DOGVILLE: TEASING AMERICA
Lars von Trier opens up his heart and soul in this personal deconstruction of his controversial and confronting film, Dogville, explaining why he no longer throws rocks at US embassies but teases America instead – and why Nicole Kidman impressed him.
Two things inspired me to write “Dogville”. First of all, I went to Cannes with “Dancer in the Dark” and I was criticized by some American journalists for making a film about the USA without ever having been there. This provoked me because, as far as I can recall, they never went to Casablanca when they made “Casablanca”. I thought that was unfair so I decided then and there that I would make more films that take place in America. That was one thing.
Then I was listening to “Pirate Jenny”, the song by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill from “The Threepenny Opera”. It’s a very powerful song and it has a revenge theme that I liked very much. The film needed to be set in an isolated place because “Pirate Jenny” takes place in an isolated town. I decided that Dogville would be in the Rocky Mountains because if you have never been there, that sounds fantastic. What mountains aren’t rocky? Does that mean these ones are particularly rocky? It sounds like a name you might invent for a fairytale. And I decided that it would take place during the Depression because I thought that would provide the right atmosphere.
The old, black and white US government photographs taken during the Depression were certainly inspiring, but I never entertained the idea of making the film in black and white. It’s another way of putting a filter between you and the audience, another way of stylising. If you’re making a film where you go ‘strange’ in one direction (you only have outlines of houses on the floor, for instance) then everything else should be ‘normal’. If you put too many layers on, it takes the audience further and further away from the film. It’s important not to do too many things at the same time or you scare people away. I work a bit like people do in a lab, I experiment. When you’re making an experiment, it’s important not to change more than one factor at a time.
I’ve been told that Americans might be reminded of “Our Town” and someone gave me the Wilder play to read while we were filming. I don’t think, however, that there are any similarities in the story. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t inspired by anything, of course I was. I was inspired, for example, by some of the televised plays I saw in the seventies, and in particular, by the Royal Shakespeare Company production of “Nicholas Nickleby”. It was extremely stylised, with audience participation and all these very seventies things, but when you see it today, it still works very well. In general, I was inspired by the fact that I miss theatre on television. It was very popular when I was young. They’d take a piece from the theatre and put it in other surroundings or it was very abstract sometimes. I’m not so crazy about theatre in the theatre but on television or on film, it’s really something you want to see.
I was also inspired to a degree by Bertolt Brecht and his kind of very simple, pared-down theatre. My theory is that you forget very quickly that there are no houses or whatever. This makes you invent the town for yourself but more importantly, it makes you zoom in on the people. The houses are not there so you can’t be distracted by them and the audience doesn’t miss them after a time because of this agreement you have with them that they will never arrive.
What do I say to those who say it’s not cinema? I say they might be right. But of course I wouldn’t say that it’s ‘anti-cinema’ either. At the beginning of my career, I made very ‘filmic’ films. The problem is that now, it has become too easy – all you have to do is buy a computer and you have filmic. You have armies rampaging over mountains, you have dragons. You just push a button. I think it was okay to be filmic when, for instance, Kubrick had to wait two months for the light on the mountain behind Barry Lyndon when he was riding towards us. I think that was great. But if you only have to wait two seconds and then some kid with a computer fills it in… It’s another art form, I’m sure, but I’m not interested. I don’t see armies going over mountains, I only see some youngster with a computer saying, “Let’s do this a little more tastefully, let’s put some shadows in, let’s bleach the colours out a little”. It’s extremely well done and it doesn’t move me at all. It feels like manipulation to a degree that I don’t want to be manipulated.
Maybe it’s because I’m older now. When I was younger, I probably would have thought all this computer-generated stuff was fantastic. Now that I’m older, I have to be stubborn. That’s why I started going back to the old virtues and the old values. If you’re stubborn enough, then anything can have its own aesthetic. There’s a limit to how nice a film should look. If it looks too nice, I throw up. I actually see it a little bit like watching a magician. When a magician does little things with coins for instance, you’re completely fascinated. But when he moves the Eiffel Tower then you say, “So what?”
"from my point of view"
“Dogville” takes place in America but it’s only America as seen from my point of view. I haven’t restricted myself in the sense that I said, ‘Now I have to research this and this and this’. It’s not a scientific film and it’s not a historical film. It’s an emotional film. Yes, it’s about the United States but it’s also about any small town anywhere in the world.
I wrote the script in Danish but I asked the English translator to try to keep the Danish language in somehow, not to make it too perfect. That’s my Kafka thing, I suppose – I’d like to keep this foreign eye. I’d be interested, for example, to see a film about Denmark by someone who had never been there. A Japanese person, for instance, or an American. This person would then be a mirror of what Denmark stood for without ever actually having been there. In my ‘American’ films, I mirror what information comes to me and my feelings about that information.
Of course, it isn’t the truth because I’ve never been there (although I must say, I am better informed about the USA than the people who made “Casablanca” were about Casablanca). Obviously, a Japanese person making a film about Denmark wouldn’t have the same kind of information at his fingertips that I have because 90% of what you see on Danish television is American productions, but then he’d have to do some research and that, for me, would make it an interesting film.
In addition to the countless American programmes on Danish television, there is also a lot of news because America is the biggest power in the world. There’s a lot of criticism, too. In my youth, we had some big demonstrations against the World Bank and the Vietnam War and we all turned out to throw rocks at embassies. Well, at one embassy… But I don’t throw rocks anymore. Now I just tease.
I learned when I was very small that if you are strong, you also have to be just and good, and that’s not something you see in America at all. I like the individual Americans I know very much, but this is more of an image of a country I do not know but that I have a feeling about. I don’t think that Americans are more evil than others but then again, I don’t see them as less evil than the bandit states Mr Bush has been talking so much about. I think that people are more or less the same everywhere. What can I say about America? Power corrupts. And that’s a fact. Then again, since they are so powerful, it’s okay to tease because I can’t harm America, right?
"that is dangerous"
The idea behind Grace’s treatment at the hands of the townspeople was that if you present yourself to others as a gift, then that is dangerous. The power that this gives people over the individual corrupts them. If you give yourself away, it will never work. You have to have some limits. I think that the people of Dogville were okay until Grace came along, just as I’m sure that America would a beautiful, beautiful country if there were nothing there but millionaires playing golf. It would be a wonderful, peaceful society but that’s not how it is, as far as I’m told. There are unfortunately a lot of losers there, too.
When you invent characters you take somebody you know and put them in new situations. So the people of Dogville are all Danes, they’re actually real people. You then take yourself - your own character - and you split it up between the two or three people who more or less carry the story (in this case, Tom and Grace). I can defend all of the characters in the film but Grace and Tom are the ones who portray me to some degree.
Does this mean that I see myself in Tom? Oh, yes. Very often people start off with very good intentions, especially artists, but then they themselves become more and more important and their cause recedes into the background. Sometimes, they lose sight of it completely.
So I’d say that Tom, to a certain extent, is a self-portrait. It’s not very nice and it’s not very flattering but I suppose it comes close to the truth. He tries so hard and he never gets the girl…He’s the only one who doesn’t get the girl… And Grace is not a heroine by any means. She’s a human being with the best intentions but she’s still a human being. I suppose I can understand that people might interpret some of what I do as martyring women but I would say that these characters are not so much females as they are a part of me. It’s very interesting to work with women. They do my character well. I think that they portray me in a good way and I can relate to them.
I know that some people think that I don’t like women but obviously that’s not true – it’s men I have problems with. It’s like the problem you have if you’re a deer. The old buck with the long antlers has all the females gathered around him and he has a hell of a job keeping the youngsters away. They all try to piss up against him, just a little bit, you know, to make their mark. For some reason, in my little environment, everyone is allowed to piss on me. Which is fine, of course, but it’s tiring…I’m looking around all the time, saying, “Okay, who did that!?” as another youngster comes to piss on my back. And that’s my problem with men. The women don’t do that. Then again, if you can handle the constant pissing, you can have wonderful relationships with other males.
"a black floor with actors on it"
Nicole said that she wanted to work with me and I wrote the part of Grace for her - or rather, for the image I had of her. I found out that she’s a very, very good actor. It was interesting to take someone who had mostly done these colder characters and to let her do something else. And of course it’s intriguing to take a Hollywood film star and put her in a film like this. It might give us a different audience than we otherwise would have had, so long as they are not scared away by the fact that there’s nothing but a black floor with actors on it…
I’m best with actors when they trust me and sometimes this trust is hard to get. I’m not sure why I need it. Maybe it’s because I don’t trust myself? Nicole gave me her trust immediately which I thought was great. Paul Bettany did, too, but of course because he’s a man, it was a little harder to get
there… He is very good. I suppose there is a temptation to continue to work with the people you already know you can trust but it is also fun to work with new people.
I always wanted to work with Ben Gazzara. He was a hero for me because of “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” among other films. Lauren Bacall was actually suggested by the casting director; she really was chosen for her abilities and not because she’s Lauren Bacall. James Caan is, of course, a wonderful actor and yes, I suppose there is a gangster thing attached to him from “The Godfather” but mainly, he’s a very good actor.
“Dogville” is, above all, a film and as a film, I’m satisfied with the form and the content and the acting. I know it’s not hip-hop, but I’m quite proud that I’m not, in my mind, as old as I feel.
Published January 1, 2003
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Lars von Trier