LARS VON TRIER - Revitalised
Interview by Geoffrey McNab. Illustration by Eric Dubois
You issued a “Statement Of Revitality” earlier this year in which you said you planned to reschedule your professional activities in order to rediscover your original enthusiasm for film. Having made The Boss Of It All, are you now revitalised?
Von Trier: I just turned 50, you know. At that age you think of the things you dislike about your situation and you try to do something about it. I had this idea that I would have a longer time to prepare and to shoot my films. The idea was that I wouldn’t be forced to produce all the time, just because the company (Zentropa) needs the production, but in the end, The Boss Of It All was shot in five weeks. So you can scream all you want and it won’t really help. But, you know, I like problems. Rules are challenging. They are there to create problems for you. . I just read “The Statement Of Revitality” again and it seems it will be very difficult to change anything.
You say in your narration at the beginning of The Boss Of It All that this is a harmless comedy. Can a Lars Von Trier film ever be harmless?
Well, I felt like saying that. I had been criticised for being too political and maybe I criticized myself for that...for being too politicaly correct, actually. This is a film that was made very fast. This film is not political and I had fun doing it, but of course the good comedies are not harmless.
Did it feel good to be working in Danish again?
It was very liberating and it felt so good. I am better in Danish. I am not saying I will only make films in Danish in future, but it was wonderful to make a small film with a small crew. I was relaxing a lot.
You are opening the film at the Copenhagen Film festival. Did you miss being in Cannes?
It was a choice we made, not to apply for Cannes, and I was happy about it. I
have been very happy for my other films to be there in the past and Gilles Jacob
(at Cannes) has done a lot for me, but it’s so nice not to have to do a lot of
things you don’t like – like the journey, the pressure on you at the festival. I am
staying here in Denmark which is very nice, especially in May when I have my
vegetables to look after.
When did you come up with the idea of making a comedy?
I had the idea for a film about a company director who doesn’t really exist a
long, long time ago, but I thought at first I would give it to someone else. It’s an
old idea but it was written just before we filmed it.
What is the secret of making a successful comedy?
The only thing you can do is something you yourself find funny and that entertains you.
How would you define the Danish sense of humour?
It is quite characteristic that Danes love to hear that they are stupid. Maybe it’s that this is
a small country and the people are quite masochistic. They loved it in The Kingdom when people talked about the stupid Danes. Here, when the Icelandic people scream at them and say all these nasty things, they really love it.
In the film, there is a clear tension between the Danish company and the Icelandic company that wants to buy it. What is going on right now between Denmark and Iceland?
The fact is that we have a lot of Icelandic people who are buying most of Copenhagen right now. For 400 years, Iceland was under the Danish Crown. All the Icelandic people hate the Danes in that sense. They have freaked themselves out about the Danes. There is this scar from these 400 years that is rightfully there.
You’re the founder of Zentropa and you’re a filmmaker. Do you see yourself as the boss of it all?
Well, the good cop/bad cop idea is a very efficient way of solving problems. We have a good cop and a bad cop here with me and Peter Aalbaek Jensen (at Zentropa). If it is to do with actors and crew, then I’m the good cop, but there are some situations where I am the bad cop and Peter will be the good cop. It is very un-Danish to be a bad cop. Everyone in Denmark wants to be a good cop, but the bad cop is someone who is needed. As soon as you go to the UK or US, the bad cops are there because they are needed, but the Danish people are very, very afraid of conflict.
Can the film be read as an allegory about Zentropa?
That is what the actors said, but I hadn’t thought about it. With Zentropa, my idea was only that we could produce and control the things I directed. Peter Aalbaek Jensen and I are a little strange. We like to have a good time and do strange things. I think it can be entertaining to work at Zentropa. It is not just another production company. There is not a clear idea behind it. It is more intuitive. We are not brought up to say that the money coming in is the most important thing.
The film is very dialogue-based. Did you deliberately avoid visual gags?
When I was a kid, I saw a lot of screwball comedies. I used to like comedies like Bringing Up Baby and The Odd Couple, with a lot of talking heads.
I love Philadelphia Story and The Shop Around The Corner. That was what I tried to do, something like that. These screwball comedies need to have this idea that some people know something that others don’t. On top of that, I put a moral story about how someone could use this fictional company director to treat his workers really poorly. That became another level.
You had a new producer, Meta Louise Foldager, after many years of working with Vibeke Windeløv. Was that a difficult transition?
No, not at all. The whole film was ready to be filmed when Meta came on. She is very good, but she is different. With Vibeke, it was like a marriage that had to end. Both of us thought we knew what the other meant without talking. That is what happens in marriages also. Vibeke has been extremely good but she wants to do something else.
What do you look for in an ideal producer?
Well, I need a bad cop anyway. First of all I need someone who wants to do the film very much. With The Boss Of It All, I wanted a producer that would be just as happy with a small film as a big film.
Could you say something about your use of this new process, “Automavision”.
For a long time, my films have been handheld. That has to do with the fact that I am a control freak and that no one can master framing or images completely. It was better to skip framing all together and go for a hand held ‘pointing’ camera. With Automavision, the technique was that I would frame the picture first and then we would push a button on the computer. That would give us a lot of randomized offsets. I was not in control, the computer was in control.
Giving up control of the camera must be like giving up a limb. Surely it’s not a decision you took lightly.
Oh, yes, I took it very lightly. I needed a form that suited the comedy. I found it a very fresh way of working. I am a man of very many anxieties but doing strange things with the camera is not one of them.
How did the process work?
The good thing is that it gives a style that was not a human style. It (the style) is freed of intention. The rule was that if I did not like the computer off sets I could say no to it but then I would have to press the button again. The idea was not that it should be impossible to make the film but just that it would not be precise. We called the computer Anthony Dod Mantle (after the name of Von Trier’s old cinematographer.) The original idea was that we should hide the camera for the actors and film through a double mirror, but we had too little light. We couldn’t do it.
Did the actors enjoy the process?
Any good actor will frame themselves in a very few seconds. We filmed with a zoom and the actors couldn’t tell which lens we were using but it would have been better if we could have hidden the camera altogether.
Do you think Automavision is an audience-friendly style?
It’s not a style that people will runaway screaming from. 70% of an audience will not even see it. But one thing it is not good for is wildlife photography. We only had the elephant for a quarter of an hour and we were pressing this damned button over and over again. Every time we had a good shot, the elephant had left the frame.
What do you look for in a screen actor?
If an actor thinks he can control his part in a film alone, then he is mistaken. The editing and the whole production of the film is something he can’t control. Editing is such an efficient tool. I think I serve an actor best by using it. The less fixed an actor is before we shoot, the better. A very cheap trick I use is that I film a scene in very many different ways. That means I have a lot of different material when I edit. The more different bits and the more different ways an actor is willing to do the part, the better. That can give some confusion. I think there is a big difference between men and women. Somehow, in a collaboration, women normally trust you more that you will use the material in a good way.
You have said in the past that you connect better with actresses than actors. Here you’re working with actors. Could the boss have been a woman?
The comedy part of The Kingdom was carried by men. Maybe I think men are more funny than women. Since I am a man, it is easy for me to know their pretensions.
Have you ever seen the British comedy series, The Office?
I didn’t watch it on purpose because I knew I was going to be doing a film that took place in an office, but now I am going to see it. I have heard a lot of good things about it.
Why did you shoot in a real office?
I had had a look at Antonioni’s film, La Notte. I wanted it (the office) to be a very dull place. And it is dull.
Does Gambini, the dramatist mentioned at the end of the film, really exist?
No, he doesn’t exist. I was on my way back from Cannes and I saw a big truck filled with food and it said Gambini – and I thought why not. But I do refer to Ibsen. I thought it was very funny when he was called an asshole. You can have a lot of ideas about Ibsen but the idea that he is an asshole is quite strange. The film that we see them watching is Mirror by Tarkovsky. That is one of my absolute favourites, by the way. I think I have seen it twenty times.
Are you going to continue making smaller films?
Right now, I have gigantic ideas but they’re just ideas as the moment. Let’s see what kind of films they will be. Finishing the Trilogy (begun with Dogville and Manderlay and to be concluded with Wasington) is part of it, but I don’t think that will be right now. Right now, I am walking around the small woods with my iPod and dreaming.
Thanks to Tim Struthers at Organic Marketing and Diffusion Pictures - my work here with Netribution is now complete! I always wanted to publish a good interview with Lars - so thank you (Ed)