Dogme co-founder Thomas Vinterberg talks to Andreas Wiseman about his next film, The Formula; his recent departure from Nimbus Film; the state of Danish cinema and his collaboration with Lars von Trier.
Maverick writer-director Thomas Vinterberg has to-date enjoyed a somewhat tumultuous career. After achieving widespread critical success with Dogme hit Festen, Vinterberg directed two US-set English language features: sci-fi love story It’s All About Love starring Joaquin Phoenix and Claire Danes and the Lars von Trier-scripted Dear Wendy, neither of which were able to match Festen’s acclaim. Vinterberg returned to his Scandinavian roots with 2007 comedy When A Man Comes Home and 2009 Golden Bear-nominated drama Submarino. Sandwiched between these was a well-received Metallica music video, The Day That Never Comes.
While presiding over the jury of the recent Les Arcs European Film Festival in France, Vinterberg took time out to discuss his next film, a Swedish-language revenge-drama currently titled The Formula. Based on real case studies recorded across Europe during the ’90s the film is due to shoot in Sweden in early spring 2011.
Vinterberg is re-teaming with Zentropa producer Sisse Graum Jorgensen on his first feature apart from long-time production company Nimbus Film, while regional funds Film I Vast of Sweden and FilmFyn of Denmark, as well as the Nordic Film and TV Fund and the Swedish Film Institute, are expected to contribute to the estimated $4.6m (€3.5m) budget.
What is the plot and subject of your new film?
It’s a Nordic film, partly inspired by Fanny And Alexander, partly by my previous work. I’ve been writing it for four-five months with the co-writer of Submarino, Tobias Lindholm. We’ve written a story that deals with the idea of thought as a virus; it’s about how lies become true and how a small society can unravel from one small fracture. One wrong word can mark you for life in this community, as it can today, in a globalised sense, with the internet and other forms of mass communication. It will take place during Christmas and it will be centred on a community of hunters. But it’s not the Disney version of Christmas!
It’s a large cast and I’m very happy with the script. I only delivered it a few weeks ago so we’re very busy. I’m in a hurry as I want to shoot it before the snow melts. I’m hoping to shoot in mid-March so we’ll have to finance a lot faster than we normally do.
On Submarino you successfully employed a large number of non-professional actors. Will you be adopting the same approach with The Formula?
I’m not sure. When I go to Sweden I don’t know any of the actors, unlike in Denmark where I see the same faces all the time. I need to be exploring new talent. For that particular story [Submarino] it was needed. For my next film there is a chance of going for highly trained actors but it just depends who is available. We hired a casting agent a few weeks ago and the whole thing will be designed around the main character. Everything is fitted around him, but we haven’t found him yet.
What was the creative motivation for moving away from Nimbus Film?
I was part of the ownership and we did a lot of business together, but we didn’t do very well. We had been together since film school, but thought it was the right time to diverge. We simply needed a break. I really respect Nimbus; there is no conflict. We all just needed fresh air. It was the classic thing when everything changes in one’s life. I got divorced from them, from my wife and my financial situation fell apart. Everything fell apart. It was a natural break, a fresh start. And I’m really happy with what I’ve been doing over the last couple of years.
Have you signed up for a couple of films with Zentropa?
No. We’re not married, we’re not engaged, we’re on a date and we’ll see how it goes.
A couple of years ago you said Danish cinema was in crisis. There seem to be a lot of strong young directors coming through now. What is your take on Danish cinema today?
Well, when I said that Danish cinema was in crisis I said more. I didn’t feel it was in crisis so much as in a very vulnerable position after a great success. It had to redefine itself. It was almost a more interesting time than being part of the success - it was more naked, more vulnerable, and that’s when people try things. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they succeed. I think at the moment Danish cinema is doing well. I’m seeing some really good films, but where it’s going to go I have no idea. It’s a very small country, so there’s always the possibility of us disappearing. We have to be strong and I hope that’s what is happening now.
To what extent is your style of filmmaking still influenced by Dogme?
I desperately moved away from Dogme after Festen and I was left in space, floating around, trying to navigate. Festen was a completion of many things. It was the end of the road, it was as far as I could go into what I am doing. It is so much of where I’m coming from. That left me in a situation where I had to experiment, find wholly new directions which were very painful but also exciting. Having done all that, and having destroyed my career several times over, I’m now free to do what I want again. Making Submarino and writing this new script is me being back at what I was doing before the bomb exploded in my face. I’m beginning to enjoy it again. I feel like I’m doing the kinds of films I was doing even before Festen, back at film school. My graduation film was the best I’ve ever done.
Do you prefer to work in Danish?
No. I’m working in Danish because the stories I’m writing now seem to be in Danish, or Swedish. But actually I’m reading a lot of stuff from London. I go back and forth to London all the time. I would love to live and work there. I’ve met some fantastic scriptwriters and visited plenty of companies.
It’s always the story first, whatever the salary, location, language, conditions. If there’s a story that makes me feel that something is at stake, that I’m on thin ice, that I’m doing something important and courageous, I’ll do it.
Is Lars von Trier working on your new project?
No. We meet and tease each other and play a bit but he hasn’t read my script as he’s very busy editing his own film. We’re not planning any imminent projects together. We did ten years together and Dear Wendy was the completion of our collaboration - a kind of film-making intercourse. It was a great finalisation of a formal companionship. But we still hang out, as I do with a lot of my Danish colleagues. That’s the thing about Denmark: we read each other’s scripts and see each other’s cuts and help each other. We’ve seen each other naked. That’s our strength. We can take our clothes off and there’s still loyalty and companionship. In that sense we do still collaborate but not formally.
You spent a couple of years in US. Do you see yourself staying in Europe for a while?
Yes, I’m going to stay closer to Copenhagen for the moment. There’s not much happening for me [in the US]. My feeling is that the independent world is really suffering in the US. Rumour says that some of my heroes can’t even be financed. If that’s the condition in America I have no place there. If I was to make a film there I should make a US film, on their conditions. That would be another ballgame. Work for hire. Be a hired gun. That would be fun. But it’s not happening at the moment.