By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Trier —who added the “von” to his name when he was still in film school — pours himself a glass of O.P. Anderson, a Swedish aquavit, and offers me one. “Peter Aalbaek’s father died with a stomach full of this,” he says, referring to his business partner at Zentropa Productions, Peter Aalbaek Jensen. “That’s why we drink it, in respect.”
Like most things Trier says, this is simultaneously sincere and sardonic. “Respect” isn’t a word one readily associates with the man described in the documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier as “an opponent of all forms of intellectual authority.” Dressed in a black T-shirt and loosely belted pants, a thin scarf wrapped around his throat, he might be a hip art-school teacher who shocks the locals with his radical politics and outrageous pronouncements. He has crooked teeth, pale skin, a pinched voice and — behind Brechtian wire frames — hooded blue eyes. He is known for his caustic wit. When Elton John thanked him for using his music in Breaking the Waves, Trier claimed to be so moved that “I almost took his wig off to wipe away my tears.”
“So what did you hope to gain by filming Dogvilleon a bare sound stage?” I ask.
“For the audience or for myself?”
“Well, first of all, this will not come as a surprise, but I do not care about the audience,” Trier says, folding his arms. “I am making a film that I would like to see. You know, it comes down to what is the right way to do it, and it’s difficult for me to analyze. What I hoped to gain was this feeling you have as a kid when you draw your house in the dirt and say, ‘I live in this fantastic house, and here is the extension and here is the kitchen . . .’ It was not to destroy anything, it was to do the opposite — to find this basic pleasure again. This is what I feel I would like to see.”
And how did a director known for putting his actresses through all nine circles of hell persuade Nicole Kidman to play the lead? (And for token pay, to boot.)
“First of all, she had expressed a will to be in a film of mine,” Trier answers. “This I took as very positive, because it’s so important that people who work together on a film want the same thing. I saw her in Eyes Wide Shut, and I thought she was very interesting, and that I would have liked to have seen the whole movie from her perspective rather than Tom Cruise’s. So I wrote a part for her, and then she said yes. And now we are making a film that she couldn’t do.”
Originally, Kidman was supposed to play the role of Grace in all three parts of the trilogy, but despite the promise she made to Trier at a Cannes press conference last year, their schedules didn’t mesh and both sides pulled out. Trier would have dearly loved to steal Hollywood’s biggest female star for three entire movies, but, in retrospect, he thinks it unlikely that Kidman’s handlers would have permitted it: Far too much money is at stake in her career to blow it on the Scandinavian avant-garde. Her replacement, Bryce Dallas Howard, is a virtual unknown, but in a way she too is Hollywood royalty, though Trier claims he didn’t know she was Ron Howard’s daughter when he signed her up.
“I wanted Nicole, basically,” he says, “but if we couldn’t get her, we should get something completely different. Bryce is very young, she’s 23, so that will be something different. The idea now — which is a very European idea, I think — is to have three different Graces, which will show the three different sides. Filmmaking is a lot of compromise, and I’m very good at being against the wall and then finding a way to benefit from a problem.”
Critics have referred to Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, Our Town, as an obvious precursor for Dogville, but Trier points instead to Bertolt Brecht’s Mahoganny (“O moon of Alabama . . .”). He also credits a minimalist British theatrical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, which he saw on Danish television in the 1970s, as an inspiration for the film. In fact, he seems much more taken with the stage than with the screen these days. “When I surf around with my television, I see where I stop,” he says. “I stop where there’s some theater, because everything else looks the same.”
At 48, Trier looks far more at ease with himself than his reputation as a Prozac-gobbling neurotic might suggest. (“It’s amazing how good Valium is!” he exults in the documentary Dogville Confessions — while driving a car, no less.) His parents, middle-class communist academics, raised him in ultraliberal fashion, leaving him to navigate childhood almost entirely without the benefit of rules. Everything, from when he should go to bed to whether he needed to see a dentist, was supposed to be up to him. Not surprisingly, he blames his multiple phobias, anxieties and panic attacks on the trauma this caused him. It may also explain his penchant, as a filmmaker, for drawing up rules — a tendency that comes to fruition in the forthcoming documentary The Five Obstructions, in which he instructs his fellow Dane, filmmaker Jørgen Leth, to remake Leth’s 12-minute movie The Perfect Human (1967) five different times, under five different sets of constraints.