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Cannes Film Festival
La Semaine de la Critique 2021:

Nicolai G.H. Johansen

Gothic horror meets small-town teenage romance as we follow a girl roaming the streets, gazing at a boy. Soon it becomes clear that she is bound to something. In the attic of her house resides a sinister presence who she serves. As the infatuation grows, she is torn between her desires and her ties.

Hi Nicolai, thank you for talking to TNC, how have you been keeping during these strange Covid times?

Thank you! Well, I don’t think anybody’s had a great time of it, and there have been rough periods of isolation and anxiety. But honestly, I’ve been pretty fortunate and privileged. Other people have lost family, friends and livelihoods, so I feel bad complaining. Thankfully, things are looking up!

Have you been inspired to take on any new creative opportunities?


I don’t think “Inherent” would look the way it does, were it not for the pandemic, even though the idea is conceived before it hit. To me, the film is very much about isolation and longing. The first lockdown had that in droves. But in terms of doing a desktop-film or something like a Bo Burnham-esque one-man-show, no. That’s not really my thing. We kind of went in the exact opposite direction, and shot on celluloid, which had to be shipped back and forth between Denmark and the UK, which was way more of a hassle during a pandemic. To each their own I guess!

You’re a recent graduate from the Danish Independent Film School, Super8, how much did this experience help prepare you for your filmmaking journey? 

Super8 is pretty unconventional. The school is run by its students and you have to produce a short film each year, which premieres to outside audiences. In that way you’re really thrown into the fire, and it has at times been tough - but I’ve loved it. I feel like I’ve grown the most when my film meets an audience, and it has really helped me zero in on what kind of stories I want to tell. Most importantly though, Super8 is where I’ve met some of my key collaborators, and we’ve been able to develop the chemistry and language together over the last three years that made “Inherent” possible. That will always be the most important take-away.

Congratulations on Inherent having its World Premiere at the 2021 Semaine de la Critique, what does it mean to you to have your film part of this year's festival?

Well, to be frank, having a film screen at Cannes is a dream come true. So first and foremost I just feel blessed and fortunate! I’m incredibly proud of my team. As I mentioned, it’s been a multi-year journey. Both my producer, editor and DP are also coming to Cannes, so I’m just stoked that we can have this experience together.

I’m also incredibly happy that it’s precisely Semaine de la Critique that we are a part of. I love their history and their whole mentality, and the team has been very helpful and nice. As a participant in the short film competition, we’ll have an opportunity to participate in their feature film development workshop “Next step” this winter, which I’m very excited about.

“Inherent” is also very much inspired by french cinema, especially Claire Denis’ “Trouble Every Day”, which incidentally also premiered at Cannes. I think that twist of fate is pretty cool!

"It’s the collaborative part of filmmaking that makes the process continually exciting, as it’s in the meeting of voices that I always learn something new - about the craft, about myself and about life."

Can you tell me how Inherent came about, what was the inspiration behind your screenplay?

The intention behind “Inherent” was to explore feelings of anxiety and fear. How does anxiety feel, how does it come between us and what we long for?

I’ve dealt with anxiety myself, and found it hard to put into words exactly how it feels - I can try and describe it, but it usually just makes it sound banal and insignificant. I think the power of films is that it can involve the audience in the emotional life of a character, and through this identification explore certain feelings more vividly. I’m fascinated with this power, especially when it comes to genre, which is why “Inherent” is a horror film. I think horror films often are the most adept at truly involving its audience, inducing fear and anxiety in them. For this, “Trouble every day”, again, was such a huge inspiration. On the one hand it’s stunningly beautiful, on the other, it is loaded with gory and horrific imagery that makes you squirm. It tucks at something so primal within you, and feels like a film that truly explores some of our most basic human emotions. Seeing that you could do THAT with film, was a giant inspiration.

What was the hardest scene for you to film?

Our film is about a young woman, played by Sandra Guldberg Kampp, who lives in an abandoned house together with a sinister presence, who she serves. The thing about this presence is that it is never visible, and entirely constructed in the sound design. This meant that Sandra basically had to act to something that wasn’t there, which made getting the right emotion and timing a challenge. Shooting on celluloid, we didn’t really have the opportunity to just do a million variations and figure it out in the edit, so we had to be very precise, which was pretty anxiety-inducing. Luckily, Sandra is a natural, so we didn’t need too many takes!

When working on a project like this how important is the collaborative nature of filmmaking?

It’s the most important thing. When you truly include your collaborators and let them do their thing, not only is the process much more rewarding, it also makes for a much better end-product. I can honestly say that this is the most important lesson I’ve learned as a director, and I will go so far as saying that the director’s most important job is to put their collaborators in the best position to succeed. It’s the collaborative part of filmmaking that makes the process continually exciting, as it’s in the meeting of voices that I always learn something new - about the craft, about myself and about life. I hope that this film looks and feels the way it does because of the unique combination of voices that are behind it and that it would look very different if you switched out just one of those voices.

As a writer/director do you allow yourself much flexibility with your screenplay or do you like to stick to what has been written?

I try to be flexible every step of the way, and get specific as soon as possible. I try to cast, find locations, costumes and so forth early in the writing process, as to let it inspire me and guide the writing. I try to take this mentality to set, so that if some magic opportunity presents itself, we’re ready to make the most of it. 

This does not mean that I don’t prepare - my DP and I meticulously shot-list every scene - but I think that thorough preparation actually allows for improvisation rather than restricting it. The screenplay provides you with a road map that tells you your destination, and if you have that covered, you have the freedom to take interesting detours, without losing your way. 


Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?

As a young kid I had bad asthma, which meant that I couldn’t really join other kids running around outdoors too much and I just spent most of my time indoors playing with Lego and watching films. When my asthma eventually got better, movie-watching had become an addiction, and it’s stuck ever since. When I was younger my dream was to become a Disney animator, so I really tried to become good at drawing. But then I figured out that Disney doesn't really do hand-drawn animation anymore, and kind of let the filmmaking dream go. It wasn’t until after high school that I realized that you could just pick up a camera and film real people, but since then it’s been an all-consuming obsession.

Between your first film and Inherent what would you say have been the most valuable lessons about filmmaking you’ve discovered?

We’ve kind of already touched on it, but the number one most valuable lesson I’ve learned, is to surround yourself with collaborators that you trust and care about, and then giving them a chance to use their voice. Starting out I was very much enamored with the idea of the all powerful “auteur” - for which I was thoroughly punished in the edit.

Close second is, as we’ve talked about, staying flexible. On my first couple of films, I tried to force the actors to conform strictly to the script, even when it felt unnatural for them to say or do what was written. That just doesn’t work, at least not for me. To create something truthful, I think you need to be flexible and work with what’s in front of the lens, instead of your preconceived ideas that you wrote down on a piece of paper. The camera doesn’t lie, and you won’t fool your audience.

Do you have any any advice or tips you would offer someone thinking of going to film school?

Well, because Super8 is so unconventional in its structure, I don’t know if my advice really works for most people’s experience of film school. I also know that in many places, film school is ridiculously expensive, which is something that I haven’t had to deal with, but is a very real and important factor.

What I will say, is - and this may sounds banal - that I think that you learn how to make films by actually making them. And a part of that, is to show your work to an audience, however painful it might be. You need to see if the magic trick you’re trying to pull off works. So I guess whatever allows you to take part in the process of filmmaking, do that! And preferably with someone who is more skilled and experienced than yourself. If that’s film school, go there! 

And finally, what do you want audiences will take away from Inherent?

As I mentioned,”Inherent” to me is a film that explores anxiety and fear, so I hope that it can in some way involve the audience in those feelings. It was our intention to make a film that prioritizes mood and atmosphere over plot, a film for the gut rather than the rational mind. Therefore it’s my hope that people will connect with it in that way, instead of focusing on the mechanics of the plot. 

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