DEAR WENDY - Q&A with Thomas Vinterberg
Movie Interview by Toby White
Shortly before its opening in the UK, PHASE9 met Dogme veteran and Danish director Thomas Vinterberg to talk about his new film, DEAR WENDY, working with Lars Von Trier and being Robin Hood...
What was it like working with Jamie [Bell]?
It's boring to talk about because it was such a joy. The thing is, he's got the humbleness and the civilised behaviour of a Brit and he's very elaborate and very clever for a young boy. He's got this thing that he's glowing as a real star, the camera really wants to point at him. We did a three-week rehearsal period where we did a lot of improvisation, I held the Dandies having a dinner in character and he developed so many things in those weeks. So shooting the film was a really joyful experience.
Did you always have him in mind for the part?
Well, I read the script and started to look for actors and I ran into Billy Elliot. And I thought, "Wow, that's fantastic." It's the main thing, you really want to be inspired by someone. I found it very interesting to combine this bleak, demon-like character with this fragile young man. I thought that gave the character a lot of layers.
Obviously the role he plays is quite bizarre, his ideas, how did you get him to relate to some of those, like a fetish for a gun, for example?
It was quite easy for him because he's such a smart boy. When you're young, it's not that difficult to understand the idea behind forming a group, having rituals and alienating yourself from the world. The whole idea of falling in love with a gun, of course, is an obstacle. It's a challenge as an actor, and a director. We explored the emotional light behind it together in the sense of a man being lonely and then suddenly getting this sensation of being someone and having someone to talk to. As soon as we started to motivate it emotionally it got easier for him.
When did you become involved in the project?
Lars [Von Trier] wrote this for himself to begin with. And then he got obsessed with drawing lines on a black floor and DOGVILLE and MANDERLAY and all that and he wanted to do a trilogy. He couldn't then do DEAR WENDY and he said that I could bring life to it. Since we're so opposite each other, such contradictions in how we work, so ultimately different, I found it very interesting. He said, "Thomas, I want you to bring life to this" and I read the script and thought about what it meant and I thought there's something here that I'm deeply attracted to which is not only the political allegory of man loves guns, there's also a story about being young and disappointed with life and trying to create something larger for yourself than a normal, grey existence by forming the group of Dandies. There's something about togetherness and what you can do when you're young. At the end of the film there's a choice between either dying as heroes of the group they've formed or giving in to the normal, grey existence and I thought that was a beautiful story. There was a story about young people overcoming their loneliness and I thought it was a great challenge to encourage that and give it space, for instance, by decreasing their age by 10 to 15 years, making it an emotional journey. Does it makes sense what I'm saying?
Good. Because it's English and I'm Danish, so...
If we lose you we'll say so.
So is this film more about being teenagers than about guns?
That's dangerous because I'd like to let the audience judge that. For my dad, who's a film critic at the age of 58, this is a film about gun culture but about literature as well and a lot of other things than it is for the 12 year-old kid who saw it at the film festival the other night. If you ask me, normally I'd say a good film is many films, it's the film to the person who watches it but for me it's what I just described about being young and disappointed by life. I've been more occupied with that. I was the ambassador of bringing life to this, that was my job in this project, so that's my story...
So were you nervous about that, taking on this film that Lars obviously wrote for himself and saying, "Go on, you do it..."?
No. As a writer-director relationship I was in charge. He could talk but he couldn't decide. And it worked very well. When you work professionally you have to have these competence things clear. I wasn't nervous, though, no. Since this was the first time I was to do something I didn't write, you could say I was nervous in case it didn't work but, ironically, I felt more safe because I can just work as a director, which is what I was trained to do at film school. When you write a script you're more vulnerable because it's yourself all the way through. This was already half done.
Did you have more freedom as the director?
Yeah. I felt very free...and playful. We had a method, a way of doing things which was that [starts drawing a line on a piece of paper] say this is the first day of shooting, then up until then we worked very hard with the actors, the preparation, the guns, the characters and script and then from that day on [draws another line] we let it all go and started to play. Which was really fun because I could ask them to improvise stuff and they would know what this character would do because they were prepared. And that was fun.
So all of the elements, the visual touches, the dotted line drawing of the arc of the bullet, that kind of thing, was that all in the script or did that evolve as you worked your way through it?
I'm so happy you mentioned these because they are my inventions. Some of them were Lars' but you know, it's all a melting pot of the ideas from the script and mine and the ideas from the actors. And the good ideas survive. The dotted lines...I remembered that. But good ideas come from healthy soil and that's Lars'. Some of his ideas sucked and some of my ideas sucked and we threw them out. In that sense it was a true collaboration, no one is occupied with who did what. People always ask about the Zombies, though, and that's not mine...
This is going to sound like a cliché but have you drawn any elements from the Dogme manifesto into the film?
Oh, of course. In the sense that you couldn't be contradicting the Dogme manifesto more. You couldn't use firearms, for instance, in Dogme. Costumes...music...but it's not intended, just that subconsciously a lot of art comes as reactions against something and this is written in a period of Lars and my life when Dogme had become hugely fashionable and had become its own convention so you could say that this is a reaction against that.
There's a tension between realism and fantasy in the film, but the script's so tight and the acting so good that in spite of it being a constructed world that they're speaking about it's still convincing and when the reality then comes out at the end...
I'm glad you brought that up. The end of the film is maybe the part I enjoy the most. It really becomes humane. And it's at that time that I really wanted to confront the Dandies with real life. This is exactly what happens when you get shot. You drop down dead. At the end real life and fantasy really clashes together. That's for me the ultimate conclusion.
Similarly with films like BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, where people are talking about guns in a blasé way and that's quite surreal, you ask the same questions in your film, are these guys for real or are they just playing?
In a strange way it has a sort of relation to COLUMBINE. And ELEPHANT. I have to say ELEPHANT for me is one of the most beautiful and touching films I've seen for a long time. Very fragile. Whereas I would say DEAR WENDY is a very vulgar sister to that.
Have you ever been to America?
I have. And I must say that some of the best films that have been made have been done by people with nothing to do with what they're filming. I wouldn't use FESTEN as an example of a great movie but this film was about bourgeois life in Denmark and I've never even attended one of these kind of birthday parties. There's this whole issue of 'is Lars capable of doing something about America?' and, yes, this is his version of America. And mine. We do have some issues with this film though and I think we will run into some trouble.
How do you think the American audience will take it?
I don't know. But I'm very curious about it. Unfortunately I fear they would be more offended by it than was intended. When Lars writes a script, he's provocative and playful. But I don't think they get that. I was aware of that when I read the script and I downgraded it but I'm not sure I did it enough. I don't read reviews really but I've heard that Variety hammered it for being anti-American. But I don't understand that word. You can be anti-Bush, but anti-American? I don't know what it means. A lot of the beautiful art I've ever seen comes from there so I'm not anti-American. I think the problem is that the right of America will never even hear of this film. The other side is maybe so ashamed that they don't want to hear about it any more.
Interesting point. So it probably won't play in, say, Iowa but where it plays in New York they may understand the level of irony perhaps...
Maybe it'll play really well because it does speak to a young American audience. I hope it speaks with a young set of eyes about how it is to be young in America. If it plays as well as it did in Sundance then it's going to fly.
Yeah, I was going to ask, how has it been received then where it has played so far?
Well, it's only played Sundance but that's a festival audience. You never know. But they weren't being intellectual about it, they were eating popcorn and having a laugh and that's what I'm hoping, but you never know.
The Zombies is a memorable element of the film. You said you shared a lot of ideas with Lars but was that in the script?
Yeah, he knew from the beginning that he wanted The Zombies to be a part of the rituals. Therefore he wrote for the specific songs. I think the most honest answer I've heard from him was that, "In my head there's a little box of stuff that I want to put on screen and there happened to be a couple of very good Zombies records". That's how you feel as an artist so, say I always wanted to work with Sean Penn, for example, so I'll write a part for him.
Have you ever fired a gun?
Oh, yeah. I have been out with my father-in-law hunting. Then I did shoot with the Dandies on a shooting range. It was a divine moment because, for some reason, I was extremely precise. I shot seven bull's-eyes. And there was one - I have to brag a little - where you re-use a target by putting a patch over the holes. So I hit a bull's-eye, then covered it up and shot again and I got it in the exact same spot so the hole was like one. A real Robin Hood kind of thing. I loved it, you know, for a second. But I didn't become addicted. My wife said if you took away Wendy as a gun and replaced it with a syringe, there are parallels. One shot is all it takes and it makes them grow and alienates them from the world, you know, there are interesting parallels there.
So what's next?
Good question. You know FESTEN was a sort of hand grenade in my basket in the sense that I was in the middle of doing a row of Danish films; my graduate feature, then some shorts and a couple of other things and then I did FESTEN. And then I had all this success which totally blew everything away and I did IT'S ALL ABOUT LOVE and now DEAR WENDY and I feel that I should maybe go back for a while, do a Danish film, just to continue what I was in the middle of doing. So I've been writing a script and I will be doing a Danish film next. But I'm still developing other stuff, some things here actually. I'm also still reading scripts from the States.
You'll probably get a lot more after DEAR WENDY comes out...
You think so? Hopefully. I've always ended up turning things down; the right one didn't come up or when the right one came up I was in the middle of something or when the right one came up it went to someone else...but I do read all these scripts with great curiosity. But for now I want to do my own little fragile Danish thing...