Laurits Flentsed-Jensen. Picture: Hanna Matikainen / Love & Anarchy
Writer and director Laurits Flensted-Jensen is presenting his debut feature film, Neon Heart, to audiences at HIFF Love and Anarchy. The film tells the story of Niklas, a reformed drug addict helping those affected with Down Syndrome; Laura, his ex-girlfriend, who is trying to put her experience as a porn actress behind her; and Niklas’ younger brother Frederik, who wants to prove his manhood to his hooligan friends.
I met Laurits in a cafe in downtown Helsinki. We talked about the themes running through his film as well as the filming process itself, which was an interesting one in the case of Neon Heart due to the director’s blending of reality and fiction, most notably by using non-professional actors. This led us to discuss the ethical and practical implications of working with people with Down Syndrome.
First off, why is the title of the film Neon Heart?
Neon Heart is the title of the film because the film deals with a lot of subjects that are taboo and things that we usually try to hide away in our culture, and neon is what attract people to things going on underneath the surface. So it’s about that attraction to taboos and about the love and intimacy between the characters, or rather, about the characters’ longing to have love and intimacy but never really achieving it.
In the film we follow three stories, each seemingly with a theme of its own. What is the common thread connecting these stories?
The main theme of the film is actually sexuality, and in particular stigmatized sexuality. Having either been stigmatized due to your sexuality or being discriminatory towards others for their sexuality. That’s the core of the film and it intervenes in all the storylines.
For instance, there is a scene where the one of the main characters, Niklas, who is responsible for two guys with Down Syndrome, brings them along to a brothel for them to experience love and intimacy. And this is a very sensual scene in the film and it plays with the audience’s perception of love and intimacy and how you relate to these characters with Down Syndrome. Because usually they are treated as just children, but the film really challenges that perception by giving them a sexuality. It plays with your feeling of being witness to what’s going on here.
So that scene is very central, and this is also going on in all the other storylines. For instance, you have a woman who is a former porn actress, and all the men in the film perceive her in this point of view only. She’s kind of stuck in that role. She’s trying to get rid of it; she’s trying to remove her tattoo, but it stays there as a scar—it’s something she can never get rid of. And all the characters in the film confront her with this all the time.
And this connects you to [Frederik’s] storyline. He is secretly in love with her and fascinated with her as a porno actress. And he ends up trying to prove his own sexuality as a young man by discriminating others.
Where did you draw inspiration from for this film?
I’m very interested in exploring themes and stories that we are afraid to talk about, things that most would choose not to look at. I get attracted to those ideas. And if I experience or witness something I want to reject, I get turned on by that and I think, “Why am I opposing this, what am I afraid to dive into here?”
In this particular film, it was the theme of stigmatized sexuality. This also grew from my graduation film, which is about a young woman who is a camgirl at night and works with blind people in the day, and it explores the obsession with getting visual attention opposite to people who are not able to see, who are only able to feel. This was also an element that inspired the film.
The story feels somewhat open-ended, where the conflicts between the characters are left unresolved. Would you agree with that and why so?
If you look at the story on a deeper level, it’s about two characters trying to avoid the consequences of the choices they have already made and one character making a choice that day that will haunt him.
So in a sense, they do get resolved because they get a chance to start over; they get a chance to make a new start in life. And she ends up not trying to escape her past anymore but confronts the people who are harassing her. So she stops running, which is why she goes to seek out Niklas. And the young Frederik—he looks like a victorious person in the end, celebrating. But what is going on underneath?
What happens to him will come haunt him, and it may also become public, and it’s going to do a lot of damage to him. So in a way he is switching places with two other characters. He’s getting a tattoo in the beginning, she’s getting rid of hers, and his tattoo comes haunting him in the end.
You wrote and directed this film. How does this work for you; do you have the whole thing in your head when you write it or do a lot of things happen once you start filming?
Well, we spoke about the theme just now. I wanted to tackle this theme from different perspectives, with different characters. So I wrote the storyline, and as I was doing that, I started doing casting.
Because I knew in advance that the concept of the film would be placing this fictional story in real environments. So I started casting all the characters who are played primarily by amateurs, playing some kind of reality that they can relate to. So in this process, I got to know people living in the house for people with Down Syndrome—that was a real house for people with Down Syndrome in the film.
And all the places in the film are like that; there’s real people who related to the hooligan culture. In the casting process, I learned from them and it inspired scenes in the story, allowed us to go deeper. The people from these environments really added a new layer to the story, but I didn’t change a lot while we were shooting.
Of course, working with people with Down Syndrome was very special. They didn’t know the script. The main actor did, so he had to be able to go through the arc of the scenes, but he also had to be able to improvise with them while doing his dialogues. So that was really complicated stuff and he really did a good job with it.
What are some other challenges and considerations when working with people who have Down Syndrome?
When I’m working, I like to explore ethics. In filmmaking, we have the ability to go beyond what you usually consider ethical boundaries. In a film, you create a reality and I wanted to set up my own rules together with the characters in this reality. And we explored subjects that for many people are radical—is it alright to do this stuff? Is it alright to have people with Down Syndrome in a brothel with real prostitutes.
Were they real prostitutes?
Yeah. Some of them were, some had a background as strippers.
So yeah, I like this exploration of ethics as a filmmaker, but I think you have to be really careful when you do this stuff; you have to take really good care of the people you’re involving. And I get on a very personal level when I’m working with people. For instance, with Kevin and Christian, the guys who have Down Syndrome, we went out to shoot scenes before we did the entire shoot of the film to see how it could work in an ethical way.
So we shot the brothel scene twice, then we edited it, and showed it to them. And then we talked about their experience of it, how they felt about it. So they were really included in the process that way.
How did you give direction while shooting?
It depends on who I’m working with. I’m very specific if I’m working with actors or amateurs who are good at working with the text. But in the case of Kevin and Christian, I had to let them know almost nothing in advance because otherwise they would say what’s going on out loud. So my trick was to work really intensely with Niklas on his arcs and then he knew that he has to make Kevin talk about his nervousness, for instance.
In a second, a woman will come in and take off her clothes, and we need to get a sense that Kevin is nervous. So Niklas actually had the job of getting him there, and he knew where I want to go.
How did you film the porn scenes? They looked quite realistic.
Yeah. I studied how a lot of gonzo porn is made and I got inspired by some of the dialogue, and I just kind of stole the dialogue and used it to inspire the actors. But actually, everything is written. I’m striving to make it seem as if there’s not a script, but all the dialogue is written.
I think when you make it realistic, the audience gets drawn into the film in another sense because it gets you closer. You cannot reject it, you cannot say that it’s just a game, just fiction. You have to relate to your own life. And that’s what I’m trying to do.
Who are some of your filmmaking influences?
Directors like Carlos Reygadas, Amat Escalante, both Mexican directors. Also Austrian directors—Michael Glawogger, Ulrich Seidl. Generally people working in this field of using reality as something you integrate into your films, and using amateurs, and so on.
Any future projects ahead?
Yes, I’m completing a film at the moment about The Gentle Robber, it’s called Junk Dancer. It’s about a guy who was once a famous show dancer, then became a pop star, but then his life derailed completely. He got addicted to cocaine and then he started doing robberies, and that’s where he got the name The Gentle Robber because when the police arrested him and questioned the witnesses, they all said he was so sweet. And his whole life is this crazy roller coaster.
He’s the nicest guy, but he’s in prison, for example. And it’s just a very interesting character study. What is going on underneath is really a longing to have someone there to take care of, because there’s no one there.
‘Neon Heart’ screens at HIFF Love and Anarchy on September 27.