It has been a substantially long time since this article has re-appeared on our site. In their words:
Europe's celebrated director of The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark talks with the precociously talented director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love, on ways of seeing America, the egos of actors, and his controversial new film, Dogville.
Ok, let's cut to the chase: An interview between Lars von Trier and Paul Thomas Anderson is a cinephile's wet dream. As two of cinema's most distinctive directors, they have created some of the most searing movie experiences in recent memory. Despite their vastly different approach, both men, are united by a concern with the outsider in society: The awkward and misbegotten lonely hearts of Anderson's Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love find their counterparts in the small-town American of von Trier's Dancer in the Dark and the upcoming Dogville.
Both bring a precise, focused discipline to their movies that leaves little to chance. Von Trier, in particular, has developed a reputation for his combative relationship with his actors, most notably with Bjork during the making of Dancer in the Dark, but his severe approach typically results in career-defining performances. Anderson, too, has wrung brilliance from his ensemble productions, especially from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has appeared in all of his movies, and Adam Sandler, whose layered, tormented turn in Punch-Drunk Love was one of last year's great surprises.
The two directors convened at von Trier's film studio, Zentropa, on the outskirts of Copenhagen, to gossip about actors, trade views on America, and nominate some of their favorite movies.
LVT: What I would like to talk about is this actor business, because, as I've told you, I was very fond of Magnolia and felt that there was a kind of familiar feeling about the results that you get out of the actors, and you told me that it was because you love them.PTA: Uh-huh.LVT: Which was a shock. If you love them--let's just say this is true--how do you work with them?PTA: Well, they say the lines. And then--LVT: --You say, ready?PTA: Go.LVT: Go? And then they say the lines?PTA: Well, here's the thing. When I wrote Magnolia, I was writing for the actors, so I could hear it my head how they might do it, and I was writing it with that advantage. But actors don't scare me -- you know what scares me? Bad actors scare me. A good actor is like watching a great musician, but having a bad actor terrifies me, because it means I've got to find something to say or something to do. And that's really frustrating, because you want to be concentrating on everything, and instead you find yourself bogged down with helping someone know their lines or not bump into the furniture, and that's when you want to strangle them. I got really lucky that the first real actor that I worked with was Philip Baker Hall. Coming out of the gate, that was like somebody who, instantly, is right there for you, who wants to work with you and certainly not against you. And so I think I got a bit spoiled sense that this is the way that it should go, and then I'm shocked when Burt Reynolds shows up, or someone like that... I think you secretly love actors.LVT: [laughs]BB: Do you not think it works for you to love your actors too much, Lars? Do you keep a distance?LVT: I try not to, but actors are the only tin that stands between you and a good film. That's how it is. But we're talking about control. It's a little bit like filming animals--they are uncontrollable.PTA: But not all of them.LVT: No, and they should be uncontrollable. If you want to have something from anybody, you have to give them some trust, of course, and that's why I've turned the whole thing into more of a game than direction. But there are actors and there are actors. Stellan [Skårsgard] is not an actor.PTA: But I feel the same way about Philip [Seymour Hoffman] or John C. Reilly: They're not actors--they're family.LVT: Yeah, but because they're family you also know what they can do and what they can't do. It's like your uncle--you know what he's good at, and what he is not. Of course, they can be so familiar that you don't give your uncle a chance, which is unfair also.PTA: Is the relationship that you have with your assistant director or editor or photographer or costume designer something like that, one that you can count on more than you can count on with an actor?
LVT: Right now I'm filming with CinemaScope, so I'm running around with this ridiculously enormous camera, with sound equipment, light equipment, you know. And then there are a hundred people around me who just kind of say "good luck," and they leave, and we're alone for four hours, the actors and me. So really, all my fears lie in this technique, because I have a lot of claustrophobia. If I don't do anything, nothing happens. I can't tell you--for these last four months I've been going through my all-time low, and my psychic health is extremely low right now.PTA: Why? Is it something that happens after you make a film or after it is released? Is there a pattern to it, or do you recognize why?LVT: Well, there is a pattern to it, of course. When you produce a film, all your power goes into it, so you can't use your power to imagine that you're dying all the time. And also you have this kind of Baden-Powell [founder of the Boy Scouts movement] feeling, that you just have to go marching on for these eight weeks or ten weeks or however long it is, which is good, of course, this masochistic feeling that you just have to go on and hurt yourself, and if you hurt yourself enough then it doesn't matter--you die for a reason.PTA: Can you curb that feeling, though, when you're writing? Are you writing right now?LVT: No. No. I think the reason why I'm really, really nuts right now is all this waiting for Nicole [Kidman]. Because normally I write a script, I do rah, rah, rah, rah, and since we've been waiting for her, for one-and-a-half years, it stalled, I feel rotten, I feel terrible. Not about the film--if you're afraid you're going to die, you don't give a shit about a film or how it's received or who is in it, but it's just the fact that the film work is a way to get in a positive mood to get a lot of stuff out of your system.BB: What do you mean by waiting for Nicole?LVT: We decided a long time ago that we should do more films together, Nicole and I, but that was not possible, it turns out, after one-and-a-half years of suffering [waiting for Kidman's schedule to clear], and I can't do other films in between. It's a trilogy that I wrote with the same main female.PTA: When did that come to you, when you were writing Dogville? Did you know that there was going to be--LVT: --No. I finished it, and I liked the project very much, and I liked Nicole very much, or anyway, I liked her character, Grace, very much, because she's a little more aggressive, a little more human than the other characters I've worked with.PTA: Wait, is that because she's a more human character or a more human actor?LVT: [long pause] It's because she's a more human character and a less human actress, but the mixture with Nicole and Grace was a very good one, and I liked that, and then I suddenly saw that I had an obligation to carry on with Grace, to carry on this way of filmmaking, because it's very, very easy to invent new things all the time, but it's not very mature, I feel. So if I really meant something with this film, they I felt I should underline it by going on. Because there are, as I see it, two kinds of directors: there are the ones that, every time, set a new standard, like Kubrick. And then there are the directors that keep on doing the same stuff over and over, again and again. Of course, there are mixtures between these types, but somehow, the mature one is the one that does the same, again and again and again.PTA: You'll say something different in a few years.LVT: Let me come back to--I like the inhuman nature of Nicole. I don't know if inhuman is the right word; I know it sounds negative, but it's not really meant to be. She's kind of this larger-than-life star that has a discipline and a skill that is remarkable. To take this kind of size, and force it to break a little bit, was a very good thing to do...but also to take her ability and her professionalism and her willingness to work, which are all very positive things, and to try to break it up a little bit for the sake of the product, which she was very happy to do, which also shows.BB: She wants to expand.LVT: Oh yes, she wants to--she is very, very brave in that sense, as the good actors are. Very, very brave. And then came my idea of going on to make three films, but also to make three films that take place in America--PTA: --Lars, what do I have to do to get you to come to America?LVT: You have to nuke all of Europe. [laughs]PTA: Okay, I can do that. I'll do anything.LVT: But listen, I am an American.PTA: How do you mean?LVT: I am there already. I'm taking part in the American life.PTA: [laughs] You are?LVT: I know exactly how it is. It's like here, more or less, but you know, the Americans used to be European, or the ones that I can easily relate to, and they are maybe not the--no, I'm not going to say that--PTA: Say it! Say it! Go on.LVT: The ones that went to America were not the brightest ones. [they laugh] No, listen, please erase that. No, but you have a lot of stories from people who went to American, because they were starving. And in the liberal society, you go where you are not starving--that's the whole idea--but people are not allowed to do that anymore, for some strange reason. It's not considered to be a good idea to go where the food is anymore. America is closing its borders also, right? Which was a big, big quality, I always felt, about the American idea, as I see it: to let everybody in. In Scandinavia, integration is such a big thing--whenever you come they say, "Will you become Danish?" "Yes, yes, yes," they say. "of course," but somebody is shooting at them from behind, right? And then, to be integrated is very, very important, to learn the language, to learn the customs, to not slaughter your animals in a painful way, all this. To say that you can only come to visit us if you learn the language, if you do this, if you do this... Come on! That's a Scandinavian model because they want to integrate them into society so they can--BB: --Raise them up.LVT: Absolutely. But that is so arrogant! And having not been to New York, I love the idea of a Chinatown and all these things, that's fantastic, I really think that's a beautiful idea. But I'm sure that's not how American is. But it is, somehow, I feel part of the idea.PTA: You know, Lars, when I saw Dogville, it wasn't about America to me. It was about any small-town, small-minded mentality, and it wasn't about America until the end.LVT: No. I agree completely. The only thing that I've done about America, or that should connect with America, is a kind of positive feeling that I'm trying to create, some things that I remember from Steinbeck or Mark Twain--feelings, or settings--PTA: --Go back, I can't believe this, 'cause Steinbeck has been an obsession of mine for the past year. Did you read him a lot?LVT: When I was young, yeah.PTA: There's a collection of short stories called America and Americans, which is amazing, and I wanted to give it to you. There's a bit in it straight from Dogville, and it's meant so much to me over the past year, because he fought in World War II, he wrote about Vietnam, he wrote from the McCarthy hearings, and he saw it all. He was really a great novelist, but he was a journalist as well, and one of the great American writers.LVT: I haven't read so much, but the narration in the movie, I thought, was very American, and I was told later on that it was not at all.PTA: The narration? It's very British!LVT: It's not British. I talked to John Hurt about it, he said, "This is not British." So it's kind of Danish-British trying to be American.PTA: But you know, if I didn't know you, I would have no idea where the hell this movie, or many of your movies, came from.LVT: That, I think, is actually quite good, because that's almost like David Bowie, you know--we were sure he was from Mars actually.PTA: How did you come up with the idea of ending Dogville with "Young Americans"?LVT: Paul Bettany and I were great David Bowie fans, and at a certain point when the spirit was quite low on the set, we were playing it over loudspeakers so everybody was dancing to it. I always loved that melody very much, but I didn't understand the lyrics. I still don't understand them. [laughs]PTA: Absolutely. I understand "Young Americans!"LVT: But I thought the lyric was, "All night she was the young American," but it is not. It is "All night she wants a young American," which is different. [laughs][The conversation is interrupted by a phone call for PTA, warning of his imminent flight to New York]LVT: Don't worry.PTA: I'm not worried. Do I look worried? Lars, I'm sitting here with you--you're my hero. I can't be worried.LVT: Like sitting with Bush, you can't be worried?PTA: If Bush invited you to the White House, would you go?LVT: It wouldn't make it easier for me to sit in a plane.PTA: But we knock you out, give you a couple of pills, everything's over, we wheel you into the car.LVT: I'm sure Bush has the power to bring me to the White House if he really wants to.PTA: But if Bush called you and said, "I want you to come to the White House, talk to me about what you're saying," would you go?LVT: Uh, no. [laughs] You?PTA: Absolutely. I heard that Clinton loved Boogie Nights, and that really made me excited. It made me like him very much. And then they actually requested a print of Magnolia.LVT: We sent Breaking the Waves, I think.PTA: To the White House?LVT: For Clinton, or his daughter, whatever. They just can't go down to a video store; it's just impossible--it's too far from the White House.PTA: I don't know though. Clinton used to like to get out of the White House a lot. He would take night trips to McDonald's, and stuff like that. I think he wanted to get out of the house.LVT: Compared to Bush, Clinton seemed like a good guy, right? He was playing saxophone.PTA: He was playing saxophone, he was chasing pussy, I mean that's the kind of president you'd like.BB: I want to ask the question, Paul: As an American, what does America mean to you?LVT: That's very good. Come on! No, what does Denmark mean to you? Oh, you have such a beautiful country, you have no big guns--PTA: --I love it, I love it, but there's not a whole lot of places I don't love. I'm pretty free with my love of the place. I grew up in California, and I love California, and for a long time it actually had a sensible sense of itself, until recently, with Arnold Schwarzenegger. And New York is remarkable in that, when I step off the plane, the first thing I notice is--yes, how fat everybody is--but I also notice that everybody is there, everybody is there.LVT: And what does that mean?PTA: It feels exciting, and it feels comfortable. I don't get a sense of American pride. I just get a sense that everyone is here, battling the same thing--that around the world everybody's after the same thing, just some minor piece of happiness each day.LVT: We can't disagree on that, of course, that's how it is.PTA: I was just in Croatia, and they have this great saying, "There's a different government on every street down here, there's 87 political parties." I feel the same thing about America. I'll rebel against powers and principalities, all the time. Always, I will.LVT: I am representing all the good things that American should be.PTA: [laughs]LVT: But saying that I know how your country could be a better place, as somebody who is not American, is the most provocative thing you can say, and why is that? It doesn't have so much to do with nationalism or borders; it has to do with politics and your basic idea of what you should do with human beings.PTA: Where did you get the title for Dogville?LVT: I spoke to Thomas Winterberg, to one of his colleagues, actually, and we were talking about concentration camps, and then it became America straight away [they laugh]. No, we were talking about how they managed to keep discipline and life going on in the concentration camp, and his theory, which I believe, is that they transformed people into animals. If they are animals, then they are much easier to control. It's very easy to make human beings into animals: let them be cruel, let them be anything--it's such a thin layer, and that was part of the strategy in the concentration camps. And then we talked about dogs, and I said the film had to be called "something-ville."PTA: So there are a few things.LVT: [laughs] Actually, quite a lot of things. But the strange thing is, in my situation--which you cannot put yourself in--I know so much about America. Eighty percent of my media, the media I see, has to do with America, 80 percent of the paper has to do with America in some way or another, 80 percent of the television, can you imagine that?PTA: Isn't it that way in most of the world?LVT: Yes it is, but that puts me in a situation where America is a part of me also, whether I want it or not or whether you want it or not--it is a part of me. And that's why I'm completely entitled to say whatever I want, because I've heard more about America than I've heard about Denmark, for Christ's sake!PTA: Beautiful.LVT: I watched Magnolia--actually to cast my own movie--but I liked it very much. It was kind of European, although now I don't like European films, either, because they are too American. It's very much a matter of taste, but it's very fulfilling when somebody dares to do what he thinks is most interesting, and I believe that is what happened with Magnolia. I think it is extremely important to please yourself.PTA: I can count on one hand, maybe both hands, people that I trust, and I feel that if I make a movie, I make it for myself, absolutely first. But there are people that I want to show it to, that I want to like it, but it's also okay if they don't like it, because they'll let me know why, and how, and for what reasons. And that feels good; that is in no way debilitating or hurtful--but if you can hold them in the palm of your hand--LVT: --To me it was very, very important to show the first film I did to Andrei Tarkovsky, and he hated it. [laughs] He thought it was a load of crap. The film was Element of Crime. He hated it, I tell you.BB: How did you feel?LVT: It was kind of like growing up. But you wouldn't respect him if he had said anything else. The problem about seeing films is that you have some very good directors that you admire very much, but everybody runs out of talent, everybody does. Or they die. Or both.PTA: Do you remember movies well? I never remember movies well, but I can remember the ones I love, and which meant something to me. I remember Breaking the Waves--I was in the middle of editing Boogie Nights, and I was by myself and it was a Sunday night, and when I saw it, it was really like the clouds opening up--suddenly the sun started to shine, as gray as that movie was. But I don't remember details of that movie.LVT: That is because what you like and what I like in a film is not a whole. We look at films differently than most people, and that's why we don't remember the whole thing properly. But I like, very much, some of the films that I didn't like when I saw them the first time.PTA: Like what?LVT: [Kubrick's] Barry Lyndon is still one of my favorite films, you know. It's a very strange film, but it's still monumental.PTA: When I saw it, I thought it was very serious, and then I saw it the second time, and I said, "This is fucking hilarious!" And I actually felt that way about Dogville, you know, "This is a fucking comedy, this is insane!" But it was almost like, that sort of bizarre relationship to a movie, when you completely don't understand it at first.LVT: I was talking to Nicole [Kidman] who had talked to Kubrick about it, and he didn't like Barry Lyndon at all. Of course. He told her it was too long.BB: He thought it was too long?LVT: Yeah, I mean come on--this last scene, where she's writing her name on this piece of paper, and it takes, I would say, half an hour, right? To write her name. So if he thought the film was too long, I could find one or two frames that could be cut out.PTA: Dee, dee dee dee dee, dee dee dee, dee dee dee [imitating music from Barry Lyndon]. Did you ever meet him? I ask that because I got to meet him. It was the first time that I met Nicole, actually. He really didn't like me very much until he realized that I had written the movie that I directed. And that's what made him go, okay, now I'll be nice to you. Like, if you're a director, get the fuck outta here, but if you're a writer, ahhhh.LVT: Another film that is very dear to me is The Deer Hunter.PTA: When did you see it? When it came out?LVT: I've seen it ten times.PTA: Really. What are the others? What else?LVT: There's a lot of old Italian films. Pasolini. Antonioni, of course. It all depends on when you become aware of film. I was ready around the time of this German period, with Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, but I was too late to be fascinated by the New French Wave. But it's very interesting, this question of when you are open to this--I don't think it's very many years, five years or something.BB: Do you have your Deer Hunter, Paul?PTA: Yeah, the first thing that comes to my mind is Jaws.LVT: Jaws! I've never seen that.PTA: Jaws was a big, big, big, big, big deal to me. My dad was in television in Los Angeles--he did voice-overs, so he was friends with all these technical guys, and really when it was possible to get a 3/4 inch VCR machine in your home, he taped The Wizard of Oz, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and he had a bootleg copy of Jaws. So those were the three movies that I was able to watch over and over. And the VCR was as big as this room, it was like a tank, and the tape was as big as a truck--and I would come home and watch every night, every day, Jaws, Monty Python, The Wizard of Oz. Then later, things happened here and there--like I was saying when I saw Breaking the Waves. And it was interesting because I felt confident enough that I didn't want to copy Breaking the Waves--I just felt, like, I'm allowed to do that. It was almost like it was OK to be that honest.LVT: You think Breaking the Waves was that honest?PTA: Don't tell me that! I don't need to know that, I don't want to know that! Shhh!LVT: No, it was made with good intentions, but honest, I wouldn't call it-- To me the story is very complicated because all these themes that are--as Baden-Powell was--forbidden in my home, all the things that were considered to be bad taste.PTA: What was forbidden in your home?LVT: Baden-Powell was forbidden in my home. He was the guy who decided that if soldiers could be disciplined, why not children? So this whole thing about religion and miracles, and blah, blah, blah--it was a boost of freedom to be able to be able to write this stuff. But I thought it was a very American film. [laughs] But I always do.PTA: That's why I liked it. Lars, have you finished writing this movie?LVT: Yes, it was written a long time ago.PTA: How long does it take you to write?LVT: Three weeks.BB: Wow, how long does it take you to write?PTA: Three years.LVT: Yeah, but I just don't look back. If you want to read the script, you're welcome. If you should cast it maybe you should read it. Because you love actors and have a better relationship with them, maybe.PTA: I think you secretly love actors.