Danish filmmaker Mads Matthiesen is a new voice who has quickly emerged as an international filmmaker on the rise. After making several shorts which can best be described as intimate character studies, his two short films Cathrine and Dennis proved to be his breakouts. Dennis ultimately resulted in his feature film debut Teddy Bear, focused on the same main character, a lovable, shy body-builder looking for love. That film earned him the best directing award at Sundance and international status in the film industry. His new film, The Model, takes on a different industry and takes a very different approach to another character looking for love…this time 16 year old model Emma, who’s just arrived in Paris. While both films are essentially come of age travel films, the poignant lonely love story of Teddy Bear is replaced with a psychological thriller in The Model. As he did with the casting of professional body-builder Kill Kold in Teddy Bear, Matthiesen once again casts a non-professional actor in the title role, model Maria Palm in her first acting job. The film also features actor Ed Skrein (Deadpool) as a Shane, a photographer and object of Palm’s affection. I spoke with Matthiesen about directing his second feature film in Paris, setting it in the fashion world, and identifying with a young, female anti-hero.
What connection did you have to the fashion industry before starting this film?
I had friends in the industry, but was never close to the industry. But I’ve always thought it would be an interesting industry to work in. And it has some similarities to the film business, because fashion is a business but it’s also an art form. But I wasn’t an expert on the fashion business, so I had to do a lot of research on the industry and profession.
What sparked you’re interested in the subject?
I always thought the travel these girls make, at such a young age being on their own in foreign countries and learning about this hard business and making money, was an interesting journey to take and full con conflict. All these journeys take on an aspect of coming of age. They are young girls taking on a hardcore industry that is all about sex and money, all things they probably don’t know that much about yet. So I always thought it was interesting that they were so young when they started, and turned these young women into sex objects. And the fashion industry is all about what’s not real and presenting our fantasies, a world that’s not really there. So to for these young girls just to be coming of age in an unreal world has to be very confusing for them. Some of these girls I met while making the film, they went through a lot of inner conflict. But I also wanted to simply make a female coming of age story, what it’s like for her to confront the adult life for the first time on her own. It takes place in the fashion industry, but should connect with a lot of young girls and comment on what it’s like to simply grow up?
What kind of research did you have to do?
When I started to write, I met with a lot of people who work in the industry. I traveled to Paris to follow a girl during fashion week, to see what goes on. I also followed a photographer to get their side of it. But when I started casting, it was important to me that we found a real fashion model, not a beautiful actress. I wanted it to be a girl who had done this and could still work as a model. We cast the part over 8 months and saw over 60 girls for the main part, all over the world. And that’s when I met a lot of girls, and talked to them during the casting process, which was really inspiring. I got to meet a range of girls who worked in the industry and have different experiences. Then, when we finally found Maria Palm, she was also helping me while filming because she’s been modeling for years. She has plenty of experience standing on the runway and doing photoshoots. It was like having an expert on set every day right beside me.
Did Maria get started as a teenager?
She was sixteen when she first started, and we filmed when she was 19 or 20. So she’s lived through the kind of travel I mentioned. The character of Emma is of course very different from Maria, but she knew about traveling around the world as a teenager and working in fashion when you’re underage. She’s been through a lot of the experience we show Emma going through, when you’re in the middle of a photo shoot and feel uncomfortable. She was a first time actor, but playing a role within her industry helped her a lot. I wanted to cast a lot of people within the industry, not just the models, but the professionals who work on photo shoots. We had real stylists and real bookers to get the realism in the film. We had real people from the industry working on the photo shoots playing characters that did their actual profession.
It’s an interesting line between documentary and narrative, because these non-actors are still playing characters. What do you feel having real people playing roles like themselves does for the audiences and for you as the director?
The casting process is completely different, because I’m encouraging them to be themselves on screen. For me, I feel I’m getting closer to reality. When the actors are playing characters who do something they do in their real-lives and work with people doing the same, they often relax and almost seem to forget that they’re acting. The old form of acting called method, is all about actors getting so involved that they seem to forget they’re in the movie. I often feel I can get something even closer to reality from these actors because they don’t feel like they’re pretending. Of course that approach has its limitations, because you can’t have a non-actor playing a character totally different from themselves. But it creates something different and unique on screen. The energy is different than when you have two professional actors on screen. Also, this and my last film, Teddy Bear, need actors with very specific looks. Teddy Bear was about a body-builder, so they need to look like body-builders. Emma had to look a young, high-end fashion model.
We’re so used to seeing Paris reflected in the fashion world in photos and advertisements, a high gloss, romantic city is how we’ve seen it in print. When it came to filming in the city, what did you want the Paris to look like on screen and feel like for Emma?
We worked with the cinematographer and art department to make sure the city looked beautiful, but also rough. That was part of the reason we filmed on location in Paris. It’s a beautiful place, but we wanted to show the roughness of the city as well. That was also the way we shot the film. It couldn’t simply look beautiful to Emma, it had to be beautiful and disgusting. That’s the essence of the movie. We also shot on location so it looked current and modern, and showed what’s new in Paris. So we just kept saying it should be beautiful, but never too beautiful. We talked about a few cities when we started planning, Milan, Paris, London, New York. But then I decided it should be Paris because Paris is all part of Emma’s allusions of what being a model will be. It’s the fashion capital but also the city of love, and Emma dreams of experiencing both when she goes there. She comes to Paris with the same images and reference that we all have from fashion magazines.
I notice that the way you filmed Emma, although you’re following her very closely and capturing very intimate moments, you always kept a certain distance with the camera. You don’t have a lot of close-ups of her and the camera always seems to be a few feet away, keeping her in mid-shot. Was there a reason you wanted audiences to take this journey with her but always feel a bit of distance as observers?
I’ve done a few movies in that style, and I wanted to make it clear that we’re actively following her all the time, but we’re on her journey. It’s similar to the way we think of Cinéma vérité documentaries. And I think it works to make audiences feel like they’re getting closer to her as the story progresses, by going on travels she’s essentially taking us on. I had a new DP on this film, and I think he did a great job. I can’t wait to work with him again.
Did you pull from any influences from other films or filmmakers for this film?
There’s not particular movie that was an inspiration for this film. My style is very rough and realistic, and I find I’m just inspired by meeting people in fields and industry that interest me and make me want to learn more about something new to me. It’s important for me to meet with these people and get their input, even though all my projects ultimately have my views.
Another film about the fashion industry came out this year, The Neon Demon, but the two are incredibly different. That was a more stylized presentation of the fashion world, but it was also somewhat crueler towards the characters and all about narcissism. And this film addressed the ego and shows Emma making some horrible choices, but is far kinder and shows compassion towards her Emma. Are you a filmmaker who has to have compassion or like your main characters?
When I set out to make the movie, I wanted a character that would make stupid and wrong decisions, decisions which can make her very unlikable. Because that’s the way people act in real life. They make mistakes, they can be selfish. It can be dangerous to do that with your main character, because it goes against that belief that you need to sympathize with your main character. But I wanted to try it with this one. Emma reacts the way a lot of people would when they feel pushed into a corner, they can react badly. I know what you mean, and the girls in Neon Demon had similar desires and ambitions as Emma, but for me, it was important that you can understand the main character’s choices and have sympathy for her, even if you disagree. When I make a movie, I try to use my own views of the main characters to make the audience feel the same way towards her. I’ve not been sixteen year old girl so I haven’t experienced everything she’s gone through, but I feel I do understand all her choices and why she makes the bad choices she makes.
It’s funny that you make the comment about not being a sixteen year old girl, because it gets to the question of male directors telling stories about female protagonists. Did you feel you could relate to her the same way you could relate to your male protagonist in a movie like Teddy Bear?
In many way, I probably related more to Emma than I related to the character of Dennis in Teddy Bear. I’ve never been a body-builder or committed to that kind of fitness regime. But not understanding people like him was part of the reason I wanted to make that movie, and it’s the same reason I wanted to make The Model. I wanted to understand why young women put themselves through that. But I think I could better understand her desire to be seen as beautiful, because I’m an artist too. From my side, it’s always inspiring to tackle something I don’t go in really understanding, but that I want to understand and learn about during the process. I want to understand the people who take part in something I don’t. If I knew and understood the person 100% when I started, I wouldn’t want to make a movie about it. When I do a movie, I want to get to know the person I’m creating. But people have said male directors should tell male stories and female directors should tell female stories, but I don’t think that’s always true. And sometimes it’s good to have a little distance between the filmmaker and the main character. Sometimes, when the main character is too close to yourself, sometimes you can’t see them and be honest. I think wanting to have main characters very different from me is part of humanism. Part of the reason I wanted to become a filmmaker was to understand different sides of life and perspectives, in order to feel closer to people.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)