At the New Zealand International Film Festival, a conversation with Daniel Joseph Borgman ahead of the Australasian premiere of his debut feature, The Weight of Elephants.
Through an intense commitment to the inner world of a shy, sensitive young boy, Daniel Joseph Borgman has delivered a subtly distinctive Kiwi coming-of-age film. Respecting the solitude of his 11-year-old protagonist Adrian while also acknowledging the pain and fragility of lonesomeness, Borgman’s debut feature hinges on the candour of first-time actor Demos Murphy—a cliché to say so, but a remarkably vulnerable performance in a national cinema already blessed with indelible child performers. Outside of Adrian’s private sphere of imagination, Borgman evinces the emotional and material weight of his surroundings, and through this, there’s an all too real sense of his incongruity, whether it be in the home of his strained surrogate family, through the awkward feeling of speaking in class and not being heard, or walking the gauntlet of mean-spirited pupils during recess at school. Indeed, there’s a hyper-sensitivity from both actor and director towards the small yet momentous movements of daily life depicted within the film’s overarching narrative of child abduction in the deep south: where actions and reactions, incidents and observations, however seemingly insignificant, can build to something of grave consequence or personal importance.
Hailing from Invercargill by way of Copenhagen, Borgman sat down to discuss The Weight of Elephants’s co-production agreement with Zentropa, the differences between European and New Zealand sensibilities, and finding his feet as a filmmaker. Photography by Daniel Rose.
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TIM WONG: You’ve come back to New Zealand to make a film with European co-funding about childhood experience, about a coming-of-age, for want of a better term. Without wanting to sound churlish, as a national cinema we have made a lot of films of this nature, maybe too many. Why are our filmmakers constantly drawn to filtering their stories through the eyes of children, and what makes your film different?
DANIEL JOSEPH BORGMAN: I don’t know why there are so many films about kids. In New Zealand, we don’t make a lot of films, and we especially don’t make a lot of big films. When I think about what New Zealand films have been made, it feels like we make a lot of films about kids because we’ve had a few films with children in them that have been successful. I don’t know if that’s the reason or not, though.
I’m an author/director. I don’t make a film because anyone else does, or to be different either. I make a film because I want to make it. And I don’t really feel the need to justify its existence. You could say what’s different about The Weight of Elephants is that it’s my voice, a special voice, for better or for worse. Some people really don’t like it, and some people really appreciate it. My job is to just improve on that voice, and become more grown up in my approach to that and to the audience. And I’m also trying to find my feet as a filmmaker. If it works out, it works out, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
TW: Has living and working between Denmark and New Zealand, and especially in Denmark, helped cultivate your authorship?
DB: The culture [in Europe] is geared more towards the director. It goes without saying that the director gets final say in things. And while there is also an important step to make in what you do is commercial, or what you do is for an audience, it’s still much less important than it is here. The audiences there seem more willing to be pushed towards content that isn’t the easiest thing to see. I think that’s a culture they’ve created over many years, and that’s been created over many different levels. There’s definitely a strong director presence there.
TW: Were there any difficulties you encountered with the co-production arrangement as far as half of it coming from Europe, and the New Zealand Film Commission having a stake in it as well? Were you compromised in any way?
DB: Well, I’m not very compromising, I don’t think. I just do my thing. And if they didn’t really like what I was doing, then I guess they wouldn’t have funded it [laughs]. But there were definitely differences. Not problems, but differences in the way things work. Occasionally, one party would be surprised by the other party, or vise versa. Not in a bad way, but a learning way. The film’s main producer is Zentropa, which is Danish, and the film’s main investor is the New Zealand Film Commission. In a sense that’s kind of weird because it’s much easier for Zentropa to talk with the Danish film institute, and for the New Zealand Film Commission to talk with our New Zealand producer. And the editing was all done in Denmark, so there’s room for problems in communication. But everyone approached the project with goodwill. We all wanted the best for the film.
TW: I sense that you wanted to pare back the formal aspects of the film—less dialogue, less action, more observation. Again, is that something you were free to explore within the arrangement?
DB: If I could do it again, I would take even more out of it and pare it even further back. A lot of the compromises made on the film weren’t made because of pressure from financers or producers; they were made because I was young and naive and still figuring things out. And I’m still doing that, but I’ve figured a few more things out now. The process is all very intuitive. So when people ask me about stuff, I figure it out as I go. But it’s probably becoming less intuitive. At the end of this film, I suddenly got an overview of what I was doing, and now I’m a bit more aware. Next time, it will feel more decided in a way, if that makes sense.
TW: The stereotype of European cinema is that it is controlled, analytical, and sometimes cold. Do you want to make films that way? Is the style through which you’ve shot and edited The Weight of Elephants part of the learning process, or closer to the way you actually want to make films?
DB: I want to get looser and looser and looser, actually. I don’t think European cinema is always cold, I think there’s a lot going on. I want to get to the point where it’s really about having a collection of elements, choosing them, and bringing them together. A framework for a scene, a bunch of great characters, a cast who know their characters, and a great team. I really just want to ‘jam’ my way through films in the future, I think. But that takes more experience.
TW: Was the production rushed? Did you have the time to ‘jam’, as you put it?
DB: We had more time than some people do. But it was an ambitious shoot. It feels like a small film, but it was quite tough. Also working with children, it’s time consuming. We were always in a hurry so that we could take the time, if that makes sense. We were always maxing out our time. It wasn’t a cruisy shoot. But it was a shoot where we put a lot of emphasis on making sure that what we were shooting was what we wanted to be shooting. And making sure that were always exploring what were doing. But I think that just makes you busier in a way.
TW: In hindsight, now that you’ve gained some distance from the film, how do you feel about the self-contained prologue? It’s a bold move to have us enter into the film from that point of view, only for the question regarding the whereabouts of the missing children to bleed out and eventually fade into the background. It’s certainly not resolved in any way, which we shouldn’t necessarily expect, because missing person cases often go unsolved in real life. Tell me about managing that within the film?
DB: My next film has a prologue too. I quite like prologues. And I’ve discovered that I quite like monologues. But then again, they’re two things that need special treatment, as does a nested anti-story. And the weird thing is, is that I’m writing a new film that also has this mystery within it, even though the film itself is a point of view drama, a really close portrait of one character, which is what The Weight of Elephants is too. I don’t know if I repeat my mistakes without ever thinking about it, or if it is something that I’m trying to become good at using, or if it will end up being some kind of trademark. I’ve certainly found that having these alternate elements, sometimes they were a handicap, like chains that bound us, and they also weren’t the easiest things to have in the edit suite. But there’s something interesting about it as well. So I haven’t resolved anything, really. I wish that the intro was more beautiful.
TW: Do questions aimed at the prologue come up a lot in Q&As? Because it’s an arresting sequence, but it’s also a loaded one, especially with the last image, where the camera tantalizingly tilts up, and the face of the alleged kidnapper is obscured.
DB: Maybe it’s a bit hammy. I think we could have done it better. But then again, some people really like it.
TW: The portrayal of school life, I have to say, is sadly accurate. It’s horrible and uninviting in the way that I remember it, that’s for sure. Is it based on your own experience of growing up?
DB: Without it being 1:1, I had times at school when I was popular, and times at school when I was the victim of bullying, and times at school when I did things to other people in order to feel safe. Not only in my childhood, but also in my teens. We’re probably still doing it as adults, it’s just more subtle. I know some people who have seen the film, especially in Europe, who feel that the danger in the schoolyard is heightened. But for me it felt very normal of New Zealand schools.
TW: Schools are inhospitable environments for sensitive, introverted kids, and your film shows how us how hard it is for them to co-exist with the outgoing, aggressively extroverted kids, in part because schools overvalue the alpha-type personality. And as you say, this goes for adult life, too, such as in workplaces. Were the situations you put your young actor (Demos Murphy) in at any point too close to the bone?
DB: Demos is surprisingly cool. He’s the kind of kid who floats into a room and then five minutes later everyone wants to hang out with him. But he’s also disinterested in being the cool kid, or being the outsider, so he has a magic ability to transcend that. I guess for him it wasn’t such a big problem. He could empathise with Adrian without every feeling too overwhelmed. I think that was really important, and also why he was so hard to find. Trying to find a child who existed outside of the usual rules, who was grounded in himself, but at the same time was sensitive to the needs of the people around him. I think he’s a very special person.
TW: And the kids you cast to effectively bully him, were they aware at all times that they were just pretending?
DB: They became a weird pack unto themselves, which the second and third ADs had some problems with. But they embraced their role, and they enjoyed it. And they’re also good kids. I think the bullies in the film, if we picked one of them and decided to make a film about them, there would be things to love about them as well.
TW: This is spoiler for people who haven’t seen the film but are reading this. You’ve reversed the ending of the book [Sonya Hartnett’s Of a Boy]. Was that a difficult decision?
DB: It was. But a lot has changed from the book. It wasn’t difficult for the book’s sake, but it was difficult for my sake. The thing is that—and I talked about this in Berlin—I wanted to tell a story about the way that small things in life can stack up and become overwhelming, and the way that people’s actions can have a big effect on other people, even if their actions seem mundane and ordinary. And I wanted to tell a story about how if you are searching for other people to make you feel worthwhile, that you have to learn to find that in yourself first. I didn’t want to make a film about if the world is hard and terrible, then you’ll die. From the point of view of concluding the events of the film, it was tough to decide on the ending, but from a character and thematic point of view, the kids just couldn’t die in the end. It was difficult, but actually it was really simple.
TW: In the end, it was the logical choice.
DB: Yeah, there was no other choice really.
TW: How do you divide your time between Europe and New Zealand?
DB: It depends. Because of The Weight of Elephants, I have been in New Zealand much more than usual. My home, my house, is in Denmark, and I don’t have a place here. When I’m in New Zealand, I’m either in Auckland or down south in Invercargill where my family is. It feels like I spend maybe five months of the year in New Zealand, and seven in Europe.
TW: As a filmmaker and artist, do you identify more with either culture?
DB: I don’t know anymore. My neighbourhood is Nørrebro in Copenhagen. I identify strongly with that as my space. But my culture is southern New Zealand. I don’t identify with Aucklanders at all, because I don’t know anything about Auckland culture. It’s like a whole other country. But down south, I really do identify with that part of the world.
TW: Are there any New Zealand filmmakers or Danish/European filmmakers that you have an affinity with?
DB: My contemporaries, the filmmakers I grow with, are Danish. But then again, in Denmark, the filmmakers come from all over, so they are Iranian, Iraqi, Romanian, and German. And I identify very strongly with Danish filmmakers in terms of people I look up to. But I’m beginning to find a network here. And I’m really looking forward to growing that network and having more filmmaking friends in this country.
TW: Is it hard for you to keep up with what’s being made in New Zealand?
DB: It shouldn’t be hard, because it’s really easy to watch films these days. I’m really looking forward to seeing Greg King’s new short film, which isn’t finished yet. I’ve been watching a lot of short films from New Zealand, and I’m really looking forward to seeing those directors make their features. I haven’t seen Two Little Boys, and I haven’t seen The Orator, which I really should have seen by now. I would like to see Giselle here. I’ve seen Boy, obviously. I should’ve seen Shopping, because I know Mark and Louis, we were in Berlin together, but at Berlin we were just so busy.
TW: Have you seen Top of the Lake yet?
DB: Yeah, I actually really went out of my way to see that. That was the last New Zealand production I saw. I enjoyed it. I think the crime drama in it was the weakest part of it. But I really liked the universe.