Upon meeting director Thomas Vinterberg, you’d see exactly where his new film adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel “Far from the Madding Crowd” gets its temperament. Soft-spoken, patient, vividly intelligent, and funny when you least expect it, filmmaker Vinterberg exudes all the same characteristics that make his period romance such an interesting reinvention of the 1874 classic.
If you’re unfamiliar with novel or story, it takes place in Victorian England and follows the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), who finds three very different suitors vying for her hand: the shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), wealthy landowner, William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and soldier, Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge). As the characters overlap and pursue their own methods of courtship, heartbreak and romance aren’t too far behind.
We met Vinterberg in a sun-basted hotel room across from Central Park. Though jet-lagged from a flight in from Denmark just one day prior, he was terrifically eager to chat about “Far from the Madding Crowd,” his union of Hardy’s magnetic 19th century England with his modern Danish sensibilities. Vinterberg had plenty to say about that interesting marriage, the incredible force that is his heroine Carey Mulligan, and the delicate maneuver that was keeping a film filled with sheep suicide from coming off too ridiculous.
A lot of us first discover Thomas Hardy in college or high school. Can you talk about your first experience with “Far from the Madding Crowd”?
Thomas Hardy is not on our curriculum in Denmark. I know of him because my dad is a literary critic — and a film critic, by the way — but he’s not as important to a Dane as to a Brit. Which, I think, is one of the reasons they hired me. To sort of avoid the cultural heritage weight of it, and dust it off a little bit. When I read the script I hadn’t read the book. I just felt it was very rich. The way he described these characters is so complex and so moving, to some degree. That just came out to me.
You say they brought you in to get a new take on it. What do you think you brought to it that a British director might not have been able to?
I’m sure a British director would have been great. But what I was trying to bring to it was a combination of grandness and believability. I wanted the sweep and the Technicolor feel from “Gone with the Wind” and those films that I love dearly, and yet still getting under the skin of the characters and sort of away from the frocks and the bonnets. Getting into the flesh and blood of the landscapes and the characters, obviously. So we tried to make a duality between traditional and modern.
You see that duality a lot in the feminism of this movie.
First of all, I did some films previous to this that were very testosterone-driven, “male” movies. One of the main attractions in this was this rich and modern portrait of a lady made 140 years ago. I’ve said this a couple of times now: either Thomas Hardy was very, very visionary, or life for women hasn’t changed. And I think it’s in some sort of universal complexities in being a woman. Having to deal with being independent and strong and having careers, and yet still having this urge to devote to a man and to man’s world, must be very complicated. And I think increasingly so.
So, I thought that was fascinating. And I don’t think he’s opinionated about it in a political kind of way. He’s just photographing it. In a very rich way. That’s what I wanted to follow. I didn’t want to be part of a political debate about feminism, but I wanted to make an honest x-ray of how it is to be a woman.
What made Carey Mulligan the perfect fit for a character like that?
She is that combination of strong and fragile, which is very sexy and attractive. And she’s an amazingly good actress. And a trooper. With some very classy choices behind her. For me, she was the obvious choice. I’ve said before, I casted her on page 10. I never left that thought and no one else did. She was our first choice, we went for it, and she said yes. So it was lovely.
I’m sure she could do a remarkable job as Hillary Clinton. Carey likes strong women. And she is a strong woman. She sort of became the ambassador for that, whereas I became the ambassador for the vulnerability, the giggly, smiley…we had an ongoing balance for that, which I enjoyed very much. I completely enjoyed that collaboration.
So you brought in more of the so-called “traditional” femininity to the combination?
I wouldn’t call that traditional. I just found it very important to find the balance between strength and vulnerability, and not letting it tip over to either side. Making her completely “girly” and vulnerable would have been a betrayal to the part, but leaving her too stern would also be somehow closed and difficult to access. I wanted to be there in that character with her.
One thing that surprised me quite a bit about this film was how much comedy there was. You don’t always expect that in a period novel adaptation like this.
First of all, comedy or satire, the good laugh, is such a rooted part of British culture. It’s a way for them to wrap in conflicts to laugh it off. For instance, I found this very funny. I’m Danish and blunt, so I insisted on some hardcore stuff. So when the fencing went on, I insisted on that grab. And they were like, “Wait a minute! That’s very un-British!” So they just called it “the Danish handshake,” which I thought was incredibly funny, and a way of making everything very civilized. That is how Brits deal with anything that is too animalistic for them, is to make a joke out of it. They’re all very trained in that. A guy like Michael Sheen, or Carey. They’re very good at it. I’m always pursuing it, as well, in my own movies. It’s a way of opening up the audience. Laughter opens people up.
On the topic of comedy, have you ever seen the movie “There’s Something About Mary?”
I saw scenes in it. And I found them so great and scandalous. I saw some semen in her hair. But I haven’t seen the whole film. But it looked great.
The reason I ask is that there are a lot of comic beats in this film that reminded me of that film. She has a lot of different suitors, including a brutish one who she falls for. In this movie, Matthias Schoenaerts is bringing a sheep back to life, in that movie somebody is bringing a dog back to life…
Well, Hardy came first. [Laughs] I’m glad to hear that they’ve been ripping him off. This whole thing about bringing sheep back to life is in the book. There are some very absurd moments. I was like, “Wait a minute, what are we going to do? Throw some sheep over a cliff? This is very difficult and very weird.” And I was very cautious to not make it our “Monty Python” moment. It was quite difficult to manage that balance.
In a situation like with the sheep, we just thought that we had to make it scary. If it was just a little bit clumsy it would have been a great laugh. We had to make it as real and scary as possible. And yet still, we did not want to reject the audience by doing too much of a splatter movie. So we balanced it. It was hard work. It was very difficult.
I actually think Matthias earns credit here. He’s a bit of a low-key actor in this film. We decided to just go for it in this moment, and let him bash the [ground], which was a way to really take it seriously. Which was also a chance! It could also have been ridiculous. But he did it so full heartedly and expressively, that I think it worked.
I know that you shot this movie quite a while ago, so I wanted to ask a bit about what brought on these delays.
There’s always a main challenge in adapting such a huge novel: too much material. We had 220 scenes, or something, whereas a normal script would be 130ish. So we had so much material. And we shot it all. That was a big, big struggle. It’s always a struggle. This was, particularly. And then we had all these scenes. And the editing took a while. We wanted to be loyal to the book, and yet still not be in the cinema for four hours. That balance was not problematic, it was just taking time. But that was it. Long editing. We sort of dragged the challenge with us from the script, through the shooting, and now it’s time. When you come to the editing, there’s no more…you have to make your decisions.
And I know in the interim period, you’ve been working on a Danish movie, “The Commune.” Can you talk about that, and returning to shooting in Denmark?
That’s a very different ballgame. That was sort of like coming home to your friends. A much smaller crew. The most particular difference is that I’ve been writing it myself. It’s in more of a sort of auteur kind of tradition. It was great fun. It is quite a fun movie. I enjoyed it a lot. I’m in the middle of doing it, in the middle of post. When I’m not here, I’m in post. I have no idea when it’s going to come out, but it’s going really well. People like it so far. It’s inspired by my own upbringing in a commune. It’s a funny and warm film about the pain of replacing each other. Divorces, stuff like that.
“Far From The Madding Crowd” opens in limited release on Friday, May 1st.