For writer-director Martin Strange-Hansen and producer Kim Magnusson, their live-action short film On My Mind, which is now Oscar-nominated, has a deeply personal connection. The film, shot in Denmark and released by The New Yorker, follows a man who will stop at nothing to sing one particular song at a karaoke bar – before it’s too late. The Danish duo tell THR that it’s a film about saying goodbye to your loved ones and dealing with profound loss in life – one that posed many challenges during its mid-pandemic production.
Martin, this story has a personal connection for you, correct?
MARTIN STRANGE-HANSEN The original idea stems from once upon a time when we were in the hospital with my daughter, whom I lost in 2001. But prior to that, we were in and out of the hospital a couple of times because she had a spinal muscular disease. I hadn’t been able to sleep because there was so much going on. I knew that [the next day] We were going to have a serious talk with a doctor about how to progress from here, and I was just like, “I need to sleep tonight, to be able to be there, fully alert.” I went out of the hospital, and I walked down the street and into this dive bar, which was completely empty [except for two guys]. I went up to the bar, and, exactly like the protagonist in our film, I was like, “I need a double whiskey and no ice cubes,” and just sat there and gulped it down. I didn’t talk to anyone, and then I left, but I remember while I was there that the other two guys were having a very surreal conversation about tying a rope around the globe and what would happen if you put one more meter on that rope. I thought, “You can be so close in proximity to a fellow man, but you never actually know what’s going on in his or her life at the moment.”
When did the karaoke aspect enter the picture?
STRANGE-HANSEN Twenty years ago, Kim and I made a movie. It was called This Charming Man. We had the wrap party for that at a karaoke bar, and I was drunk and I was happy because we just wrapped up, so my emotions were pretty high up. One of the makeup artists said, “Martin, don’t you want to sing a song?” I was like, “Yes, sure. I want to sing a song. ” And I went up to the karaoke bar, and I grabbed the mic. I didn’t leave the mic for three hours straight. I didn’t get the rules of karaoke. Every time a new song came on, I was like, “These people want to sing with me as well.” That also stuck with me, that feeling of someone not knowing the rules of karaoke: You sing your song, and you go back. The situation of a character wanting to sing the same song over and over kind of stuck with me.
Kim, why did you want to be a part of the project?
KIM MAGNUSSON I loved the pitch. On a personal note, my mother died some years back of cancer, and she was very young at heart, and I was young in age and she was my best friend and everybody’s best friend in the world. I was in the hospital room with her for the last 48 hours by her side. For me, this movie is about saying goodbye to your loved ones. I think everybody in this life has had somebody close to them [whose loss has meant] they somehow needed to experience a very [endearing] and daring situation. It came right into me.
Talk to me about production. When did you start and wrap production? How many days did the shoot take?
MAGNUSSON The shoot was four days, which was shot during the pandemic. It was limited to crew on the set, and at the time, the official rules in Denmark were that you’d be allowed 10 people in a room at any given point. So some crew members had to be outside the building and then come in when it was their turn to do work, and then they always had to go out. There was like a little bubble. That kind of made it challenging. But coming back to what this is about – that everybody has probably experienced [at some point] that somebody close to you has gone through something rough – then everybody kind of pulled together because every crewmember needed to do a little more outside their normal field of work to get it going because it could only be this many people [on set]. In that way, I think we benefited from that.
What were some of the challenges?
STRANGE-HANSEN At the time, I said to myself, “Well, if we shoot now, during the pandemic when all the bars are closed, it’s actually a pretty good idea to do a short film because you can get a bar for free.” Then I wrote in another location, which is the hardest location to get your hands on: a hospital. All the hospitals that I approached were like, “You can’t be serious. Right now, we are saying to people you can’t visit your relatives, and you want to come here and make a movie? ” And I completely understood that, I completely respected that. But a day before the shooting, we got this rehearsing room that is used for nursing education, so we could film somewhere where there were no sick people and we could be of no harm to anyone. That was one obstacle that at one point was giving me mean I mean, I have gray hair, but [it was giving me] extremely gray hair.
Another funny part – which is something I’ve never done before [and] again because of the pandemic – my editor and I were never in the same room while doing this film. … [In terms of the song “Always on My Mind,”] I love the song and that’s of course [why] it has to be there. But I found out that we had a good negotiation with Sony, which gave us the rights to the song, but it was not as easy as I thought because I thought, “Well, I’m doing a karaoke version, how hard can it be? ” Turns out, it was harder [to get the rights for] the cover version.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.