Making use of beautiful imagery and an inventive story, Anders Walter’s short film Helium deals with the afterlife from the perspective of a sick child and a man who wants to help him minimize the pain. After he befriends Alfred (Pelle Falk Krusbæk), a young boy who is dying, hospital janitor Enzo (Casper Crump) decides to create an imaginary world for him. He tells him stories of another realm where everything is exciting and colorful, and where he will never have to suffer again. Touching and visually captivating the film combines fantasy elements with its emotional subject matter to creative a small gem of a film. Walter talked to us about the non-existent budget for his project, his inspiration, and finding the right approach to talk to children about death.
Carlos Aguilar: How did the idea for this particular project develop?
Anders Walter: I knew I wanted to do a little story that celebrated fantasy. I guess having a little boy dying is maybe an extreme way to tell a story about fantasy, but for me it was very important to make a story about how fantasy works for children and young people, and how they can use it when things get very dark in life. I’m very curious about how kids use fantasy when things look darkest in their lives.
Aguilar: It is interesting you mention the importance of the boy having this fantasy, but although he imagines it, the janitor creates the story. This man is the one who invents it help the the boy. Why did you decide to make him someone outside the boy’s family?
Walter: In the first draft I wrote we were also dealing with the parents’ pain. But having to deal with the parents’ pain was just a completely different story, it was a much more hardcore story. It was just too much to look into the eyes of the parents and see the pain they were in because it’s such a devastating thing to lose a child. It wouldn’t have worked for me to do that kind of hardcore story, that’s why I got rid of the parents and instead had this kind of eccentric janitor who comes up with this fairytale. In the film I obviously wanted to say that there are parents around him, but I just showed them with their backs turned in one single frame. Looking into their eyes would have made it a totally different story.
Aguilar: This is a 20-minute short film, given the scope of the story and the impressive visuals, did you ever contemplate making it into a feature-length piece?
Walter: This was always thought of as a short film, as short story. I don’t think this would have worked that well as a feature. I think 1 and half hours or 2 hours of film with a premise that a little boy is going to die might be a little too much. Also you know right away that this film is about him dying, he is not going to survive, and I just think for a feature film it wouldn’t have worked for me, that’s how I feel about it. It was always planned as a short film.
Aguilar: One of the most interesting elements of the film is the magical realism and the visuals that you use to present this alternative world. What was the inspiration for it?
Walter: My favorite book as a child is kind of an inspiration for this story, it is a book by a Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren, she is probably the biggest children’s literature writer in Scandinavia, she wrote a book called The Brothers Lionheart. It deals with a child dying and going to a fantasy world, it just had such a big impact on me when I was I was a kid. That kind of stayed with me and has stayed with me for my whole life. I think I was maybe a little inspired by that. Regarding those sequences when we go into the boy’s mind and visualize how he sees what the janitor tells him, my background is in illustration. I did graphic novels for 20 years in Denmark and illustrations for children’s books, so normally I do a lot of visuals like that. For me it was just something I’ve been doing for many years while doing comic books, I just had to make it work as live action also.
Aguilar: With all the wonderfully achieved CGI and other visual effects, ‘Helium’ feels like a big budget type of project. Was it difficult to get that kind of quality working with a short film’s resources?
Walter: Actually the budget for this film was $0. This film was made for $5,000 [Laughs]. In Denmark we are dependent on getting government funding to make films, we got the $5,000 to start developing the script. Then when they read the shooting script they didn’t want to go and support it, but both me and my producer were very much in love with the film. We just talked to all our friends and convinced everybody to show up and work for free. So actually it’s a film without any budget at all.
Aguilar: This is a really heartbreaking story. Was it difficult to find the right boy to play the part with that specific emotion? What was that process like?
Walter: The child, Pelle, he had just been in another Danish film, a feature film. I knew they had been casting for half a year to try to find a kid for that feature, and then they found Pelle who is just fantastic. I kind of just stole him right off the set from that picture. I knew he was great I saw him in that feature and everybody loved him in Denmark, so I knew I was in good hands with him. I also knew I had to find a guy that could do as great as he did because the film wouldn’t work if we didn’t have a boy who could fill in the character. He was just great to work with. He just got the kind of feeling that he should stay in, he was very good at adapting into the mood of the film. It was very easy actually.
Aguilar: In your opinion, since this is the central theme of your film, why do you think it is so difficult to explain the concept of death to children?
Walter: I don’t necessarily think it’s difficult, but I just think that for children the concept of death is so far away. Of course some of them experience losing their grandparents or other family members, but children are such imaginary creatures so it doesn’t work for most of them if you just say that when you die everything is just finished. It’s just something they don’t want to buy into because that’s not the way their brain works. It is a lot of easier for them if you come up with an alternative world, then they can cope with it very easily. I had to speak with the actor about this, and just sitting down with him and saying “Oh when you die then you did, and nothing happens” he doesn’t get it, he is like “whatever” But if you tell him to imagine you travel somewhere else he totally gets it and accepts that you cannot stay here on this planet forever, but it’s OK because you go somewhere else. I think children are built in a more positive way before they get destroyed by the cynics of the world [Laughs] , they have that kind of naïve imagination and that way of thinking about the afterlife. I think it is not a problem speaking about death to children, not at all.
Aguilar: How has this Oscar nomination change your prospects and the future of your career?
Walter: Personally for me right now it is just a lot of great experiences, to be here now in L.A. and experience all the Hollywood madness. I’m just having fun and enjoying myself. Obviously now my producer and I, we have easier access to material here in Hollywood. We have access to great scripts, and we are going to try to get some feature projects going here and we will also try to get some projects going in Denmark. I think it helps; it opens doors, no question about it.
Aguilar: Any specific projects you are looking into as you plan your next step?
There are two children books here in America I’m trying to get my hands on. I know they are out there in Hollywood, so I’m tying to go after them.