Lars von Trier

Most filmmakers find inspiration in the work of those who came before. But this fall, I was fortunate enough to make one of my biggest artistic breakthroughs with the direct help of a creative idol — and one of cinema’s most notorious enfants terrible — Lars Von Trier. Well, with an assist from Paul Gauguin and August Strindberg.

Mid-summer, I was in a pretty dry place creatively as an artist. My last feature, the road movie “The Other Side of Paradise,” played in more than 30 festivals, winning some awards along the way, and culminated in a theatrical release in New York in December 2009 to mostly positive reviews. After that film, however, our producing team started a documentary that drained us all physically and creatively. I didn’t feel free as an artist anymore. Then, in June 2011, my wife gave birth to our son, and while it provided a very different perspective from which to create, my attempts to reinvent my process were completely stymied.

But in early August, I stumbled upon a New York Times article calling for submissions for a user-generated film project, “Gesamt,” to be produced by Von Trier and directed by Jenle Hallund (“Limboland”). The rules stated that artists could submit multiple art pieces (no more than five minutes in length) on the condition that they reinterpreted and were influenced by at least one of six once-controversial works of art selected by Von Trier by the artists Albert Speer, Cesar Franck, James Joyce, Sammy Davis Jr., Strindberg and Gauguin.

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Few filmmakers or artists have influenced me as much as Von Trier. Aside from the beauty and inescapable truths in his work, I’ve greatly admired his discipline when it comes to advancing his art and storytelling sensibilities through guidelines or visual alternatives. He’s an expert at switching paths before work or style can become stagnant. Years ago in film school, I remember my teacher Bart Weiss emphasizing the importance of establishing parameters for one’s work, even referencing Von Trier’s Dogme 95 rules as an example.

I thought that “Gesamt” — it means “entire,” “total” or “global” in German — may be just what I needed.

From the beginning, the association with Von Trier allowed me to start from a darker, more psychologically murky place. I had many ideas, but because of time constraints, I decided to focus on a combination of Strindberg’s “The Father” (Act III, Scene VI) and Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” I thought Gauguin’s painting would serve perfectly as bookends to my reinterpretation of Strindberg.

Gauguin's "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"
Gauguin's "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"

With it being election season in the United States, I felt passionate about utilizing Strindberg’s use of gender reversal in “The Father” as a way to shine a light on some of the arrogance, patriarchal control and rights issues that were surfacing on both political and religious fronts. I also found some themes involving the doubts of fatherhood intriguing because of Von Trier’s own history. As documented, his mother told him on her deathbed that the man he thought was his father was not and that she had engaged in an affair with a man whose genes she thought would serve her son better in the future.