Jesper Christiansen in "Before the Frost"

TIFF ’18 Interview: Michael Noer on Reimagining the Western with “Before the Frost”

Naturally, it is bitterly cold at the start of “Before the Frost,” but Jens (Jesper Christensen) has retained some semblance of warmth. With his family huddled around a single loaf of bread for dinner on a farm that has been ravaged to the point of being unable to yield enough grass to feed their cows, the patriarch of the Moesgaards is in selling mode, with no greater commodity than his daughter Signe (Clara Rosager), for whom he expects to fetch quite the dowry, though in the mean time, he’s forced to sell off what cattle he can as one more fallow season could bring financial ruin and his pride takes a hit, being asked to make room for richer parishioners at his local church.

Desperation brings inspiration, to some degree for Jens, who soon sets in motion a series of events that may bring him prosperity, yet not necessarily happiness, but most certainly for director Michael Noer, who returns to his native Denmark after his English-language debut “Papillon” with this electrifying drama in which the more Jens’ best laid plans work out, the less connection he has to what he’s trying to protect in the first place. Still, one is always conscious of blood in “Before the Frost,” whether it’s what Jens will stop at nothing to protect, it’s spilled or it courses through the veins of this period piece to break it free of its historical trappings to bring it into the present as Christensen’s wily performance is accompanied by engrossing free-floating camerawork and a stirring score that make it feel as riveting and alive as Noer’s earlier contemporary crime flicks “R” and “Northwest” that brought him to international renown.

Back in Toronto just a year after bringing “Papillon” to the festival, the writer/director spoke about how momentum played a part in creating the propulsive family drama, why staying close to history always makes for better movies and the creative nourishment he receives from his own family.

Jesper Christiansen in "Before the Frost"How did this come about?

Initially, it started with a more visual idea of trying to see if it was possible to portray history in a more gritty and truthful way. I’m a huge fan of westerns. You can imagine that a man who’s a huge fan of gangster movies is a fan of westerns as well – I just really like a movie like Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” of course, like everyone else, and if you look at history, it’s interesting that much of the clothes that they’re wearing are very much very Scandinavian, so [I thought] there might be a potential of just trying to do a historical, honest portrayal of how it was for these people, some of whom later ended up going west.

When we started doing research, we realized that there were so many movies that are based on literature and really they’re just researching into fiction. Of course, all these people are dead so you can’t really talk to someone who lived in those times, but you can talk to historians and to people who still work in farming communities and we had a lot of fun going back to doing research, which reminded me of my early movies. It actually helped us get around some of the cliches of the period.

For example, a marriage transaction was much more where you agree on something financial than you agree on something romantic – romance should always come second and practicality should come first and we felt it was interesting living in that time. It is almost like there’s a love story in the movie, but it just gets cramped by a survival story. That’s how we saw the plot, because I mean it’s also a genre that’s known for love stories — the costume drama, so we thought it was more tangible and more interesting to do it as a survival story. I look at westerns often also as survival stories.

Was this actually shot at a location where the history happened?

Yeah. We were lucky enough to have all these existing locations that we could redress. I just finished “Papillon” and I went straight into pre-production on this one. Of course, “Papillon” had a much higher budget, but I learned a lot working with a great production designer Tom Meyer to create a period look, so it was inspiring to do an American Hollywood movie and then go back and try to figure out how can you adapt some of the things that I learned with costume and production design for a way, way smaller budget and try to shoot something much faster, but based on the script that I wrote myself. It doesn’t necessarily make a big difference, but it gives more wiggle room [because] the fewer locations you have, the easier it is to navigate.

We were always trying to figure out ways to make it look bigger than it was and we were lucky in Denmark because we could work together with local historical locations and the benefits of not being so small [as a country is] that you don’t have to travel that far before it’s quite isolated. Then it’s always a joy coming home. I love making movies abroad, but spending time with Jesper Christensen, who in a Scandinavian context is quite a legend, was great.

Was he in mind from the start as Jens the patriarch?

Yeah, we totally wrote it for him. For me, Jesper Christensen is like a Danish version of Clint Eastwood [where] he’s stoic, but Jesper [also has] this vulnerability about him that we thought would be interesting to give him the give him a part where he had to struggle with moral and ethical issues because he’s so empathetic. When you meet him, he’s so nice and so open-hearted.

It looked like you got him to really birth a baby calf.

Yeah, we had these consultants who are used to doing this [to help]. If a small fetus is caught up in the cow, they can both die. We shot that very naturalistically, accordingly. Of course, the cow was not in any danger, but [the baby calf] was only like 48 hours old and I loved the resemblance of the birth and the [the relationship between] father and daughter. I have two kids as well, and when I made “R,” a movie about egos and survivalism, I didn’t have any kids and now that I do, [this movie] for me is very much about community and ego and family. You’re always trying to figure out how to balance them, because those three components have to work together, and we felt that’s very much about the times we’re living in now but also the times of the 1850s, because you had to put your ego aside and put the family first.

A scene from Michael Noer's "Before the Frost"It’s notable that Jens always names the cows and then he loses touch with that as the farm gets bigger. How did that detail come in?

It came because we talked to another farmer who told us that in the process of the industrialization of rural communities of farming, if you have like 100 cows, you’re not going to name them. But if you only have three, most likely you’ll name them. I’m not saying that the farmer who has 100 doesn’t care about his cows, not at all. They have to try to figure out a way to survive and their way of earning money is a way of providing a good environment for the cows as humanly possible, but at the same time, [this film is] also telling the story from going from small farming to industrialization because we’ve lost the time of when we actually named animals. If you start naming animals, you probably would eat a lot more vegetarian. We also like the fact that even though that Jens does a lot of bad stuff, he has a good heart and that’s the conflict within the film. You like Jens, you understand him, but oh my God, he has to go through a lot of stuff, like a gunslinger.

There is a wonderful free-floating style to the camerawork that doesn’t appear to be handheld, but also not heavily guided either. How did you get that quality?

We shot the movie in long sequences and his camera could just drift around, so [we hired cinematographer] Sturla Grøvlen, who won the special award for extraordinary achievement at Berlin for “Victoria” to take advantage of these 360 locations. It was very much about trying to take the costume out of a costume drama, to almost go to it as if it was a [present-day] drama. We never really separating anything by saying, “Oh, you wouldn’t do this,” or “you wouldn’t behave like that in those days.” It was much more [that the characters are] under this amount of pressure, so they would probably do this or this. He sticks his hand in the corn to figure out if it’s still wet, and those [moments] give us a chance to create a flow where the camera’s always just trying to catch whatever moment appeared. Sturla was great at that, trying to make a movie which was picturesque but still authentic. When people are wearing costumes like that, I think any director knows that it can very quickly turn into a melodrama – bad acting in costumes. You pay twice the price.

What is it like getting to the finish line with this and to the premiere?

It’s great. The butterfly joke worked better last year with “Papillon,” but I still have butterflies in my stomach, of course. I’m proud and I’m really happy for the friendship that I have with the actors now. It was quite an experience to shoot two movies almost back to back and now I’m going to have a long writer’s break so that’s going to be good for my health and for my family. But actually it was great fun shooting two period movies back to back. I love shooting, and when I was 17 years old, I never thought I was going to be able to make movies, so I just feel blessed. The great job of being a director is that you get these different phases, so now I’m looking forward to the phase of cocooning myself and trying to write.

“Before the Frost” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play at CPH PIX on September 27th and the Chicago Film Festival on October 16th, 17th and 18th at the AMC River East 21.