This month we talk with Danish director Nikolaj Fremming about his short film Living With Humans for Jotex.

Living With Humans, is set in a near future where an AI humanoid is enslaved to serve humans. But what happens when nature interferes? Living With Humans is a narrative short film about a potential future with AI.

Can you tell us a little about your background and your route into directing? 

My childhood and youth was spent in a pretty rough neighbourhood in a Copenhagen suburb. So to keep myself out of trouble I obsessively breakdanced, painted graffiti (my mom bought me my first spray can) and played the guitar in bands. That all informs how I approach my films. And also, my dad was an alcoholic, I mention this because a lot of my stories evolve around some kind of liberation. I suspect that’s where it comes from. 

More recently I have a background as an advertising creative so naturally I’m doing a lot of projects within that, and happily so, but I have my aim on much bigger more emotion-driven projects. I guess that's yet another emancipation going on there.

Would you say you have a directing style? How did you arrive at it?

Persistently passionate perhaps? I have this obsession that not only do I want to make an outstanding film I also want every single person on set to feel appreciated and have a good experience. And more often than not, those two go hand in hand. 

With actors I try to make them feel safe and mighty, like it’s all about them which in many ways it is. I see them as the fragile heroes of the set, they carry the story that we’re all working hard to tell. I took many acting classes and played theatre when I lived in Barcelona, that informs how I work with actors.

That said, before I go on set I always have the complete the film in my mind so that I can see it vividly already. Once I have that I become unstoppable in realising it and my usual humble self is replaced with a slightly more pushy and rather driven personality.

Jotex – Living With Humans

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Did you study filmmaking? How did you learn your craft? 

It’s self-taught in part, I’ve read a lot of books, attended master classes and I have an amazing producer as a mentor. But this summer I graduated from Screen Writing at the University of Southern Denmark, with top grades actually. That informs a lot of my work now and it’s made me a lot more confident as a story teller. I felt that already when directing this one, Living With Humans. I also learned from studying screen writing that it’s likely to be the most challenging part of the entire filmmaking process. If you’ve got a good script? Seriously, you’re more than half way. 

If I’m ever in doubt though I try to see everything as music. A Danish architect said that architecture is like frozen music. I apply that thinking to film, seeing everything as music really works for me.

What was the inspiration for Living With Humans?

The brief simply had one word “dystopia” and my first association was AI, which I’m rather sceptic about. We tend to think about AI from the perspective of ourselves. But take a look at human history, we tend to be quite cynical about how we make things and beings work for us, whether it’s nature, animals or a new technology like AI and very soon AI-robots. So the question I wrote from became: “What if you’re an enslaved AI-humanoid and you become conscious of your own existence?" I brought in the flower to ignite the human side in her, and what she does with the flower in the end is in a way a critique of us humans, of how we treat nature.

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ABOVE: BTS photos from Living With Humans.

What other directors' work do you admire? 

My work has sometimes been compared to Danish director Carl Th. Dreyer (1889-1968) an internationally acknowledged director and one of the pioneers in Danish film, which I’m very proud of. Nicolas Winding Refn has a lot of the graphic simplicity that I often try to achieve in my compositions. I’m also deeply inspired by Italian crime shows like Suburra and Gomorrah. And the playfulness and fluid style of a very contemporary director like British Henry Scholfield is also a great inspiration. Even if I enjoy documentary-style work I tend to gravitate towards very stylised and almost theatrical performances.

Where do you find the inspiration for your projects? 

I’m tempted to say everywhere but its more likely these three areas: Injustice, beauty and music. I think that many people go through life and miss all the beauty that is hidden literally all around us. I am motivated to make them experience that beauty by putting a light on it and elevating it. And what film does better than any other medium is to create empathy, so it feels really good to be able to highlight an issue where an injustice is being done and make people see a situation through the eyes of others. I think that is the primary role of film in our world.

Jotex – The Making of Living with Humans

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ABOVE: The Making of Living With Humans.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in pulling this project together?  

I had really high ambitions with this one as I was super excited about the theme, and once the story was written, all I could think about was how to make it as amazing as it looked in my mind. That is always going be tricky on a tight budget. But as people got excited by the idea and the vision, it became easier to get great talent involved. Another challenge was to get the products integrated in a prominent yet subtle way.

How long was the shoot and what was the most challenging aspect of the project?

 It was only a day and a half! I would have loved to have a full week. But we had prepared really well by shooting the whole film with a rehearsal dancer the week before. So we had very little surprises and were absolutely blessed with an amazing dancer and choreographer Marie-Louise Hertog that delivered such high quality in every single take, even with the acting. 

I was in charge of the post-production which was rather challenging and something I will happily let someone more capable do on my next film.

I was in charge of the post-production which was rather challenging and something I will happily let someone more capable do on my next film. And then of course came the challenge of distributing a seven minutes film in a world obsessed with short formats. 

My advice is to prepare early for this and have a mediaplan in place, you need everybody on board. We were fortunate to have The Drum select it as their Ad of the Day which sparked a good PR run.

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ABOVE: BTS photos from Living With Humans.

What have you learned during the process of making the film?

Doing proper preparation and pre-production are absolutely key. Sure getting into  production is intense and slightly chaotic but much less so if you’re super prepared. When asked for advice from a first time director, Lars von Trier once replied: “Don’t listen to anyone”. Well, yes and no. I spent quite some time working on this idea before I shared it with anyone. It had to reach a state where it would be untouchable. It’s risky but the reward is worth the risk. If your vision is really strong, it will inform all the hundreds of decisions you will be taking in the process, most of which are crucial to shaping the film. If you then invite people to see that vision clearly, they become co-creators and it’s amazing what can be achieved. That said, a creative process is not a democracy and you’re the only one that have seen the film, even if it’s only in your mind.

So I try to be very intentional about everything. I have to plan rigorously, consider every possible outcome, prepare myself, the actors and the rest of the crew. That’s the best way to be present, open to new ideas and other peoples energy on set. Ironically the key to improvising on set lies in the preproduction phase.

What are your hopes and plans for the future?

I want to direct music videos for artists like Dua Lipa and Björk. Music videos are such an amazing format that allows you to turn the whole thing into one beautifully choreographed unity originating from the lyrics and the emotions in the track. And it naturally involves dancing which I love! 

Within fiction I’m currently preparing a pitch for Netflix and HBO together with a Swedish production company. It’s actually my graduation project, a thriller series, that has caught their interest. Obviously I’m not only hoping to sell it, but also to direct it, well at least some of the episodes. But whatever happens, I will learn a ton from the process.

Living With Humans made me realise that I also really enjoy shorter performance-driven pieces, but only if there is a strong story at the core. If I get to work on a good mix of fiction, music videos and commercials, I’ll be very, very happy!

Take a look at Nikolaj Fremming's shots Unsigned page here.

You can check out some of the amazing work put out by unsigned directors in our monthly shots Unsigned Showcase, here.