"I'm kind of in New York. I never thought it would happen!" Lars von Trier told audiences on Sunday at the IFC Center during an "iQ&A" following a screening of his latest film, "Manderlay". No, the auteur (who famously makes films that criticize America without ever having stepped foot in the country) didn't actually visit Yankee shores, but instead interacted with U.S. audiences using the next best thing: video conferencing made possible by Apple's iChat software. During a half hour discussion with critics and fans, von Trier reflected on his career and responded to questions in a relaxed, self-deprecating, and witty tone, with only a slight hint of mockery.
The iQ&A began with Richard Pena, program director of the Film Society at Lincoln Center, asking von Trier about how he approaches editing, casting, and filming. "There are a lot of different approaches to a scene, and editing of course gives opportunities to break the rhythm and underline things," explained von Trier. When looking for actors, he needs someone who not only speaks well but is also willing to try a scene in several ways. "I need openness... an actor who is willing to give it a try." Do the actors become accustomed to his camera movements? "I hope I can still fool them sometimes," admitted von Trier. "My curiosity as a person should be the guidance for where the camera points." The director said he finds camera movement challenging, but he started to do "pointing" instead of framing, "looking where you would as a person, so that it came out of the material."
Like many of von Trier's previous films, "Manderlay" involves a naive female protagonist who becomes involved in a social cause that ultimately brutalizes the characters. When an audience member observed that von Trier seems to victimize women in his work, the director responded that he doesn't think about portraying women when he makes a film. "Women are good material, somehow I find men boring. I don't try to portray women in general. With women the story becomes more human, I don't know why."
Von Trier's body of work aside, the most specific issue at play in "Manderlay" is racial oppression, and the director said that he cast mainly British actors in the politically incorrect roles of the slaves. For a role that is not "a white part" (as von Trier called it, which he means as a role where race does not matter), it is rare to see a black actor willing to explore and portray a negative stereotype. "I see it as a problem when you [as a black actor] are not allowed to be a crook any more in a film." And in terms of possible similarities between "Manderlay"'s Grace meddling in black affairs and the current U.S. occupation of Iraq, von Trier said the current controversy surrounding nation-building isn't too far from "Manderlay"'s own politics. "I think that might be true that there is a parallel, but I don't consider [nation-building] an originally American problem, it's originally a European problem... welcome to the club!"
So what is next for von Trier, a final installment in the USA trilogy? A film version of the next Wagner Ring Cycle, which he has been preparing for two years? Neither, in fact - von Trier decided the script for "Manderlay"'s successor wasn't good enough and he recently announced that filming the Wagner Ring Cycle was too ambitious. His next film will be a Danish comedy shot with a male lead and a stationary fixed camera (with a complex computerized system he devised for shooting), as opposed to his usual female leads and handheld cameras. The filmmaker also said he is "trying to be a better person" by not embarking on any new series (such as "The Kingdom"), projects that are famous for their obsessive and meticulous planning.
The rare opportunity for U.S. audiences to chat with Lars von Trier is the first installment in an iQ&A series that IFC Center General Manager John Vanco plans to continue with other "remote" directors, such as Wim Wenders and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Rather than being limited to the people who are in town, Vanco was looking for a way to utilize the theater's digital tools to facilitate long distance Q&As and decided that iChat was the perfect solution. "We kept thinking, it can't be this easy. It's consumer software, it comes with every Mac," said Vanco. Compared with other technology, the iChat interface turned out to be much more simple and cost-effective. "We thought about using a satellite but it's thirty grand. This is do-it-yourself, off the shelf."
When asked about his experience as a guinea pig for IFC's new technology, von Trier responded that it was nice to participate in the iQ&A from the basement of his own home - expect for the actual discussion part, he said playfully. "I hate talking to people."