All the time we are searching, searching, and it’s pure joy when we find gold. One such eureka moment was when we came across Ada Bligaard Søby’s work. She’s Danish but lived in America, she films documentaries with an eye for humanity and humour, she captures the voice of Now. She makes music videos out of old and new footage and literally stitches up her pictures with another layer of meaning. In Related Content we showcase Ada’s stills series of Sleeping Boys.
Describe your childhood please.
I grew up in a commune of historians in a 16th century castle north of Copenhagen in Denmark. My mother worked there at the museum, so we had an apartment – including a tower. There was a lot of space, high ceilings, light and air – but when you are a kid, things like that don’t really register as important; you are more worried about watching television and candy restrictions. When I was bored on Sundays I would run through the collections at the museum, and every night my little brother Magnus and I would collect all the coins the tourists had thrown in the wishing-fountain during the day. During summertime we were quite wealthy kids, because the museum had a lot of visitors wishing for things, I guess.
My parents were strict. They are very cultivated and educated and they are always with their face down in a book. You say something about French architecture and my mom will cry with happiness. They have big inner worlds and don’t have a particular need for other people around. My brother is very much like them, and back then and also now I often have no clue what they are talking about. I am so different; I’m very interested in people. I think you live when you are around others, mirroring yourself in them and sharing the experience of life.
When did you realize you wanted to make films?
I had a teacher at school when I was 17 who taught film, and he was the most exciting teacher I had. He made it seem like it was no big deal to make films – so I decided then that this was the way to go. He embraced chaos as a part of life and I totally longed for chaos.
Did you go to film school or learn on the job?
No formal film school no. I moved to New York a month after my 20th birthday and took some night classes at School Of Visual Arts. Then I took a photography course once and also I became a member of a really cool filmmakers collective in Copenhagen, where people get together and make films. So I learned by picking up a camera and just doing it.
You can really get under the skin of modern America, perhaps with more astuteness because of having a foreign observer’s eye. I’m thinking of Visit America and Petey and Ginger mainly. The characters you portray are often from, shall we say, the more unglamorous side of life but there is always a humanity and humour about them. You could have portrayed them as seedy but you go for the positive and the viewer ends up really liking and engaging with the characters. What are you consciously looking for when you choose your subjects?
I look for people who I like to hang out with, so I often cast my friends in my films. People who say funny and true things and people who have a perspective on life that is interesting and new.
I like to celebrate anti-heroes, or people who don’t see themselves as totally wonderful or the opposite, as victims of their circumstances; I like people who do the best with what they have. I’m very interested in the loser / winner mentality that is so present today, and I’m very curious as to what you have to pay with or in what way you have to conform to be a winner in other people’s eyes.
As for Petey and Ginger, they are both people who have a very good understanding of their own demons and struggles; they are not clueless like a lot of people. They can go into a room or a situation and analyze what is going on; the dynamic between people, the conflicts and the bullshit. But they don’t judge anyone, cause they know life is complex and full of contradictions. They rest within themselves, they laugh at the absurdity and they keep in trucking – and that I find really inspirational company.
Tell us please about your relationship with the States? And where do you live now? Do the cultural sensibilities of working in Denmark differ a lot from the States?
I moved to New York at age 20, so that sealed the deal pretty much: I became Americanized very early on. It was like entering a time machine and flew to a different planet. New York was like a jungle of weirdoes and geniuses, and there seemed to be very few rules. It was a really good move and I learned how to maneuver as a person in this city, how to act and how to get things. I waited tables and just hung out a lot. I also assisted fashion photographer Terry Richardson for a year around the time he was making the ‘Terryworld’ book.
The sense that everything is possible has really stuck. I remember that everyone was very enthusiastic about me wanting to make films and also supporting it with ideas and connections, and even though I was too young to understand what to do with all this, it was a good thing that I got to experience it.
In Denmark things are much more formal and people are ultra conservative. It drives me nuts and I’m always trying to push what is possible or how to deal with filmmaking. The good thing about Denmark is that there are Government supported grants you can apply for so there is a thriving film industry, even though the country is so small. And lots of good weirdoes and geniuses reside there too luckily.
How do your films evolve – from initial idea to final edit?
I just usually travel to the people I want to film and hang out with them; shoot a little and talk with them, drink some beers and get into their world. Then I travel home and write applications, and make a pilot and make some collages and research – and talk to friends about the project. I often have skype meetings with friends around the world and ask them what they think this film is about. It’s like: “Sorry, I know you are diving from the coast of Mexico at moment, but do you mind skyping with me tonight about this film I’m making? Your mind is brilliant and I want to hear what you think.” I often don’t know what way I am going in the beginning, I just feel some kind of energy around a person, a contradiction, an anxiety, a connection – and I try to find out how to portray it.
Then I (hopefully) get some money and TV pre buys together with a producer and then the party has started. I can hire a DOP and some production help and we just go and hang out with the character and make scenes and build some visuals up around their story.
Then I sit for weeks and weeks with my editor and we have to make sense of a lot of material. I’m quite an unreliable story-teller, I’m very trippy and sometimes make weird connections between things; so it is a lot of work to edit my films. Then I do sound and color grading and I like everything to be very au natural – not a lot of effects and nonsense – just purity.
Do you operate the camera yourself? And what’s your favorite kit?
I have always shot a lot of Super 8 myself and I can shoot no problem, but I never cared at all about cameras. My favorite kit is a camera I can operate. I like the sony Z-1 and A-1, because they haven’t messed with me yet. But they are so old, they shoot on tape, and DOPs laugh and sometimes cry, or yell out loud in an angry voice when they see what I shoot with. But I’m a chick and just don’t care.
I do think some DOPs and directors hide behind all this equipment and think that they will make something grand and interesting as long as it is a fansy pantsy camera. It is like they are talking about it, like it’s the end of the world, very seriously and it’s like: dude come on, it’s a camera. What do you want to say?
But then I’m totally behind with knowing things I should know and care about, and it is becoming more and more embarrassing the things I don’t know, and I often fake it or play along like: ‘yeah yeah, the DXY Red is great’ or I keep a very low profile when the camera talk is going on. It is really bad on my part and one of these days I’m going to pay attention to all that stuff and join the conversation everybody is apparently having.
Your films have a lot of texture – does that come from shooting on different formats or do you use post-production?
It comes from shooting different formats. ‘Petey & Ginger’ consists of the following: HDV, Super 8 (negative and chrome), cinema DNG files from this brand new Swedish invention called A-CAM, ripped youtube, still photography, mobile phone film recordings, you name it.
I have never spent a lot of time in post-production, because it is so expensive and I also had some bad experiences of people wanting to make the world look like marzipan or Disney. But I would love to focus more on post-production. Bacon has a badass post-production department and I know they know so much that I don’t, and they can flip things around and make them look ten times better than I can. And they have good taste.
You weave your stories with stock footage spliced with new film, and interesting sound techniques. Do the films evolve in the editing process or do you have a clear idea where you’re heading before you start shooting?
They totally evolve in the editing process. That’s why it takes forever. You have to be brave and fearless if you are editing my stuff. You can’t be scared of not finding a story or something like that.
Of course I have an idea about what kind of visual language a film will have from the beginning, depending on the story and the subject – but I’m very open to what the world gives me and what a DOP comes up with and coincidences and accidents.
Film or photography – where does your heart lie?
In both places. I always have a camera with me – a yashika still film point and shoot camera. I also make a lot of collages and keep visual journals. A film always starts with some sort of scrapbook. I also began sewing (embroidery is maybe too big a word) on top of my old photographs. That was something I started in the editing room doing ‘Petey & Ginger’, as there is so much waiting time. Somehow the subjects of films and the dilemmas of the characters started to show up in the images I was sewing, so it became a three-dimensional thing. I was editing a film and the content and psychology was living on outside the film on these photographs. Not sure what that means but it felt very good and then I got to show them in Paris.
Music plays a key role in your films – do the sound tracks come after you’ve shot? Do you collaborate with musicians?
I just collect music and listen to music and I’m always looking for bands. I often get into the local music that is happening where my character is living. Like San Francisco has a really amazing music scene, that Petey is a part of. There are so many great bands and the sound points back in time and they don’t give a shit about trends and the new thing, and it is very unique. Ginger has lived in Brooklyn for a long time and she is a part of a Brooklyn music scene, which is very different with bands like TV on The Radio, Animal Collective, Cheeseburger and Ratatat – that’s her soundtrack. I found my favorite hip hop band while shooting in Russia, Krovostok they are called, by going into a record shop in Saint Petersburg and buying cds that looked cool. They are amazing and I was lucky that they wanted to let me use their music. I usually just contact bands personally and try to explain that I have little money but a good film and usually they let me use their music.
What do you do between shoots – do you always have a film on the go?
I always have two or three films going. Now only two.
And what part of the process do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy all of it and find all of it is really hard. I like when it feels magical, like you are making something magical with someone else; either it being the DOP, the editor, the sound editor or the character.
On your reel there’re all these wonderful real films and then a commercial for a perfume Valkyrie, please tell us about that.
That was Ginger, the one character in ‘Petey & Ginger’. She is so rad and always up to something new and fun. So she started to study perfumery and one day she wrote to me and told me that she had made me a perfume. And that she had called it Valkyrie and that it was made from gun powder, roses and blonde tobacco. So my Swedish DOP Adam and I were in San Francisco and we were staying in this glass house on a roof and decided to shoot a commercial for Ginger’s perfume on the roof with my friend Daniella and a tambourine. Then a place called Chimney Pot did the color grading and Adrian who does sound at Bacon came up with this tambourine idea, where he basically made me play the tambourine mimicking her movements and it worked well over the top. You can’t buy the perfume though, there is only one bottle and I have it.
We’d love to show Fuck Forever trailer, Petey and Ginger, Complaints Choir, Valkyrie, Visit America so anything you’d like to say about these would be fab, otherwise we’ll just let them speak for themselves.
Visit America is a test commercial chopped up by Mikkel E.G. Nielsen – who edited Oscar-nominated ‘A Royal Affair’. We just took a bunch of my old personal Super 8 footage and made a little journey through America. The material is filled with lust and fun. It is like a series of a lot of little in-between moments (people sneezing, driving in the sunset, buying donuts, walking on their hands) when life makes sense and things are just good.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a music video for Dorit Chrysler called The Swamp Behind My House, where Thomas Daneskov, this upcoming wonder person and top director, and I chopped up an old Mary Ellen Mark documentary from 1980 called Streetwise about street kids in Seattle. (See Related Content).
And then I’m also working on two film projects. One is called Fuck Forever, about the British rocker Peter Doherty seen through the eyes of his young English fans.
And then I have a short documentary project in Russia called ‘I Am Reading A Gun’n’Roses Biography, but I’m Drinking From An Iron Maiden Cup’ – about a modern man philosopher and celebrity reporter in today’s Moscow.