Nelle Renberg Andersen is responsible for filming and directing one of the most popular Reality Series at the moment in Denmark for DR3 called “Jeg er Ambassadøren fra Amerika 2” (I am the United States Ambassador). The series follows the present United States Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford, who has captured the hearts and attention of the Danes and achieved super celebrity-like status in the country. The first season received nominations and won a Danish Television award. He is also one of the very rare openly gay Ambassadors to represent the United States. Nelle has been following him for five months constantly filming, which included a trip to Greenland. It follows the daily life and activities of the Ambassadorial position as well as very personal moments. There is a good balance of showing Gifford’s public and private persona, intimate moments with his partner Stephen and the planning of their Wedding. It is well done, and very enjoyable to watch not only because Rufus Gifford is a charming, charismatic character to follow but it also gives us a glimpse into the Danish political scene. There is never a dull moment. And I must add I do love the Ambassador’s Residence!
Nelle Renberg graduated from the University of Copenhagen and The Danish School of Media and Journalism specialising in Television and Media Direction.
How big is the series in Denmark?
DR3 where the series is shown is a niche channel targeting younger people ( aged approximately 18-40) so generally it doesn’t have as many viewers on flow television, as the main channel DR1. But season 1 of “Jeg er Ambassadøren fra Amerika” was one of the most watched programs on DR3 and Rufus Gifford won an award for “Big Character of the year” at the Danish TV Awards show in 2015 for his appearance in the series.
Rufus Gifford has become quite a brand and very famous in Denmark, the series has of course been part of the reason for that and recently a biography has been published about his life.
What are the challenges when filming a reality show such as this one?
For me the challenge has been creating a balance between the serious and the political world with the entertainment and personal one. I am very aware of the fact that he is an important man representing important political issues, but at the same time, our show is not a critical political program, but instead a portrait of a man and his views on Denmark. It has to hit the right tone where it is not too serious and not too light. A lot of that tone is created in the editing phase, where my talented colleagues Thomas Hartz-Olsson and Mora Rahgozar worked hard finding the right balance.
Another challenge for me when filming is that Rufus Gifford is a professional media person, who most of the time is very aware of what he is saying and why – even though he is very open and not afraid of sharing private moments. But sometimes it was a challenge to get something “real” and uncontrolled, but I think we succeeded to some extent.
He is a very busy man, so time was sometimes a challenge. I had to be well prepared and know what I wanted and not to waste time and be unfocussed.
How many hours of filming did you do a day?
It was very different from day to day. In some periods it was very intense because a lot of important things were happening in his life at the same time. As an example episode 2 was filmed in four intense days, starting with a big event in his garden with helicopters and the creator of Homeland, followed by Pride week with several big events and then a TV-award show – and in addition to that some personal challenges, because Stephen’s mother had passed away. On those four days I worked a lot but it was definitely worth it because I felt closer to Rufus and the story when it was intense. The same goes for the trip to Greenland, where I had the camera in my hands from morning till evening for 4 days. But when the time is limited it is no problem at all – and I love it.
Rufus has a LOT to do and a very tight schedule, which of course affected my working days as well. I only followed him on days when my editor Lasse Charley Pedersen and I decided it might be important or a good story.
It is the first time that I have heard of a reality show based on a diplomat, how did this whole concept arise and presented to the Ambassador?
I was not a part of the original idea, but my editor Lasse says the idea came out of watching Rufus giving out a prize at a Danish Television Awards show in 2014. A lot of people were fascinated by him that night and at DR3 they discussed the idea of making a personal TV series about him.
They first had a meeting with the Embassy, presenting the idea and a couple of weeks later with Rufus himself. They told him they wanted to follow his work because it is relevant to tell people in Denmark what the American Ambassador to Denmark is doing – but also to put some focus on who he is as a person, his background and the messages he has. He liked the idea very much, because it is very close to his own mission here about engaging as many Danes as possible. And a week after the meeting in July 2014), Niels Krogsgaard, who filmed season 1, began following him.
The idea for season 2 was to put even more focus on his engagement in Denmark but also to show the story about the Wedding, which has both a political and a personal side to it. Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriages 26 years ago. The first legal marriage between two gay men happened at the very same Town hall, where Rufus and Stephen got married. Even more significant was the fact that they got married just after the Supreme Court in the United States legalized same-sex marriages in all states, so it was a good message for us to put a focus on.
Were there moments when it had become too much for Gifford?
Rufus Gifford is generally a very open person who works hard and is very engaged for what he believes in. But of course he has days where he feels tired and personal or political moments where he doesn’t want the camera to be present.
When his family and friends arrived for the wedding, I was there for a few private events, but it was very important for Rufus and Stephen to have their private time with all the people who had come to celebrate them – without the camera. Understandably!
How different is this compared to your previous work for Danish Television?
I think one project is always quite different from the next, because it always varies a lot in theme and participants – I have made programmes about such different topics as heartbreaks, bullying, modern family structures, fear and anxiety, racism in China and generation gaps.
I have worked a lot with the combination of filming and producing/directing in previous projects, but this one is the first where I have had so much responsibility and have been so much on my own in the filming process. Of course I have had my editor and the two great people who have edited the series, but out in the field I have been alone with the camera most of the time. So in some ways it has been the most challenging thing I have made but on the other hand very satisfying.
And then of course navigating in the environment around the Ambassador was different from other projects. I haven’t made a program before in such a high level environment and with so many influential people. It has been very few times that I have been asked to turn off the camera and everyone has been extremely cooperative.
What are your favourite moments from this season?
I like Episode 2 at the screening of Homeland, when the movie screen falls down and things don’t go as planned (no one got seriously hurt so that is important, otherwise I would have felt differently). Of course I felt sorry for the people who had arranged it and put so much work into it, that it went wrong, but for our TV-show it was somehow a good thing. Most of the time things go so well for the Ambassador and his team and they have everything under control, but this incident shows, how they manage to handle something that went out of control – and also that shows an even more honest and personal side of the Ambassador, I think.
Election night in Episode 1 was great because it gives a nice outsider view on the Danish election process and democracy.
Of course I also love the trip to Greenland because it was just so beautiful and at the same time has a lot of substance about climate issues. On the more personal side of the show I love the scenes where Stephen and Rufus are together because there is just so much energy between them. I can’t help smiling when they constantly pick on each other and at the same time you feel how much they love each other.
Reality Television seems to be more popular than ever today, what is your opinion on this genre?
I think it is an extremely wide genre so it is hard to say something in general. I don’t want to judge anything but I don’t like some parts of the reality genre. To me it is important to make programmes that will somehow educate people at the same time as they entertain. I think there is a responsibility to my job that I take very seriously. When people watch the shows that we make and spend valuable time in front of a screen, I am very aware that they should obtain some new knowledge or perspective from it. It is also very important to me to make programmes that the participants feel good about and where they can recognize themselves. Of course reality television always has a degree of manipulation to it, especially in the editing phase, but I think it is extremely important that it stays as close to reality as possible. I have tried to make things that made me feel bad and I really don’t want to do that.
The part about the reality genre that I like is that it can give an insight into other peoples lives and environments that a lot of the viewers wouldn’t normally get to see. It can open the viewers eyes to problems and ideas they might not have themselves. Or it can show people with similar problems as themselves, which might give new perspectives to their own lives. And by using identification as a strong narrative tool you can make complex subjects or feelings easier to digest.
What do you like to watch in your spare time?
I love to watch Homeland at the moment. I must admit that I haven’t watched it before I started following the Ambassador. And then I love most of the programmes my colleagues make on DR3. I think they are daring, smart, fun and opens my eyes to new perspectives. And I love to go to the cinema and watch great, deep, emotional films that makes me think and character driven documentaries that opens the door to environments I don’t normally visit.
Is there a dream project you would like to work on?
I would love to make a personal documentary, motivated, developed and created by myself. Of course I know, that I would always need help from others in the process but I like the idea of going “all in” on something I believe in and that feels very personal. I am working on a small idea at the moment, but it is personal and at the very beginning so I can’t say anything about it now.
What are you working on now?
My next project is for DR3 as well. I can’t say much about it yet because it is still a secret. But it will take me to crazy places around the world and I am extremely excited about it – so I am looking forward to get to work soon after a couple of weeks vacation.
To watch the series “Jeg er Ambassadøren fra Amerika 2” – click on the link below.