Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"I thought that this time there couldn't be anything provoking because even in Cannes I've seen much more violent films than this." - An Interview with Lars von Trier

Seven years after sparking controversy with his infamous Nazi comments at a press conference for Melancholia, Lars von Trier returned to Cannes in May and instantly became the talk of the town once again. The premiere of The House That Jack Built caused an uproar, with hordes of people fleeing the cinema in disgust while those that remained gave the film a standing ovation. Such starkly divided reactions are par for the course with von Trier, of course, and your reaction to this film may depend on how you feel about him and his work in general. The House That Jack Built is cruel and violent, but it’s also a film made with a macabre sense of humour and a keen awareness of its own absurdity, and it's another fascinating self-exploration from this singular artist. Years of struggling with depression and alcoholism have taken their toll on von Trier, who often appeared fragile and hesitant, and older than his 62 years, when we discussed The House That Jack Built over Skype recently.

I was just reading an article about The House That Jack Built having a version made for an R-rating in the US. What are your thoughts on that?

I don't know this rating system. What does it mean?

I understand the film will be cut in some way to reduce the violence and make it more accessible for general audiences. I'm not sure how you do that.

No, but I'm sure I said yes because they have invested a lot of money and if they couldn't show the film it would be bad. The only thing is that I hope they will put some text or some information that this is not the original film.

The strange thing is that I don't think this film is much more violent than a lot of popular horror movies or TV shows, none of which get this same kind of reaction. Why do you think your films receive this type of response?

Yeah, I thought exactly like you. I thought that this time there couldn't be anything provoking because even in Cannes I've seen much more violent films than this. So yeah, I must have done something wrong...or right.

At least you're making an impact on audiences. You're not leaving anyone feeling ambivalent or complacent.

I heard testimonials from some people who didn't like the film very much when they left the cinema, but after a couple of days it kept coming back, so it must have done something to them.

I actually thought a lot of the film was very funny. Parts of it felt like a Woody Allen comedy to me, this idea of a neurotic serial killer panicking that he hasn't cleaned up all the blood.

Yes, that is very Woody Allen, I agree. I like some of his work. I like Manhattan, but I haven't seen all of his films. He produces one film or two films a year, something like that? And he only shoots a scene once, it seems.

Can you imagine working like that?

[Laughs] I could imagine it. It sounds like a nice little role.

Do you think about the audience reaction much?

I wouldn't say that I'm unsatisfied that 300 left during the screening in Cannes. I'm afraid it's a little exaggerated, but no, as long as enough people stay to make it possible for me to make the next film.

The reaction to your films in America is always interesting because your films are so often set there, even though you've never been. Why is America so central to your cinema?

You know, when I was very young, with the Beatles and all these bands, it had to be in English. The films I saw were primarily American, so that for me became the film language, so to speak. The reason why they always take place in the state of Washington - the poor state of Washington! - that I have no idea about, is that the place where we get the money in Sweden could look a little like Washington, I was told. So it has nothing to do with me having anything against the state of Washington or anything of that kind, it's just that here we can make them speak English. I know it's with different accents, but that's how it's going to be.

You often create rules and limitations for yourself when embarking on a project. Did you do that here?

Only a word that in Danish is Husk og sjusk - that means remember to be sloppy. I had that sign on all the monitors. I don't know if it's right to say it that way but I'm a little tired of perfecting things, so I'm trying to go in that direction. It's not a rule, in a way, but it does work. I was especially not very fond of Melancholia but when I saw it again I kind of liked it, even thought it was a little too much of a PR film or something like that.

It had too much style.

Yeah, it was too nice.

So how do you create that sloppiness?

[Long pause] Yeah...that's a good question. I wouldn't say I directly succeeded but I have made four cuts in the film that I really hate. [Laughs] So that's as far as I'm going!

I watched a documentary about Orson Welles recently and he said his definition of a director is someone who presides over accidents

Yeah, but hopefully not too severe. He was a fantastic director. One film I was not so fond of is the Kafka film.

The Trial.

Yeah, because my theory is that there is so much Kafka in Orson Welles before he makes Kafka, so when these two are on top of each other it becomes too much.

Have you seen his new one, The Other Side of the Wind?

No...The Other Side of the Wind?

It was a film he shot in the 1970s and it has just been finished this year.

Oh really? And he didn't finish it or he couldn't?

He tried for many years to raise the money he needed but then he died, and it has just been finished now by Peter Bogdanovich, Frank Marshall and others. It's amazing. It's available through Netflix.

Oh fantastic. I can see that without compromising my other rule, which is that I shouldn't see new films. But this is an old film! 

So many of your films are about women. Was writing from a male perspective a very different experience?

Yeah, and it was really difficult to see the difference. The films I've done with female characters had this goodness clinging to them, and he is not good. He is evil. I heard Scorsese say that in the beginning he made films about psychopaths that were in conflict with the normal society, and today he makes films about normal people that are in conflict with the psychopathic society, so I've gone back to front. It was really fun to write because it is so unpredictable what this guy was going to say, and I believe that the psychopath will always believe in himself when others would have given up long ago. He can get away with three different explanations outside the door of this woman when he's trying to get into her house.

Did you see this film as a companion piece to Nymphomaniac? they share a similar structure but you're substituting female sexuality with male violence.

I think Nymphomaniac was more work because it was much longer and all that, and this is kind of like an essay, we would say in Danish, kind of a small little thing. But I think it's still long enough. When you reach Hell, then you are tired.

One of your key collaborators on these films has been your co-writer Jenle Hallund. How do you work with her?

She was a good partner when I suggested some ideas. I said serial killer and she said Hell, which I would never have thought of. I would never have thought of filming someone going to Hell, because it's very far from me, the soul also. But I have read The Divine Comedy and I have read The Death of Virgil. I don't know if you know that book?

No, I don't know that one.

Oh, that one is really tough. It's 800 pages about the death of Virgil, the guy who shows Dante around in The Divine Comedy, and the last 100 pages is the last second of his life. It was by a guy called Herman Broch.

Ok, I'll make a note of that.

Oh no, don't. Please!

Your last two films have a lot of these tangents and digressions, where you'll suddenly have a detailed conversation about a subject that appears unrelated to the main narrative of the film.

It's from reading novels, especially Thomas Mann, who I'm quite fond of, and Proust. You know, they are always telling something else, and in one of Thomas Mann's books he says "Now there is going to be a big change, but you will not hear about it now" and then 200 pages later, they pick up on that. He has just been digressing or whatever it's called for 200 pages. But I found out that these writers had these items that really interested them, and then you think that they are very wise and everything, but no, they just know something about this subject. These scythes in the film, that was from Anna Karenina. In the book there is the man who owns the field and he goes out and has a look at his people doing this. I like hearing about some real work, and some real people.

How do you work with actors? I'm particularly interested in the conversations you had with your actresses in this film, because they really exist just to be victims.

Actually they are what you don't want to be. In Danish it's byttedyr - a mouse, for instance - it's only there to feed other animals. When you look in the books about nature and read that you are a byttedyr, that is not good. They approached it in different ways and I have a very good technique, I think, and that is to film a scene in a lot of different ways. I say, "On the way to this spot you have just seen somebody being driven over by a car or whatever," and the women are quite good at giving different approaches to this. I also think Matt was very good at it, we just had to find the way in the first couple of days but then he got better and better.

You thank a lot of your previous actresses in the end credits too, going back to Emily Watson and Nicole Kidman.

Yes, but they were in the clips. The idea was that there should be the films that I loved, but that was far too expensive. So then I said, what the fuck, we have the rights to these films. Let's just take little parts.

How did you feel looking back at your old films? Do you have a perspective on what you've done? Are you proud of them?

I actually let some of the editors do this, so I didn't pick anything. I just said yes, you know, otherwise it would be a little too selfish or whatever. I am still quite proud of Dogville, I must say. The quality is maybe not from my work but maybe...not Bertolt Brecht, because Bertolt Brecht never wrote anything, so the rumour has it. One of his wives apparently wrote this song, what is it called in English? It's a ship with so many guns, the black freighter...

Oh yes, the one Nina Simone covered? Pirate Jenny?

Pirate Jenny, exactly yeah. After hearing this in a Danish version with another melody, I talked to some actors and they said that in this play [The Threepenny Opera] it was always a great sensation when this song came on, and it actually has nothing to do with the rest of the play. I think this very pure revenge in Dogville is similar to Pirate Jenny. It was something very unlikely to be done by me, but it was so much fun to do it.

I guess the inclusion of your own work is one of the elements that makes critics think this feels like a last movie, like a final statement on your career.

You never know what your last movie is, it's certainly not planned to be the last. But then again, if David Bowie can die at 69 then maybe there is not so many films left.

Bowie had a perfect exit, though. Releasing Blackstar and then dying two days later.

I still feel betrayed somehow. He's from Mars, you know, and they don't die on Mars. Somehow I can forgive all the other deaths of artists, but Bowie... I cannot, I cannot. I listened a lot to him, especially when I was younger, and it's kind of wrong that he's dead. I really would have liked to have not heard that he was dead.

He has always been a huge presence in your films, from Breaking the Waves and Dogville up to now.

Yes, and he was always very reasonable to deal with. This time he was dead before we did the film.

You also pay tribute to Bob Dylan in The House That Jack Built.

Yeah, it's an homage. It's a brilliant video, this little thing with the signs.

In the past you have said that filmmaking is not an enjoyable process. Has it always been that way?

No. It's a matter of how my anxieties move. Right now I have a comfort zone in my home and I feel best there, so maybe I should do the whole film from a monitor back here. Then I would be happy.

What part of the process gives you the greatest satisfaction. Is it just the feeling of having completed something?

Editing is nice, and sound making and mixing. All of that is nice. To write it is also fun. It's just that I'm afraid that I can't be physically there, I'm sure I'll get ill or something, and then I've left them with 100 collaborators who cannot do anything. I'm a little afraid of the duty.

One of my favourite parts of The House That Jack Built is the idea of a person walking between the streetlights, and dealing with the lengthening and shortening shadows.

Well, yeah. I have had an alcohol problem so I must say that it could be a bottle that is waiting for me at the next lamp, but I'm fighting it with a lot of meetings. You don't have this problem?

No, I don't.

You can get it very easily. Don't drink too much.

The House That Jack Built is in UK cinemas from December 14th