Self-taught film director Kaspar Astrup Schröder has trained his camera on issues large and small, at home and abroad, for over a decade. His documentary, The Invention of Dr. Nakamats, about the prolific Japanese inventor, was nominated for the CPH:DOX award in 2009. And in 2013 his documentary Rent a Family Inc, about the secret rent-a-person business started by Ryuichi Ichinokawa, was both nominated for best documentary at the Bodil awards, and won the same prize at the Zurich Film Festival.
His latest project is BIG TIME, which follows Danish ‘starchitect’ Bjarke Ingels over a mindboggling six-year period as he and his architecture firm, the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), set out to design one of the skyscrapers to be built at the Ground Zero site in Lower Manhattan.
The film will have its world premiere at the Copenhagen Architecture Festival this May, so we took some time to talk to Schröder about what’s holding back Copenhagen’s architectural potential, the difficulty of finding unique stories in homogenous Denmark, and why Bjarke Ingels has managed to succeed internationally when so many others haven’t.
What was it like to spend so much time on this project?
The filming itself took place over a very long time, during which Bjarke Ingels’ career soared. It was in constant development, so I had to figure out mid-process what this documentary would end up being about.
Bjarke would call me up and tell me that they’d gotten another project – the craziest one yet – where they had to rethink the Smithsonian, the national museum of the United States. Then one month later, he’d call me up to say that now they were going to design Google’s headquarters. So during our time together, his career skyrocketed.
But I wanted to do a film that had something at stake as well – where there was some sort of drama or conflict. So for me, it was about figuring out what the flipside of success is. The flipside of the modern man, who wants a lot of things, but who in turn has to give up something the rest of us perhaps take for granted.
Which challenges have you faced?
When you film for such a long time, you need to make choices and focus on specific things. And at some point you also need to stop shooting, because otherwise you could just go on and on. But the hardest part was probably his time. It’s very hard to get him all to yourself for a few days. He has a billion meetings and flies more than any other Dane. So the challenge was figuring out when to shoot.
What is so special about BIG?
There’s definitely a genius in him that goes deeper than just being a good salesman. He comes up with some great ideas that are easy to understand. When he explains an idea, it feels like the only logical option. He’s good at finding naiveté in a project, and he’s good at telling stories.
He didn’t want to be an architect, he wanted to be a comic book artist, so he doesn’t have this huge ego. He just wants to take a fun, different approach, not necessarily the aesthetic one. That’s probably why he moved abroad, because he wants more than the Danish framework allows. Here you can’t even build something more than five stories high – I mean you probably can now, but nobody will let you build a skyscraper.
A few years ago, he was considered this weird comic book guy, and I’m sure the Jantelov [tall-poppy syndrome, ed.] has something to do with that, but now he’s won over most people here in Denmark.
Do you also feel restricted by the Danish social framework?
I think it’s hard to find the extraordinary stories here, because we’re pretty bloody similar. Sure we have a left and right wing, but even they don’t really differ from one another. People think alike and feel alike, we all have white walls, beige sofas and sneakers. I think Denmark is a hard place to find those stories, where you really challenge your mind and become enchanted. But I do my best to find something here that awakens the same feeling in me that Asia does, for instance.
How do you depict architecture on film?
I’ve always been interested in communicating architecture on film, but I think that it often ends up being about beautiful panning, in which case I’d rather just look at pictures in a book.
So for me it’s about finding an interesting story. I did a film called My Playground, which was about parkour and how its practitioners perceive urban space differently. These people use the city in a completely different way, so the film was about how movement changes architecture.
But with BIG TIME it was about finding the personal story with a lot of universal emotions. The human story about doing something that you’re really good at. Film about architecture needs to be about more than images of beautiful houses – it needs to be about human relationships.
What is special about the urban space in Copenhagen?
There are a lot of opportunities in Copenhagen, like the Parkour park, which was the first of its kind. So there are a lot of progressive ideas that get developed here. Our entire bike network, and the fact that the fastest way to get around is by bike. Not many cities have that. In terms of architecture, the proper values are in focus in Copenhagen. But again, it’s the same sets of values. You don’t really get a chance to go crazy. I mean, it would be great to see some brutalism here, or cable cars above the roofs or whatever. Buildings here need to be protected, and we look after everything. But you can take care of buildings and still be progressive, in my opinion.
What city does that well?
Tokyo. There you can see a 2000-year-old temple squeezed between two completely modern glass buildings. That synergy is super cool. And best of all, nobody complains. It’s a playground for far-out ideas. Here in Copenhagen, it’s all a bit dated and traditional.
What do you hope people take away from the documentary?
I hope that people take a look at their own homes and think about what makes them happy living there. It’s a film about architecture and a world in progress, but it’s also about the personal relationships. M
‘BIG TIME’ opens in cinemas across Denmark on May 3.