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According to Danish director Henrik Genz, “We can’t get what we want. And we have to be happy with what we can get.” In his new film, “Terribly Happy,” Genz manifests these sentiments in a story that—unsurprisingly, given its title—is fairly dark. Earning comparisons to films by American directors David Lynch and the Coen Brothers, Genz’s “Terribly Happy” exemplifies the Americanization of European films, creating a balance between the strong character development native to Danish cinema and the more plot-driven stories of Hollywood.
“Terribly Happy” is based on a book by Erling Jepsen, a childhood friend of Genz. “He told me about his new idea for ‘Terribly Happy,’ and I immediately got captured. I thought it was a wonderful idea. He agreed on sending me every chapter he wrote, and I would comment on it while he was writing the book. Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out a treatment for the film as he developed the story.”
Through this collaboration, Genz and Jepsen developed an innovative plotline, composed of a patchwork of genres that complement each other well.
“When I met Erling, he told me he wanted to write a Danish Western novel. And of course, the story turns more into a drama, or noir, so at last it ended up kind of a mixture of different genres.”
The story of “Terribly Happy” is based on real life events from Jepsen’s life and childhood: “It’s really from an 11 year-old boy’s perspective. The dysfunctional family in our film has really existed. And I think it’s a good thing for people who had a trauma and a deep, deep secret that they can’t bear living with, to get that story told.”
With the resulting realistic, relatable plot and characters, Genz was able to develop several well-developed protagonists. “In the story, the most difficult thing was to get to the mid-point where our main characters could do something unforgiveable, but still not lose the audience.”
This emphasis on character development and the setting reflects Genz’s desire to craft a specifically Danish film. However, Genz’s focus on the plot represents a break from traditional Danish cinema. “I made it in Denmark for a Danish audience, and it’s made in a visceral language and a way of story-telling that we are not used to here,” Genz says. “In Denmark it was really a rather new style, a style forced by the story. The story demands the style, I think. So the form is rather new and fresh here.”
This new focus on plot-driven storytelling has led to an unexpected broadening of the film’s audience base across Europe and into the States. “I’m so surprised that American audiences and reviews have been that good. I was shocked that we came along with the little Danish film looking like something happening in the Midwest, talking in Danish and requiring subtitles. I thought this could only be a disaster. But I’m surprised and happy about the response we’ve gotten so far.”
According to Genz, “Terribly Happy” epitomizes the encroachment of American film tropes on European movies. “What has happened is that the Danish films are beginning to look much more like the films that come from the U.S. Therefore, each year, our film language becomes more and more similar to the way of telling the stories [in America], to get an audience to come to the cinemas. So, in fact, there’s a tendency in the ways of European filming to go towards the American way of telling stories.”
This apparent swapping of styles may prove useful in what could be Genz’s next film, a remake of “Terribly Happy” in English, set in the American Midwest. “There’s a lot of talk about a remake,” Genz says. “We have had some meetings, and I would say as long as I am in control of the story, and it’s not taken out of my hands and transformed into something I cannot agree on, then it could definitely be really exciting for me, trying to make a film in the States.”
—Staff writer Alex C. Nunnelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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