INTERVIEW: Lars von Trier Comes Out of the Dark
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 9.22.00) — Opening the New York Film Festival tonight, Lars von Trier‘s “Dancer in the Dark” will have its first true test with North American audiences. If its Cannes premiere was any indication, don’t expect the reception to go down easy. Reviled as a failed experiment, hailed as a masterpiece, it’s hard to believe that any one film could yield so many different and passionate responses. But this is Lars von Trier, after all, the director who began making visually stunning, highly stylized cinemascapes like “Element of Crime” and “Zentropa,” and then went 180 degrees with “Breaking the Waves” and Dogma 95, tossing out breathtaking imagery on 35 mm in exchange for intimate turmoil on digital video.
Even though his latest DV opus went on to win the Palme d’Or and first time actress Björk took home the Best Actress prize in Cannes, von Trier appeared to be a tormented figure in France, lamenting the struggles he endured while making his movie musical, “Dancer in the Dark,” the tragic story of Selma (Bjork), a factory worker going blind in an unjust 1960s America. But months later, speaking from the comfort of his company just outside of Copenhagen, a very different figure emerges: relaxed, thoughtful, even laughing, von Trier is nothing like the tortured artist I was expecting after meeting him in Cannes. With directness and honesty, von Trier spoke to indieWIRE about working with actors, authenticity, technology, pushing the medium and his new Alfa Romeo Spider.
indieWIRE: There was so much pain in your face in Cannes. Now that some time has passed, do you still feel so distressed about the whole experience of making this film?
von Trier: No, now, I’m much calmer. We had a lot of time problems going to Cannes. The print was ready one day before it was shown. Now I feel very good, thank you very much.
iW: But is the process of making films an emotionally difficult one?
von Trier: I don’t find that. This has been special, in the sense that I had to fight so much for the film. It was not very pleasant, but it’s rewarding in another way. But it has not been pleasant.
iW: So “Dancer in the Dark” was an exception?
von Trier: This way of working with actors that I have found now is normally a great pleasure, because it means giving a lot of freedom to some people — and to see them enjoy that freedom and to give to the project is usually very nice. Maybe, I’m romanticizing it, but I remember that there were some films that were nice.
iW: Can you talk about this process that you’ve worked out with actors?
von Trier: Since I’m holding the camera and operating it, we are in the same room, so we can actually — it’s kind of a little game. We have a little text of two pages of the scene and then we start with that in one hand and then we start the camera and roll for one hour and then after one hour, we make different games with this text and then we end up with a lot of little cuts that I can use and put together for a film. It’s a jigsaw puzzle, but it’s very relaxed if you compare it to how I worked before. Before, I worked with a storyboard, and that meant that the image wasn’t good. There was a lot of things that you had to live up to. Here, working in this other way, you actually start at nothing and whatever you get, it’s good. If you start with a complete idea of what you want, then you can only go down — it can only be less good of what you thought. It’s a very positive way of filming and freeing the actors, because whatever they come up with, it’s where we start. So we start with their interpretations.
iW: So do you think that gets at a more truthful representation? Do you believe in any truthful representation?
von Trier: No, I don’t really believe in that. But, of course, that’s one way of making sure there’s good performance. It’s authentic. Maybe not true, but more authentic.
iW: In Cannes, you spoke about your using 100 cameras to shoot the musical scenes and that was supposed to make them more authentic. You had also said 100 cameras were not enough, 2000 would be better. Can you explain why?
von Trier: If I made a musical in the beginning of my career, it would have been crane shots and tracking shots and people coming out of cakes and whatever, but these techniques are something that I’ve left behind me. The basic idea here was that we wanted a feeling for the event. That any song and dance number should be only done once. So that we really made a television transmission of it instead of film, so you have a feeling that this is really happening, and if people made a mistake or whatever little thing happened, it would be a gift, because it was how this live performance really worked. I still think it’s a good idea, but it demands much more than 100 cameras. And that’s why — since we only had the 100 cameras — we had to go into different takes, which was against the original idea. The original idea was to make Björk sing live. But we couldn’t handle it technically, unfortunately. But I’m still sure that is what the future will bring, more and more real events in the sense that it’s not created afterwards. If we see someone singing, we want to know that it was done for real. I’m sure that this is where technology brings us.
iW: You’re a big fan of technology?
von Trier: I wouldn’t say that. I think technology right now is great, because it makes filming so easy, you know. Early on, when I was young, everyone would say, “No, you can’t make films, it’s too difficult to make films.” Which was always a lie, it’s always been a lie that it’s difficult to make films. But now, nobody believes it anymore, because of the technology. That’s the most important thing to teach a young person is that it’s not difficult.
iW: I wanted to ask you about the look and color of the film. You had said that it wasn’t exactly what you wanted?
von Trier: We had to turn up the colors in the dance sequences to make people feel that there were different levels of the film. I was not so fond of that, because it made the dancing more glamorous in a superficial way than what I really wanted, but it was necessary for the understanding of the two levels.
iW: Do you think that’s like a standard Hollywood movie musical when things get all bright and shiny?
von Trier: That was what we didn’t want. It should all come from the main character’s idea that life is beautiful anywhere. It doesn’t have to be light with spotlights and blue lights and slow motion or whatever, life is great anyway.
iW: Do you think the movie looks beautiful?
von Trier: I think some of the acting scenes with Björk look beautiful. Yes, to me, they are beautiful, but I am quite fond of Björk.
iW: So how did Björk get involved?
von Trier: I had my first meeting with Björk two years ago. We sat down, the two of us, and said the challenge is, that we should work together. And that we should submit to each other. But the problem was that first of all, I didn’t know how she acted. I only saw her in a small music video. But she fascinated me and I still am, but the problem was that she was so goddamn talented. That’s the only way I can put it. She has this little girl kind of way that she is, but she is extremely clever, I must say. I’ve never worked with anyone like her. And that is, of course, the good side of it. The bad side of it is all of this gave her this big pain. From feeling the whole thing.
iW: Do you consider your films experiments in some way? With each film, are you trying to break ground?
von Trier: It’s an experiment for me, because I always do something that I’ve never done before, but I wouldn’t call them experiments. It’s just how I see. . . I give myself a task. This time, the task was to do a musical. And this was what came out of it. Maybe, it doesn’t look like a conventional musical, but it’s a musical to me. So it’s not like I’m trying to change anything. This is what came out of it.
iW: But you do like to upset the system, don’t you?
von Trier: If you like something, you want it to develop. And I’m very fond of films, and I think that all the films that I really like have pushed the medium a little bit. It’s like if you love a woman or a man or whatever, you want this person to develop. You want to free this person a little bit. I would like to think I do this with film.
iW: Did you have any inspirations for this film, in particular?
von Trier: I’m very inspired by a film called “In Cold Blood.” I started with “Breaking the Waves” and then I thought, we can make it better. We can change the man that she loves for a child that she loves. (Laughs). I made a cynical little synopsis. But this about the blindness came much later, after I wrote the first script. I was thinking in more opera terms. Opera is more like melodrama. And the good thing about opera is that if you can accept that people sing instead of talk, then you don’t have to go in and out of it. And that means you can have your emotions with you. The problem about a musical is that it’s a little hard to swallow that suddenly they’re like dum-dee-dee-dum-dum this is always a little difficult. Whereas in on opera, they play all the time. But a more honorable way to do it, the way I have done, is to use her imagination to go in and out of it.
iW: What are some of those favorite films that pushed the medium? You’re a fan of Carl Dreyer, yes?
von Trier: Dreyer, yes, he was a terrific filmmaker. I was just talking to another journalist and we talked about the first film I remember seeing and that I liked very much was “Billy, the Liar,” a Schlesinger movie. That was a fantastic experience, this new London wave, it was fantastic.
But no, it’s not a matter of reproducing. Reproduction is a little stupid. You have to put a little something in. It’s like in the church you pay a little money to the tithe. I think everybody has to put some money in; they can’t just let it pass. I think a lot of directors just let it pass and kind of live on what all the other people have given. And I think it’s important that we all try to give something to this medium, instead of just thinking about what is the most efficient way of telling a story or making an audience stay in a cinema.
iW: At Cannes, you said you had no plans for any films — is that still the case?
von Trier: I’m having a vacation and it’s so beautiful and maybe I’ll never get another film idea in my life. I’m moving to a new house. I moved away from where I was born. I lived there for 44 years, so I just moved. So I’m actually trying to grow up. And I got myself a sports car, that’s fantastic, an Alfa Romeo Spider. It’s a two-seater. I have four children. I feel like I’m 18-years-old.
iW: But from what I’ve read in the press, when you’re not working on films, you’re suffering panic attacks?
von Trier: Yeah, but right now, I’m enjoying this open car. I don’t know. My sweet wife says to me, “Try to enjoy things.” So I bought a very immature car. I’m enjoying it much more than I ever thought I would, and my mother would have hated it, oh, she would have hated it. Maybe that’s a good thing. Right now, I’m relaxing. I’m happy that I’m alive. I feel like someone coming back from Vietnam, you know; I’m sure that later on I’ll start killing people in a square somewhere, but right now, I just feel happy to be alive.