Profile: Kristian Milsted

Nostalgic for the early rave scene, or curious about the traumas and tribulations of terrorist suspects and life in a crack den? Nick Smurthwaite meets up with a film production designer who finds his inspiration in the grungier side of London life

With three feature films coming out this year, Danish-born production designer Kristian Milsted is rapidly establishing himself as a creative force in the British film industry.

The likeable, tousle-haired 37-year-old embarked on a three-year course at the National Film and Television School in 1998, having become involved in the Danish film industry after leaving school. By the time he came to London, aged 24, he had worked in films for some four years.

His way into the famously competitive movie industry involved him eschewing CVs as is often the case in creative sectors. ’I decided I wanted to get my own jobs as a designer. So I started knocking on doors. I found sending letters with CVs wasn’t half as effective as meeting people face to face. In the beginning I took pretty much whatever work came along. I did shorts, corporate videos, promos. Then through the contacts I’d made, I got a low-budget feature film.’

For Extraordinary Rendition (2007), concerning the detention and torture of terrorist suspects, Milsted created an Eastern European prison out of a disused basement in a Hackney arts centre.

His follow-up feature, Unmade Beds, resembled an NFTS reunion, with fellow graduates Soledad Gatti-Pascual producing and Alexis dos Santos directing.

In 2006, Milsted switched to TV with The Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which proved to be a completely different experience from working on feature films.

’Low-budget films are very collaborative, with people happy to share their workload, whereas on a big TV series, everyone keeps to their job titles. If I needed something to be painted, I had to hire a painter to do it on Secret Diary,’ says Milsted. ’In many ways it was nice having a crew on standby to do your bidding, but there was a lot more responsibility and I was working with people who were far more experienced than me.’

Returning to films, he worked on three features in quick succession that have yet to be released Junkhearts, Weekender and Best Laid Plans. Junkhearts is about ’cuckooing’, where drug-pushers find vulnerable people and take over their homes to use as crack dens. It required much research into grungy living conditions on Milsted’s part.

’People living on the edge of society often inhabit spaces that reflect their desperation and mental state. In Junkhearts, the main character has made his estranged daughter’s room into a shrine-like space in a desperate attempt to hold on to her memory,’ says Milsted.

Weekender explores 1990s rave culture, affording the designer a chance to indulge in colour and energy. ’We took over a massive industrial laundry in Hackney that served as a club. We used a lot of fluorescents and UV lighting, made huge hand-painted backdrops and worked with graffiti artists to evoke an early 1990s feel. The look of the ravers themselves, recruited via Facebook and Twitter, made up a big design component.

’The early rave scene was fantastically creative. The director was keen on getting across a kind of innocence, contrary to the harder and commercialised rave scene that followed. Making moodboards from real footage helped to achieve the right look,’ says Milsted.

Best Laid Plans, still in production and filmed in Nottingham, is about two chancers trying to escape a messy situation. ’It’s about friendship really,’ says Milsted. ’I wanted the film to have a transient feel to reflect their lives.’

As his reputation grows, Milsted is likely to find the business of choosing what to do next increasingly difficult. ’You get into situations where you say yes to a project, then it doesn’t happen or it is delayed for six months, which leaves you unemployed. Sometimes I will ask a producer if he minds whether I start working on something else when my work on his film is almost finished.’

To date, most of his feature film projects have been UK-based and Milsted who has a young family finds London the best place to be based as so much pre-production takes place in the capital. But he is ambitious to work internationally. What does he most enjoy about his job? ’I love working in a team. When you get the right group of people together, it’s a great feeling like belonging to an exclusive club. I like being busy and I need an audience. At least, that’s what my wife says.’

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