A fledgling young model is plucked from obscurity to pursue her dreams of stardom in the cutthroat Paris fashion scene in The Model, directed by Mads Matthiesen. Away from her life in Denmark, Emma (played by newcomer and real-life model Maria Palm) meets the less glamorous side of the biz: cramped model apartments, no-nonsense bookers and aching loneliness. After a disastrous shoot with big shot photographer Shane White (Ed Skrein), Emma takes matters into her own hands when she encounters him at a night club, thrusting herself into a high-flying world of status, sex and drugs. I spoke with the Danish director, whose first feature film Teddy Bear, the story of a shy bodybuilder who finds love abroad, made a splash at Sundance Film Festival in 2012.
In both Teddy Bear and The Model the main characters, Dennis and Emma, are insecure outcasts who leave Denmark in hopes of blossoming and living better lives. In real life, many people choose to remain where they are out of fear and self doubt. Is traveling to discover oneself a theme in your own life or something you pondered often growing up?
I think it’s important to travel to meet other cultures and see other things that you wouldn’t see if you didn’t travel out. The world is becoming smaller and smaller, and I think we should be open to that. When we meet foreign cultures we have a tendency to kind of block it out and go for our own thoughts and ways of doing things. In these times where we are becoming one world, I think people should be more open to others.
There’s definitely something in my personal view on life and how we should go about foreign countries and cultures that is in these movies. In Teddy Bear, Dennis actually finds more comfort in traveling out and finding someone. I think this can also happen in general life. You fit more with someone from a different country and different culture. You don’t necessarily fit in your own country. You can find it anywhere.
Your films explore some darker aspects of life, like sex tourism in Teddy Bear and the underbelly of the modeling industry in The Model. Emma’s youth, naïveté and poor decision-making skills in this type of atmosphere create moments of suspense in the film. And yet, she isn’t a victim. What draws you to these specific characters?
For me, it was very important in The Model that it was Emma’s own dream, not that someone else wanted it. It’s a young girl who wanted to be the most beautiful girl in class. That wanted that recognition of her beauty. She wanted to end up on the cover of the magazine. If it’s her wish to do it, maybe it is criticism on what girls want these days. What does society tell us that this is something high status in life?
It’s her own dream, and then she meets a world that is too adult for her. She’s very young, so she makes a lot of bad decisions in this world. But I didn’t want to do a portrayal of a mean fashion industry. I wanted to portray a girl with a certain dream that is off what is good for her. Then she meets a hardcore world that makes her even more fucked up and she makes more bad decisions. It was important to me that she have the drive.
We have all this social media and a lot of young people are seeking likes more than maybe getting love from their close ones. Maybe it’s more important for them to have this outer life where you do selfies, and post them and say how beautiful they are. I am trying to make some kind of similarity to Emma’s [experience]. It’s not direct but it’s definitely part of the project. The film also deals with what is shallow and what is real. What is love and what is recognition. With social media, you can get a little confused about what is actually love and what is recognition from someone who actually doesn’t care about you.
Did you have previous experience in the fashion industry? What inspired The Model?
I always had friends that knew models. I always thought that it was an interesting industry. Then I started to do the film, and I started to do more research. I went to Paris and followed a girl there. I went around and saw her castings and doing shows. I followed a photographer. When we cast the movie, I also had this idea that I wanted a real fashion model in the main part. I didn’t want an actor who didn’t know how to pose or make these images. So we cast only fashion models in the main parts, young Danish fashion models. I met, I think 70 girls. I met girls that came from lots of different backgrounds and places in Denmark. I talked to these girls in the casting process and it was a big help.
When we began shooting, I wanted the Paris scene to be part of the movie, so we also cast real bookers from Paris. We made this collaboration with L’Officiel, the French magazine, that kind of went in and styled the shoot. We had their stylists on-set, being themselves, in the movie. I wanted it to be real.
I also did that in Teddy Bear. I used amateurs, real people in small roles. That is the way I work. To get actors, but also non-actors who are in the environment, who are working in the industry. Maria Palm, I had her on-set every day. She was like an expert in the life of a fashion model, so I had my expert with me in the main character.
I think it’s very much about if he can deliver her dream that he could actually make it happen for her. I think in general, we tend to fall in love with the people that can make where we want to go in life [happen]. She quickly learns the power of status in the business. She’s also a little bit controlled by him, by his power. But then she learns to fight back and that also provokes him in some ways. He’s also seeking that reaction in her.
I think, in general, we fall in love with this strange person who’s perfect for us. Most people fall in love with the right person that connects them with the life they want to live. That’s something you have with you before meeting this person.
Going back to the idea of darkness in your films, there’s also a great deal of hopefulness. Despite Emma’s horrible choices, there is a sense that as long as a person participates in life, takes chances, even if she makes poor choices, anything is still possible. Was that your intention?
Even though Emma goes on a totally wrong path, I didn’t want to condemn her travels. I didn’t want to say it was wrong for her to [have these experiences] ‘cause I think if you follow your dreams, it’s very important to your life. I think of the ending as a happy ending, but she pays too big a price.
I do believe you should follow your dreams. You just can’t let others control how you get there. Her idea of wanting this is not a bad thing. Her way of doing it turns out wrong for her.
Follow your dreams, but be ready to get some bumps along the way. A young girl meeting adult life is a hard travel. You will get your kicks and bruises, but you should not be too scared of that. You need those bruises—of course, not in the way Emma gets them. But still, you need to keep on fighting. The adult life is not what you think it is when you’re a young girl, or boy. You’re gonna be surprised and bruised along the way.