Loss and laughter

Lasse Lyskjær Noer and Christian Norlyk on grief, humour and Knight Of Fortune

by Jennie Kermode

Knight Of Fortune
Knight Of Fortune

An exploration of grief which mixes absurdist comedy with deep human feeling, Oscar-nominated short film Knight Of Fortune tells the story of a man who visits a morgue to take a last look at his dead wife, only to meet a stranger who will change the way he thinks about his future. It’s directed by Lasse Lyskjær Noer and produced by Christian Norlyk. Just after the nomination was announced, I met up with them to discuss it.

“It's quite amazing,” Lasse said. “We really didn't expect it. There were some huge studios like Disney, Sony and Netflix [in the race], so we weren't expecting it. So we were quite surprised. But happy, of course.

“Hopefully because it moved them in some way. I think what our film has is that you can laugh and you can cry and hopefully you carry some sort of message out from the cinema after you watch this.”

“Me and Lasse have been making films together since were in high school,” says Christian. “We've been using this as sort of a grand motivation. When were younger, I especially had the audacity to sometimes say that all this was the end goal and we wanted to see if we could achieve that. But as you know, obviously you need a good film, but also you need to put a lot of work in before and be lucky and all that stuff.

“The pure surprise stems from the way that it was all filled up this year, like Lasse said, with the studio films. Also the way that voting went from not just being the short film academy but a bigger academy of, I think, 2,000 voters. We thought, okay, well, that might be it for us. So when we saw our name, it was like, it's the best day of our lives.”

They worked on the film with another producer, Kim Magnusson, whose film Ivalu made the shortlist last year.

“For me and Lasse, everything we're doing now is for the first time,” says Christian. “So it was nice to have the experience that Kim delivers. He was a tremendous shoulder to lean once in a while. The film started with a script competition that we won. He was the guy saying that, ‘Oh, this project we want to do.’ So he helped with the financing in the beginning as well.”

We discuss the timing of the film and the fact that a lot of people are dealing with loss at the moment and trying to understand grieving. Lasse says that his experience of loneliness during Covid lockdowns was an influence on the way it developed.

“The idea came when I was dealing with loss myself, and I had some personal losses, and I was at the morgue a couple of times, which is not a very pleasant place, to say the least. It's white walls and very sterile and unwelcoming. The only warmth comes from the relatives, the friends, the family you have around you. And I was lucky to have that. So I was thinking, what if you don't have that? What if you had to go through this pain all by yourself? That would be the worst thing, to feel completely alone, having lost the most important person in your life.”

We're not very good generally, as a society, at talking about grief, I suggest. They have used humour in the past, tackling subjects like this. Did humour seem like the natural way to break past those barriers and get people talking?

“Yeah, I think humour puts us closer together,” Lasse says. When you're sitting in a cinema and you're laughing together, it's this relief, and we suddenly feel closer with the guy, the girl sitting next to us, in some way. Also, I think humour is also part of grieving. I think it's this divine defence mechanism in some way that if you laugh about something – it could be the person you've lost – you tell a story about that person and you laugh together and maybe for two or three seconds you forget the pain. It fits in this story, of course, and like you say, it's a natural way to tackle tough subjects, at least for me.”

Having two characters grieving in very different ways perhaps helps people to recognise what an individual thing it is, and that there’s no one right way to go about it.

“Yeah, sure. Grief wears many different faces and it's very individual. That's also one of the things I try to show in this film, that we all act differently, but we have to respect each other in spite of that.”

Christian notes that the process of gathering at the morgue with the whole family to say goodbye is “a very Danish thing.”

“I think we talked a lot about how it's not uncommon to have, say, your uncle or dad making a joke about the traffic in the background in that moment,” he says. “That's what attracted me to the story. It was so human because you have the profound sadness, but you also have the laughter. And even though it seems like different ends of the scale, it's like they're very connected and none of the feelings are wrong. Every feeling is okay to feel.”

They filmed in an abandoned hospital, Lasse explains.

“We painted it a lot. I wanted to create this claustrophobic feeling. It had to have this blue-greenish tint to it – it was part of how I remember it being, there, but maybe a bit more extreme in this film. I wanted the people to carry the warmth and everything else had to be cold. So we decorated a lot, but we had it just for ourselves, so that was perfect. We could film all through a day with no break.”

There's a damaged light in the film. A flickering light is something that directors often use to create atmosphere, but they made it part of the story as well. How did that come about?

“I think it's inspired,” say Christian, crediting Lasse. “You said, I remember, it's easier for this guy to fix the problem. That's a lot about the main character, right? Instead of accepting his feelings, it's like, ‘Oh, this is something I can fix. I can't fix my feelings. ‘”

“Yeah, you're absolutely right,” Lasse says. “Of course, there could have been something else that he had to fix, but this room is so cleansed from everything, there's nothing there except light. So, yeah, I think that's why it probably ended up being the light. But one of the things we actually had to focus on when we were putting up the light, we had to have all the light from above. It would create shadows down their faces so there was this duality to life and death also in their faces, which was kind of beautiful. It was also great work by Lasse Ulvedal Tolbøll.”

Christian nods. “To me, what's really important about the light, it's like, when you see the first few bits of this film, as a viewer, you're going in between ‘Oh, what is this? Is this a tear jerker? Is this going to be very dramatic and very sad?’ And I think, to me, what I love about the light is – because we've seen this with an audience all over the world – it's fun to experience that moment in the theatre, because that's where people realise you're actually allowed to laugh during this. This is a dark comedy and here's your green light, that you can laugh a bit as well.”

I ask about the technical work in the film. A lot of the rooms are really small, especially in the toilets. How did they fit all the equipment in and actually keep control of the sound and so on?

“That was also quite hard, actually, with the toilet,” says Lasse. “We were looking for a long time to find the right toilet. We have some behind the scenes shots from the toilet, and you can see that it was very difficult to have the camera in there with the actor. He had to stay on the toilet, and then we moved all the equipment into the toilet, and then he couldn't move from there. So it must have been very claustrophobic for him.

“I've worked with Leif Andrée on a commercial before. We were actually looking for a Danish actor for the main character in the beginning, but we just couldn't find the right one that seemed to be really dedicated to the story. So were looking for a long time, and then Christian told me ‘Let's try to send the script to Leif Andrée. So we did, and he called me back and he said that he had read it four times and he cried all those times. It was something that he really wanted to do because he had just been through something similar. So it just felt like the right path, and I knew he was a great actor.

“I actually had to change the script a little bit, so he was suddenly a Swedish guy living in Denmark, so he was actually speaking partly Swedish, partly Danish. It actually gave something to the story. If he lost his wife, he would feel completely alone, because it's often the wife taking care of the social network. So often when men are bereaved, they feel more alone and they are not very good at reaching out to that sort of support system.

“With Jens, when I wrote the script, I'd actually sort of seen him in this role, but I knew he was a very busy Danish actor and he probably wouldn't have had the time. So were trying to cast different people, but suddenly Christian was speaking with his agent and she suddenly called back and said that he had time to read the script. He really liked it. But in the end, his character is singing. So I was asking him on the phone, ‘Can you sing this song?’ And he sang it to me, and it was so beautiful. And then I just knew that he was right for the part.

“He's a great actor, so dedicated. We were spending a lot of time together, fixing small things in the dialogue. He would say ‘I can show this, Lasse, we don't need to say this.’ So that was absolutely perfect. “

“They were both very professional, but very different,” says Christian. Leif, as Karl, is very method. On day one, we had only longer shots further away, and we had the wedding ring ready for him, but not on location. It was at another place because we didn't need it with the wider shots. And he didn't want to go in front of the camera without the ring because he's like, ‘This character would never be without the wedding ring on.’ It was just like, if you gave him what he needed, then he would give his all. I sometimes just stood in the background just watching.”

We talk about the end of the film, which won’t be spoiled here, but Lasse notes that it was important to end on a positive note.

“My hope is that we leave these two characters at a time where there's this aspiring friendship. I've been asked a lot if I'm going to make a feature film with these two, but I don't think I will because I really like that the audience can fantasise about what could happen between these two. I think they're going to need each other after this and I think they want to be there for each other after what they've been through.”

Christian agrees. “We talked about how just looking your grief in the eye, daring to be in that moment, to face your grief, it's a very important thing in terms of moving on. And that's what I like about the two characters. They hit grief on two different ends of the spectrum.”

“They also feel guilty, both of them,” says Lasse, and he suggests that if they can forgive each other then that’s the start of a journey which might lead to them forgiving themselves.

“We have the next feature in the works, that Lasse is writing,” Christian says, “but obviously, we realise that getting Oscar-nominated will change the trajectory of any career that is, at least in early stages, like it is with us, in terms of fiction work. So now we're just all in on campaigning with this film, and we will see what happens.”

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