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Dispatch from Denmark: A Conversation with Final Cut for Real's Signe Byrge Sørensen

By Ken Jacobson

Signe Byrge Sørensen. Courtesy of Final Cut for Real.

Based in Copenhagen and run jointly by Signe Byrge Sørensen, Anne Köhncke, Monica Hellström and Heidi Elise Christensen, Final Cut for Real is one of the world's leading documentary production companies. Their slate includes such award-winning titles as Joshua Oppenheimer's path-breaking films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, and Pervert Park by Frida and Lasse Barkfors. During CPH:DOX, I stopped by the company's cozy offices in a modest, stylishly Danish old building to chat with co-founder and two-time Oscar-nominated producer Signe Byrge Sørensen about Final Cut for Real's history and its secret sauce for success.

One of the things that strikes me as unique is that there are four of you who produce here, right?

Signe Byrge Sørensen: Anne [Köhncke] and I started the company in 2009, also with Joshua [Oppenheimer] and editor Janus Billeskov Jansen. And then Monica Hellström came on board in 2010 and Heidi [Elise Christensen] came after a little on-and-off, but since 2013, she’s been here all the time. And then we have Maria [Kristensen, their Post Producer].

How did you and Anne know each other?

They've all studied film and media studies, except for me. I studied international development studies and communication in a different university, but Anne and I knew each other because we had both been young producers in an old company called Final Cut Productions. That was where we both worked on Everlasting Moments [a 2008 fiction film that was a Swedish-Danish co-production]. Anne came into that company because she wanted to do documentaries. She had done her thesis on the finance models of the Nordic countries, so she was very keen on doing documentaries. But when she started in the company, she got swallowed up by Everlasting Moments. Then she decided to work for a sales company that was focused on documentaries. When that closed, she became a commissioning editor at the danish broadcaster DR.

The old company Final Cut Productions closed in 2008. I had met Joshua in 2007 and started working on what became The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. In order for me to be sure that I could work on these projects, I had to have a company. Otherwise the old company would give over the project to someone else, and there was no guarantee that they would take me. So I called Anne and said, "You said you wanted to do documentaries; now is the time." And luckily she said yes.

You were the only one left from Final Cut Productons?

I was just employed. All the others were owners of the company. They made the old company dormant, then we started Final Cut for Real as a completely new company.

And were The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence the first two projects?

Well, we also had some projects that we took over from the old company. What became The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence were part of that, and then we also started new films. We finished one film for the old company, Football Is God; it was already fairly far down the line. Then we had to get other projects because at that time, we were still financing The Act of Killing, and it wasn't easy. We had to make sure we had enough other projects to be able to work on The Act of Killing, so we were doing The Kid and the Clown and some other ones - both co-productions and our own films - in order to make it work.

So all those projects had their own financing in those early years, but I'm assuming each one provides some sort of overhead to keep the lights on. Is that right?

So, basically, with The Act of Killing, the budget grew because the process grew; originally, we thought we could maybe edit the film in a year and a half, and then it took three years altogether - both in London and in Denmark - and we were raising money as we were going. We got the last money that completed the project in March 2012, and the film premiered in August 2012. So, you can imagine that this was a scary period until that last money came in. And in that period, we did a film called The Human Scale that we got in January 2012. We got the whole financing for that film from one foundation in Denmark, although the director had final cut and it was completely independent. The only catch was they wanted the film in eight months and they wanted it to be shot in seven different countries. So we said yes because it was a great story, with a director [Andreas Mol Daalsgard] we wanted to continue to work with, but also because we needed cash flow, basically, to finish The Act of Killing. It was very important that we got that because otherwise we would have had a tough time.

On the outside, Final Cut for Real is very successful. What are the career sustainability issues that you and your partners still face?

The starting point for us is that none of us has private money - we never had - and we also don't have bank loans, so we have to make the cost and the income we get from the projects to match. And we're not here to make a profit. We want to be able to pay ourselves reasonably but, honestly, we started with very, very low salaries. We're probably earning the same as a Danish primary school teacher, and we're all university-educated, and I have two Oscar nominations. So it's not that we're not worth more, but we can't raise more - also because we keep putting the money into the films.

So, it's basically a life choice for everyone involved that you want to do this and you commit yourself to doing it, but it doesn't mean that we don't think that we should be paid more. We're working in an industry where editors and cinematographers actually get paid, and we think that we are at least on the same level. And we work with very good editors and very good cinematographers, but we're also very good at producing, so we should actually get to that same level at some point. It's been very, very difficult to get there because of the conditions that we're working in.

Every producer has her own projects here, so all four producers have individual projects, but we collaborate in the sense that we try to share knowledge. We try to give input on each other's projects and support each other on all of the films and sometimes we produce together. Heidi and I produce films together mainly, like Land of the Free by Camilla Magid, and, in the beginning, I produced films with Anne, Monica and so on, but now Anne and Monica are more independent. Heidi is also doing some projects on her own, and some we do together. Also, Maria is starting to run projects. She is our VR expert, and she is in charge of two experimental VR projects we will be developing this autumn.

They all have a film and media studies background, but I have the longest practical producing background, having worked as a producer since 1998. I basically learned by doing, but it also means I've done technical stuff and almost all the different jobs you can do. I've never edited a film, I've only been the main cinematographer on one film that I also directed, but I've done all the bits and pieces in between. The other thing I do is oversee the finances of the whole company with Korthe [Barford], our financial controller. Everyone is in charge of their own budgets and their own finance plans, but we coordinate when we apply to the various funds so that we don’t have competing applications. And I try to see that every project that we do contributes to the company. I check if this works overall and what is the financial projection for this year and so on. That’s why it's good to have studied economics.

When one of you has your eye on a new project, do you have to pitch to the group?

Yeah, the decisions about which projects to take on are the biggest decisions. They define the life of the place, so we don’t just take on a project. We pitch the project to the others, and only if we all agree, then we take it on. It's always a question of, Do we like it and the artistic vision of the director? Do we believe in the way the director is working with the characters? Do we feel that the characters are in a good situation? Are they willing to take part? Do they understand what it means? Do we think that we can actually raise money for this and is there enough time? Because sometimes a director wants to finish a film and do it very quickly, but they also want a bigger budget, and we know that we can't raise money quickly. We say, 'OK, we'd love to be part of this budget, but only if it takes longer because otherwise we wouldn't be able to bring in the finances.' And also, Do we have the capacity?

In terms of strategy, we try to balance, so we have purely Danish projects, Nordic projects, international projects. We try to have things both for children and for adults. We try to have both our own films and international co-productions. We try to work with co-producers that we know and trust already, but we also sometimes bring in new ones. We try to learn of new financing models. Anne is working now with Canada; we haven't done that before. Monica and Anne are both working with France; we haven't done that before. And we have recently started working with fiction, both with co-productions and our own fiction projects. We try to work with both young filmmakers and experienced ones.

In the Danish structure, we work with everyone, from what's called the film workshop, where you basically get access to equipment and to the Danish Film Institute’s consultancy scheme for experienced filmmakers. There’s also the new Danish Screen, which is, at most, a new talent development scheme with a bit more money inside the DFI, and we worked with both the national public service broadcasters DR and TV2.

We can only have this sort of company and do this sort of thing because we have a public service television structure and we have a film institute that’s supported by public money. Otherwise we could not do it. But it doesn’t mean that the Danish Film Institute and our broadcasters are covering the whole budgets of our films. If we are lucky, they maybe pay somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of an international film; more if it would be a Danish film in Denmark that you wouldn't be able to raise money for internationally, but 30 percent is probably more likely if you look at our productions all the time. So, we still have to find the rest of the budget ourselves, but it does provide that foundation that makes it possible.

When you’re trying to find that other 60 to 80 percent, what's roughly the standard formula for doing that?

Basically, it depends on the kind of budget. In Denmark we would go to ministries, like the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, if it's in one of the developing countries and private foundations - but that's [rare] because we don't have a lot of those here. In Scandinavia or in the Nordic region, we would go to the other public service broadcasters in the Nordic region and to the other Nordic film institutes, but we can only go to the Nordic Film Institute through a Nordic co-producer, so we would work with a Swedish, Norwegian or Finnish co-producer and then we would have to place some of the work in those countries also. And if they have regional funds, we would go to those too together with our Nordic co-producer.

Then there's something called the Nordic Film and TV Fund that you can apply to if you are a Nordic producer and you have more than two broadcasters from the Nordic region public service broadcasters. Then we would expand into Europe if it was more like an international project, and if we could get to do a part of the work in one of those countries, then we would try and work with co-producers in Holland or Ireland or France or Germany and access their public funds. So it's usually a puzzle. We would also go to ARTE, the big French/German channel. It's very important to us and that one we can to directly; we don't have to have a co-producer in Germany or France, but for all the film institutes or film funds in Europe, we would need a co-producer. So, it's very common that our finance work takes a long time and our finance plans may have somewhere between seven and 21 financiers. It's a big job, and you have to manage all of that throughout the whole production process.

And we also apply to all the usual funds like the US funds, Tribeca and Sundance and all these different ones that we can, for the projects where it's relevant.

Are things changing in terms of the financing puzzles you're talking about?

It's changing in the sense that there’s been a crisis in Europe and the broadcasters are being really affected by that. We can feel that, too. The money is less and commissioning editors have more bosses they have to answer to and therefore it takes a longer time.

And where has that led you? Is it just that takes you longer, or has it caused you to look in other directions for money?

We're pretty stubborn [laughs]. We are constantly looking in all directions for money, but it doesn't mean that we have stopped working with the broadcasters. We very much believe in public service broadcasting and we very much believe in the films being seen by all the people who watch public service broadcasting. But it means that we often have to calculate and it takes longer to get the LOCs [Letters of Commitment] in.

Is it getting harder over all or has it always been hard?

It's always been hard, but there was a period before the financial crisis where the budgets were a bit better and the broadcasters had more breathing space. There are a lot of great films out there. In Denmark, there are a lot of films. So when I say that the Danish Film Institute supports films, it's not like they support all films. We have three documenatry consultants, two for adults and one for children, and they can maybe support an average of 10 films per year, each. So that's 30 films a year. That's a lot on a global scale from one country, but here that means a lot of competition. We have a lot of very good filmmakers; to get production support for a documentary is not an easy thing here.

From Göran Olsson's 'Concerning Violence.'

In terms of US producers you've worked with, I know you've worked with Joslyn Barnes a few times. Who else?

We've worked on the film that just premiered here at CPH:DOX [Land of the Free] with Occupant Entertainment in Los Angeles, but that was mainly because the director knew that producer. But otherwise, I've mainly worked with Joslyn Barnes, on a lot of co-productions that actually came from her like Shadow World and Strong Island. We’re still working on Angels Are Made of Light with James Longley - he's actually here editing now - and besides that, we and Joslyn both work a lot with a company in Stockholm called Story; through them we have worked on Concerning Violence, and we have a new project now.

How did you guys find each other?

My colleague here, Monica, had worked with Joslyn on Concerning Violence and she introduced us. She was doing Shadow World, and I got really intrigued and asked to become part of that and then it sort of went from there. It’s been amazing. I’ve learned so much from her.

Why do you think that's such a good partnership?

I think we both share a vision…I came from international development; she came from the UN. We share a basic interest in parts of the world that are struggling, and we also discovered that we see the film process in very much the same way and also [see] the role of the producer in very much the same way. So we think very much in sync when it comes to what needs to be done and how to approach problems and issues and so on. And she’s incredibly knowledgeable about everything in the US and the rest of the world and how it works. So I've learned a lot about that system and about trying to understand a system that doesn't function on public finance. We have many good editors here, so I think she has gotten a lot out of working with us. I've worked with Janus Billeskov Jansen as an editor for a long, long time. If anyone is my mentor, it's him. [Joslyn] has been part of some of those processes as co-producer and seen our work, and I think that's probably one of the things that she thinks is interesting in the way we work.

In terms of how you describe your roles as producers, does the term "creative producer" apply?

We call it that, but it doesn't mean that we're not also raising the money. The thing about raising money is, when we are doing puzzles like the finance plans we discussed earlier, it is extremely important that for every project that we finance, we actually find the right people to be part of this puzzle. It's not just about finding the money, it's about finding the people who want to support exactly this vision of film. And these puzzles would turn into nightmares if people actually thought they were getting different films, right?

So, that's also why we usually try and do the finance work ourselves. We sometimes work with sales agents and they come on board early if that’s a good idea, but often we do it ourselves and we pitch ourselves. We are the people who are promising this broadcaster or this film institute consultant that this is the film, so we should have that direct relationship with them.

Have you ever, or would you ever, or any of the four of you, go and find a director to do an idea you have?

Yeah, we would do that, but we prefer the other way around because usually the kind of directors we work with feel good about the projects that they have found themselves or discovered themselves or want to do themselves. We have invited directors in, and we did a co-production with a German company called Cultural Cathedrals and we brought in a Danish director called Michael Madsen so that has been possible. But when we do so, we want do it in a very early stage so that they put their own mark on whatever it is they are doing.

In terms of the kind of films that Final Cut for Real makes or the way you make films, I'm not aware that you have what I would call a "house style." Is that a conscious choice - that you're interested in an eclectic blend of different approaches and styles - or are there specific things you’re looking for?

I think the point for us is that every producer works in her own way; it's not like my way, and that's the way it is. Anne has her way of working, Monica has her way, Heidi has hers and I have mine. But the relationship with the director is key for all of us because we see it as a process where you walk hand-in-hand with the director. The director has artistic responsibility and final cut, but the producer has legal and economic and administrative responsibility. But the thing is, every artistic decision has legal and administrative and economic consequences, and every legal and administrative and economic decision has artistic implications, so those two have to be in sync and really know what they want together.

We insist on that kind of relationship where the producer's not a hired hand to just raise money or a hired hand to just be someone who either has her own money or signs a check or something. We are very involved and that also means that we are very upfront about that involvement when we talk to directors in the beginning and say, "If you work with us, you should only do it if that sort of collaboration is interesting because if you don't want that and you basically want to make all your own decisions without collaboration, then this is not the place for you." So, it has to be directors who think that’s actually a contribution and an interesting thing and who see that these things have implications for each other. But our hope is, of course, that the expressions in the film are as diverse and wild and wonderful as the directors can possibly make them.

Finally, you and Joshua seem to have a very special working relationship. Can you describe what it's been like to work together over the years?

I have worked with Joshua since 2007, so that is about 10 years now. It has been, and continues to be, an amazing journey. I have learned so much from him through our collaboration. I think we work well together because we are both extremely curious and eager to learn, from each other and from everyone we get to work with.

Ken Jacobson, IDA's former Director of Educational Programs and Strategic Partnerships, is a VR/AR Programmer for the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and the AFI DOCS Forum Programmer.