Director Profile – Casper Balslev
The Danish delight discusses his shift from photography to film, and his undying love for Stanley Kubrick.
Mr.Frank director Casper Balslev is best known for his high-profile music videos, working with major artists such as alt-J and Marina & The Diamonds. But he came from much humbler beginnings, originally working as a documentary photographer. Inspired by his high-flying (literally) father, he still brings the same "vibrant spontaneity" to all his work.
Have you ever lived abroad or has it always been Denmark?
Well I travel a lot, so it often feels like I’m living abroad, and I’ve certainly spent a lot of time in a lot of places. But I’ve always kept my address in Denmark. Maybe when I was doing more documentaries and photography I’d spend longer periods away, but right now i tend to just go for a few weeks here and there to work, and then I take a few weeks as holidays…
Are your documentary projects self-initiated? Do you just choose a place and go?
Well my background is in photojournalism, where I worked for many years. Back then I was doing a lot of personal projects and travelling around – digging up stories, going out and photographing them. Now I’d say music videos are my sort of ‘personal project’ and I don’t get to do this type of thing so much because it’s so time-consuming and I don’t have so much time.
Your dad worked as an aerial photographer right? How did that influence you growing up?
Well an aerial photographer is just someone who photographs things from the sky. So my dad had his own little aeroplane… but he crashed and died when I was eight. And one of my sisters also worked in photo editing, so I was really surrounded by it, we had a little darkroom at home, everything. My father would have so many cameras around the house, and I would sometimes go out with him on assignments in his plane. It’s not something I ever really thought about… but it always seemed pretty simple to pick up.
So what made you make the shift from photography to film?
I guess I always liked films… like, really liked films, was always super interested in them. I think some of my fondest memories as a child were of watching films – you know, staying up late, watching films with my mum, my sisters, my cousins… getting exposed to different stories and new worlds. When I was younger, it felt like a very hard world to enter, and I just didn’t know how to get into it really. So that’s also why I picked up photography, it just felt much easier to communicate and express yourself visually. And after that i just started to do my own thing. I was always very into music videos, and really influenced by Chris Cunningham and Jonathan Glazer. I was really into their style and those kinds of videos, so I just started to make my own and then everything picked up from there.
Did you have to buy a new camera? Because your photography work is mostly analogue?
Well my first music video with Robert Green was actually shot on a stills camera, so it was more like an animatic approach. I basically took my camera and walked through some very ‘natural’ landscapes, setting the focal point very far in the distance. So I could take a photo, walk two or three metres, take another, walk couple of metres, take another photo… So in the final video, you would just fly through these landscapes. It took me several months to shoot it, and I think the video is made out of something like 18,000 stills. I didn’t have access to any equipment or anything back then, but that was a way that I could bring something very ambitious to the project. I took it very seriously even though there was zero budget.
I think you can still feel that documentary 'edge' in all your work – what makes that style so attractive to you?
Well documentary photography was always a good excuse to get into other people’s lives or new places – exploring with the camera really. And that quality has always been really interesting when I apply it to film work, at least in the way I look at locations or at people. It even shapes the way you plan a shoot. I mean, most of my films are quite scripted, but always scripted as if it were a documentary. I use a lot of street-cast people, who aren’t necessarily used to being in films. Then I like to play things out so that they can forget they’re even part of a film shoot.
So you normally do the casting yourself?
I used to do most of the casting myself, but now I generally work with casters. I have a really good relationship with them though, so they know exactly what I’m looking for.
Your music videos also have this really intimate, ‘real’ quality to them. Do you spend a lot of time with the artists before shooting, so you can really get to know them?
I think each video really has its own conditions, sometimes you don’t have any time at all prior to a shoot, sometimes you meet up with the artist for a cup of coffee before you’ve even put any ideas on paper. Right now I don’t do many videos that actually have the artist in them, so I’m more interested in a narrative approach. I feel like I’ve done my fair share of lip-sync…
You also use a lot of varied locations in your work. Is that something you enjoy, being in lots of very different places?
Yeah it’s fun! It’s also quite demanding and hard, because you’re usually working with a very tight schedule, with so many things you want to achieve. I think the best shoots… the best films I’ve done have been where we just go away for a weekend to shoot a section. And I always find those little sections are the most interesting, when you have a little bit more freedom, away from the label or client or whatever.
How much storyboarding do you do? Do you like to have everything very pre-planned?
I was actually on the phone with a storyboard artist just this morning! I do quite like to have everything planned out, because a lot of the films I shoot have so many different scenes, so sometimes it’s a little bit hard to keep an overview of all the ’key’ shots you want to keep in there. Like I did a music video for MØ, that was just a little video we shot in a town near where I grew up, way up north. We didn’t have any kind of planning for that except phone calls – we just called a few places then went there for two and a half days to shoot that, so it was a little bit improvised and freestyled. And then the commercial I did for Danish Railways: a large section of that film was just seven friends going for a weekend in a summer house, so we just did that for real. Again, there was no client or agency, just a small crew, and I think 50% of the finished film is all taken from that weekend.
And then when you shoot something like that do you sit down and edit it yourself as well?
No, that’s why I like to use an editor who can boil the whole thing down. With material like that there are so many little fragments which are completely accidental, and if you sit in the edit you start to fall in love with only the things which are the most obvious. It’s only when you spend a little more time with it that you start to discover and fall in love with the things which are much less obvious. It’s just a big puzzle, really.
You’ve said you don’t do so much photography and more, but what do you see as the real pros and cons of each medium, in terms of being able to communicate something?
With photography you can tell stories and really play with quite high-quality aesthetics pretty much on your own, you don’t have to rely upon the huge machine of a big production team, or have too many people around you in terms of achieving a story. With documentary you have to start seeing things as solutions, instead of boundaries, so you can really start to get under the skin of your subject. Then again, it’s also quite a lonely job, being a photographer… that’s something I don’t miss. I quite like the social aspect of making films, and collaborating with the DoPs, editors, producers, casting directors. Also it’s interesting to write something and see it develop, coming up with scripts and stories and then fitting them into structures.
So when you’ve finished a film and watch it back, what are you looking for? What makes you proud of a film?
Hmm, that’s a big question! I think in general it’s just the story and the process of achieving that story. If I had a good time, it’s usually visible in the final result. If I had a bad time, or if it was a bad concept or there was too much pressure or whatever, then that’s also visible. So I think if you have a great story or concept, then have a good time doing it, then it will always be visible. When everything’s very well crafted, when your cast is really ‘present’… it all just comes across, I can’t really describe it, it’s just more relaxed and natural. It’s hard to say because my films can be so different.
Are there any directors of a similar style to you that you really admire?
I think I’m mostly influenced by feature films, more classic feature film directors. Like, a source I’m always returning to is Stanley Kubrick – I really love him because he always did such diverse, different films. And you can see he also had a background as a photographer, a street photographer, and you can feel that documentary quality in all his work, whether its science fiction or a period film. So he’s always in the back of my mind somewhere.
When you’re filming now do you still experiment with technique and equipment, or are you more set in your ways?
Well it always comes down to wanting to develop yourself, or develop within the medium that you’re working. In some ways I think it’s the director’s job to be bored with what you did the last time, so it is always nice to throw in new techniques or ways to tell a story. Right now, I’ve done a lot of very documentary-handheld stuff, and I’m actually trying to be a bit more steady and precise in my latest films. Still trying to capture those same sorts of feelings, but with a slower, more considered camera. A little more with the characters, and a little less with the camera. Now the technical side is a little bit more secondary to me, I guess I have a little bit more headspace for the characters.
How is it living and working in Copenhagen? Is there a good creative scene?
Well, it’s a little small, I’d say. The commercial business is small, and the music video business is non-existent. But the cool thing about Denmark is that if you’re young and you have a good idea and the necessary drive, it’s quite easy to get your foot in the door, and get people excited to help you out. I think if I’d have lived in the UK it would have been pretty tough, at least when I was starting.
And for the last question, what’s your favourite film?
Well that’s tricky … I probably have like five or so. The film I’ve seen the most times ever is The Empire Strikes Back, maybe 100 times, maybe 150… it used to be once a week when I was a teenager. It’s obviously a great movie, but artistically it’s maybe not the best film ever. For that I would probably pick something by Stanley Kubrick, maybe 2001? And I also like Pulp Fiction. They’re all quite stylish films in their own way, I think.
You can check out a selection of Casper's work on his director's page here.