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SXSW 2020

Kristian Håskjold • Director de Chemo Brain

"En general, los hombres son peores al hablar de cáncer"

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- Hemos entrevistado a Kristian Håskjold, el director de la conmovedora miniserie danesa Chemo Brain, que se ha llevado el Premio Especial del Jurado en la categoría de televisión del SXSW

Kristian Håskjold  • Director de Chemo Brain
(© Miklos Szabo)

Este artículo está disponible en inglés.

“It was so sad that SXSW had to shut down [due to COVID-19],” Kristian Håskjold told Cineuropa following his win for Chemo Brain, showing twenty-something Oliver (Adam Ild Rohweder) finding out he has cancer. “But they still tried to promote people’s work, putting it on the digital platform available to press, juries and industry participants, and even holding an awards ceremony.” The festival was one of the first major events to be cancelled owing to the pandemic. We got the lowdown on the series from Håskjold.

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Cineuropa: It’s probably not an appropriate word, but I don’t remember that many “entertaining” shows about cancer, apart from The Big C. What made you want to tackle that topic?
Kristian Håskjold: Until now, I have only directed short films, but you can find pretty dark subjects cropping up in all of my works: depression, break-ups, meeting a father you have never known. I do like to add humour into these stories because it feels natural: when you are dealing with something hard, you try to distance yourself from it. My co-writer, Johan Wang, brought this story to me, as it was one of his good friends, Kristian Erlandsen, who went through it. Later, he became my friend as well. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer some years ago, and he is a really funny guy – he would post about his treatment process, always with a lot of humour. It’s a tough subject, but you get to learn so much about it. How do you deal with a cancer patient, when do they need to see you and when don’t they? We felt it was important.

Finding lightness in darker subjects might prove a bit tricky these days – people get so easily offended. Even in the series, not everyone gets Oliver’s “chemo humour”.
It seems like everything is moving towards politically correct humour, and I kind of expect it to keep developing that way. But I also think it’s important to ask yourself: where does this humour come from? Does it come from a character, who is clearly in pain? Once that’s established, I hope people can experience it in a different way – it’s not like he says these dark things just for the sake of it. There is a reason behind it.

As you got to know someone who actually went through the whole process, was there anything in particular about it that really shocked you?
What we heard from many different people was that, usually, friends and family come over to visit only at the beginning. And then they just stop. After those first few weeks, you get lonely – nobody comes by, and life just goes on. One thing that we wanted to say with our show was to encourage people to “spread out” their visits. Also, here’s the thing: when you are finally “cancer-free”, it doesn’t mean that you are free of cancer. There is this fear of it coming back.

It’s difficult to avoid sentimentality whenever there is illness involved. One always expects something like [Chris Columbus’s] Stepmom, which is not what Chemo Brain is at all.
My style is just not sentimental; I like to downplay things. So if the acting is already emotional, I prefer not to use any music. I think we only used it when he first hears his diagnosis. It’s really more about these day-to-day, small-scale situations and Oliverhanging out with people. I feel that Johan and I had a very good collaboration because we both wanted to make it light-hearted, while knowing full well how hard it can be talking about this subject. I am sure that a large percentage of the Danish population wouldn’t necessarily watch a show like this if it were too dark. They would just turn it off.

You mentioned that this is your first venture outside of the short-film world, which is interesting, given the length of the episodes, clocking in at just 15 minutes. Did you always see it as a mini-series?
When we first pitched it to the Danish TV station, they had an open call for short formats. We actually discussed it a lot, but Chemo Brain was done on a really low budget. We had many obstacles to overcome: we didn’t have any money, we had to stick to very few locations and write it in a way that would just make it short, jumping ahead in time to show these different stages of his treatment. That was hard to do, especially while also making sure that you don’t get emotionally disconnected from the previous episodes.

It feels fresh to see a man trying to deal with this “weakness” by comparing himself to the “young Bruce Willis”, for example. Just a normal, beer-chugging bro, suddenly faced with that situation.
We were very inspired by Kristian, the guy we both know. We tried to heighten Oliver’s life as this “bro” type, as you said, because each episode is only 15 minutes long, but also because we related a lot to everything he has experienced. The Danish Cancer Society told us that, in general, men are worse at talking about it. It was interesting to see a person like that slowly coming to terms with his feelings.

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