Wagner Moments: DP Manuel Alberto Claro on Melancholia at Ten Years, Lars Von Trier and Depression
Melancholia premiered in Cannes ten years ago this month and was immediately overshadowed by the infamous press conference in which its provocative Danish director, Lars Von Trier, said “I am a Nazi.” Yet, as the film rolled out across the world, its visceral and moving portrayal of depression found its way into audiences’ hearts. It stands the test of time as a rare example of a beautiful film about mental illness. The equivocation of a realistic depiction of depression in Part One as it engulfs Justine (Kirsten Dunst) on her wedding day with the science-fiction concept of the world ending in Part Two as the blue planet Melancholia moves towards Earth lends the perspective of the depressive a spectacular integrity.
Manuel Alberto Claro is a Chilean-Danish cinematographer who worked with Lars Von Trier for the first time on Melancholia. He has since become a loyal collaborator, shooting Nymphomaniac and The House That Jack Built. We speak before he heads off to work on season three of The Kingdom, a mini-series that Von Trier created for Danish TV in the ’90s. There is a month left of shooting and he is not allowed to talk about it until the premiere in a year, he anticipates. Yet, around everything to do with Melancholia he is charmingly open. We talk about creating the iconic images—Wagner moments—that form the film’s opening, balancing visual splendor with character intrigue, drinking on location and how everybody worries about Lars Von Trier.
Filmmaker: Thank you for agreeing to talk to me about Melancholia, It’s the most powerful film about depression I’ve ever seen, because it’s so immersive. Did Lars talk to you about how to create that feeling? How did he convey his ideas to you?
Claro: We knew that it was a portrait of depression, but it wasn’t something that we discussed specifically—I would say it’s built into the material. He talked a lot about how people who are depressed normally, suddenly, when a critical situation happens they become the rational ones while rational people panic. This is a portrayal of how depressed people know that the world is going down, so they react much more rationally when it happens. I remember talking about that.
Filmmaker: So how did he frame it to you? Because watching it feels so much like depression and the doom feeling of the world ending. What kind of direction did he give you around the visuals?
Claro: Lars is super specific about certain things, then completely open about other things. For the end shot and other more iconic shots he would be very specific, but he’s not specific about how to solve a scene. He’s very much open to whatever happens with the actors and the whole situation. So, some things are completely given beforehand, storyboarded in detail, and other things like dialogue scenes are completely open. Then of course, we have found the location we have. He was very specific about the whole opening sequence and we had found this incredible castle mansion. He really loved this mix between this castle, that reminded him of Last Year in Marienbad, and I think the golf course had some references to one Antonioni movie. We are within this tradition of exploring human existence and loneliness and detachment. But we didn’t go more specifically into it. He’s not a big fan of explaining what he does. It’s a very intuitive process, finding the right locations and casting the right people, and everybody brings to the table whatever they feel is correct for the material.
Filmmaker: Of these iconic images, there are so many really striking ones. Can you talk me through where they came from?
Claro: What I would call iconic images—he would call them Wagner moments—most came from him. I interpreted some of the ideas but the main ideas came from him. Some of them are inspired by other paintings. Some of them are inspired by… I think he envisioned them in his sleep, in his I don’t know what! What he was saying about the opening of the film is that because Kirsten Dunst’s character has this ability to see things, she knows in advance what’s going to happen, so these are her visions. We see the whole film through her visions. That was the idea, or what he said at least. And I guess Kirsten Dunst is a portrayal of himself. Some of the images have quite specific references, others are more abstract ideas that came to him from a mix of stuff. He’s a quite cultivated person, so he has a huge library in his brain of books and art and philosophy.
Filmmaker: What was it like to set some of those images up, for example, when she’s in her wedding dress and pulling against… is it roots from the tree that are coming out of the earth?
Claro: Yeah, it’s actually just wool. He was very specific, that’s what he wanted. And then you can interpret it as roots from the trees, or branches, or whatever is holding you back. I don’t know where that came from. The shot set-up was very straightforward. We found the spot. [With] computers, there was some extra wool added. But we shot the wool in the foreground layer. It was fun. We had a huge wind machine, we even used a helicopter to blow some wind. We had a helicopter because of other aerial shots with the horses, so we used the helicopter as a wind machine. Everything was blowing away, so I don’t think it was very practical!
Filmmaker: What about one of the Wagner moments, the classic Ophelia shot where Dunst is lying in the water?
Claro: Yeah, that’s, of course, a reference to this Pre-Raphaelite painting by Millais. I think the reference is pretty clear. Ophelia is from Hamlet and she goes crazy. It was an image that Lars loved. That shot was also very straightforward. They built this tank, Kirsten was lying on her back in the water and that’s it. The big thing is that we shot it at maybe around 1000 frames per second, so it’s super, super slow motion.
Filmmaker: Another shot that stayed with me is Kirsten bathing naked in the light of the impending apocalypse. How did you create that image?
Claro: I’m happy you mentioned that shot, because we had found a location that I was not happy with for the scene. For me this scene is the actual sex scene of the movie—or maybe sex scene is a bad word but the love scene. She’s kind of making love to the planet. With the help of Google Maps, I found this stone next to this little stream. It felt like a place where you could go and sit and watch the stars. I liked that. We did some post-production work in the wide shot: a bit of fog on the water to create a little more atmosphere. We hadn’t storyboarded that sequence, because it wasn’t really using effects, and Lars was not that specific about that moment, but it turned out to be an interesting or a great moment. I think. I was very happy with how it came out.
Filmmaker: What other images or sequences really stand out in your memory?
Claro: It’s a movie that is full of visually stunning stuff and I have gotten a lot of credit for this movie, a lot of people say, “Oh, it’s a beautiful movie and it’s beautifully shot,” and I say “Thank you so much.” But honestly, when I read the script, it was already there. Sometimes you read a script, and you have a feeling: “Okay, this is going to be cinematography candy. You have a big wedding, you have a castle that’s pretty spectacular, the world is going down, there’s a planet.” There’s so many elements that are visually strong already and on top of that, I felt that this could become a really great movie. It’s a little bit like winning the lottery that you get offered a script that has all these elements. To be honest, you really had to be a crappy cinematographer to fuck it up because it’s so full of candy. Our biggest concern, I remember, when we were shooting the movie, or my biggest concern, was I was afraid it was going to become too beautiful. What I see sometimes in some movies is that the imagery is more interested in the locations, or the dresses, or whatever the space is, than the characters. My concern that there was so much beautiful stuff to look at that, would you lose interest in what’s really going on? So, I was very concerned with trying to be with the characters.
Filmmaker: Be with them in the sense that sometimes you’re so physically close to them?
Claro: Yeah, I would say interested in their problems, not interested in the setting so much. When you have a setting that is so spectacular, often you fall in love with the setting, instead of falling in love with the characters. I think this film is well balanced and it came out really well and people like it so, it’s great. But it is a very aesthetic movie
Filmmaker: It feels like the visuals are an extension of the characters. It doesn’t feel like they’re separate.
Claro: Yeah, and that’s the ambition of any movie, I would say, at least from my point of view.
Filmmaker: When you read the script and were worried that maybe it would tip over into being a cold, aesthetic film, what did you do to address that worry?
Claro: The camera would be moving a lot, documentary-style, [among] the faces, just not paying too much attention to the spaces. I felt that even though maybe you hardly see them, you still feel that this is a very posh expensive setting. Then there were of course moments where Lars was very specific: “For this sequence. I know we’re gonna have music. I want wide shots, this is gonna be a small montage of the wider shots.”
Filmmaker: I read an interview with Lars von Trier where he said that everyone was drunk during the making of Melancholia. Is that an exaggeration or is that true?
Claro: It’s not completely false, no! I was not drunk. It was my first time working with him, so I was a little nervous, so I didn’t drink. But there was a lot of drinking. I wouldn’t say a lot of drinking on the set, but a lot of drinking, because we shot this movie in the countryside in Sweden and we were all staying in the same hotel in the countryside. There was nowhere really to go, so there was a lot of socializing that involved some alcohol.
Filmmaker: Different directors do different things to try and bond the cast and crew. Was there anything in particular, either before shooting began or during shooting, that Von Trier did to try to build relationships, or none of that?
Claro: Nothing like that, except, the fact that we stayed all together in the same place. He’s a very sensitive person, very sensitive to energies. So, he’s very concerned that there should be a good atmosphere on the set. He’s an incredibly fun and warm person on the set. Also, his sense of humor is a little strange. You need a very trustful environment to be able to joke the way Lars jokes, because his jokes could easily be misinterpreted. Of course, there’s pressure, because they’re relatively big films and Lars is also an auteur, so he does things his way and everybody needs to respect that. But it’s hard to work with him if you don’t really love his work and he’s also super loyal. Most of the people who work with him are people who have known him for many, many, many years. I’m definitely one of the new ones.
Filmmaker: Is he emotionally open? Because in interviews, he’s really open about what he goes through and the fact that he has depressive episodes. Is he like that in person as well, or does he flick a different switch?
Claro: No, no, he’s super open. He’s very open and very honest about his situation, and it can be pretty painful to see him when he has a hard time, but he’s never personal or aggressive. He’s always very generous with his problems! One of his strengths as an artist is that he knows his stuff. I mean, a lot of people know about depression, but there are very few who can translate it into something that makes sense for everybody else. So, he has access to something that is very unique, and on top of that he’s able to control a film set, which is also a different kind of skill. Very few people get the chance to do these kinds of movies. Luckily in Europe, there are still art movies. Funding still exists and you support an auteur, because if you would put it into a commercial [context], I think it would be very very hard to finance.
Filmmaker: I read an interview he gave to The Guardian in 2018 and could feel how worried about him the journalist was. Do you worry about him?
Claro: Yes, I do because he is a very fragile person. But so many people worry about him that it’s a little bit, “Get in the line of worry.” I’m just happy he’s around and doing amazing stuff. In every project I’ve worked with him, he says, “This is my last movie.” And you think, “Oh, that is possible.” I don’t know anybody else in the world in his condition who can do these kinds of projects, because he is objectively not well.
Filmmaker: Since when has he been saying that it’s his last film?
Claro: I think he’s probably been saying that for most of his life. I don’t think that he means it literally. Actually, he hasn’t been saying it on this project. But he said it on Nymphomaniac, he said it on The House That Jack Built and I’m pretty sure he said it on Melancholia as well. For him, it’s a little bit a way of saying, “I’m not saving anything for later. When I do a project, I want to go all the way, because I’m not saving anything for later. I’m not saving anything for ‘Oh, maybe I’ll put that in another movie.’” He said, “If I have anything on my mind, I’ll make sure it comes out now.” I think that’s more what he means when he says it’s my last movie. Although he’s probably also worried about himself physically and mentally.
Filmmaker: Talk me through designing the look of the planet Melancholia, please.
Claro: I guess any science fiction movie has these issues: for people to relate to anything they have to, on some level, know it. If it’s a complete abstraction, then it’s very hard to connect. We did a lot of tests and designed the planet in different ways with different colors. We ended up making it look pretty much like the moon, because everybody knows how the moon looks, because they see it in the sky and you can connect with the idea that the moon is somehow coming closer. We gave it a slightly different color than the moon but I would say it looks very much like the moon even though, as I remember, Melancholia is a gas planet.
Filmmaker: What other colors did you try before landing on blue?
Claro: We tried orange and red. In the very beginning when you see Melancholia, it is just a small dot, it’s actually red—I don’t remember the explanation for why it was red in the beginning and then became blue. I guess the color also comes from the light. So the cold color, that’s the sun hitting it and it’s a little bit colder, more bluish than the moon. We have this shot where you see the moon and Melancholia and they’re kind of equal. As I remember, we used a blue gel on the light that came from Melancholia and a more neutral light from the moon. But they were relatively close to each other color wise. When you design something that doesn’t exist, you’re always a little bit stuck with something that you know. It’s all based on our ideas of how things look.
Filmmaker: One final blue thing is the cast you have on your hand now. What happened?
Claro: I had this crazy, stupid kitchen accident. I cut myself really badly.
Filmmaker: And that’s not interfering with you being able to shoot?
Claro: It is, so I’m having an operator operating the camera now. I’m just sitting next to Lars behind the monitor these days.