The Cowboy way

The Cowboy way

By Michael Pickard
August 18, 2023

Job Description

Danish cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck discusses his partnership with “one of a kind” director Nicholas Winding Refn on Netflix’s stylish neo-noir drama Copenhagen Cowboy and why he wanted the show to be an experience for viewers.

When six-part Danish drama Copenhagen Cowboy was first announced, Netflix pitched the show as a “thrill-inducing, neon-drenched noir.” It was no more than you might expect for a series created and directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, who is known for his similarly stylistic feature films Drive and Only God Forgives.

For the show’s cinematographer, Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, the task at hand was to create a fresh look for a story told by a filmmaker whose aesthetic was already well established.

“There’s always that question, but even more so on this show because Nicholas’s world and his aesthetic is so defined already,” Jønck tells DQ. “So as a DOP, how much can you bring to that? It always begins with a conversation. I didn’t say, ‘I want it to look totally different.’ I was more like, ‘Let’s slowly see what happens, one thing at a time, and try not to be so predefined or have a prescription before you do the work.’

Magnus Nordenhof Jønck

“I’m always curious about how much a director is into the details, and Nicholas is one of a kind. He’s so detailed and into every framing. He knows so much about light as well. But at the same time, you never feel like he’s doing more than making suggestions. When I was working with him, he liked me to bring whatever I think to the table. You never feel he’s just saying, ‘This is how I want it.’ So you do feel like it is a conversation.”

Copenhagen Cowboy, which was released on Netflix in January following its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2022, follows an enigmatic young heroine called Miu (Angela Bundalovic), who is rumoured to be a psychic who brings luck to her surroundings. As she crosses Copenhagen’s ominous criminal netherworld, she encounters various adversaries – both natural and supernatural – before meeting Rakel (Lola Corfixen), a threatening presence who has similar powers to her own.

Jønck had previously worked with Refn on a commercial, after the pair first met when their daughters both attended the same ice-skating rink in the Danish capital. Joining Copenhagen Cowboy, Refn’s first Danish-language project since 2005’s concluding part of his Pusher crime trilogy, Jønck’s work began with the initial scripts, from which he sought inspiration for how the world of the series might look and feel.

In fact, Refn’s Pusher – the first film was released in 1996 – was a direct reference, as both the director and Jønck wanted to draw on its ultra-realistic style.

“That was our starting point in this case,” says the DOP. “We wanted to be very true to what is there already. For example, Miu starts in this world of sex workers, in the countryside in Denmark, so my process there was starting to think how does that look in reality and being inspired by that.”

Jønck met with a stills photographer who had captured the work of a nurse who supports young sex workers, and the bleak reality of their situation – rather than the fantasy version seen in films – influenced the look of those particular scenes.

“Coming from that, we could then discuss the production design, wardrobe and all of that, and take it from the real world and into the world of Copenhagen Cowboy,” he continues. “But at the same time, it is also a fairy tale, a fairy tale in a crime world, so there’s tension in these two worlds. Finding that balance was our first call.”

The opening episode of the series gives an insight into the differing camera techniques used through the show, from a long tracking shot across the front of large pig pen to the inside of brothel owner Rosella (Dragana Milutinović)’s home, where the camera sits motionless in the corner of the room.

Early discussions between Jønck and Refn determined that the camera should be a character in its own right, sitting still as the characters move, or instead panning while the characters left the frame.

“We didn’t define a lot of things, but we knew we didn’t want to go handheld,” Jønck notes. “When I got the script and the treatment, I thought, ‘How are we going to make this look?’ because maybe it should be a little bit more like Pusher, more handheld. So I started doing some tests: I shot some handheld with zooms, static with zooms, something with natural light, a little bit more with studio light.

“But I could immediately sense Nicholas didn’t like the handheld, and it didn’t interest me at all. With this show, when you have these characters who are a little bit twisted, it just felt right observing them, and the editing would be slow. His initial thinking was that we should slow things down and take a more cinematic approach to how we normally think about a TV show. It should entertain but also bring people to a place where the audience can experience, rather than consume.”

Copenhagen Cowboy stars Angela Bundalovic as Miu

However, not having a definition of the show’s style from the outset meant Jønck was able to bring in new ideas as development continued and filming progressed. From initial static shots, more panning was introduced. He then added dolly tracking, tracking and panning, and then 360-degree turns.

“So that kind of language began to unfold as we were shooting,” he says. “Usually you have this definition before you begin, but even though it was developing through the show, it was still connecting [through the story]. As a viewer, you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, it started completely differently from how it ended.’ But that was exciting for me and it was exciting working with Nicholas because he has a very different directing style from anyone I’ve ever met.”

On set, Refn was “in the middle of everything,” Jønck notes. He would sit right next to the camera to be as close to the actors as possible. And while he might have strong ideas about how he would like scenes to be played, he keeps his thoughts to himself and instead encourages the actors to offer their opinions about where they might position themselves in each take.

“Then somehow the actors began to suggest the same thing Nicholas talked to me about in the mornings,” Jønck recalls. “I was like, ‘How is he doing that?’ That was interesting and it felt very organic.

“In the beginning of the scene, he would also play music, a certain Nicholas Winding Refn piece of electronic music or music from another film, suggesting what kind of mood the scene should have. That was very interesting because you connect with the emotion in that piece of music and then you understand the scene on a totally different level when you’re actually shooting it. That was the first time I had experienced that, and you connect with the scene from a spiritual and emotional standpoint while you’re shooting it.

The series debuted on Netflix in January this year

“As a cinematographer, you have your own idea of how a scene is going to play out but it’s not necessarily the same as the director’s, so often I would get surprised by where it went. But it was refreshing way to shoot.”

Jønck’s previous screen work includes 2005 Danish feature film Krigen (A War), which was written and directed by Tobias Lindholm. He later reunited with Lindholm on Efterforskningen (The Investigation), a true crime drama about the people trying to solve the 2017 murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall. His other credits include Netflix mystery drama The OA.

But while the subject and genre of his work might vary, one constant is Jønck’s preference for a naturalistic style of filmmaking. “I get thrown myself when I see things that are too exaggerated,” he says. “But in this case, it just naturally moved that way. Usually I try to be as realistic as possible and just use natural light, and not light faces so much as create a mood in a room and have people walk in and out of light so it feels more natural.”

The ambition behind Copenhagen Cowboy, which comes from byNWR Originals, was to bring a slice of cinema to the small screen, and the cinematography on the show certainly ensures the series stands out from anything else on television this year.

“I think Copenhagen Cowboy is a rare case [on television],” Jønck says. “We’ve seen so much being made in the last couple of years. Now it’s going down, and it’s interesting to see where we will end up. But the intention was to bring a more cinematic approach to this TV show and also make something where you have to sit in a room having an experience. That was the idea, and it is rare. Most things made for streaming are seen on an iPad or iPhone so you’ve got to be able to tell the story in a not very subtle way. There’s a lot of subtlety in Copenhagen Cowboy.”

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