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Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Jacob Pilgaard Is Helping To Change Our…

Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Jacob Pilgaard Is Helping To Change Our World

I am not sure if I can think of 5 things, I wish someone told me. The most important thing and the first thing I always tell upcoming talents is that they should behave and treat people decently. And I mean everyone on set. I talk to a runner the same way I talk to my DOP. We’re all there making the same movie, and everyone has an important part to play, be that making coffee or setting up the camera.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jacob Thomas Pilgaard.

Having graduated as a screenwriter from the Danish film school 18Frames in 2015 Jacob founded Willow Film in 2016.

His films have been selected for over 100 international film festivals winning almost 90 awards.

His latest film, “Incident at school”, has also been selected for many festivals including 6 Oscar qualifying festivals winning an award at the prestigious Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

Well, my dad is a painter and writer, so I guess a lot of my creativity comes from him. We have pictures of me at age 4–5 where I am sitting using his typewriter. In fact, come to think of it, I have written stories since that age. My dad also taught me how to use a camera and take pictures and to this day I really enjoy taking stills. I LOVE framing a motive.

Finally, my dad is also very much into film and music, so you can say I really grew up surrounded by all sorts of art. Our family legend is that I was like 4 years old when we watched “Seven Samurai” together. I guess ending up making movies was quite inevitable. I am a quite calm person. That part is most certainly from my mom.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

Despite my upbringing, I took quite a detour studying Classical Philology, which may seem rather odd, but I really enjoyed studying ancient history, reading all the classics getting a sense of where we descend from. At one point I even wrote a thesis on Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. For quite a while I thought I was going to teach at college. But then a bit by accident one of my friends took me to visit the local Film Workshop in our city and then everything just fell into place. That was in 2010 and then I went to Film School a few years later and I have been making films ever since. That said, I am happy about my years studying Philology. I think it has given me so much knowledge about literature and storytelling that I use today in my work as a storyteller.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

Oh my, there have been SO many fun episodes. Both on my own films and on the features, I have been working freelance as a 2AD and 1AD. The one that really comes to mind is from a feature we did in the summer of 2022. I was the 2AD and we had some scenes with wolves. Like real wolves brought up from Germany. In the scene, this wolf had to chase the main character through a hallway. And the wolf was supposed to go full Game of Thrones on our actress. So, we set the scene, the camera is rolling, the actress starts running and then we cue the wolf wrangler, and he releases the wolf…and then…nothing. It just looks ever so slowly around the corner and just walks slowly after the actress. So cut, we do it again, and the same thing happens. The wolf was tired and couldn’t really be bothered to chase her and it was just hilarious. The actress even started running slower and slower in order not to outrun the wolf which looked SO funny. We never really got the take we needed. I have no idea how they solved that in the editing.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

You know what, I feel really blessed because I have met SO many nice people in this industry. Due to my 1AD work one really gets to meet the crew from all the different departments which is quite the joy because there all equally dedicated to their field in their own nerdy way. For some reason, I connect well with the actors, and I really enjoy talking to them about the craft. You know, just discussing the different approaches to acting. I love that there’s no right answer.

As for a story, I remember working with Jesper Christensen (Mr White in James Bond) and I was just so impressed watching him act. His 40 years of experience just shined through. The way he just…understood the room and the space around him. His instinct for where the camera is. How he used everything in the scene, the extras, the props. And then he’s just the nicest person.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Oh, I owe a LOT to a lot of people. Again, I feel blessed to have met so many generous people giving me advice from very early on. All the crew working with me on my shorts. My trusted co-writer Pernille. I guess it is neck to neck as to the most important one between my editor, Steen, and the leader of the previously mentioned Film Workshop, Mette. Steen has edited all my films and he’s taught me so much about filmmaking. And Mette just believed in me from Day One and she has always been willing to support my crazy ideas for my films. I wouldn’t have this career without them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Being quite the Californication fan, I really took this quote from Hank to heart: There is no life without love. None worth having anyway. I guess it reflects in my films. They are all about very close relationships mostly in families and it all comes down to caring for the important persons in your life. And making the right choice.

I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

To me, it’s important as I hope it will inspire others to do the same. You know, seeing a person of colour getting a leading role in a big feature film. I like the idea of a 14-year-old with say Middle Eastern origins watching an actor and thinking, hey, if he can, so can I. It’s going in the right direction in Danish film right now. A lot of upcoming actors are from various backgrounds. I think it is starting to reflect in the stories being told also. They are more diverse and not just focused on the problems of white Danish people in their 30’ies arguing over who should go get milk. Ultimately, I think it is for the better the more we know about each other.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Oh, I have a very bad habit of working on all too many projects at once. Right now, one of them is a tv-series that essentially is a Danish version of The Wire (the best series ever!). That would be great fun to do. Also, I am trying to get my debut feature film greenlighted. It’s a sort of Near Future Sci-fi tale about grief and atonement. Finally, I am in the quite early stages of developing some ideas for 3 different features. I absolutely love this part of filmmaking. Just put ideas on my whiteboard and listen to music. My whiteboard is my most important tool in writing.

Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?

The fact that I can make films and tell stories resonates with the audience. I mean, it’s the actual reason I even make films, and it’s worth all the long hours and the pressure of filmmaking when the audience responds to the film. I did a film about a girl dying from cancer and a man from the audience came up to me after the screening, in tears, and told me that he would go home and call his dad to tell him how much he loves him. That was…just overwhelming. At the first screening of “Deportation,” a woman said at the Q & A that the film had in fact changed her opinion about refugees. She used to just regard them as “numbers in statistics or some nameless people you heard about in the news” but now she really understood and had become aware of the fact that they are real people, some of them being deported back to a certain death in Syria. I guess there’s so much going on right now, the Pandemic, the war in Ukraine, risings in China and Iran and so on, that at some point you just turn off mentally in order not to become insane or depressed.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Wow, big question. I think I got some pretty good advice from a lot of people early on. But as often in life, you only really understand when you have gone through the process yourself. I remember a screenwriting teacher telling me quite early when I started Film School that it wasn’t worth arguing and losing friends over a film. “It’s just a film, you know?” Cut to a year later at a meeting with me, the director I was trying to write a script for, and the producer and it was mayhem. Nonstop arguing and fighting over the direction of the film. Looking back, it was stupid…

But I really learned a lesson there about the process of writing a script.

Recently I have really taken this “it’s just a film” to heart. At one point I was working 70–80-hour weeks, constantly taking direction from the director and the Line Producer and I just crashed with stress. It’s funny because you know it is bad for you, but you keep going because you take a pride in what you do, and you love making films. And you don’t want to leave your colleagues behind. So, you got to hit rock bottom before you draw a line. At least I had to. At the end of the day, it is only a film, and it is not worth having an accident on the way home or otherwise getting hurt because you’re just exhausted. As we know, sometimes people do die on set, and it just pains me.

The experience has made me much more aware though of the milieu on my own sets. I will not tolerate bad behaviour and it is vital to me that the craft and food are good and that the crew are getting their breaks and so on.

I am not sure if I can think of 5 things, I wish someone told me. The most important thing and the first thing I always tell upcoming talents is that they should behave and treat people decently. And I mean everyone on set. I talk to a runner the same way I talk to my DOP. We’re all there making the same movie, and everyone has an important part to play, be that making coffee or setting up the camera.

So, to sum up, be nice to people and know when to draw the line.

When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?

At this point, it is always about the story and my vision. That’s the perk of not having to answer to a financier and not having a huge budget. In fact, it always comes down to the feeling I would like to leave the audience with. To me, everything is about the audience. I truly respect the fact that they spend their time and money watching the films we make, and I feel obliged to honour that. Once I can identify this feeling for a project in some ways the rest is kind of easy if you know what I mean. Though sometimes I can find it difficult to convey to the crew how to achieve this feeling. At some point, to me, it just comes down to trusting my instincts. Thank God I tend to work with some of the same crew, so they are getting used to just trusting me also. I did a film about a school shooting and my DP had another vision for the film, but I stood my ground and artistically I made the right choice. However, if I am not right, I will be the first to admit it. I think I am rather good at listening to ideas from my crew and actors. If their idea is better, well, then we go with their idea.

Also, a bit of trivia regarding “big budgets”. In Denmark, most budgets for features are in the range of 3–4 million dollars. For my feature we trying to come up with 2 million dollars which must sound, I don’t know, silly to US readers.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Tough question! I am quite idealistic by nature really and there’s an element of injustice in most of my films. To be quite honest I think we need to reset our political system. In Denmark, we have people in our government in their early twenties, with no education, no job experience, and no qualifications whatsoever and they are running our country. And all they care about is getting re-elected and making money before heading off to a CEO position somewhere making even more money. Fuck that. That really needs to change. Because that would bring a lot of good to many people.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Easy one; Spielberg. He has been a constant source of inspiration for me my entire life. He truly is a beacon of humanity. It would be a short lunch though because I would probably be too nervous to say anything.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Well, my new webpage is under construction, so until then you can follow the FB page for our film, or you can just follow my private account on FB. I am quite accessible really😊

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

It was a pleasure!

Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Jacob Pilgaard Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.