TV & Film

Finding the Red Thread: An Interview with DP Tom Ingwersen

Tom Ingwersen is a filmmaker dedicated to sharing compelling and thought-provoking stories, regardless of whether those stories happen to take the form of narrative films or documentaries. 

Ingwersen has traveled the world working with German media giant Bauer Media, and his independent filmmaking work includes writing and directing credits for the short films “Vilomah” and “Attribution Error,” both of which are in consideration for numerous film festivals. 

Primarily a Director of Photography, Ingwersen has been exploring many aspects of professional filmmaking for many years, and his combined talents have made him a highly sought-after choice for film projects of many different types. 

Artvoice had the rare opportunity to interview Ingwersen, and we used this opportunity to learn as much as we could about his creative process, multi-role cross-pollination, and generational differences in creativity and filmmaking techniques. 

Please enjoy the full interview, which you’ll find below.  

Would you say that you’re primarily a writer/director or a DP? Do all these skills converge in a certain sense?

At the moment, I am still switching back and forth between the two. For some projects, like my upcoming short documentary, I even filled all of the roles out of necessity. It really depends on the project. 

I just got the opportunity to serve as the DP on this short mockumentary about a middle-aged New Yorker’s mission to capture a pigeon and introduce it into the Central Park Zoo, which ends up being a very heartwarming commentary about her place in society.

Having never shot anything like this, it was a challenge I welcomed. It enabled me to really play around with the medium and pull references from all sorts of places, like Succession, the work of Edgar Wright, and other favorites. However, I do have to admit that when I’m acting as the cinematographer, I do have to consciously restrain myself from overreaching. I serve the Director, whereas when writing and directing I only serve the story.

Filmmaker Tom Ingwersen

Do you think there’s a benefit to sort of ‘working your way up’ to lead creative roles in filmmaking?

In some way, I definitely think it’s a necessary process. There are so many lessons you can only learn either by failing often, which is impossible on big-budget movies, or by watching others do things in ways you wouldn’t have thought of at first. It can give you the feeling that if they are doing that, you are allowed to experiment as well. It can be as simple as seeing a seasoned TV DP changing the color of a room from a more natural tungsten light that was decided upon in pre-production to a deep red simply because that felt right to him at the time. 

Yet, this can also be an excuse for executives not to hire younger, newer voices early on. It is a necessity in any creative industry to push forward and challenge yourself to find new ways to do things, and these ideas are often introduced by new generations that grew up with a different way of seeing the world.

How about influences? Do you carry a consistent set of filmmaking influences or do your influences evolve over time?

As mentioned before, my influences vary from project to project and what I am currently into.

Sometimes, I seek out references and watch or rewatch specific films. Other times, I just fall in love with something I watch and try to integrate lessons from it into everything I do.  It’s a great feeling, but it can be detrimental to my style-over-substance ratio, so I have to go back and refocus on the story for a couple of days. 

Nevertheless, that’s one of the greatest parts of writing or creating, when you are flooded with ideas and blinded by passion to the point when you go too far. You can find real gems in those moments.

Your work has been shown at a number of festivals. Is it difficult to prepare to share your work with so many different audiences? Is there a certain excitement to that?

For me, extremely. Most of the time I’m either closing my eyes or standing in the back corner of the room, ready to escape. As weird as that sounds, I believe it’s because I care so much about giving the audience an emotional journey, so my mind focuses on trying to gauge their reactions rather than connecting with the film on an emotional level. I guess nervousness is pretty similar to excitement, but I feel like that’s definitely something for me to get better at.

Do you enjoy moving between documentary and narrative work? Specifically in terms of cinematography, are there unique concerns to each?

I do really think one informs the other. In a narrative, you can craft any angle in any location you can think of, which really lets you think outside of the box to craft images that can push reality while also encompassing the emotional core of the scene. 

While you can also push boundaries in documentaries, your subjects don’t always do exactly what you want them to do. They don’t always say what you think they might, and your duty is to truthfully tell their story. You suddenly have an even greater responsibility making you question your motives and intentions at every turn, and this challenges you to strike a balance between creativity and truthfulness. 

Limitations can often lead you to solutions or perspectives you wouldn’t have thought about. Those challenges are exciting to deal with.

How do you spend time between projects? Do you focus on developing your own ideas?

At the moment, there isn’t much time between projects, to be honest. You can only work on so many projects at the same time, but as film projects take their time, you can have a limitless number of ideas. 

I do need a little bit of time to recalibrate after one project finishes, but almost feel an obligation to realize something that was in the back of my mind for a while. In some way, that’s a very necessary process, because you realize which ideas you really care about and which ones stick with you, and can let those simmer a bit before you take the next step. 

Let’s be honest: coming up with ideas is really the most fun part, haha. 

What’s the next film you’ll be working on?

Currently, I am working on a documentary I shot in Germany in August. It’s about Ludmilla, an 87-year-old Ukrainian woman who fled from the war to Germany, where she was taken up by the Russian man Andrej in his tiny one-bedroom apartment. This story offers a new perspective on a war we’ve heard so much about from news outlets. 

It’s a story of a relationship between a Russian and a Ukrainian, between helper and helped, between two human beings. I think their relationship is fascinating and can’t wait to share it with everyone.

Filmmaking can be a long process. Is it ever difficult to keep sight of the core vision of a film?

I think even if the process was shorter, it would still be difficult to stay true to the core of the story. You are being pulled in every direction, having to deal with physics, the budget, your own ego, and so on. 

The most difficult part is killing your darlings.  Sometimes there are elements of the story that you love, but which don’t serve the story in the best way. This can come down to so many different reasons, but in the end, all you can do as a writer/director is serve the story.

There are so many possibilities when every part of the film is just a figment of your imagination, that you need a guiding light, so early on you have to determine the theme, an intention, and the emotional core of the story that can be that red thread pulling you through to the end.