Lars Von Trier, The Boss Of It All
Lars von Trier, the enfant terrible of world cinema, is always looking for the next thing to surprise or wrongfoot audiences. He made only three features in the first decade of his career, and though The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987), and Zentropa (1991) were all critical successes that ably demonstrated von Trier’s cinematic gifts, it is since then that he has truly excelled. In this period, not only has he founded the revolutionary Dogme 95 movement, but completed the Gold Hearted trilogy – made up of Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dancer (2000) – and made the first two parts of his American trilogy, Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005). All of these have been provocative, emotionally intense and technically innovative movies, cinema which has challenged the norm and polarized opinion. Though hailed as one of the saviors of modern cinema, von Trier often seems more comfortable in his self-assigned role as villain, and reports of brutal, bullying treatment of his leading ladies (Björk and Nicole Kidman, in particular) have only compounded this image.
All of this makes The Boss of It All, his latest film, all the more surprising. Though flashes were visible in The Idiots, this is the first time we see von Trier’s subversive, almost zany, sense of humor really come to the fore. Ravn (Peter Ganzler), the head of an IT firm, has always told his staff that there was a mysterious, absent boss so that when difficult decisions needed to be made, he could put the blame on someone else. However when he wants to sell the company, he is required to get this shadowy CEO to appear and sign away the firm, and must get an unemployed actor, Stoffer (Jens Albinus), to play what becomes the role of a lifetime. The film deals with sex, power, and manipulation – all trademark von Trier themes – and is shot with Automavision, an innovation in which the camera angles, movements, etc. are selected by a computer, yet The Boss of It All is first and foremost a playful, affectionate and riotously funny film about office politics.
Filmmaker spoke to von Trier about the recent reports of depression crippling his creativity, classic Hollywood comedies, and killing film critics with a hammer.
Filmmaker: A story broke about 10 days ago that you were suffering from depression.
von Trier: I have had a depression for the first time in my life, which was kind of strange, but I’m coming out now. I’m on my way, but it seems it takes some time before you’re really back into [it]. I’ve always done 10 things at the same time, but now it takes some time to get the fascination back for a project. It will come, and it is coming, but slowly.
Filmmaker: So is your next project, Antichrist, still going to happen?
von Trier: Oh, yes, Antichrist, I’m working on it. It just takes, instead of one day, two days to get a good idea. But I think I have to accept that as part of life.
Filmmaker: It’s like working at a normal pace, rather than your usual pace.
von Trier: I’m trying to be a normal person. I’m working on it. I feel good, but I just need more time to write a script. I think I wrote the script for The Idiots in four days, so now it will be four months.
Filmmaker: How did you react to this story about your depression blowing up into something so big?
von Trier: I think that my problem is that whenever I talk to a journalist it’s difficult for me to have an agenda, and also if he asks me, “How are you?”, then I have to tell him, “Well, I had this depression…” This is what I’d tell any person. I’ve done that with my anxieties too, I’ve talked about them, which of course must be tiresome for a reader or a journalist, but that’s the way I deal with things. I tell people how things really are. I think maybe the fact that I allow myself to tell anybody that I had a depression is maybe what causes the mistake that the story will always be blown up. I’m not especially interested that anybody should write about how I am, but doing an interview is like talking to a person, and then I tell [them] how things are. It’s difficult for me not to do that, but maybe stupid. I don’t know.
Filmmaker: It seems ironic that your depression came just after you’d finished The Boss of It All, which is probably the happiest and most upbeat film you’ve ever made.
von Trier: Yeah, you don’t know why these things happen. I have a theory that at a certain point, when you’re fainting, that is when the body has enough. You faint, and then you kind of have a time out for the body to readjust. I think that it’s maybe a little bit the same with the anxiety, when it comes to a point where it’s too much. I think the depression comes in and kind of claims a couple of months. You know, what I found out is that you can’t be depressed and have anxiety at the same time, it’s either or. I talked to a lot of people after this who have had depression, and they all agreed that it takes some time, even if you’re out of it and you’re much happier – and I’m happy for many things – for the focus to come back. They actually say it takes about double the time of the depression. I had three months of depression, so it will take six months. Well, I can enjoy my freedom for another month!
Filmmaker: I think people are surprised by The Boss of It All, because it’s not what they expect from a Lars von Trier film. But do you feel like it’s radically different from your previous films?
von Trier: I think it’s quite close to some of the stuff we worked with in The Kingdom [von Trier’s surreal 90s hospital TV show], but my aim for this film was to do The Shop Around the Corner. Or something like that, a light thing that should be very simple in the structure but hopefully should still have some of the qualities that The Shop Around the Corner has. I’m not talking about sentimentality so much, I’m talking about a certain kind of comedy mood that you will find also in The Philadelphia Story, or films like that.
Filmmaker: It’s the most traditional film you’ve ever made.
von Trier: Yeah, yeah, but that’s because it is some kind of a homage to these films. Especially the ones that are not sort of corny, so you say “Ha, ha, ha!” all the time, but just is carried by a story and a mood, which I like very much. Also Bringing Up Baby I remember, and The Odd Couple was also fantastic – but that was maybe more ha-ha. There are actually some of these films that are kind of moody, but still funny so you laugh all the time.
Filmmaker: I don’t think those would be films that people would expect you to like.
von Trier: But it is films like that that I will see again and again. It’s like hearing pop music. We were taught in film school that The Shop Around the Corner was the best film in the world. So, I listened a little!
Filmmaker: You have Jean-Marc Barr and Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, both of whom are directors, acting in this film, and you gave Jørgen Leth filmmaking tasks for The Five Obstructions. Do you particularly like directing directors?
von Trier: [laughs] Jean-Marc was there because he’s always there, only to come up and say hello. He’s the godfather of my two boys. Fridrik is just a crazy guy that everybody when they read the script said he [the grim Icelandic businessman] should look like him. I don’t think he really has acted before, not very much. I think he’s very Icelandic, very authentic. It’s actually very far from his own personality to shout, because he’s always very funny and most of the time very drunk at festivals. But he actually had to work a lot to find out how to yell. I don’t think he’d ever tried it.
Filmmaker: You’ve said before that “A film should be like a rock in the shoe”, but this doesn’t really feel like that.
von Trier: No. So maybe it’s not a film. It’s a tiny rock, if it is. But I still tried with the images to destroy somehow for everybody.
Filmmaker: Where did the idea for Automavision come from, and how easy was it to implement?
von Trier: Earlier in my career, I worked with a lot of very complicated tracking and craning, and at a certain point I had enough of that. If you are a perfectionist, which we all are at some point, then you have go on and do this better and better and better, but you can never control it. You can get 70% of your idea, you can get 80, you can get close to 100, but you can’t really say “This is it.” So I was so happy when the trend said it should be handheld camera, because that suited me very well. Here the only principle I use, especially when I film myself, is that I just point the camera in the direction of where something interesting is happening. After doing all this framing, I was very anti-framing for a long time. And then I found out that this computer system could help me not to frame, even though I had a fixed camera.
Filmmaker: I think you stop noticing the odd framing very early on, and it just becomes part of the film.
von Trier: I think what surprises me in a positive way is that you actually see the film differently because you have to look for the [characters]. In a normal film, you will know exactly where the next person would be in the frame because you know all these framing rules. Here you actually have to look around; it might take a split second, but you still have to work a little harder.
Filmmaker: It’s a little like your set in Dogville, where the viewer has to imagine the town. You seem to like pushing the viewer that bit further.
von Trier: Yeah, but not just to push somebody. I think that there’s potential in the viewer that we very often do not challenge or do not use at all. I think that there could be people that see wonderful mountains in Dogville, much more wonderful than I could ever produce. I’m not saying that’s something that happened in Dogville, but the technique of using the spectator’s mind much, much more is something in films that we are doing very, very little of today.
Filmmaker: What do you think of the state of America at the moment? You say you’re 60% American, so does this mean you might finally go there?
von Trier: [laughs] I can’t do that because I don’t fly, or sail, but I would love to go to America. There are a lot of places that I’d love to visit. Isn’t there somewhere where you can go over the ice, from Asia or something like that?
Filmmaker: Maybe you could make a Werner Herzog-style documentary about taking that journey!
von Trier: Oh, yes, Werner Herzog. But he’s not afraid of flying. I talked to him a couple of times, and he wants to be in [one of my films]. So maybe I can have another director to direct. I was a big fan of his, especially his earlier films that he made in Germany. They were really very inspiring to me.
Filmmaker: Can you tell me about your contribution to the film Chacun Son Cinéma, which is commemorating the 60 years of the Cannes film festival?
von Trier: It’s just a little joke. It’s the opening of Manderlay in Cannes, and I’m sitting next to this guy who’s writing for a tiny fictitious French paper called ‘On the Sunny Side,’ and he’s writing a review on the film, and he’s obviously bored. Then he tells me about all the cars he owns, and how rich he is, and all these things. It’s called Occupations, the film. So, at a certain point, he says, “So what do you do?” Then I take out this very strange hammer we have in the Danish building business, and I say, “I kill.” And then I kill him. It is as stupid as it sounds.
Filmmaker: If you could travel back in time and be able to make movies in a time and place of your choice, where and when would it be?
von Trier: It would probably be in the Soviet Union, back in the time when Tarkovsky made films. That is for me a very romantic period, even though I know it was painful for the people there. Somehow when I see The Mirror by Tarkovsky, I dream of the studios and the colors and the depression.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you burst into tears on set?
von Trier: Bryce Dallas Howard [in Manderlay] was incredible at crying, she had a fantastic technique to cry. You could start her crying and stop her crying. That was not me crying, but it was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve actually worked with a lot of actresses who are good at crying, but this was so fantastic. She was really a cryer. But I probably cried from anger with Björk, I’m sure. Yeah, I remember that I cried one time – I just gave up completely. I said to her, “You win.” I don’t know what that meant, but probably that the film would be off.
Filmmaker: Finally, who’s the most famous person in your cell phone?
von Trier: I believe it’s Nicole [Kidman], actually.
Filmmaker: Do you speak a lot?
von Trier: No, but I write her some emails sometimes. It’s probably not her phone number anymore, and she doesn’t appear as “Nicole Kidman.”
Filmmaker: So if it’s stolen, it’d still be OK.
von Trier: Yeah, I think so. Or else I think I would get a hell of time explaining to her!