René Sascha Johannsen is a Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker and photographer. A youthful love of skateboarding and playing drums in bands in his native Denmark helped inspire his current pursuits of moving portraits of both gritty street skaters and emerging music stars. Later, post-school leisure trips to Australia and Austria led to his first professional destination-shot documentary—following young snowboarders tackling the slopes of Whistler in western Canada. That was followed by documentary work in locales such as Haiti, Tunisia, Russia, the Gaza Strip and North Korea, where he served as cameraman and editor for Mads Brügger’s 2009 film, The Red Chapel.
For the past three years, Johannsen has called the apartments at 475 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, his home. At 37, he is a generation younger than the first two subjects of this series, Robert Clark and Christo Holloway, and part of an influx of residents from far-northern Europe. Johannsen’s still photography is mostly taken during his filmmaking trips, but provides an artistic outlet, and is itself influenced by professional lensmen like Asger Carlsen, Roger Ballen, and Glen Friedman.
My first engagement with one of Johannsen’s filmmaking influences was during my 1990s teenage viewings of skate videos produced a decade earlier by pro boarder, Stacy Peralta. The influence of camera techniques and narrative styles pioneered by Peralta in the 1980s are visible in Johannsen’s 21st-century approach to shooting his short documentary series, Asphalt NYC, airing on Network A. The first episode follows the board exploits of New York City street skating legend Quim Cardona through the scope of his involvement (or lack thereof) with photographer and filmmaker Larry Clark’s 1995 film, Kids. The five episodes of the Asphalt NYC series are a follow-up to Johannsen’s 12-episode Asphalt CPH [for Copenhagen] run, begun in 1998 with a look at a daring Danish bike messenger named “Jumbo.”
While giving photographer Randall Bellows III and I a tour of his apartment (which also doubles as an office / editing space), Johannsen notes how projects like the Asphalt series are done less for money, and more as an excuse to explore parts of his adopted city that he wouldn’t normally roll through on boards and bikes. He also talked about the power that film and video editing have in shaping the stories of his city-dwelling subjects, and the influence of young-adult literature and philosophy tomes on his conceptual and narrative approach.
On the Influence of Skateboarding in His Filmmaking
I grew up in a small town in Denmark. It’s called Sønderborg. I started skateboarding when I was about ten, and then a few years later we started shooting a bit. We started out with video. Then I took some photo courses, just shooting black & white film, developing it in a dark room and stuff like that, and I found that super interesting.
Shooting on a skateboard, that’s how I started getting into photography and video shooting in the first place. And that started when I was 12 with my dad’s camera. Obviously he wasn’t too excited about it, because we also fell. But to be honest, I’ve never trashed a professional camera. I’ve never destroyed one. My dad’s camera got a few little bumps or dents back then, but not enough to destroy it. Off course, there’s some limits to it. Because you have to keep your focal length pretty big, and shoot mostly wide-angle lenses, since you can’t control it so precisely. But I’ve become pretty good at shooting without looking in the viewfinder. Like I’m super precise about my framing, even though I don’t look in the viewfinder.
I actually have the original Ray Barbee [ragdoll] tattoo. This was on one of the first skateboards I had, and I just always liked the structure of it. And at the time it came out, the other graphics at that point had a totally different style. And this one was telling something fresh and new. Same as the way Ray Barbee skateboarding had a different style to it. He just had a very outstanding kind of approach to the streets. And he is now, 20 years later, still active, and he’s now a guitar player. I actually got the chance to shoot him in Copenhagen a few years ago, where he’s a guitar player. And he plays a lot with Tommy Guerrero, another old-school skateboarder who was a hero of mine back then. [Barbee’s] approach to not just skateboarding, and the streets, but also music, and photography actually, is really something that has stuck with me for 20 years. He just has a certain way of moving and doing what he does that I really like. So there is a lot of reasons for this tattoo. But I also just like the look of it, and the character.
Ray Barbee was in some of the first [Powell Peralta] movies in the ‘80s—Ban This—and before that there was Public Domain. When I started skateboarding, the business was peaking, and that’s when it hit Denmark. Powell was super big, and they had a lot of money, and you can sort of see it in the production value in the films. Like they shot it all on film, and they had the rock star attitudes, and people were making a lot of money. They were very good at making those. They actually created these action figures, and there was a Ray Barbee. The thing about Ray Barbee is he was a street skater. A lot of the other guys back then that got the fame were more like pipe skaters. But where I was from, there was nothing. There was street skating. We didn’t have any ramps or anything.
I think when skateboarding really started getting to me, like the period of time that has defined me and what I like about skateboarding, is later on. For instance, Eastern Exposure was from street skating in New York City, and that just had a totally different feel. This is in the mid ‘90s. The way that was shot, in the buildings, and the way it was so gritty, skateboarders like Quim Cardona ... meeting him years later was like walking into the past—and also getting to New York, and actually skating the streets in New York. Another thing I want to mention about skateboard photography is Spike Jonze. Because there were the Girl videos [Goldfish and Mouse], and that was also the mid-‘90s. First, there was the Blind video [Video Days], which is also a film that everybody always mentions as one of the big revolutions in the skateboard industry. Spike Jonze did that. Actually, we have a lot of things in common. I feel sometimes like I’m the Danish Spike Jonze, because he started with making skateboard movies, and I started with skateboard movies. Later on, it became music videos, and that’s what he did as well. And it developed him. So now he’s a lot in fiction, and I’m still doing documentary. But we’ve had similar careers, definitely.
I was also playing in bands back then. I’ve been playing drums since I was kid, and so it was also a way to get into shooting a bit of music. So I shot some band photos, and stuff like that. Nothing crazy. But skateboarding was definitely what I started shooting for a long time, and that was all I wanted to do. We did some performance videos, and later on the first more professional thing I did was on snowboarding. I went to Whistler in Canada in 1999, 2000. You can say that was my step from shooting just for fun into something that was actually broadcast on Danish TV. It was through Zentropa, which is Lars Von Trier’s production company in Denmark. For many years, I was just shooting skateboarding and performance, some music and this and that. But I never really considered that it was something I could make a living out of. It was just for fun. It was a passion. It was what I did. Then after school I started traveling, and I was traveling for a few years, and it was just mind-blowing for me to get out in the world. I was in New Zealand, Australia, and I had a season on a snowboard in Austria. Eventually, I met some Australian kids snowboarding. And when I went back to Denmark, they went to Whistler in Canada, and I really wanted to go meet them. But I sort of felt like I had to find an excuse to go traveling again, because at this time I had been three years out of school. And I had also started doing local television, and thought it was definitely something I wanted to do, but I didn’t consider that it was actually possible to make a living out of this. I think my first step into a professional career was applying for a camera and money. So that was 1999, when I had only done some local TV. One of the places I applied for a camera was Zentropa, and they had just done Dancer in the Dark, which was the movie with Björk. So the big thing about that movie was that they used a hundred Sony PD100 cameras. So they mounted a hundred cameras on set, and afterwards they had all these cameras, and they did something called “101 Storm Troopers.” Which was a project where they gave these cameras to a lot of different people for a series of films. I didn’t know about the project. But when I applied, I got one of the cameras from the film, and took that to Whistler. I wrote a script, did a film on traveling and snowboarding, and that film was sold to Danish TV in 2001—the film is called “Offpiste” and is a documentary series in two episodes. That was the first thing I had on Danish TV, and also something I used to apply for Danish film school. Basically, that’s when I realized that maybe this could be a career.
I never considered it a professional career in the beginning, so [my focus] was purely performance and the visuals. I was all about how it looked. And for a long time also, I just wanted to shoot. When I started doing local television in Copenhagen, it was to shoot for other people. Not that I didn’t care about the story, but I didn’t consider that I was a storyteller, really. I was writing lyrics in the band, and stuff like that. So in that sense, I was telling stories, and I always liked telling stories. But I never saw myself ... I was pretty insecure as a kid. So me in a director role, or being the driving force behind a story, I don’t think I really considered that. That wasn’t until later in 2000. Actually, when I started doing the local television, it just wasn’t that busy. So out of necessity, I started telling my own stories and shooting. So I had a reason to shoot my own stories.
Later on, I read books like Story by Robert McKee, on scriptwriting and storytelling. I’ve also read some Charles Bukowski lately, like Hollywood and Women. He’s okay, but not too impressed. I’m a lot into scriptwriting right now, and I mainly judge fiction films on how they’re written these days. In that sense, you can say that that some of my favorite writers are currently Vince Gilligan, who wrote the Breaking Bad series, Steven Knight who is writing the Peaky Blinders series, and Nic Pizzolato who wrote True Detective.
On How Books Influenced Him
I was reading a lot when I was a kid. I had many years that I had this one favorite author called Dennis Jürgensen. Danish, basically writing kids books, but it was more like he was science fiction almost. I was crazy about the way he was writing. He was writing about vampires and stuff, but in a certain funny tone. So I dug through all his stuff, and I read it all. And all that stuff I dug through as a kid, I fucking loved it. I had a long time where I read a ton of that stuff. And afterwards, I couldn’t really find authors I found just as interesting. Then I was a teenager, and I got into skateboarding and playing music. So for a long time, I didn’t read too much. Then in what we call gymnasia, which is similar to your high school, I had philosophy as one of my classes. I think that was when I for real picked up reading again, because I found that so interesting. I think I was at a time in my life, late-teens, living in a small town and I had way too much energy. I had a super-hard time being in that small environment where every day was the same. I felt like Groundhog Day. You get up, go to school, and my freedom was going skateboarding or playing music. That was what would make my day. When I started reading philosophy, it got into Sartre, all this existentialism, René Descartes the French philosopher—not so much the political philosophy, but more definitely existentialism. That was the last year of school, and all that reading, that was the first class where I didn’t miss one word. I read the whole thing. That was super interesting, and I tried to keep a little bit up with that afterwards. When I finished school, I read Celestine Prophecy and some more philosophical things. I was reading because I was thinking a lot about what to do with life, and what’s the fucking meaning of it all, and where to go, and why. Basically, “Why, why, why, why, why?” The lyrics I was writing back then was also a lot about that. I think I was asking more questions than I was giving answers. So I had a long period of time in my life where I was just asking a lot of questions, and also searching and trying to figure out what the whole thing was about. I think through traveling, it started making a bit of sense. All this circle life in school, that was the opposite. To go traveling, every day was different. Also I was writing a diary, and it amazed me coming back, I could pretty much remember every fucking day what I’d done for half a year. That’s when it hit me. I was going through all the shots I’ve done, because I brought one of my dad’s cameras. He had an old analog. This is 1997, where point and shoot cameras were the most normal thing to have—even disposable cameras. But I insisted on taking my dad’s camera, an analog camera with no automatic functions—all manual. I hadn’t given too much thought why, I just knew I liked the stuff that came out of that one better. When we came back, because I’d been documenting the whole time, writing and shooting stills, that’s when it hit me—this is a way to live your life, and you’ll have a richer life. If everyday looks the same, you won’t remember the last year of your life. But if every day is different, and you actually document somehow what’s happening, your life will feel so much longer. It’s getting a little philosophical, but I think that’s actually been one of the reasons why I chose to start making movies more. It was almost a matter of lifestyle. The way you live when you shoot, it was a way of not having mundane-ness. Every day comes with diversity, and every day is not the same. So wanting to make films in the first place was also a matter of lifestyle, just as much as the outcome, and being able to hopefully inspire people eventually to do different things or question their surroundings.
On Musical Influences
Music has always been in my life. I think I started playing the drums before I even had drums. My dad’s family has always been playing. My dad didn’t play, but we had some random instruments in the house, like drums and stuff. So I got my real drum kit when I was eight, and I started playing in bands when I was twelve. That’s actually when the development really started. Because before that, when you only play drums by yourself, it’s not that challenging or too much fun, because there’s no melody. Also, I took guitar lessons for a while, and that was fine. But I’ve always been a drummer by heart. I got into playing in bands, and it was like death metal and trash metal and stuff like that. So I just started playing fast and loud and hard. And I was really small. I didn’t really start growing until way late, when I was like 16 or something. We got a rehearsal space with this other band that were only playing Metallica tracks, and they had this drummer, and I asked him, “Can you teach me something? How should I do this?” Because I didn’t take lessons. And he was like, “Okay, the most important thing is just hit them as hard as possible. That’s what it’s about.” I was like, “Okay.” I was this little kid, and I just started trying to do every hit as hard as possible, and eventually that turned into a style. A lot of the concerts that we were playing, I would have bloody blisters on my fingers. Sometimes they would take the mic off because I was hitting the drums so hard that I didn’t need the mics on stage for the speakers. So I was sort of famous for being this angry little kid that just hit the drums really hard. That’s why later on I can super-relate to Dave Grohl. I really like his way of playing, because that’s the way I’ve been playing always as well. Not super fast. Not super technical. But hard and creatively, because I didn’t have any rules. I’ve never been schooled. Same thing with filmmaking, and photography, and skateboarding for that matter. It’s always been learning by doing, and trial and error, and just keep doing it until you get it. When I started making films, I hadn’t been to school for skateboarding or music, so the learning process has been the same. Just start doing it, and hope for the best, and keep going.
In the band, I was writing a little bit now and then. I was never the main force in that, because I wasn’t the one singing, so it wasn’t that natural for me. But I would write something, the singer would write something, and we’d write a little bit back and forth. I played in bands up until school ended, and after that I couldn’t really bring my drum kit. I’ve missed it for a long time. But when I moved to Copenhagen, I only had a small apartment in 1998, and for many years I didn’t really play. But a lot of my friends did. I grew up with this pretty famous rapper in Denmark, and he moved to Copenhagen at the same time as I did, and he started rapping in this studio called Tabu Records. And so we started hanging out in that studio, because he was recording with these guys, and they were at a super-early stage as well. One day, I brought up a camera from the local television station I was doing something for, and I just shot some stuff randomly. And totally by coincidence, the track they were recording that day was the first single off the album they were releasing, I think in 2000 or 2001. I shot some random stuff, and put a music video together, and they just freaked out about it. They loved it. So they were like, “As soon as we get a budget, you should do our first video." And I was like, “Yeah, okay.” I didn’t think too much of it. But then a year later, they started blowing up, and for the first time they actually had a budget. So they gave me like $5,000, or whatever they had, and I was like, “Wow, now I have to take this seriously, and actually do something.” I wrote a script and, again, what I wanted to do was shoot. I didn’t consider myself a director, until years later. But in the meantime, I bought a pretty good Super-8 camera, a Eumig. So that I brought out, and I shot probably ten rolls of color Super-8. This was in 2003, and you couldn’t develop Super-8 in Copenhagen. So I took all the rolls, sent them off to Berlin, and I had three weeks of nerve-wracking time, because I had no idea what the fuck was going to come out. I’d shot a lot already, but it was the first time I was working with a gaffer. And the gaffer system, we had like one day at a boat that we were renting, and all this shit. So it was pretty nerve-wracking for me, because the gaffer was like, “I’m not sure anything is gonna come out on that film.” I was like, “What the fuck?!” I was stressing out like crazy. Because the way I would measure it, I didn’t use a light meter. I was measuring on a gray card. So I would put the gray card in the light, and measure on the camera, and the camera wasn’t good enough. I would measure on the gray card, and then you could lock the exposure, but you couldn’t control it. So I had to just put it on a gray card, lock it, and then shoot. It turned out great, but it was super-contrasty and grainy, and I fucking loved it like that. This is 12 years ago, and it’s still to this day one of the videos I’m the most happy with. I’ve done a ton of stuff shot on 16, and had budgets ten times the size.
That was the first music video I did. At that point they had been picked up by a label, and started giving me more assignments. So for a period of time I started making music videos, and eventually they wanted a DVD. So I did a music documentary that came out on a DVD, and it developed into more music videos, and I sort of made a name in the industry. People started knowing who I was, and through that I ended up getting a professional job as mainly an editor and photographer at a TV station. This is 2004, and that’s pretty much when I started making a proper living.
On Conceptualizing Music Videos
Often, I want to see them perform, so I know how they act on stage, and how they are in a rehearsal space. And I definitely go through the lyrics. It’s a mix of what I think I can make them do, and how they would work. Of course, sometimes they know what they want as well. Sometimes they just want a performance video. Music videos are funny. In the beginning, it was a matter of getting just a little bit of money to rent equipment. This was back when you couldn’t just go buy a DSLR. Equipment was expensive, and so it was a matter of actually getting equipment to go shoot something. I never got paid for the first music videos. It’s never been a matter of making money. It’s been a matter of making an art piece, pretty much, and always finding out how can I personally benefit from this, and at the same time make something they’re happy with. So for instance, I would decide, “Okay, this one I want to try and shoot 16. So we shoot 16 millimeter, how’s the budget for that?” And if it was possible, then on top of that we’ll build this and that. But it’s always been a mix of lyrics, what they want, what I want, and ultimately making something everybody’s happy with.
I’ve always liked abstract art, no matter if it’s painting, stills, films. I really liked David Lynch back then. Lynch’s movies are sort of abstract, a lot of them. Like you’re not exactly sure what he’s saying. But at the same time, you will be drawn into it. And I think that’s been the concept of a lot of my early stuff. Of course, when you get into documentary films, and you want your stuff on TV, it will take a long time before somebody will actually appreciate that. So you can’t start out in the TV business saying, “OK, I want to do abstract reality.” Not too many people would appreciate that. But for a long time, with the music videos, I think that’s how a lot of people probably start out. Go to any kind of early film school, and people are like, “Yeah, I’m doing this experimental blah, blah, blah.” Basically, I did the same. Some of my first stories, it was more like a visual expression somehow.
Back then [for my first music video], I really liked the visual expression of, say, Nine Inch Nails. I don’t like Marilyn Manson’s music really, but I like the way Flora Sigismundi, the woman who’s done a lot of his visuals, the way she’s working. So it was more like the story was actually secondary to the visual expression. Sometimes I would be inspired by just one visual frame. Like it would come from one idea. I’d say, “Okay, I want to do a picture like this. How can we build a story around this?” Another video was in a prison. I really liked the visual idea of people in prison, with these female guards with shotguns and stuff like that. So the story would develop around that. “How can we get these characters into prison?” So I would build a story where they would do something illegal, so we could end up in prison. I think every video is different like that. It’s been a while since I did a proper music video. When you’re doing documentary, I think you definitely need to have very, very good idea of where you’re going. You don’t just follow the character.
I got another assignment at some point for a big Danish band called Nephew. That was more like an art project, where they did a video for every song on the album. My song was called “007 is also going to die," which was the first single off the album. And totally by coincidence, it was at the same time as one of the Danish skateboarders that I’d been skateboarding with for a long time, he died of a heart attack. He’d been skateboarding and partying a lot for a long time. So he died in his late 20s, and this was at the same time as I got this assignment. They chose 12 different artists for 12 different songs for an album called Danmark/Denmark. So they basically wanted a Danish story told through each specific artist. So I chose to make a story about this guy that was young and skateboarding, and it didn’t make any sense whatsoever how you can die in your late 20s. The approach to that video ended up being a story. I used a stand-in, another Danish skateboarder called Hjalte Halberg, who’s now pretty much one of the only Danish pro skateboarders. He ended up acting like this other guy in the video, and I told this story about a Danish skateboarder that actually ended up dying.
On His Asphalt NYC Subjects
I’ve been skateboarding for about twenty-plus years now. So I’m already a lot in that environment. Often when I go to new places, that’s where I’ll start out. I’ll start skateboarding, and that’s how I start talking to people, and that’s how I’ve met a lot of people during my life.
So when I first moved to New York, I’m curious. I walk into different shops, and meet different people, and this and that. I found this little shop down by Marcy called The City Don’t Sleep, and I met this guy, Castro. And we’re just talking a little bit, because I’m also looking for places to get my stuff more out. I told him about my stills and print stuff, and he had a little gallery in the store So I talked to him back and forth, and I told him about the Asphalt series I was doing, and he’s like, “Yeah, I know this BMX guy ... ” And I talk to a lot of people, and they’ll be like, “Yeah, I know this guy, and that guy ... ” I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, whatever,” and I didn’t think too much about it at first. But then [Castro] showed me some of the stuff he could do, and I was like, “Okay, this guy’s for real.” He was really good, and he was just going for it. I was like, “Okay, I gotta hook up with this guy,” and we met and just clicked. I found out pretty quick that he was a cool and funny character.
Desmond Rhodes, he calls himself “Black Man.” I’m like, “I’m not fucking gonna go to East New York, and run around in the hood and scream 'Yo, Black Man!’ I don’t know how long I’d survive.” That’s what he told me to call him, but I was like, “Okay, I think I’ll just call you ‘Desmond’ or ‘D.’ ‘Black Man,’ I’m not going down that road.”
We went to a ton of different places, but eventually we went back to Woodhaven where he grew up, and it was cool. No matter where I’ve been in the world, whatever hood you go to, as long as you’re with locals, it’s fine. There’s no worries. But it’s probably not a place I would go on my own if I had no idea where I was going. There’s always neighborhoods you shouldn’t go to. But that was super interesting. But the second he jumped on the hood of a police car, that’s when you start thinking “Okay, I have a huge camera bag on my back. I have a camera in my hand. I’m on a bike. I can’t move too fast, so I better look for some way to get out of [here], in case we have to move.” And we moved, so nothing happened. That’s the little random experiences that shooting a documentary can get you into.
I watched Kids in the mid ‘90s, and it totally blew my mind. It was a weird look into my own surroundings. I grew up with a lot of skateboarding, with kids skateboarding, and doing drugs and drinking a lot, and whatever. So even though this was like a romantic story, I could relate to so much in Kids when I watched it. And later on, when I mention it to other people, they’re like, “Yeah, it’s that terrible film.” To me, it wasn’t a terrible film. I think Kids is a very honest look into youth, and I think that’s what Larry [Clark] can do. He’s super good at documenting. To me, it feels a lot like documentary. People do what they would normally do, but he just puts them into a fictional context. And the story about Quim [Cardona], I didn’t know until I got here. I knew of Quim through skateboard videos, and because a friend of mine, Nicholas Craft, he went to high school in New York and met Quim back then. And when I moved to New York, through Nicholas I met Quim. So we met a few years ago. I got a photo of him from the Brooklyn Banks, which to me was like walking into a movie—Kids. And skateboarding with Quim at the Brooklyn Banks in 2010, it was just surreal to see him skateboard something like that. It was just so natural and real for him.
The first time I went to New York was in 2004, I think, when I met Harold Hunter, another kid from Kids, totally randomly. I was just basically helping a friend out on a short film, and it was a good excuse to go to New York. They had an apartment at Church Street in Tribeca, and they were doing a fundraising party for the film, where Harold totally randomly showed up. I was like, “Do you know who this guy is?” And they’re like “Oh, no fucking idea.” I’m like, “This guy is a legend.” And people had no clue. But I think that was the only time I actually met him. And then years later, he died before I got a chance to meet him again. But actually, the story about Quim was, when I just moved to New York I was working with this director, Crystal. I’d been editing with her on The Wolfpack that just got the Sundance award for best documentary 2015, and then I talked to her and she said, “Oh yeah, I know Quim.” And she was like, “So did you know that he was actually supposed to be in Kids back then?” I was like, “No, I had no idea. What’s the story?” She told me a little bit, and I was like, “OK, I have to talk to him about that.” Then we met up and started talking, and he told me the whole story with how he was supposed to be the leading role, and how Larry Clark was inspired to do the whole story.
Quim still does it professionally at some level. And whatever he does which is not skateboarding, I feel like is some kind of hustling to make ends meet. Whereas I think earlier on in my life, I took a decision about not making a living out of that, or maybe I didn’t have the talent. I’ve never been at the level he is, or has been. It’s been a huge passion in my life. But talent, skateboarding is such a crazy level if you want to make a living out of it. These days, it’s just a retarded level. And I’m glad I didn’t try and make a living out of skateboarding. But my relationship with skateboarding and music these days is to me pretty optimal. Because I can skateboard, I can play music, and there’s no expectations whatsoever. I can use it at whatever level I want. And then I have filmmaking as how I make my living. And I would say that’s also the biggest part of how I live my life these days, because it has a huge impact on my lifestyle. Even though I live in New York. This last year, for instance, New York was a base. But I was probably away for shooting half of the year, almost.
[I have] performance boards for skateboarding tricks. This is what I use most. That’s why they change pretty quick, because they’ll lose their flex, and the power of the grip, and stuff like that. So I go through probably one-a-month of these. Some of them break, and some of them just wear out. In the summertime, they go pretty quick. So one of the new ones has an Asphalt logo, and that’s a classic performance skateboard. Two are used for filming, or for transportation, because they have soft wheels. But [one] is original 8th Street, so the board is probably 20 years old. I actually swapped with a friend of mine. I don’t think he knew what he was giving me. I told him, and he didn’t care. So I wish I could say it was mine from back then. It’s not. Because all of my old boards are pretty much ... I think maybe there’s a few with my parents still. But if not, they’re totally worn out, trashed. [Another] I found actually in the street. I don’t fucking know what people are doing, because it was a perfectly fine board. When I shoot Asphalt, for instance, this one is nice. Because it doesn’t take up too much space when I, say, go to Woodhaven and shoot with Desmond. I take my bike on the train, and sometimes I bike there with a skateboard, and a backpack, and a camera. So it’s nice that it doesn’t take up too much space. And it has the soft wheels, it feels like a big board, so this one I’d probably prefer for shooting skateboarding.
DL [Skateboards] gave one to me, when we did [their Asphalt segment]. Derek [Mabra] is actually a really good friend of mine. Unfortunately, they moved to California. So that sucks. We had just become friends, and then he left. I’ve actually recently just gotten back into playing music, because I hadn’t had a place to play for a long time. But a friend of mine has a rehearsal space in Greenpoint, and Derek is doing music as well. So we just started jamming a bit. Also a friend of mine, Garlic Butter, this guy Aaron [Butler], plays music. So he plays guitar. My other friend Josh, he has the space in Greenpoint. We just back into it, but then Derek left. [The DL board] to be honest, I don’t use that much. But I think it’s just a nice piece. Actually, I just asked for the board. But he ended up giving to me the wheels and everything. Because I just wanted to put it on the wall. I just think it’s a nice piece of work. They shape them as surfboards. They’re made of just one plain piece of wood. So it’s super old-school.
On the Editor as Storyteller
To say something general about the process of filmmaking, or storytelling, is that it will start with an idea. You have one story, which is the basic idea of what story you want to tell. Be it on a subject, or be it on a character, like a portrait or something more constructed. Basically you have three different stories for every story, I think. So you have the first story, the first idea you have, the idea of what story it is you’re going to tell. Then the second part of the story is the story you go and shoot. The basic story you had will turn into a new story. Because I’m not the kind of filmmaker that will stick to my basic idea. I’m always open for what opens up, for new possibilities, or if I was wrong about what I thought the story was going to be in the first place. You can’t be too stubborn about that. And that’s something in general I like about it. Not just my films, but also my stills. I like the X factors, the randomness of things. Things that can come out of nowhere, and take you in a totally unexpected direction. So that part of the process is new story. Then the third part of the story, when you get into editing, this is where you figure out if what you thought it was going to be actually works. I also work with editors, and I think to find a good editor is probably the hardest position in the process of filmmaking to fill. Especially in documentary filmmaking, the scriptwriting of the story is in the editing. That’s when you put the story together, and you can go in so many different directions, and so many styles, and so many moods. And this is basically where you combine the ingredients that I think is the most important -- which is pictures, and lyrics and music. You know, the actual talking essence and telling, and then the reportage where you can tell stories without saying a word. Like putting images together, and creating an environment or a mood from music, and from sounds. And a lot of the magic in filmmaking definitely happens in the editing. But I definitely think in three steps of the story, and I’m very open for the three steps being different to each other. Of course, you need a proposal to sell the story sometimes. But the best working conditions I can get is when people are pretty open, and say, “Go see what you get,” and trust that I will come home with something. Obviously I always do. But some people need to be promised more, and sometimes are like, “But that’s not what you told me you were going to get in the first place.” And I’m like, “No, but this is even better then what I told you we were going to get in the first place. I wasn’t stubborn enough to stick with that. But I don’t think I should.”
On His Experience Filming The Red Chapel
I can’t take too much credit for how we got in there. I definitely could take a lot of credit for how the story is told, and the visual side, because I shot like 90% of it, and edited the whole thing. But the story about how we got in is there’s this Danish diehard journalist, Mads Brügger, and he’s a little bit of a mad man. I’ve been to some festivals with the film where people ask the same thing, “How the hell, and why the hell?” And one of the stories I like to tell, which is also his own story, is that he grew up being a redhead. He’s got red hair, and he was teased all his childhood with his red hair. And when he grew up, he chose to get back at the world. So he’s doing stories where he pisses people off in different places of the world. After [The Red Chapel] was a film called The Ambassador, where he goes to Africa. He’s also been to the US, where he did a TV series called Danes for Bush. The North Koreans didn’t know what hit them until after either. How he got the contact in North Korea, I don’t know. But he got some kind of contact in North Korea, and he started writing with her a little bit back and forth. He read history at university, and I think he is very, very good at analyzing people, and how they think, and what their background is to think the way they do. And he basically talked their pants off with some kind of excuse of a cultural exchange, which is one of the ways to get into North Korea—something which is not politically loaded in any sense. So they started to be interested in this cultural exchange, which meant that we would take a theater troupe of Danish culture treasures, and we had these two comedians. One of them is handicapped, and they actually both have Korean heritage. They were adopted as kids. [Brügger] actually went on a trip before, just for them to check him and the director’s assistant out. I guess they thought that was cool. So like a month later, we went back. This time it was me, the assistant director who was also shooting a little bit, the director, and the two comedians. We went back, and we stayed there for two weeks. Basically, what it was about was to do a performance of Danish culture to ultimately show this theater piece of music for the Korean people. What they did was that they took whatever we came with, which was also a super-weird piece, and they put one of their directors on the piece, and developed it from what it was into something they thought was suitable for their audience. It just shows a lot about how the North Korean mindset is. If they don’t like what they see, they’ll just change it. So there’s a lot of reading between the lines, basically, in that piece. Because we obviously didn’t get to go see the work camps, or other terrible stuff that you can see more in North Korea. We got to see what they presented us to see. Which is also what you see if you see the travel guide Vice has done, or the Dennis Rodman show (or whatever he did in North Korea), and whatever other journalists have gone in. But I think back then, nobody had brought as much footage out of North Korea as we did. It’s a very amazing country in a not so good sense.
The situation where we ended up in front of the rallies—they had this anti-American day where it was us and more than a million North Koreans at Pyongyang Central Square. Because at this point, they thought Mads was this guy from the West that was all pro-North Korea. That’s what he had talked them into. So him as an example of their western friends, they took him and Jacob, who is in a wheelchair, down in front of one of the battalions, and just walked in front of them. And he’d [shout slogans] with all the other ones. That’s probably one of the craziest moments in my life. We saw ourselves on the North Korean television that same night, where you can see us walking down there in front. I thought we were going to die after that, because I didn’t think there was any way we’re going to get out of North Korea with that kind of footage. The more we knew, and the more we’d seen, the more tricky the situation got. Because it was all a matter of trust. They trusted us more and more, and gave us more and more, and we were there for two weeks. There was a lot of time for us to blow that. But Mads has this gift of speech that he basically kept us on a very thin ice for two weeks. He’s fucking amazing like that. But that’s definitely one of the more tricky situations. That was tricky, because you never knew if you were bought or sold. Like how thin was the ice? Whereas I’ve been in a lot of other tricky situations, but where it’s way more in your face.
Say for instance, Cité Soleil in Haiti. That was before the earthquake. Cité Soleil is one of the biggest ghettos in the world, where people have nothing. And walking around in that area was out of this world. I’ve been to Africa, another ghetto in Zambia. And then there’s a place like East New York, where you don’t fucking know. I was spending two weeks with some activists in Tunis. A friend of mine has something called Turning Tables, which is like an NGO, where he goes to different places in the world to give the youth a voice through making music, rapping, writing lyrics. And I was like a music video supervisor for them to also take these lyrics and rapping, make a video out of it, and put it on the Internet. So I went to Tunis with him, and he’s also been to Cambodia. He has a camp going on right now, and he has a different set up. Tunis was again a little bit tricky, because a week before we got there, a director was arrested and put into jail for two years for making a music video where they say something about the police being dogs. So we were basically doing the same thing with people that were also hunted by the police. Those situations obviously are always a little bit on the edge where you didn’t know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.
On His Still Photography
The main body of my still work is through situations I’m put in when I do video work. I’m booked a lot like a DP, a videographer, doing documentary. That’s what I do—directing and shooting documentary. And on these travels, I’ve done a ton of road movies. Anyways, that’s how I get into positions where I start shooting stills. So Asphalt, for instance, or I’ve done a series for Danish TV called Monte Carlo, and that took me to Russia, Israel, and Palestine, and across the US. I’ve done other work from Haiti. I’ve been to Tunis. I’ve been to North Korea. I’ve been to China. I’ve been to all these different places, and it’s basically most on those trips I shoot the stills that I get printed, or that I use for whatever I’m going to use them for at some point. It’s sort of random. This picture [on my wall], I was shooting a documentary called The Healing. It was these two handicapped people that went across the US to sort of get healed. But it had a little bit of a comedy approach to it, because they were more like freak magnets. They were an excuse to meet all these different weird healers. So we saw like witchcraft doctors in New Orleans and went swimming with dolphins in Florida. And this [picture on my wall] is Baton Rouge in Louisiana, close to New Orleans, and was right after Katrina. There was this car they went out to buy. So it’s basically just at this car dealer. But the light that day was just perfect. The light was low, so everything was perfect exposure. Basically, I was going to shoot the car actually, and the dog walks in, looks at the car, and I made a little whistle, and it turned it’s head, and I shot it. It’s one of those, like sometimes you’re lucky. You look at the screen, and it’s like, “OK.” That was one of those moments. This was 2006, so it’s a pretty old photo. But it’s one of those photos I always love getting back to.
There’s something super-satisfying about shooting stills, because the process from your shoot to your print can be super-quick. Whereas right now, I’m working on a music documentary on this artist called Oh Land. I follow her for about four months, and the editing period is about three months. So basically, we’re talking over half-a-year from when you start shooting to something that’s on screen. Every episode is half an hour, so it’s basically done super quick. It’s like cooking. You spend so much time getting the ingredients, getting home, cooking—and when you eat, it takes like five minutes. People are gone again. And with a documentary, it is a little bit the same, whereas getting something out of print in a physical form is to me super-satisfying. That’s why I also want to make a book at some point, which is a way of documenting your life. Even though it’s not my life on a lot of pictures. It’s still pictures from situations I’ve been in, or been put in, or have chosen to be in.
I recently bought a printer, the Epson 3880, and so I’ve just been experimenting with different paper, like Hahnemuhle Bamboo or Metallic Pearl. I really like matter paper more than super glossy. Basically, these are different tests, and I like to put them on the wall so I can look at them now and then, and find out which ones I like, and why I like them, and what I like.
This [wall picture] is from the Gaza Strip. This is also one of the Asphalt episodes. But basically it was on one of the Monte Carlo Danish documentary trips. So the reason why I was there is because I was shooting this documentary for Danish TV. The translator told me about these kids doing parkour in the area. And the director didn’t need it for the story. So I was like, “Okay, but I’ll go.” So when we had a few hours off, I went and met them, and they did parkour in a graveyard in Gaza. Which to me was mind-blowing. And this is probably one of the Asphalt episodes I’ve shot that took the least amount of time. I had like two or three hours with them, and this is one of the strongest stories, I think. Whereas with Quim’s story, I think we met up like four or five times over four or five different days. That was one way to put a story together. This took two or three hours, and their story blew my mind. I still get the chills sometimes when I watch it, because I think it’s so strong, and it’s told in such a short amount of time.
[Another photo] is lightning strikes in Haiti. We were waiting for power to come back. There’s a few hours from when the sun goes down, until the electricity goes on. So we were basically waiting for electricity to start between 6 and 8, I think, and then it started lightning like crazy. So it was pitch black, and I couldn’t shoot the video at that point, because it was too dark. So we were waiting for the electricity to come on, and the lightning would just go nuts on us, and it kept going. So I got ten shots, or something, of lightning.
[Another photo] is in Detroit, the Packard plant. This is one of the other Monte Carlo trips. But this time we’re going across the U.S. So it was part of a documentary shoot, and I just shot some random stills. This is one of the hosts. But he’s such a clean-cut guy, I thought the contrast of his clothes and the surroundings were pretty interesting. The Packard plant, if you go up exploring in Detroit, that’s the most common place I think people go. Huge area, and it was cold as hell. We actually ended up doing a little snowboard jump. The director had seen a pretty famous ski movie that’s been done in these ruins, and wanted to do something similar. And one of the hosts is snowboarding a bit. So we ended up building this jump, and we got a few jumps off one of the buildings.
I’ve been here [at 475 Kent] for three years now, and it’s getting to a point where I’m sick of shooting [on the roof], because I’ve seen the view so many times. But at the same time, every night is also a little bit of a miracle. You can go there every night, and every night is different. It’s mind-blowing, no matter if it’s in the summer or in the winter, because the sun will be in different places. I’m getting jet-lagged sometimes, getting up at 5:00 in the morning, and see the sun coming up, and it’s fucking amazing. The light will be different, and you’ll have the reflections. The sunrise from the building is pretty cool, and shooting-wise, you use it professionally. But these days, it’s a shaky situation, because it’s been done so much. We have other friends in the building shooting as well, and they’ve also been using it. And when you have Danish people come to the U.S., and they’re like, “Do you know somewhere we can shoot the sky?” I say, “Yeah, I know a place very well.” I’ve seen that shot in so many variations by now, that it’s getting to a point where I’m going to try and find something else. It starts feeling like it’s done.
I do get a few assignments where people will make me go out and shoot something, but I don’t shoot stills for a living. Early on in my career, I’ve always been told that I needed to limit myself. Because I started shooting, then I got into the editing part, then I started directing, and telling stories, and writing a little bit, and I’m also shooting stills. People get confused, “Who is this guy? What does he do?” For instance, The Red Chapel is the Sundance-awarded documentary that I filmed and edited, and I was nominated at the Camerimage for that film. But that was for my editing, which is also the writing off the structure. I made the structure of the film. So a lot of people see me as an editor. Then on the other hand, I have the Asphalt series, and right now I’m directing two different music documentaries. Other people will see me as a director. Then what I’ve made most of my living at the last 10 years has been shooting documentary for other people. So in that sense, I’m a documentary photographer, or videographer, DP, whatever you want to call it. So one thing I chose to say is, “Okay, if there’s a part of me that I should try and not make a living out of, it would be the still photography." And for me, it’s also been a good way of choosing that to be the more artistic side of me. Whereas instead of making a living out of all of this, and put myself in a position, and doing productions that will position me as a professional—I can say the still photography is definitely the more artistic side, where I can have totally free hands, and there’s no expectations, and there’s not an editor waiting for me for whatever I give to them that they can use for whatever they need it for. I like to think of my still photography like abstract reality, or a more artistic reality. So I like to keep it on a level where there’s no expectations, and I can go whatever direction I want with it, and eventually use it for a book, or for exhibitions, or at least for art in some sense.
On Art-World Aspirations
The reason why I got in contact with Tanya [Søndergaard Toft] is that she is a curator. Because I'm looking a bit more into the art world, just to figure out where I am in that sense. Like, would it make sense to try and exhibit my stuff. I mean, that is a whole new game, and a whole new business. How does that work? I'm looking more and more into that. That's the reason why I got in contact with Tanya. Because one of the series I have is the one from Gaza with the kids doing the parkour stuff. I have probably like five to ten shots that I think have an artistic value to them. How to exhibit, where to exhibit, and does it have exhibition quality? Those are really new questions [about] how to treat my still body of work. Ultimately, I want to make a book. But that is more like my own little perversion, for me to have it on print, because I like to have a book as a physical format.
I have only been here for three years, but the tendency in bigger cities, and especially also in New York over many years is that—can you even afford to be a poor artist in the big cities anymore? Patti Smith had a pretty interesting article in The New York Times recently, where she said the poor artist is dead in the big cities. To be a poor artist, you need to go to the countryside. Because the second that you get yourself into New York, you can’t be an artist anymore, because you need to pay the rent. So if you want to pay the rent, you need to get a proper job. And once you have a proper job, for a lot of people, it’s not art you’re making. So I think that’s a pretty interesting thought. And I think that also might be a tendency of where we’re going these days. Artists might be pushed out of the cities.
On Moving to 475 Kent Avenue
Three years ago, I had the contacts in New York City, which was the reason why we went to New York in the first place. And we also had friends here. And some of the friends we had were, and are still, living on the 11th floor at the corner. Probably one of the best apartment in the building. So that was actually one of the first apartments I saw in New York—the corner with the balcony, with the view over Manhattan. Obviously, it blew my mind. I’m like, “Okay, that’s somewhere to start.” Before we moved here, I was shooting a documentary called Modern Classics, and one of the subjects was Chris Isaak. One of the radio hosts, we did an interview, and we needed a place to interview him, and we did that also on the balcony on the 11th floor. When we moved a few years later, we were staying a few nights at our friend’s place, because we didn’t have anywhere to live by then. We were changing from one spot to the other, and needed a few nights. And totally by coincidence, an opportunity had opened up. So we looked at a place on the fourth floor, but it was huge. It was probably almost three times the size of [our current apartment]. So it was like $5,500 bucks, and we didn’t have anybody to share it with, and it was too much money, because we needed to pay like two months ahead and stuff. So it was too much for us to start out like that. But we kept contact, and they actually got back to us a few times with different places that we came and looked at, and then they were gone again. And one of the apartments we looked at is a little bit of a weird story as well. A few years before we moved here, I went to a film festival called True/False Festival in Missouri, and The Red Chapel was at the same festival as Restrepo. And [Tim Hetherington] wasn’t there, but he was on Skype for the Q&A, and I think I might have had a question for him. I just felt like I met the guy by then. And probably just a year or two later, we went here. And Tim ended up getting shot. So we actually were presented to his apartment, if we wanted to move in, which was a totally weird experience for me. But before we could say yes (and I think it was also a bit more expensive than this), it was given to somebody else.
My other friend, Adam, who is a Danish cinematographer, also lives in the building—he’s an old friend of mine. He got into the building because the friends that we have on the 11th floor had a space open up in their apartment. He got that, and he’s been living here for a while now. Right now, he’s in Turkey shooting a feature film. He’s been shooting two different features—one of them actually with Al Pacino and Barry Levinson; he shot with them this summer. And Adam is an old friend of mine, so he’s also a huge inspiration and one of the best cinematographers I know.
On His Apartment Workspace
[On his desk] I cut some of the legs off the height. It’s a little lower now, because this is actually a story in itself. My girlfriend was passing by Berry Park, the sports bar, and they were changing the furniture. So these tables were out on the street, and we had just moved in, and we had this huge space where we didn’t have shit. She was like, “What are you doing with these tables?” And they’re like, “We’re just throwing them out. You can take them if you want.” So they actually hired a North Side car, just called him, and said, “We need a big car.” And they came with an SUV, and put one in the back, and the other on the roof. I think I was shooting something. So her and another girl on the 11th floor, they managed to get them on the car. And this was like a Wednesday night. We didn’t have keys for the freight elevator, and we didn’t want to leave them down there. So I was trying to get these in when [upstairs neighbor] Hagai walked in, and he was like, “What are you doing?” And I said, “ I’m trying to get this shit in.” [He said,] “I should give you a hand. We can do this. Come on, let’s do it.” And we ended up fucking carrying these. You should try and lift one, see how heavy that shit is. We carried these up the stairs.
This is not optimal at all. In Copenhagen, I had an office. To get an office, and get away from home is definitely a huge priority. I would love for it to work like that. Because rent is so high in New York, and because I’m away so much, it wouldn’t make sense to pay for an office all the time. Also, I’m not doing so much editing these days. Right now I am. But I haven’t been doing editing for a long time. So ultimately, I wouldn’t be working at home. The last four episodes were pretty quick to edit, so that wasn’t a big problem. But right now I’m doing a series, which is four times 30 minutes. And I have an editor in Denmark, where we send the project back and forth. But I’ll do all the pre-editing here. So right now I’m spending most of my time editing in the house, and no, it shouldn’t be like that. Definitely not. I really don’t like getting up, going straight down, and start editing. Especially when it’s so cold, and being in this house all day. I don’t’ like it like that. No. Also, I’m pretty dependent on the little travel time you have, clearing your mind in between spaces. I really like to get out in the city. I always go on either bike or skateboard when I move from place to place. I try as little as possible to use the subway and cars. I really like to move in New York, and that’s one of the reasons why I prefer New York to L.A. You don’t sit in a car all the time. I really like to move on a bike around the city, see things happening, see little situations, shoot random situations. I shoot all the time, just random things happening in the street, or seeing tendencies of people, seeing people move, seeing weird situations happening, and stuff like that. That’s another way for me to break away from being in the house—go skateboarding, go into Manhattan on a bike, get different things I need to get. And this is where I edit. But also, my shit is out everywhere. I have a cupboard-full of my shooting equipment as well, and I have a bit of light equipment. No, that ultimately should be at an office somewhere. Get it away out of the house, so things don’t melt together too much.
Interview by Christian Niedan
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.