In Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny” from “The Threepenny Opera,” a peasant hotel maid avenges herself for the cruelty she suffers from her fellow townspeople by imagining a pirate ship that sweeps into town, flattening the village and everyone in it. So, of course, the Danish king of saintly put-upon martyrs, Lars von Trier, found this material suitable for making a film every bit as alienating to the audience as the works of Brecht: 2003’s “Dogville.” Von Trier also centered his film around a blockbuster movie star, whose under-a-bell-jar image he set upon to deconstruct: Nicole Kidman.
Freshly off her Best Actress Oscar win for “The Hours” and also out of her messily public but oddly inscrutable divorce from Tom Cruise, Kidman flew to rural Trollhättan in Sweden to get on a soundstage with a truly there-are-no-words-amazing cast: Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall, Harriet Andersson, Stellan Skarsgård, Chloë Sevigny, Udo Kier, Ben Gazzara, James Caan, Jeremy Davies, Patricia Clarkson, Philip Baker Hall, and more.
They were all there to submit themselves to von Trier’s vision of an honest, hardscrabble townsfolk in middle-of-nowhere Colorado who welcome a kindly woman named Grace Mulligan (Kidman), on the run from her gangster father (Caan), until their largesse turns to disgust and disdain, and they degrade and debase her to a breaking point. Until she decides to take it no longer.
Submitting themselves to this production meant leaving their egos at the door and giving the most unvarnished performances of their life: no trailers, no makeup, and not even a set, as “Dogville” takes place entirely on a black stage with chalk outlines where the pieces of a set would be, a white screen thrown up occasionally to represent daytime.
The 178-minute epic of pain thus unfolded, as does any film written and directed by the man who flippantly proclaimed himself a Nazi during a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, with journalists divided or jeering or in outright awe over its performances and Dogme 95-inspired stripped-down style. There was also fervor over its alleged anti-USA message, ascribed to a parable of Americans as the root of all evil who merrily exploit outsiders. (Von Trier has never been to the U.S. and reportedly refuses to fly.)
And “Dogville,” to be clear, also features seemingly innumerable moments of sexual assault. Kidman’s character is raped by nearly all the male townspeople and at one point shackled with a ball and chain around her neck, dragging herself across the bare floor, prostrate to von Trier’s Artistic Genius. He was asked by a journalist at Cannes why all his films feature the torture of women. He said it’s because watching men being tortured is boring. Meanwhile, von Trier himself has been accused of mistreating and abusing the women in his own life, including Björk on the set of “Dancer in the Dark” (she swore off acting and then later detailed more harassment from an unnamed filmmaker that’s likely him) and even Kidman on the making of “Dogville.” Yet many of his female collaborators have defended and revered him, from Charlotte Gainsbourg to Kirsten Dunst.
Same with Kidman, who ultimately did not return for the film’s sequel, “Manderlay,” less well-received and with Bryce Dallas Howard in her stead. “I didn’t do the sequel but I’m still very good friends with him, strangely enough, because I admire his honesty and I see him as an artist,” Kidman said in a 2006 interview. (She did not respond to IndieWire’s requests to participate in this story.)
Regardless of your thoughts on the controversial artist — who is stepping away from prolific filmmaking to deal with Parkinson’s disease — “Dogville” is a towering achievement that deserves a new audience. Its post-theatrical life in the U.S. has been relegated to a standard-definition DVD — unkind to the film, really, as it was shot on digital video. But thankfully, MUBI is re-releasing the film with a brand new 4K restoration on its streaming platform beginning April 14.
Tracking down actors who wanted to talk about the film was tricky — several blamed scheduling conflicts or other, newer projects they wanted to promote — but supporting stars Stellan Skarsgård and Chloë Sevigny were happy and willing to look back, fondly, on “Dogville.”
Skarsgård, a close friend of von Trier’s and longtime collaborator since “Breaking the Waves,” plays the cynical and eventually monstrous farmer Chuck. Sevigny plays the wily woman of the village, Liz, who doubts Grace’s virtue and eventually helps sell her out to the town’s absolute worst (which is all of them, inevitably). While they both had relatively small roles in the film, their constant presence (literally) behind the major characters meant they still collected plenty of scintillating stories of everything around them, and here they share their thoughts with IndieWire.
These interviews were conducted separately and have been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: What made you want to get involved in “Dogville” when Lars von Trier approached you?
Skarsgård: All films with Lars are memorable … because they’re all films that have never been made before. It’s a delicious thing to be working with. But of course, it was very exciting. We were living on a small pension in rural Sweden, and it was a fabulous cast. With Harriet Andersson, Lauren Bacall, everybody. It was amazing.
Sevigny: He’s been one of my favorite filmmakers since I was a kid. “Breaking the Waves” was really meaningful to me. I saw it countless times in a movie theater, and I just thought he was such a distinct, original voice and approaching filmmaking in such a new and distinct way. He’s just very singular in my mind.
How did he first come to you with the material? Stellan, you agreed to star in “Nymphomaniac” sight unseen in terms of a script after von Trier pitched you on a “porn film.”
Skarsgård: With me, he’s just coming with an idea. But also, when you read his scripts, they’re always tight. They don’t leak. He could publish the scripts and you wouldn’t have to make a film out of them. He thinks he can improvise, but you can’t, because no one can improvise like he writes, because he writes in kind of a nursery rhyme language — very childish, naïve. You can’t really improvise it. [With “Dogville,”], he sent me the script, and I read it, and of course, I said yes.
Sevigny: He came to me. Harmony [Korine] and I had done “Julien Donkey Boy” [which was made under the rules of Dogme 95]. He knew about me because of that, and we worked with [“Dogville” cinematographer”] Anthony Dod Mantle on that, so I imagine he had just heard about me.
Stellan, you play a brutish character who assaults Nicole Kidman’s character multiple times. Did you have any trepidation about the material?
Skarsgård: He’s not a very nice guy, he’s very brutal, but still a human being. There are no nice or bad guys in the world. It’s fun to play a role like that. The worse, the better. I raped Nicole Kidman [in character] five times, and we had a lot of fun doing it, and it was very successful. And then Lars says to me, “Do you think you can play it like a romantic comedy?” And then I say, “Of course I can,” and I play it as a romantic comedy, and of course it doesn’t work. But there are a few lines that, because of the different angle of attack, actually become fantastic and work. He takes them and uses them.
There’s a making-of documentary on the DVD of “Dogville” where, behind the scenes, everybody went alone into these confession booths and told their stories about the movie. It seemed like everyone had a joyous time despite the tough material.
Skarsgård: It’s fun doing horrible things. … You put the characters through horrible situations, and you have a lot of fun doing it, and when you come up with something really horrible, you have even more fun.
Sevigny: I had a lot of fun on the movie. It was exhausting being on your feet all day long, but it was fun and playful. We all sat down in the beginning before we shot. He had us all in a circle in our cast chairs, and he played us his version of “Pirate Jenny” from “Threepenny Opera,” which the movie is conceived of or kind of based on. The Bergman actress in the movie [Harriet Andersson], she started performing it. It was all these magical moments like that. She took center stage and was singing it in German. And Lauren Bacall in the makeup chair, I could go on and on.
Lars notoriously said he wrote this movie during a 12-day drug binge. He’s since gotten sober. What was your impression of his mental state on the movie?
Skarsgård: He was in great shape. If he wrote it under a binge, he sort of went away with a bag of cocaine and wrote for a couple of days or a week. He had nothing of that during the shoot. There were no drugs. But there was a lot of alcohol. We shoot five days a week, and then on the weekends we had big parties at the pension we were staying at, and we had a lot of fun.
Sevigny: He’s a workhorse. He’s very prolific. He’s like a master. You can’t do that not in a coherent state of mind. That’s also part of his sense of humor. He, unfortunately, likes to provoke in ways that make people really uncomfortable and he has only hurt himself. He would have a Schnapps at lunch but that’s part of the culture there. I was just in Australia with my Serbian family, my husband’s family, and they have this sort of Schnapps-y thing at lunch, too. In France, everybody has wine at lunch.
He also liked to do these grand toasts, so I think the Schnapps was part of that. He liked to have a big moment of unity because it was like he wanted everybody to be as invested in what he was doing as he was. It helped motivate people to feel a part of something. It was like an energy that he was bringing.
Chloë, Stellan mentioned some parties. Were you part of these?
Sevigny: We were all in the same hotel that was right near a paper plant, and I just remember it all, the ever-present pulp smell. On the weekends I would also travel because I was like, I’m all the way over here, I might as well check stuff out. So I went to Gothenburg and Oslo. But yeah there were a lot of parties. Nicole had a Mexican-themed party where she flew in chefs because we were all so sick of the Swedish food. And there was another party where she brought oysters and caviar. She was really playing the part of a movie star. I was like, wow, this woman is classy. She knows how to do it.
In the making-of documentary, James Caan points out that everybody was drinking a lot of Red Bull.
Skarsgård: I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve heard of Red Bull. But maybe he did.
Stellan, what was your impression of Nicole Kidman?
Skarsgård: She had just gotten out of the divorce with Tom Cruise, and she was probably, it’s very hard for her. She’s also extremely brave. She’s a woman who was a teenager when she met Tom Cruise and became isolated since in this bubble of Hollywood and became famous, and to go out and do something like [“Dogville”]? It was a brave bunch of people, except me because I’m used to that.
Chloe, you’re part of a massive ensemble in this movie. Did you get much one-on-one time with Lars? Some of your fellow actors felt otherwise, but Nicole often took off with Lars for long walks on set to dish out her character.
Sevigny: We spent a lot of time all together. I was thinking about our house, how it was kind of like a summer camp situation, because we were all onstage all the time [in every scene] together because were obviously in the background [of every scene, as there were no walls], and we had these long lunches where we’d have Schnapps and we’d have dinners and eat breakfast together. We all spent a lot of time together.
I don’t know how much one-on-one time I had with him. Nicole is the star of the movie, he’s obviously spending more time with her. But I do remember him being very personal. He knew that I was really into the Norwegian Black Metal scene so he would tease me. He obviously has a renowned twisted sense of humor, and he used to always tease me about going to, like, burn stave churches because the black metal scene in Norway was famous for burning down stave churches. He knew what I was doing and he would get in there and he was very playful.
At the Cannes press conference, Lars was asked by a journalist why his movies all feature the torture of women. He said that watching men being tortured is boring. Have you ever felt tortured by him as an actor?
Skarsgård: No. The thing is, he’s perceived by, especially American journalists, as a [mysognist], doing horrible things to women. “He doesn’t like women.” He likes women. The women roles are himself. He is probably one of the best writers of female roles in the world. He’s writing about himself as a woman. It’s much easier to put a woman in a vulnerable situation, right, than a man. A woman shows her vulnerability in a way that a man doesn’t.
Lauren Bacall seemed to not have a great time on this movie, though he brought her back for “Manderlay.” She said in interviews that Lars had trouble “tolerating” her. How would you characterize their relationship as you witnessed it, and what was your impression of her?
Skarsgård: He had a very bad conscience because he had two of the great film stars, female film stars in history. Lauren Bacall and Harriet Anderson. They were playing a couple and they were often just sweeping the floor in the background. They didn’t have much to do. And he felt so ashamed of that. [Lauren is] a very intimidating woman. If she says, “Lars, can’t you give me something?” He can’t. He can’t give her something. It’s stupid in a way to cast her in such a small role. But he wanted to work with her again. And she wanted to work with him again. I spent a lot of time with her because Lars didn’t have time enough for her. She felt abandoned. So I stepped in there and hung with her a lot.
Sevigny: She was, I mean, not to speak ill, but she was a little cranky. I think Stellan was kind of also always chatting with me, flirtatious and playful, so therefore she didn’t like me because she wanted Stellan’s attention, in all honesty. I remember she was very tricky with the makeup.
Right, she really struggled with the no-makeup thing.
Sevigny: It was a whole new kind of process for her. She’s so old school, I think it was a little confusing to be a background artist. I remember I was very intimidated. My boyfriend at the time came, and he was so into her and Bogey and her whole lore, and I was like, “I don’t know, I’m really nervous around her.” He was like, “Don’t be scared of an old lady.” I was like, “You can’t call her that!”
Skarsgård: Remember the bravery of her … there was nothing of star treatment going on there. We were in the middle of fucking nowhere in Sweden, isolated for six weeks. It was very brave of her to do something so uncomfortable and it wasn’t much of a role. All actors were doing this for no money. And all actors were doing this without makeup.
Chloë, that’s not the first time I’ve heard of Stellan being flirtatious with a colleague.
Sevigny: Hugh Grant is getting a whole talking to about all that. But it’s the truth of it. We’re all together, we’re all having these crazy dinners, we’re all drinking, we’re all pre-cell phones, you talk to each other, you flirt with each other, it’s fun.
Do you remember any specific direction Lars gave you that struck you?
Sevigny: I remember he had this specific exercise where he was going to have us improvise within our families. It was me and Jeremy [Davies] and Blair [Brown], I can’t remember the gentleman who played my father. Each of the households had to do these 20-minute improvs within the household, and at the end, he was going to grade us. I think I got the lowest score but then it ended up that I had the highest score because I was doing the least, the least best acting by underacting.
Stellan, do you and Lars feel more at ease with each other on a set because you’re now good friends?
Skarsgård: I don’t know that he sees me as an actor because I don’t think he’s seen my other films. He of course feels extremely at home with me in the room, and I know how to handle him. He has less anxiety, I think, when I’m around. He referred to me one time, I’m like the castrated bull they have to blend with the bullfighting bulls.
[On “Dogville”], you felt you were supposed to make mistakes. He had a big sign on “Breaking the Waves” that said, “Make mistakes.” You feel so safe, you feel so well looked after. And the language is of course very coarse. He says things in interviews, like, whatever. He says whatever, but it’s in a friendly way.
That got him into trouble in 2011 when he jokingly called himself a Nazi and said he “understood Hitler” at the Cannes press conference for “Melancholia,” essentially torching the movie in the U.S. along with Kirsten Dunst’s hoped-for Oscar chances.
Skarsgård: The problem is that the rest of the world is so afraid, and so they take words not for what they mean but for what they are. It’s stupid. Everybody knew in that room that he was not a Nazi and yet for Hollywood reporters, there was Lars von Trier, “I’m a Nazi.” He was talking about something else. It’s so silly.
You could see Kirsten’s face curdle into complete collapse as he said it.
Skarsgård: She lives in Hollywood. She’s more dependent – he can hurt her, but he can’t hurt me.
Have you been in touch with Lars since he became sick?
Sevigny: I had just heard that he was a little sick [because of this interview]. I knew he’d had some issues in the past but I didn’t know he was ailing, so I was thinking about writing Matt Dillon and getting his contact and sending him a letter. I think I used to send him some snail mail back in the day. I still have a few notes of his that he sent me.
The 4K restoration of “Dogville” premieres on Mubi Friday, April 14.