Watch: 'A Worthy Man' and Making Dark Subjects Feel Light

How do you make a story, about a depressed middle-aged man, interesting to watch?

Denmark's Kristian Håskjold won the Grand Jury Prize award for Best Narrative Short at SXSW back in 2017 and now he's back on the festival circuit challenging audiences with a dark meditation on depression. A Worthy Man tries (and succeeds in) delicately balancing humor with profound loneliness. The film is an endearing portrait of a man isolated from his family and searching for self-worth in a radio call-show. While on the brink of a meltdown, a middle-aged father displays our universal need for human connection and acceptance.

The latest short film to have won a physical Vimeo Staff Pick Award at the Odense International Film Festival in Denmark, the curation team handed over the award to director Kristian Håskjold for "uniquely capturing what it feels like to be invisible and unheard." As a part of the prize package, Håskjold also received a premiere on Vimeo’s Staff Picks

No Film School spoke briefly with the director after his win at Odense International Film Festival in our ongoing series exploring the benefits of having a simultaneous online and festival release. 

No Film School: What was your inspiration for creating this film?
Kristian Håskjold: The inspiration for the film came from my uncle, who was a baker. I grew up close to him and his family. I spent most of my childhood at their house since his son was my best friend. Due to my uncle’s profession, he had a weird daily routine where he would sleep most of the day and work during the night. Because of this, he didn’t have that much time with his family, which of course, had a different daily routine. The result was that growing up as a kid, I had a hard time understanding and talking to my uncle. He felt absent. I thought that this dynamic was really interesting and I wanted to explore it in the film.

On a thematic level, I really wanted to explore loneliness within a family. I grew up in the countryside in Denmark and had a feeling that the most grownup men around me in my childhood, like my dad and my uncle, were really challenged when it came to expressing their emotions. My friends and I were always pretty good at that and spent a lot of time reflecting on life or expressing how we felt about the things happening in our lives.

In A Worthy Man, I wanted to show that if you don’t learn how to express yourself, especially when you’re feeling bad, then you can very easily have a breakdown as it’s portrayed in the film. My goal for the film was to potentially help middle-aged men get better at talking with their family members.

"My goal for the film was to potentially help middle-aged men get better at talking with their family members."

NFS: Did you face any challenges when making this film?
Håskjold: The absolute biggest challenge we had writing the film was that it’s insanely hard to make a story about a depressed middle-aged man interesting to watch. We spent a LOT of time trying to figure out how we could give him some drive which didn’t break his depression. In the end, we figured out that to put some humor and love into the story, the baker should tell jokes and try to get through to the radio show, just to get some appreciation and acknowledgment from his surroundings. It took a while, but that was a great breakthrough for me, my writer Marianne Lentz, and producer Caroline Steenberg Dam.

Another big challenge was figuring out how the music and sound in the film should be. We started out with some music, which gave the film more of a magical realism feel, but it just didn’t work because the music didn’t convey our character’s emotional state. I spent a lot of time with my sound designer, Christian Munk Scheuer, and my composer, Jesper Ankarfeldt, searching for a sound for the film. After a lot of exploration, we ended up really happy with it.

NFS: What is your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Håskjold: I think my best advice is to just go out and make a lot of films and don’t be scared of the result. Making films will be a developmental process throughout your whole life, so there’s nothing to fear. As a teenager, I just loved films, bought a DV cam, then started shooting a lot of silly things and editing them together. Over the last 15 years, I grabbed every opportunity to work on films and to develop my storytelling skills. In the process of just working with film, I slowly figured out what my film voice was and what kind of films I wanted to make. I didn’t start at a film school before last year, where I started at SUPER16 in Copenhagen and learned filmmaking by just doing it, learning from the people around me and following my intuition.

Another piece of great advice is to find a second film position within the industry to work at from the beginning so that you can still earn some money working in film. For the last nine years, I’ve made a living working as an editor, while using my free time working on my own films. Working as an editor with so many insanely talented filmmakers has developed me a lot and given me a lot of contacts in the film industry.

NFS: What’s the value of displaying your film at a festival versus releasing online?
Håskjold: I really think they're two completely different things. Of course, festivals are big opportunities for getting a quality stamp on your work and getting discovered by the film industry. However, the most important thing for me regarding festivals is the meeting of fellow filmmakers and film industry people from all over the world. A festival works as a connector and I’ve gotten so many film friends and collaborators from all over the world because of them.

The quality of the online release depends completely on the platform you’re premiering on since people around the world are looking for quality films and are already swamped with content. Premiering on Vimeo Staff Picks, for instance, makes a huge difference for a filmmaker, because they are known for only premiering high-quality films (and that’s what everybody’s looking for). In that vein, you’re also sure that the film gets out to the biggest audience possible. That’s where the film can make the biggest difference.

So all in all, I think it’s two completely different things, and I love both of them for different reasons.

NFS: What does the Staff Pick Award mean to you?
Håskjold: The Staff Pick Award means a hell of a lot for me! It feels absolutely amazing to get this kind of recognition at Odense International Film Festival, which is the only big short film festival of Denmark. Awards like this one make it easier to get financing for future film projects.  Another thing is that now we have a chance to get the film out to its intended audience and hopefully make families talk more together about their emotions and well-being.

NFS: What’s next? Any upcoming projects?
Håskjold: I have some different projects in the making. First of all, I’m still studying at the film school SUPER16, and we’re just about to start developing our second-year film. I’m working on a Danish animation show called Simon and Marius with art director and animator, Jeppe Sandholt, writer Sonny Lahey, and producer Maj Andersson. We’ve made the pilot and are right now figuring out our financing. Besides that, I’m actually in the early stages of writing another short film with writer Malthe Miehe-Renard, producer Kara Durrett, and DP Lowell A. Meyer, which we want to shoot in the States at some point. I met Kara and Lowell at SXSW last year and we’ve wanted to work together ever since.     

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