Editor Janus Billeskov Jansen has worked on several high-profile projects in the past, including multiple collaborations with Thomas Vinterberg, most recently last year’s Oscar-winning film Another Round. His latest film is another critically acclaimed export from Denmark, Flee, which is expected to make waves across several Oscar categories, eligible for Best Documentary, Best International Feature, and Best Animated Feature.
We had the chance to speak with the eloquent and accomplished Jansen, who broke down the nuances that exist between animation and documentary and addressed the complex material that serves as the journey protagonist Amin takes in Flee.
Abe Friedtanzer: Hi, how are you doing today?
Janus Billeskov Jansen: I’m fantastic. Thank you very much for being here.
AF: Absolutely. This is a really fascinating and wonderful film. How did you first find out about this project?
JJ: I knew the director from earlier on and he was actually in school and was a student, and he came to me as many other people do, as a consultant and asked for their last film. We knew each other from there, and also for a couple of other films that he did later on, I was in. I did not actually edit it but came in in the editing room and made notes. When he approached me for this film here, it was still in the progress of script. He had been talking to Amin, our main character, having had these first ideas of the documentary and actually shot a couple of things, and we discussed the way that it could develop in terms of Amin’s character, both as a child and also as a grownup lying on the couch and being aware of himself and that travel that he has. You can say that the story is in two levels. It is a childhood story told by the grownup, and the grownup, by telling the story, also learns a lot about his present situation and also what it means to him and what decision that he needs to take in his life. And that process was actually something that was in the editing process. So, we had the first interview and conversation and built on that, the script, and then further on, the talks and then actually into the editing.
A lot of people talk about this as being an animated documentary. I like to talk about it as being a documentary which is animated, because it’s actually the documentary, which is the most important thing, and then you paint the animation layer on top of it and make it bloom. So editing was the dialogue, the conversation that Jonas had with Amin over many periods of time, also during the editing, what we learned, what we needed, what kind of development that both the child, but also the grownup actually needed to do. And then we were doing the animatic at the same time, so I got in, part of the just simple black and white drawings. There’s a head, open mouth, look to the right, look to the left and you can extend it or shorten it. So, there was a collaboration between the animator and the actual editing at the same time.
AF: That’s very interesting. I think I’ve seen probably one film like this before, and that’s Waltz with Bashir, which is another film that’s animated but is also a documentary, and it’s about recovering memory and you get to something as it goes along. Is that a film that you’ve seen, and do you think that one is similar to this?
JJ: Oh, I’ve seen it. I was very much aware of it, and I don’t exactly recall it. Is it ten years ago or maybe a little more? Something like that. But it was very present in my memory, but when we started on doing this, I never really wanted to go back and just see how did that do, or how did they do it? Or things like that, to approach our own way of both dealing with the documentary part of it, and then the animation on top of it. And you can say that Flee is having three layers of storytelling. It’s the total 2D color animated part of it which of course is the most of it, and then there’s the more scary, danger part which is the unpleasant memories, which is the black and white, more simple and not that full drawn, but more representing a memory which is somewhere there but is scary. They are simpler, and then there is a third layer, which is the archive material, of course. So, what we had to do was to make the animatic and the dialogue and the conversations, and, you could say, the animated reenactment at the same time as we developed the film. There’s a lot of back and forth between the editing room and the drawing in animatic and ending up with a totally black and white, very simple animation, and have that as a final film before they went into fully animating it, which then took them a year or something like that. So that’s why I more talk about it as a documentary which is animated.
AF: That’s fair.
JJ: So you can invent a lot of things during the actual editing. You can ask for other scenes, you can ask for other shots or being in another environment, which is totally different from a normal documentary, but then you have to start with what you have, but it’s also different from the feature film. As you may know, I’ve edited feature film and go back and forth between feature film and documentary, which is a combination that I find very, very inspired coming from one to the other.
AF: It’s very interesting to see. I looked at some of your previous work that I’ve seen, like The Act of Killing and Burma VJ, both of which are very powerful, but as you say, you had what you had and you couldn’t necessarily go back and add something in where you were able to in this case, which I think is very interesting. And you also mentioned there is archive footage and there are some non-animated scenes. Was that a decision you always knew was going to be part of this film or that something that came on later?
JJ: Oh, that was a decision that Jonas, the director, had taken right from the beginning. He made decisions that some of the part will be actually the grownup Amin animated, and then having some of the memories, stories that he had told, which of course is in the dialogue, but was taken out of the dialogue and he thought that that was something that you could do as an animated reenactment. So, there we have going back in Kabul in that time, which of course will be a very difficult thing, having a completely different kind of experience if we had to go there and do it somewhere else out in the world and would look like it was a live action reenactment. So that was one of the reasons, but also of course, that Amin wanted to stay anonymous in respect of his own safety, but also in respect of his family and taking care of them.
AF: You’ve discussed your comfort with the fluidity between documentaries and narrative features. What do you think is the most significant difference in your process with those two types of cinema?
JJ: Huge. In the process of editing, I mean, in the feature film you have a story which is already written. We are coming in on the script before they actually go shooting, but that’s another case. But when you are in the editing, what you got is what you got, and you cannot really do quite that much with it. You can move it around, but there’s a structure, basically a structure and that’s your starting point. And you have characters there that you can pretty much do with whatever you want. You can make them happy; you can make them unhappy; you can make them love each other. Even though in the beginning of the film, that in the script, they were supposed to love each other, and then you can in the editing actually make them leave each other, never meet again. Things like that. You can treat them the way that you want, but in a documentary, you have a huge moral obligation. You cannot just treat them the way that you find interesting. You have to be in a situation when the finished film is there, that you can go and look them in the eyes and they can recommend it, can find themselves there and feel that they, in an honest way, have been treated correctly, so it’s completely different. But also in documentary, ninety or ninety-five percent of the time of editing, you are searching for the ending of the film, because what is this about? Where will it go? And you dig into the material again and again and again, and refine it, but basically, it is in order to understand the ending of the film. And if you’re talking about Flee in this sense, we had the ending, which means that we have from actual, real footage that they decided to live together and buy a house.
But what was interesting in the editing process was that we needed to have a bigger understanding of Amin’s grownup character coming from that he actually is in conflict with his boyfriend who wants to live with him and wants to marry him, but then Amin flees. There’s also that he flees to New York. The real Amin also needed to have this understanding of his own process of getting to the situation where he actually could marry him and move into a house together. So, we had Jonas go back a couple of times to try, I don’t know, five, six times over the editing period, of refining the questions to Amin. What was actually happening, where. And from that quite late in the editing process, we built up the ending together with Amin, from his reflection of telling his childhood story as a grownup and what it did for him in order for him to be in a situation where he could marry and move in with his boyfriend. That was quite interesting, and that is the documentary process. And during that period of time, we had all the archive material there and we had the storyboard. The simple storyboard that they made on the second time, so it was a back and forth there. So, you can say that, in a way, that we invented a sample of scenes in order to do it, but it was based on what actually did happen, and if Jonas really had been out shooting with them.
AF: It’s so fascinating to learn about this and the process and the difference between documentary and narrative, and I really appreciate you sharing all this with me, and it’s great to have a better understanding of the process behind this film. Thank you so much.
JJ: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
AF: Of course. Best of luck in the future. Thank you.
JJ: Thank you.
Flee is now playing exclusively in theaters from NEON.
Photos courtesy of Christian Krog; NEON