, and the day after we wanted to keep it a bit more distant and cold.
"Almost every shot ended up being something we decided on the spot."
Regarding the specific shots, we had made a clear [shot list], but it was only a guideline. Almost every shot ended up being something we decided on the spot. This was possible because we kept the crew to at 11 people, including actors, and almost only worked with natural light.
NFS: What did you shoot on?
Håskjold: The main part of the film, which takes place in the apartment, is shot on Arri Amira, recorded internally in Pro-Res 4444 2K. For the improvised parts, we shot with an Angénieux Optimo 28-76mm T2.6 to be able to change focal length during a scene so we had the options we needed in the edit.
NFS: How did you create that blurry, dreamlike feel to the images during the MDMA sequence?
Håskjold: We shot the MDMA sequence with a Tiffen Black Promist 1/2 filter, which diffuses light. When you are on MDMA, light can have a similar effect on your eyes, so we just tried to get as close to reality as possible. The day after, we again used Tiffen Black Promist filtration, but this time only 1/8 to get a much more crisp feel to the image.
In post-production, we turned the diffusion of the light up just a tiny nudge in and added a small vignette as well just to heighten the contrast between the MDMA sequence and the shot of them the next morning.
NFS: What did you learn from making this film?
Håskjold: I've personally always had a hard time with written lines in films because it's so hard to make it sound real. So with this film, I've found a method to make them sound as real as possible. It was my first time working with improv, and I definitely learned some do's and don'ts. I loved the process of that. I'm definitely bringing this on to my future projects. It has without a doubt been an eye-opener to me.
"I bought a DV cam when I was 14 years old and have more or less been obsessed with film ever since."
NFS: What’s it like being SXSW winner?
Håskjold: It feels absolutely amazing. I'm still completely overwhelmed and honored. Every hour, I'm hit by the thought, "We actually won," and I just can't stop smiling. It's very surreal.
The film means a lot to me and it was really tough working with such a personal and emotional story for so long. It just means a lot that people can connect with it and reflect on their own experiences from the film.
NFS: Have you already been contacted by many people?
Håskjold: Yes, the day after the award show was absolutely insane. I woke up to a lot of emails from all kinds of interesting industry and press people. It's nice to get your name a bit out there. It could be easier to do the next film project!
NFS: I read that you are an autodidact director. How did you teach yourself filmmaking?
Håskjold: I would say that it mostly has been learning by doing. I bought a DV cam when I was 14 years old and have more or less been obsessed with film ever since. I did a lot of terrible shorts with some kids I grew up with. When I was 22 years old, I got funding from the Danish Film Institute for my first short, Reception.
Each short film I've done has worked as a "school" for me. For a living, I've worked as a film editor for the last seven years, so I've been able to work with some other amazing Danish directors. Working closely with these people has taught me so much about filmmaking.
NFS: Ferdinand, what was it like as an actor to work on a film like this?
Ferdinand Falsen Hiis: The experience of making Forever Now was like no other film I have been in. It was all about the pre-production. Pre-production and preparation is, of course, always important, but in this case, there was no text to go back to at any point, so the guideline was the universe that Kristian, Frederikke, and I had created. This turned out to be such a gift, though, because as long as the universe felt real, it was as if every choice I made was the right choice by default.
It really felt like playing as I remember it from childhood. It was wonderful. This project, in general, has been packed with playful people. I truly belive that play = fun, and fun = good. Kristian has, from the very start, encouraged us to go [to the realms of] fantasy. That is very inspiring.
Frederikke and I never broke character for the three days of shooting. This made for a pretty intense weekend, with a lot of intimacy. I think the physicality of it was important—getting used to the scent of the other, finding the way they kiss, and so on. Kristian's insisting search for honesty gave room for us to explore so many facets of acting, which was very inspiring. And most of all, it was fun!
NFS: Did making this film help you work through your own breakup emotionally?
Håskjold: I had an idea that the film would help me deal with the breakup, and in the beginning, it did. When I began, I thought that it would take six months to make it, but it ended up taking 14 months. I reached a point where it just started feeling like self-torture because I was forcing myself to stay in some emotions I actually should have [moved] on from.
Even though it was tough making it and being in the process, I never regret doing it. I don't think I could've succeeded in making the film so realistic without being so close to the feelings myself.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.
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