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Short Films in Focus: Mr. Death

In “Mr. Death,” Trond Espen Seim plays a modern day grim reaper who drives around all day waiting for people to die. There might be others in his line of work. Obviously, he cannot be everywhere it once. He treats it like any other nine-to-five job, going to appointments and possibly working overtime if someone is on an operating room table hanging on for dear life. The work makes Mr. Death occasionally nauseous. “It comes with the job,” he explains to the documentarian following him around. 

The Norwegian “Mr. Death” comes from director Andreas J. Riiser and it’s one of those seemingly dark, comic fables that sneaks up on you with a life-affirming sentiment. Seim plays the role in what some might say is a typically inert fashion (for playing Mr. Death): Stoic, apathetic and no longer interested in the work. Not really. Had the film stayed in that mindset, I might have turned it off and moved onto something else. But something happens about half-way through that helped this movie turn a corner into something more surprising and worthwhile. Riiser is smart to keep that from the audience, just as we start questioning the appeal of the premise. 

It’s not a bad premise at all, but it is the kind that seems best suited for a short. Riiser makes the most of it, infusing it with comedic moments, particularly when Mr. Death tells us what tune plays on the radio repeatedly. It’s the perfect choice because when one listens to this piece of music (you'll have to watch the film). A perfect batch of mixed emotions is conjured: It’s full of beauty, tragedy, wonder and sorrow and it all exists as the center of Mr. Death’s world. 

This short probably won’t be for everyone, but it took me by surprise. Perhaps it would make for an interesting feature, since it does mix elements of such films as “The Seventh Seal” and “Man Bites Dog,” and it does leave the viewer with some questions about how Mr. Death works with others. While those questions may never be answered, “Mr. Death” is a short that ends satisfactorily, nonetheless. Enjoy your life!

How did this film come about?

I am not afraid of dying. Don’t know why, but I just feel settled with the thought that there’s little I can do about it, so why spend time worrying. I don’t blame others who feel anxiety around the deal, but with “Mr. Death” I did set out trying to give this universal and unavoidable phenomenon some headroom. 

I’ve made other short films and music videos with death included one way or another, but they always treated the theme so respectfully and dramatic. This time I wanted to use black comedy, or gallows humor if you like, to take death by the horns and hopefully lead an audience into laughter and lower shoulders on the topic - if only for 15 minutes.

How did you pull off the scene with the motorbike in one shot?

It is shot in three separate layers. With a locked off camera I had the motorcyclist drive into the shot and turn left in the first plate. In the next plate I pulled the motorbike into the shot from behind the hearse until we found a nice position for it to stop. (And obviously removed the tow truck pulling the cycle into the frame in post production.) Third plate is where Mr. Death is standing by the hearse and then "reacts to all of this" before he starts walking. Camera is pulled off the lock-off and follows. Around the corner, I had the nicest smashed Mercedes ever waiting. (I was personally stopped by the police driving this vehicle to the location.)

At one point, an elderly character has to get into a coffin and be dead. Did Inger Johanne Ravn have any reservations about that?

When directing, I put a lot of my weight in the preparatory work with the actors for them to get into my thoughts and emotions on why on earth we should be doing this thing. Inger Johanne and I had thorough talks before she accepted the part and before shooting her scenes. So on the spot shooting that scene, she trusted my instincts and felt reconciled with the idea and just owned it. 

Apart from this, Ravn shared my attitude towards death - so she was really into the approach and didn’t have any second thoughts on contributing. Although, I did forget to warn her family on the premiere of the film in Oslo. Luckily they had the same headroom as their mother!

Did you have any changes in attitude or philosophy about death after making this film?

Not apart from getting confirmation that audiences out there respond to my approach, motivating me to keep the track.

What’s next for you?

I’m staying on with Mr. Death, looking at different ways for him and his colleagues to come to life in a TV-series format. Talking with Anonymous Content on that just now, fingers crossed!

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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