Winning Shots: Director Christian Bagger and 15-40
By Madelyn Ritrosky
Photo left: Christian Bagger (l) with his director of photography, Helle Jensen (r), with first assistant director Cory Johnson in background.
Photo below: Christian Bagger.
I met filmmaker Christian Bagger at the 2008 Heartland Film Festival when we were allotted five minutes to chat on opening day. When I was asked two days prior which filmmakers I’d like to meet in five-minute slots, I had perused the festival line-up.
A short film set during World War II caught my eye. The title 15-40 sounded suspiciously like a tennis score, and sure enough, it was. The combination of sports, European resistance against the Nazis, and the world of the 1940s sounded intriguing. And the film was inspired by the filmmaker’s grandfather. Check that one.
After meeting Christian Bagger and seeing his film, I wasn’t disappointed. Shall we do a real interview? Check. In my opinion, 15-40 has all the markings of a great feature down the road. Indeed, he told me, “My dream is to make 15-40 into a feature film.”
So, as a step in that direction, let me introduce Christian Bagger, director of 15-40.
Christian is originally from Denmark and now lives in the US. He became interested in filmmaking as a teenager, which eventually led to production assistant jobs in commercials, other television projects, and feature films in Denmark.
“I worked for the largest advertising company in Denmark, Kunde & Co.,” he said. “I started as a PA, became an in-house editor, and then directed commercials.”
His experiences creating commercials as well as music videos on the side deepened his interest in the art of filmmaking. “I wanted to expand my storytelling,” he explained. “I also wanted to work with people from around the world.” Those goals led him to the US.
Photo right: Christian Bagger on the set with actor Neil Jackson
Christian landed at the American Film Institute, more specifically, the graduate program at the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles. It was a good choice: “One of my friends had gone there and thought it was a great program. And that’s what it proved to be.”
For his thesis, he turned to his longstanding interest in World War II and family stories he had grown up with. In particular, his grandfather’s life seemed perfect for storytelling on the screen. Kai Bjorn Hansen, who turns 87 this December, was a tennis star who helped Jews escape out of German-occupied Denmark during World War II.
Since Christian doesn’t consider himself a great writer (especially in English), he turned to fellow AFI students for the script. “When we had to make our thesis film, I talked to William Schneider about my grandfather and what he had done during the war. At first we thought the project was too big for a thesis. But Will’s a good writer. We were able to narrow down the story, and ended up with 15-40.” Schneider and Robert Ian Simpson co-wrote the film, which came in at 23 minutes in length.
According to Christian, Kai Hansen in the film mirrors Kai Bjorn Hansen quite closely but not entirely. He purposely made the names almost identical almost. He explained that tennis players in those days did not have coaches, yet there is a coach in the film. ‘Bjorn’ the self-coaching part of the real Hansen gets reassigned, in a privately symbolic fashion, to the fictional coach.
“My grandfather was a great tennis player in Denmark, and through tennis he got access to play in Sweden, which was a neutral country,” Christian said. “The character in my film is very much based on him. The film’s climactic tennis game never happened, but he did use his position as an international tennis player to save people. He would get travel papers to play in Sweden, and on the boat he would bring people who were fleeing the Nazis.”
Hansen was able to do this under the German radar because, as his grandson explained, the Germans aspired to physical fitness. Thus top athletes like Hansen, who made the Danish national tennis team, were admired and not watched as closely.
Learning tennis from his grandfather, at the club portrayed in 15-40, Christian became a tournament player in Denmark. With working knowledge of the tennis world, it was the film’s setting in the 1940s and LA shooting location that presented challenges.
“There were a lot of challenges, but one of the biggest was how to make Denmark in LA,” he said. “So I was very lucky that my cinematographer, Helle Jensen, was by my side. She’s also from Denmark. And we were lucky that we could shoot on Universal’s back lot, where they have cobblestone streets like we have all over Denmark. We shot in black and white to enhance the sense of it being in the past, and I’m very happy with that choice. I have to thank Helle Jensen for that.”
The two lead roles in 15-40 are actors you might recognize. And Christian feels very lucky to have landed them. He was biting his nails, though, ten days before the shoot. Will Schneider had told Christian to check out Neil Jackson in Blade: The Series. Christian said he immediately felt Neil Jackson was Kai Hansen.
Another fellow student, producer Doug Shaffer, was fearless and “sent our script to Neil Jackson’s agent.” Shaffer reminded Christian that the worst that could happen would be he’d say no. But they didn’t get an immediate response, and Christian was worried. Other actors had auditioned, and he had narrowed it down to two, but neither was perfect for the part like Jackson. “We were more than lucky he said yes.”
Neil Jackson was a regular on Blade: The Series and can currently be seen in a small part in Quantum of Solace. Coming in February, he has a larger role in the sci-fi thriller Push, co-starring Chris Evans, Djimon Hounsou, and Dakota Fanning.
The second role in 15-40 is the Jewish tennis player Erik Bjarnson, played by Steven Brand. The casting director sent the actor the script, and Brand signed on. “We met him and he said yes. We were so lucky,” Christian said. Because they had already landed Brand when Jackson read the script, signing Jackson wasn’t such a tough sell. Brand can currently be seen on television in Samurai Girl and is in Jada Pinkett Smith’s debut as a feature writer-director, The Human Contract. That film recently premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival.
Premiering in April at the Vail Film Festival, 15-40 has played several festivals, won two honorable mentions, and garnered a Jimmy Stewart Memorial Crystal Heart Award at the Heartland Film Festival. Christian was particularly impressed with Heartland: “I was blown away Heartland was great and there were only fantastic people everywhere I went.”
When I asked him what his goals are right now, he responded, “I would love to make a feature film, and if I can really dream here, I would love to make more than one. My goal is to tell stories that matter, where viewers think about what they’ve just experienced.”
He also revealed that he plans to stay in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future, where he currently has two feature films ready to pitch as the director. One is an action film “I love action films,” he said and the other is a low-budget thriller set in New York. He and Schneider have a full treatment for the feature version of 15-40, but that script is still a ways off. They are also tossing around another sports film, but this time with a contemporary setting and exploring corruption behind the scenes. Since Christian is from Denmark, he wants a soccer movie. Being Canadian, Schneider votes for hockey.
We know they can agree on tennis. And on a tennis player of the 1940s, Kai Bjorn Hansen. He was more than a tennis player he was another hero of World War II. Still is.
His grandson knows a good story when he sees it and created a good story for us to see. Take individual heroics and the struggle to make a difference. Mix liberally with World War II intrigue and tennis. What do you get? Christian Bagger’s 15-40.
Winning shots add up. Advantage Bagger.