Zentropa producer Louise Vesth, who is busy readying Lars von Trier’s controversial Nymphomaniac, as well as kicking off a new series of crime thrillers with The Keeper Of Lost Causes, speaks to Wendy Mitchell.

Louise Vesth, a 12-year veteran at Zentropa Films, has her hands full at the moment. She has Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac in post; she has finished shooting The Keeper Of Lost Causes, the first feature of the Department Q crime thriller series with the second planned for later this year; and she has a busy slate in development. Plus she is one of the producers of Oscar nominated A Royal Affair.

Each film provides the 39-year-old producer with a different set of challenges. “The balance between the new audience and the new film-makers and the big established film-makers, that really suits me,” she says. “I like the big films - from a professional point of view they are really challenging. Yet I also really want to work with a new generation.”

One such challenge was pulling together all the financing for a film like Nymphomaniac, which had controversial subject matter for starters, and an even-more-controversial-than-usual director in von Trier, who had caused an international stir in Cannes 2011 with his remarks about Nazis at the press conference for Melancholia (the film that marked Vesth’s first time producing von Trier).

Bringing Nymphomaniac to life

“The challenge was that we came from the press conference and we went directly into the financing of this, and I was really curious if that would be a problem,” she recalls. “But it seemed like everybody kind of found out the meaning behind the words eventually… It harmed a lot in the month around Cannes, and it was really tough for Lars, but all the financiers for Nymphomaniac found their way around it.”

The film’s many financiers include the Danish Film Institute, NRW and ARTE.

During her interview with Screen in December, Vesth noted that wrapping Nymphomaniac’s shoot had been a big weight off her shoulders. “It was a relief to get everybody home in good shape,” she notes. The film shot on location in Ghent and Cologne, with a few weeks of studio shooting in Germany.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Shia LaBeouf, Willem Dafoe, Uma Thurman, Udo Kier and Jamie Bell are among the cast in the eight-chapter story about a woman’s sexual life from birth to age 50.

Vesth says: “Lars doesn’t explain his films but it’s clear for everybody that when he makes a film about a woman’s sexuality from birth until 50, he’s going to challenge the way we look at sexuality, being a man or a woman and what is allowed and how do you see it if a man does it and a woman does it. And about all these struggles as a human being with what is nature and what is civilisation. The film reflects every single topic this man has cared about.”

She says too much fuss has been made about the explicit nature of the film. “After all that’s been written about the explicit sex, people will see the film and say, ‘Was that it?’ There are other things in this film that are much harder,” she says, pointing to the lead character’s troubled psychology.

‘When Lars von Trier makes a film about a woman’s sexuality from birth until 50, he’s going to challenge the way we look at sexuality’

Louise Vesth, Zentropa

“The cast didn’t have to do their explicit sex [scenes], we had a lot of body doubles. What we intend to do is like when you make dinosaurs in visual effects, of course you can also make sexual visual-effects. So we can take the lower parts of the body from the body-double scenes and computerise it into the lower of parts of the cast, so it will look like it’s their body, but it isn’t,” she explains.

The film may or may not be ready in time for Cannes, because it will involve multiple versions. “It is written as one piece but in two volumes and eight chapters,” Vesth explains. “So Lars liked the idea that you are able to split the film if you want to. There’s nothing wrong with it as one piece, but it’s written so it can be shown as two volumes.” The full version will be up to four hours.

“And then we have to talk about the censorship, with these two volumes we maybe also need two versions of that. We rely on our financing and there will be [territories] where explicit sex is not possible.” (TrustNordisk has pre-sold Nymphomaniac widely.)

A new department

It is not just working with one of the world’s leading auteurs that excites Vesth. “I am really keen on looking for what is next. Where are we heading, how can we change the processes of making films? How can we keep a good audience for local stuff? How can we avoid that everything will just be big blockbusters?” she says.

One newer voice she is working with is Mikkel Norgaard, who is directing The Keeper Of Lost Causes, based on the first in the series of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s thriller series of novels about Department Q, a Copenhagen police unit that handles cold cases. Norgaard, who she met while they both attended the National Film School of Denmark, previously worked on box-office hit Klown and TV smash hit Borgen. Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) wrote the script.

Nikolaj Lie Kaas will take the lead role of investigator Carl Morck, who with another detective (played by Fares Fares) investigates a case of a woman missing for five years, leading them to a psychopathic killer.

“We have seen a lot of [Scandinavian crime] lately but for me, it’s a challenge to make a series of films that is not only a thriller but also maybe a more dramatic angle on the suspense,” Vesth notes. “It is doing what we’re really, really good at - developing strong characters and then making a psychological drama with the suspense.”

She also praises the books’ “humour combined with something rough and raw”. But the films will be “beautifully made”. “We have [optioned] the four books that are out and the author is preparing for 10 books, so it’s about making a strong series.” (Again, TrustNordisk handles sales.)

That first film recently wrapped its nine-week shoot in Denmark and Germany. The second film, adapted from the book The Absent One, is set to shoot in autumn 2013.

The Zentropa family

Vesth got her big break on a family film - she was studying economics when she met Zentropa producer Ib Tardini, who asked her to help with his busy slate by jointly producing Wallah Be, which went on to win the Grand Prix in the Berlinale’s family film section in 2003.

“In the first years I was really into children’s films and youth films, to make good-quality features to reach that audience. They are the people we will rely on in the future,” Vesth says.

She also has a drama in development with Christian E Christiansen, whose credits include US thriller The Roommate. The pair previously made Oscar-nominated short At Night.

And of course, there will be whatever von Trier cooks up next. “One day, Lars will open the door into his office and say, ‘I have an idea.’”

“He wants to shake the world, the way we see things, and try to put them upside down.”

Vesth says working with him is “very easy”. “He is really demanding in the way that he knows what he wants and what is good enough. What makes it easy is that he is really aware of the process and with the financing and what is possible.”

She confirms that von Trier no longer wants to speak about his work, after the debacle in Cannes 2011. “It is too hard on him… He only wants to talk through his films now.”

She has no desire to leave the fold at Zentropa, which was founded by von Trier and Peter Aalbaek Jensen in 1992. “It is a great place and if you are working as a producer in Europe, there are only so many places that are big enough to facilitate the big international productions. I started [my career] at the place I want to stop, so I guess I’ll just grow older and older and have more dust on my shoes here.”