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Lars von Trier: "I think working with actors is a little bit how a chef would work with a potato..."

Indiewire By Brian Brooks | Indiewire October 20, 2009 at 12:32PM

It is well known that Danish director Lars von Trier has not visited America, though many of his films are set here, including his latest feature, "Antichrist," starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. While his films are not generally known for being light viewing, the current film, which debuted earlier this year in Cannes and screened at the recent Toronto and New York film festivals, is especially layered with disturbing (yet beautiful) imagery and psychological trauma. Seeing the expressions on people's faces as they exited screenings in Cannes gave a slight hint that, no matter what one ultimately thought of it, "Antichrist" certainly would not be forgettable. Screenings in North America have also been polarizing with critics falling strongly on both ends of the love/hate scale.
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It is well known that Danish director Lars von Trier has not visited America, though many of his films are set here, including his latest feature, "Antichrist," starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. While his films are not generally known for being light viewing, the current film, which debuted earlier this year in Cannes and screened at the recent Toronto and New York film festivals, is especially layered with disturbing (yet beautiful) imagery and psychological trauma. Seeing the expressions on people's faces as they exited screenings in Cannes gave a slight hint that, no matter what one ultimately thought of it, "Antichrist" certainly would not be forgettable. Screenings in North America have also been polarizing with critics falling strongly on both ends of the love/hate scale.

For an exclusive clip from the film, click here.

The only two characters in the film, Dafoe and Gainsbourg play a grieving couple who retreat to "Eden," their isolated cabin in the woods, where they hope to repair their troubled marriage and broken hearts following the accidental death of their young son. Despite their effort, things go from bad to worse, with a surreal degeneration into madness. It debuts on VOD tomorrow (October 21st) and in theaters this Friday (October 23rd) from IFC Films.

"Two years ago, I suffered from depression. It was a new experience for me. Everything, no matter what, seemed unimportant, trivial," von Trier wrote in a statement. "I couldn’t work. Six months later, just as an exercise, I wrote a script. It was a kind of therapy, but also a search, a test to see if I would ever make another film."

While von Trier does not travel to America, he nevertheless manages to make a presence, and insists on seeing his interviewers. So with the miracle Skype video, indieWIRE spoke with him from his Zentropa offices in Copenhagen last week. Though he speaks openly of debilitating depression and dishes out dark humor, von Trier is surprisingly funny and even jovial - at least during our 20 minutes with him.

In anticipation of speaking with him, indieWIRE solicited questions from our readers. We also threw in a few of our own for good measure. In the interview, von Trier speaks of his depression, airplanes, working with actors, and not wearing pants.

Lars von Trier: Sorry you can only see the top half of me, but I'm not wearing any pants.

Brian Brooks: (Laughs) Neither am I. I'm Brian and this is my colleague Eugene. This is my second time seeing you on video, talking about ["Antichrist"]. The first was at the Toronto [International Film Festival in September], and I know you did the same at the New York Film Festival. I'm just wondering what you think of the reactions in North America to "Antichrist" so far?

Lars von Trier: They are much more positive than I would have thought. Actually, I'm quite fine with any reaction, but I think they've seemed a bit more interested in the film. There was a tendency in Cannes, I think, to go a little bit after the man instead of after the ball -- that it was very important, what I meant and what I felt -- which is, you know, maybe not the best way to see a film.

Brian Brooks: So, as you may know, we solicited our readers for questions to ask you. So I'm gonna go ahead and start that...

Lars von Trier: Okay, so let's see what happens... [laughs]

Brian Brooks: This is from a film student. His name is Jason Cooper. He said, "I felt that 'Antichrist' was very reminiscent of your early work, 'The Element of Crime,' and I was wondering if, at least stylistically, you were consciously moving away from your more stripped-down methods that were used in 'The Idiots' and 'Breaking the Waves'?"

Lars von Trier: Yes, I must say I am. You know, doing "Dogville" and "Mandalay" kind of was an example of, you know, going to an extreme where you couldn't go any further. So I had to kind of went one step back and used only some of the techniques I've used before.

Brian Brooks: This was a follow-up question from Jason. "Are you aware of the undercurrent of themes in your work (specifically in 'Antichrist'), such as nature and its relationship with sexuality, as you write your scripts? Or is this something that comes about after the script?"

Lars von Trier: Yes, I am aware of that, but what I'm not aware of is that suddenly something turns out very simple.

Brian Brooks: Finally, was there a purpose behind only having two actors with this film thematically, or was this the ideal option because you know you would have to direct this film while suffering from depression?

Lars von Trier: No no no. It had nothing to do with that. But I think that any director at a certain time has a dream of making a film with only two persons in it. It's almost a mini-Dogme thing. It's interesting to see if you can make it work somehow. It's egoistic.

Brian Brooks: Alright, different person. From Luke Moses -- "Death takes grief and depression to an entirely new level. Knowing your portrayal of what a mother will do to save her child (as shown in 'Dancer in the Dark'), is 'Antichrist' your view on what a mother can be capable of once these incredibly strong and forceful feelings become displaced?"

Lars von Trier: That's a very good question. I can only say yes, I think so. Yeah, I have thought about that, but she was also in the same situation. Yeah, I can only apologize.

Eugene Hernandez: What do you mean by that?

Lars von Trier: When you put it like that, the film has the tendency to be more banal than it really is. The film is much more than just a foundation for a film. Of course, I work very much with the collisions between different things -- sexuality and nature, sexuality and morals -- all of these things, but when you have a mention like this, I hope the film is better than that.

-- continued on page two --

Brian Brooks: Okay, probably a more straightforward question from our reader Michael Mohan, "How do you work with actors?" Has that process changed? Is the process different film to film?

Lars von Trier: Yeah, it's different from film to film. I think working with actors is a little bit how a chef would work with a potato or a piece of meat. You have to kind of have a look at the potato or the piece of meat and see what kind of possibilities are in the ingredient. I know I'm using the wrong metaphor. I think my job is to see what potato is there and from there, just work under their conditions. I don't think I have forced anybody. Bjork I may have forced here and there. For the good of the film, I just need to give them what they need.

Brian Brooks: Was the experience of working with Willem Dafoe different this time?

Lars von Trier: I was not feeling extremely well, so I didn't have so much energy for the actors, and they knew that before going in. They were extremely kind to me. I think there's an interesting thing going on with a director who's made more than one film or a couple of films [in that] that the actors have a tendency to read your way of filmmaking. A Bergman film becomes a Bergman film because of the expectations of the actors and everyone involved [know] what they expect.

Brian Brooks: The next is from Mike Jones, a writer, "Would you ever make a horror film about flying?"

Lars von Trier: I don't think so. If I should make a film about flying, it would be fantastic. I have been in airplanes a few times, and it is really a fantastic experience. And that's not why I don't go in them. You don't need a lot of imagination to tell what could go wrong.

Eugene Hernandez: Is it that you don't like to travel or are there means of travel that you like to avoid?

Lars von Trier: I'm very antisocial actually. Not with you guys, right now, but I'd rather stay home. I do have an auto camper. It would take me some years to be able to get back in a plane. I'm not very proud of this. It would have been nice for me to go take a look at the real world and then see the world and then tell stories about it, but that's not how it is.

Brian Brooks: The next question is from a reader, Lucas Kollauf - a general question about Dogme. Why did you move away from the Dogme95 movement that you helped create? How does that experience influence or affect your work today if at all?

Lars von Trier: I make rules for all of my films. The Dogme rules were decided to make me concentrate on all the things I was beginning to get good at, like tracking shots. And so for every film, I had rules, I just change them so I don't make the same film again. "Antichrist" was more of a miss in that sense. I was not on the top of my ability. But normally I would make some rules. There were rules in this film like how panning shots would turn into still shots, but not that many.

Eugene Hernandez: You've mentioned that you felt tormented during the film, that it was very challenging for you. Why did you feel like you had to continue making it if it was such a challenge?

Lars von Trier: First of all, I co-own the company and I couldn't face the financial result of that. And for me, right now, I'm in a situation where I have a lot of mental problems and to me, it was important to make the film to prove to myself that I could make a film.

Eugene Hernandez: Do you feel good about the film now?

Lars von Trier: Some parts of the film I feel good about, but it took me a very long time to feel good at all about this film.

Brian Brooks: Now from Arin Crumley, he's a filmmaker - and this is sort of a general question: "What is your belief about where fictional stories come from? How do you tap into stories when you write? And, what is the general intrigue of storytelling?"

Lars von Trier: These are questions I'm asking myself now, because I'm working on a new project. Some things that were much easier when we were younger are now much more difficult. It's like an erection. I can't really answer that. I wish I could because I would be better off right now.

Eugene Hernandez: What are you working on now?

Lars von Trier: I'm working on a script for a film called "Melancholia," which has to do with some planets colliding with Earth, which is of course maybe not a happy ending, but an ending. But that doesn't make me feel depressed at all. That's fine. I'm just not as cheerful and good at things right now as I could be.

Brian Brooks: This is from the director of programming at Hot Docs, Sean Farnel, "What do you think is the funniest film ever made?"

Lars von Trier: There's been some Marx Brothers film. I like very much this "Airplane!" The first time I saw it, it was extremely funny (laughs).

Eugene Hernandez: Do you watch a lot of movies while you're in the writing process?

Lars von Trier: I might watch them, but they don't [influence my] films. What I do is wrong right now, so maybe I should not watch films. Okay, I hope you guys cheer up before I talk to you again. [laughs]

This article is related to: Interviews