Oscar Winning Director Bille August on ‘The Kiss,’ His Craft, the Streamers

Oscar and double Palme d’Or winning director Bille August (“The Best Intentions”, “Pelle the Conqueror”) is attending the Göteborg Film Festival for a Director’s Talk and the gala screening of his psycho-drama “The Pact”.

He will also pitch at the adjoining Nordic Film Market (Feb. 3-6), the work in progress of his upcoming Danish pic “The Kiss”.

August spoke exclusively to Variety about “The Kiss,” his enduring interest in the complexity of human beings, book-to-screen adaptations and his belief in the big screen experience.

Loosely based on Stefan Zweig’s novel “Beware of Pity and transposed from an Austrian to a Danish setting, “The Kiss” is a romantic drama set in 1913. The helmer has reunited with “A Fortunate Man”’s lead Espen Smed, cast as cavalry officer trainee Anton. Introduced to Baron von Løvenskjold’s daughter Edith, a wheelchair user following an accident, Anton is attracted to her, but unsure if his feelings are of pity or true love.

Starring alongside Smed are Clara Rosager (“The Rain,” “Before the Frost”), David Dencik (“No Time To Die”, “The Chestnut Man”), Lars Mikkelsen (“Borgen”, “Ride Upon the Storm”) and Rosalinde Mynster (“Persona Non Grata,” ”Darkness: Those Who Kill”).

Produced by Thomas Heinesen for Nordisk Film Production and Lars Sylvest (“Robots”, “Cliffhanger”), the film is due to open in August in Denmark.

LevelK is handling world sales.

What was the genesis for “The Kiss” and what attracted you to the story?

Originally the film was meant to be a more international co-production but for several reasons it didn’t go through. I was so much in love with the story, and keen to make it happen, that I decided to turn it into a Danish story, to have a better control of the financing process.

“The Kiss” is freely adapted from a Stefan Zweig’s novel “Beware of Pity.” Now it is set in Denmark, just before the outbreak of WW1. It’s probably one of the most beautiful and peculiar stories that exists, about the love between the soldier Anton and handicapped girl Edith. There is a profound humanity in the story, that makes it relevant and important today for a wide audience.

The film deals with exclusion, bullying, which is a real issue in our societies, and why I feel the story has to be told. It exposures the reasons why intolerance happens. And tolerance, compassion and healing are themes that I’m very fond of.

The complexity of love relationships is a recurrent theme in your films. We’ve seen it earlier in “The Best Intentions,” “A Fortunate Man” and “The Pact,” for instance….

Yes. I love stories about the complexity of human beings, that dive into the secret side of people. And telling it in a dramatic context is super interesting.

Do you feel that the complexity of the human soul deepens as we grow in age?

It does! It is strange. You would think that with age, you know more about human beings and that things get clearer. But it’s not the case. That’s the beauty of it. At the same time, there is always a healing process, and it is possible to dig into the human soul to unravel this complexity.

You’ve done many literary adaptations over the years. What was the challenge of transferring this story into a Danish content?

First of all, when you decide to make a film based on a novel, you have to decide what’s the story in the story that you want to tell, and you have to dare to be unfaithful to the novel in order to be faithful. Otherwise you risk creating illustrated literature, which doesn’t work.

For me, a lot of great films in history are literary adaptations. like “The Godfather,” “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest” or “The Shawshank Redemption.” It is the director’s role to decide how to make the stories work for the big screen.

Did you have Esben Smed in mind when you wrote the script? And how did you cast Clara Rosager as the young handicapped Edith?

I knew Esben very well after “A Fortunate Man” and wanted him to do this part from the beginning. He goes deep into a character and has a leading quality to carry a movie. He is so perceptive, clever and wonderful to work with.

Regarding Clara, I wanted an actress who had the beauty, the innocence, and a great quality as an actress. We did a lot of casting with different actors but when I saw her I knew it was right. She is amazing. It will be her big breakthrough.

When you do a love story, as director and storyteller, it’s all about engaging and you have to find this magic connection between actors, to make audiences believe in their relationship. There has to be a chemistry, an urgency for characters to be together. And you should want the relationship to happen, even if it’s forbidden.

I believe photography was your very first love and introduction to the visual world. How was your collaboration with cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov on this film?

He is a great photographer and works a lot in the U.K., with John Madden among others.

Yes I did start as cinematographer, and have a pretty clear vision about how I want a film to look, regarding the light. Light influences the truth of the story, the characters’ lives.

Here, I didn’t want the film to look like a period film. Thanks to today’s cameras that are super sensitive, we were able to shoot with the existing light, which makes it so beautiful and authentic.

I guess advances in technology enable you to fully concentrate on the actors…

Yes of course, my job is to make sure actors are comfortable and do their best. But you have to make it cinematically interesting. And a film has to be one piece. The level of acting, has to fit with the level of cinematography, costume, production design and so on. Again, when you look at “The Godfather,” everything is at the highest level. It all comes together as one piece, which makes it true and very cinematic. This is what makes film true art.

How do you feel about films being financed by streamers and many people watching films in their homes?

It’s true and not true. I think it’s great that we have so many platforms. However, when I go to a cinema, I can see how people enjoy being in a dark room to watch a film. It allows them to have an open mind, to be like children again. When you’re watching a film at home, your concentration level is very different. You don’t have the same openness. It’s a different experience.

People who make films for streamers are aware of that. Films or TV dramas made for the small screen are for different concentration levels by the audience. They are perhaps less sophisticated.
A film made for the big screen, can be more ambitious and challenging in its film language, which I love. This is why I don’t think films in cinemas will ever die.

You rarely have a break between each film. What drives you?

I just love it! It’s not a job, more like a big hobby that I’m lucky to be paid for. And if you are surrounded by the right crew, actors and have a great story – it’s fantastic. It stimulates my curiosity to dive into different universes and to try to find the best cinematic form for each project.

Do you have favourite films in your filmography?

I’ve made so many films. Already when I start shooting, I know if it will work or not. It’s horrible when you start filming and you realise – for whatever reason, that something is wrong. Other times, you feel things come together magically.

After finishing a film, it’s key to reflect and recognise the mistakes you’ve made, not to repeat them and learn from your experience.

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