Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Deconstructing Larry: An interview with Lars von Trier

I recently interviewed Lars von Trier via video Skype and I must say it was one of the most unexpected interview experiences I've had in eight years as a film journalist. Not just because I was talking to one of the most interesting filmmakers of the past two decades, but because the man himself was not close to how I had perhaps expected. Physically, he seemed timid, thinning hair greying in colour, puffy cheeked, shoulders slouched, gripping his assistant chair as his voice trembled throughout the interview. For those who know me I'm hardly the most intimidating person to talk with or be interviewed by.

Below is the product of out 20 minute chat, which I found fascinating, insightful and deeply personal. I apologise for all the obvious missed follow-up questions, of which I can see plenty (what does he mean it would be "lying" to not present the graphic sex and violence?), but there was such a limited time and so many things I wanted to try and cover. The finished article was written up for Street Press Australia and I believe made the cover of Inpress in Melbourne (a shorter version was also printed in Drum Media).

I won't pass any further comment on the content, instead I leave that to you...

It’s seven months since the film premiered in Cannes, how do you feel now you have some distance between you and the initial reactions?

Well, I must say I understand the film less and less the more time that goes. I’ve made quite a lot of interviews and I think I’m getting much poorer at it. The negative reception in Cannes was fine with me, I don’t have a problem with that. I’ve been yelled at before.

Were you surprised by the hysteria?

Yeah, I don’t think I had prepared myself enough for that, which was stupid.

One of the common accusations is that the film is ‘needlessly graphic' – do you find that oddly contradictory given your reputation as a provocateur?

[Deep sign] You know, 'needlessly graphic'? Of course it depends on how you work. The normal saying is that you should show as little as possible to let these things exist in the mind or the brain of the spectator and thereby making them much stronger. For me it was never a question whether to have this graphicness both in the sex and the violence, somehow I thought it would be lying not to put it there.

Do you think accusations that ‘you wish to do nothing more than shock’ are unfair?

Well anything is fair to say but I don’t think it is right. I have worked all my life with films and I think shocking is quite poor is that is all you want to do or provoke. I believe there is much more in the films and that my work is… well, if I should shock or provoke someone I will still claim that I provoke myself with these things. But not the graphicness, it is maybe more natural to this country.

You surrendered a lot of control over this film shoot than previously, how important to your development as a filmmaker was stepping out of your comfort zone in this way?

It was interesting but it was not of my own free will I did that. I suffered from depression and I was just working myself out of this by doing the film work. I just didn’t have the strength or sharpness that I think I used to have.

You have said this is your most personal film to date, do you feel a sense of relief or does baring your demons in such a way unnerve you further?

I don’t really feel so strongly about it. It’s made in a very automatic way and if you are a normal human being then you would be very, very scared that this is what would come out of you if you just relaxed but I’m hardcore (laughs). I’ve been trying to work with this tilted brain of mine for many years so nothing, I think, can really shock me.

It is nothing new for artists suffering depression to turn to self-portraits as a reflex to the anxiety and frustration they feel. To what extent then is Antichrist a Lars von Trier self-portrait?

Well, to a certain degree, but I have always made [self-portraits] in that when I write I always put a little or a lot of myself into the characters, I think, or at least I am told, that is my method. If it gets even more of a self-portrait people will run screaming away, which they do already.

In that case, on reflection, do you have an awareness of how that manifests itself in the film?

No. To some point that is how we all have to deal with life.

There’s always much talk about the apparent misogyny present in your films, do you feel you have a healthy grip on your conscious and unconscious relationship with women?

Who has? (laughs) I don’t know, I’m doing my best. My mother was quite a prominent feminist in this country and she if she had not been cremated she would probably be turning in her grave.

You found out your father wasn’t your biological father as your mum was about to pass away – how old were you at this time?

I was quite old, I think I was 30.

It is a life-changing moment for any person this sort of revelation as I know from personal experience, how do you think that experience with your mother informed your relationship with the women in your films?

Well that’s a good question. I haven’t really thought very much about that. You know this situation where you find out your dad is not your biological dad is very common as you know. Just after you find out it was very severe for me and it was a great shock. But I think the longer that goes the more you find out what matters is the man who was there and not the guy who was not. It is very clear from my even more loving relationship with the guy I call my father, that did not deliver the genes, than I did before. It’s very strange about my mother that she kept this a secret because in her beliefs such things should not be kept secret, but it’s quite interesting how bourgeoisie these free-minded people also are.

Have you found any closure in this?

I don’t know. Have you met your real father?

Yes, it was a good, yet somehow unsatisfactory experience.

When I met my father he was extremely unsympathetic and I couldn’t see how I had anything in common with him whatsoever, only the fact that we looked like each other. It was a very negative meeting I had. Later on I found I had siblings from his side who I see now. I had a fantasy about the meeting where we would cry and embrace and it was nothing like that, I tell you. He told me any further contact should be through his lawyer. That was quite hard.

Has it altered your certainty about yourself?

If you believe I have any certainty (laughs). It is good to have some kids and a family, I wouldn’t say I am really certain of anything but I appreciate the qualities of the family life when you have a very turbulent job. I’m beginning to become very much of a sissy, I’m beginning to feel the pressure to make a film, or how a film should be and received. A few years ago I would have denied that for certain. I don’t know what happens, maybe I should just stop.

But then how would you go about managing that uncertainty?

Yeah, I think the biggest problem then is what I should do because just doing nothing is just really bad for me. I have to do something passionate, I don’t know what it could be.

[police sirens]

What is that?

There’s a police station around the corner…

Oh, well you are safe then (laughs).

How does grappling with your own demons inform your approach to exploring the dark recesses of the human condition?

It’s something I do not analyse very much. A film comes to me very much as an idea and then it develops, I’m really not steering it in any specific direction. I feel myself a little bit as a medium in the sense that by following my own thoughts and what you would say is a register of films that I like from when I saw a lot of films, these two things and following my own path without really deciding what the path is. I strongly feel I am following a path with what I am doing and the luxury of being able to follow that path without too much hesitation is a luxury that very few directors have in the sense I can actually finance these films and nobody tells me what to do. And since I this position I have a strong sense I have to use this possibility.

Do you ever wonder if all this will be the making of you or your ruin?

No, I don’t think so. I think I would have been an even sicker person had I not made films, yes, I’m quite sure. When we play Monopoly in Denmark we have a little card that says go directly to the police station and turn yourself in. That would be kinda easy for you… I’m sorry, it was just an idea.


Daniel Crichton-Rouse said...

Inpress flip book. Scott's article in on page 75.

Anonymous said...


Paul Martin said...

I just saw Antichrist yesterday, and very much appreciate reading this interview. Well done!