Film producer Sisse Graum Jørgensen exemplifies the hard graft that goes into getting films onto the big screen in a timely and cost-effective fashion. She tells Monocle about winning an Oscar, shunning Hollywood and celebrating Denmark.
“I don’t really have one way of being a manager – each film is different,” says Danish film producer and managing brand member of Zentropa Sisse Graum Jørgensen in her office at Film Byen (Film City), a former army barracks in Hvidovre just outside Copenhagen that was commandeered for film-making by Lars von Trier in 1997. “It is defined by the type of film and director. If it’s a small budget then I will be involved more, or if we are filming abroad – as I will be next week [in South Africa, shooting English-language western The Salvation, starring Mads Mikkelsen] – I will be on the set more because there is a higher risk of things going wrong. And for bigger films I delegate much more. Some directors need to be pushed at a faster pace, some need to work more slowly. I have to adapt to that, too.”
Over the years, the Danish Film School has defined a specific way of film making with producer, director and scriptwriter usually working together from a project’s inception on a fairly equal basis. However, presumably it’s the producer who keeps the momentum going when schedules are disintegrating, funding collapses or a star is throwing a trailer tantrum?
“Yes, as a producer you are the last man standing,” says Graum Jørgensen, whose measured calm is no doubt useful for soothing highly strung artistic types. “When I am producing a film I am involved right from day one: from the original idea to funding, casting, shooting and through to the international launch.”
Graum Jørgensen attended the Copenhagen Business School before working in advertising. She inadvertently entered the film world while working on a TV ad in 2000, when director Susanne Bier recommended her as a PA to Peter Aalbæk Jensen, co-founder of Danish film company Zentropa. “I learned so much from Peter,” she says. “It was a very open company in terms of trying different roles.”
She rapidly progressed to become a producer and her films, including this year’s En Kongelig Affaere (A Royal Affair), have achieved three best foreign-language film Oscar nominations within six years. There has also been one win: Bier’s Hævnen (In a Better World) in 2010. “After the Oscar win I did get scripts sent from Hollywood but I am not sure my way of working would fit there. I couldn’t really work as a producer for hire – I am so used to being involved from the start,” she says.
One of the most rewarding elements of the job is the international impact film has, says Graum Jørgensen. “A few years ago I was travelling in Malaysia and we went into a small cinema in Penang and they were showing a Danish film – not one of mine but for me that was amazing. It starts a discussion: people ask how we live in Denmark, how is it to work as a woman and make three films a year with four children? That’s why I make films.”
Graum Jørgensen also has other roles within Zentropa: she’s part of the management group that makes all the big decisions about hiring, budgets and marketing at Cannes. “As well as producing individual films I head a key staff of 10 people who are my permanent team, with specific skills in finance, law, marketing and distribution as well as more creative roles in casting and script adaptation,” she explains. “Something really important is that I have three trainees on the team. It’s a huge inspiration to have young people, who maybe have no experience of the film industry, to ask questions.”
Graum Jørgensen sees her prime role as making sure there is an audience for a film before it’s made. “At the start I will try and establish what kind of potential market there might be for a script to define a realistic budget. That in turn will define a film creatively. It’s not necessarily about cutting back as much as possible: if a director says, ‘I want 300 extras at Versailles,’ then I will say, ‘Fine, let’s do it but let’s look where we can save the money elsewhere’.”
Management in the Danish film industry isn’t all about budgets: it’s about allowing creative people to flourish. “You are working with a lot of very highly skilled people so I am very easy about letting people like that take decisions and then tell me about it afterwards. This might seem like chaotic creative management but I am also very clear about my key values as a producer, which you could argue is a kind of control. People will know what my views are about those decisions before they take them.”
- What time do you like to be at your desk or on set?
By 09.30 – after I’ve dropped my [four] kids off at school and day care.
- Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership: at MBA school or on the job?
I didn’t do an MBA but business school taught me that with complex subjects, sometimes you just have to sit and stare at the page.
- What’s your management style?
It’s about creating an environment where people can do their best.
- Are tough decisions best taken by a single person?
Ultimately yes, but I talk to my team.
- Do you want to be liked or respected?
We’d all like both but sometimes you have to take unpopular decisions.
- What does your support team look like?
Ten people: highly skilled but also some younger, less experienced members to ask interesting questions.
- What technology do you carry with you on a trip?
My iPhone, iPad and MacBook.
- Do you read management books?
- Do you run in the morning? Have wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
Maybe once my kids are older I’ll have time to run. I’d love to have wine at lunch but I’d fall asleep. And I like to socialise with my team.
- What would your key piece of management advice be?
Create an environment that attracts the best talent.