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Terribly Happy: Quirkily Noir

Director Henrik Ruben Genz channels Hitchcock and the Coen Brothers in this fish-out-of-water thriller set in the Danish hinterlands.

Terribly Happy


Terribly Happy (Frygtelig lykkelig), the Danish entry into the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film, is opening in New York this Friday. Though writer/director Henrik Ruben Genz did not garner an Oscar nomination for his film (that honor went to Ajami [Israel], El ecreto de sus ojos [Argentina], La teta asustada [Peru], Un Prophète [France], and The White Ribbon [Germany]), it’s still a must-see for fans of the noir, the Coen Brothers, or films set in quirky towns that don’t take well to outsiders.
The film kicks off with Robert (Jakob Cedergren), a cop from Copenhagen, being exiled to service in a small outpost in Jutland, a remote Danish hinterland. From the moment he arrives, the landscape (complete with a life-sucking bog) and the people are forbidding, wary, and just plain odd. As in any good noir thriller, there’s a mysterious dame (Lene Maria Christensen), with a thuggish cowboy of a husband named Jørgen (Kim Bodnia) and a maladjusted young daughter (Mathilde Maack) who roams the streets pushing an empty baby carriage. As Robert’s backstory begins to unfold, we are drawn into a sinister web of secrets, deception, and murder.


Tribeca Film recently sat down with writer/director Henrik Ruben Genz and his producer, Thomas Gammeltoft, for a talk about the film’s influences, the peculiar (even for Denmark) culture of the Jutland, and the uniquely collaborative writing process that brought Terribly Happy to the screen.


Terribly Happy: Henrik Ruben Genz
Henrik Ruben Genz


Tribeca Film: I thought your film was fascinating and weird, and kind of perfect. Can you talk about growing up in the unforgiving landscape of Jutland?
Henrik Ruben Genz: Yes, it’s tough, not a friendly landscape—it’s actually below sea level, so it’s really low, and really flat, with no trees, and the wind is coming all the time. So it’s cold, and it’s not pleasant living there. It’s only 3 ½ hours away from Copenhagen, but it’s as far as you can get...
Tribeca Film: What was it like growing up there?
HRG: Unpleasant. [laughs] I like that part of Denmark, but I think children shouldn’t grow up there. The tough landscape reflects on the environment—the locals, the way they speak, the language. They are really silent—they just say the words they need to say: “Hungry.” “Morning.” “Drunk.” [laughs]
Tribeca Film: Have you spent enough time in the US to draw a parallel to a similarly quirky location here?
Thomas Gammeltoft: We are doing a remake of the film, so we have been researching places—and the writer we are working with now put it in Alaska. But I think [northern] Michigan has a lot of the same [qualities]. The thing about it is you find these landscapes where you can’t hide anything, but everything is hidden, just the same.
HRG: So you have to invent a bog [if there isn’t one] to make the things you dislike disappear.
Tribeca Film:  You and the writer of the original novel (Erling Jepsen) grew up together in Jutland. (More on that later.) Were the people that odd and quirky?
HRG: Of course, it’s dramaticized, it’s not one-to-one realism. But there’s a truth in it, of course, because [the people there] do not open their arms to embrace strangers into their environment. They are shy, and they keep a distance. In that sense, it’s truth. But of course, when you make a film, things are overdrawn.
TG: The first screening we ever had of the film was down in that area. We wanted to show them, to say thank you. The mayor made a big screening for us, and I was scared, because I am not from there, and I worried that it was too much. But he came out afterwards and he was like, “Well, this is how we are here. You just nailed it!” And we were like, “Oh, shit!” We got even more scared… [laughs]
HRG: And then two months later, he was [removed] as mayor, because he got arrested by the police for driving drunk around the town. So maybe that reflects even more realism!
Terribly Happy: Danish Cowboys


Tribeca Film: You have compared the film to a western, and I see the parallels, with Robert being neither all good or all bad. Is Jørgen’s cowboy hat an homage to that genre?

HRG: Almost no one from Copenhagen has ever been to Jutland—the crew has been all over the world, but they hadn’t been to this area at all. So when we were [doing prepwork] in Copenhagen, we were telling them we should make it like a western, we thought about a cowboy hat, but rejected it as too cliché. But then we drove to Jutland to do research, and everyone there was wearing cowboy hats! And nobody walked—
TG: They drove tractors, or SUVs!
HRG: —and then we went to get food, and on the menu, everything was “cowboy burger” and “cowboy soup”! Everything was called “cowboy.” Of course this is the main cow district in Denmark—where you get the milk and the beef, from the grasslands—so they think of themselves as cowboys. So we realized we could give Jørgen a hat.
Tribeca Film: Did you not remember that from growing up, or was it different then?
HRG: No! I didn’t remember. I think it’s like looking at your own home when a stranger comes in, and suddenly you see, “Oh, I have to do the vacuuming.” You don’t see what’s in front of you. Suddenly I saw [Jutland] in another context.


Tribeca Film: What other genres/filmmakers inspire you? I see the Coen similarities—especially Fargo, and No Country for Old Men


HRG: First of all, I have to mention Hitchcock. In most interviews I do, people ask about the Coen brothers, and of course, I have seen their films, but in my mind, I have the biggest influence from Hitchcock, because of course I saw his films when I was young. But of course the Coen brothers have seen Hitchcock, too, so it’s the same references. And Hitchcock’s influences might have influenced me too—I am just not aware of them. I think there is a certain tone you like and that feels familiar, and you grab it and use it. Of course, the Coens, and David Lynch, and Sergio Leone, Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch… these are guys I like.
Tribeca Film: Are your other films similar in tone to Terribly Happy?
HRG: I am educated as a graphic designer, so I like graphic compositions—the framing of the pictures have a strong effect, with horizontal and cross lines. I dislike too much noise in the picture, so I remove what’s not necessary. I keep only what is needed to tell the story. This is my 3rd feature, but this is the first in a broad landscape, so it’s more wide-angled, with bigger pictures. I think you can see they are made by the same director, but the first two are set in the city. The story dictates the style in many ways.
TG: The three films have a theme—loners being suddenly placed somewhere in a society where they are strangers. The first one was a children’s film, the 2nd one (Chinaman) was like a Wong Kar Wai film, and this one is a western.
Terribly Happy, Noir Couple


Tribeca Film: What did you learn from your first two that you brought to this one?
TG: I’ll let you think about it, Henrik, but I can say this film is definitely the most fulfilled, entire work that Henrik has done so far. This is maybe because of you going back to your childhood landscape, with your buddy—a very unique and fully realized work.
HRG: I think it’s also the most expressive film I have made. The other two are more poetic, more introverted. The leads are absorbing the conflicts and trying to hold their feelings and anger inside them, until they finally explode. Here [Robert] is confronted earlier, and he reacts.
TG: It’s much more plot-driven, this one, as well. When I see you working on scripts [now], you are focused on reactions and actions, wanting to know what is going to happen. In past scripts, the characters on the page did not have pasts. Here, due to the collaboration, he could focus on their backstory.
Tribeca Film: Okay, this is fascinating, you working on the script with the novelist. Can you tell us more?
HRG: Erling Jepsen wrote another novel called The Art of Crying, and I [wanted to make a film of it], but it was already given to another director. But he told me, “I have this other idea—of a Copenhagen cop coming to the landscape where we grew up,” and I said, “Oh, that sounds good…” He had written the first two chapters, and he sent them to me, and I said, “Wow!” and gave him some comments. Then he [suggested we do this together], with him sending me a chapter and me sending him feedback… so it [became] a parallel process of developing the book and the script.
Tribeca Film: So did you write the script?
HRG: Well, what happened was he finished the book and I had my treatment, which pointed in five directions, because there were five storylines in the novel, which was too many for a movie. So I contacted a screenwriter, and she said, “Let me have the book for three weeks.” She wrote the first draft, and that helped me structure a script out of the book. Then I took over myself, because this had to be my language, my tone, since I was so close to it.

TG: Henrik knows the characters very well—he knows their thoughts from the author’s point of view.
HRG: From the very birth of the characters.
Tribeca Film: And there is a whole other layer—the fact that the two of you grew up together in Jutland. It seems like a perfect storm.
HRG: Even better is that we didn’t have any contact for 30 years! He knew I was a writer, and I knew he was a director, and we both lived in Copenhagen, but we were too proud to make contact. [laughs] I wanted him to come to me, begging me to take a look at his work. And he was somewhere else in Copenhagen, thinking [arms crossed], “When will this Henrik Genz come to me and ask me if I have some gold for him?” And then The Art of Crying came, and I had to go to him… Now we love each other, and we are close friends, and we are behaving like small kids.
Terribly Happy: Dorthe


Tribeca Film: How do you think American audiences are going to react?

TG: We have had many screenings now, and everywhere people respond in a way that’s tremendous. They really understand it, and they think it’s very creepy [in a good way]. You get into a spiral with this guy, but even though he does all the wrong things, you do hope for him in the end.
HRG: Because he wants to do the right things! I had my doubts coming here, because it’s a Danish film with subtitles, and audiences here are used to big films with lots of fantastic special effects in their own language. But I was totally blown away.


Tribeca Film: To expand to Scandinavia, Let the Right One In was at TFF—


Both: —Great film!


Tribeca Film: —and we Americans don’t know anything about the Scandinavian culture, so peeks inside these little communities are very interesting. That one is being remade (as Let Me In), too—can you talk about the remake of your film?
TG: Yes. So instead of selling it to a studio—basically “take the money and run”—we thought it could be interesting to see if we could do it ourselves. The screenwriter has Americanized the dialogue, and put it into the context of this country, and we have some financing options.


HRG: My first opinion was that I don’t want to copy what I have already done. If it’s possible to take this story further, and maybe add 10%, [bring it to] to a higher level—it could be an artistic challenge for me. So far, it works. There are still things to be explored, things that could be told in a different way.
TG: It’s really an opportunity for Henrik. In Denmark we are on very low budgets—so there are things we could not do. This is a chance to do things the way we intended to do them, but were not able to do.
HRG: We were in a hurry, so lots of scenes were like, “Come on, come on.”
Tribeca Film: How long was the original shoot?
TG: Seven weeks, five days a week only, and only 8 hours a day because of unions.
Tribeca Film: Are you concerned with preserving the integrity of the film? We worry about the Americanization of Let the Right One In.


TG: We want to stay indie, and preserve the story, but you have to understand: when you come from a society where only 5 million people speak the language, you have an urge to get a bigger audience. The story is universal, and I think—like Let the Right One In—some stories deserve a larger audience. I have very good friends here in America—they are very intellectual, but they will not go and see a foreign language film, because they don’t read subtitles.
Tribeca Film: Sounds like you need better friends.
HRG: You are right!
TG: [laughs] They are not from New York. They are from Los Angeles.


Terribly Happy is being released by Oscilloscope Laboratories. It opens Friday, February 5, in New York at Angelika Film Center, with more cities to come.


The trailer will get you in the mood!


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