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Confessions of a Gun-Crazy Hippie

Confessions of a Gun-Crazy Hippie

Articles - Directing

Vinterberg (on right) collaborates with fellow Dane Lars von Trier on Dear Wendy.

If you happen to glance through the legendary moviemaking-manifesto-cum-mischievous-prank known as “Dogme 95,” you’ll notice a stipulation that specifies that Dogme films “must not contain superficial action.” There’s a particular emphasis on one point in particular: No firearms.

You wonder what the younger Thomas Vinterberg, Danish moviemaker and co-author of the infamous Dogme “vow of chastity,” would think of the current Vinterberg’s latest movie. Granted, the director who in 1998 gave the world The Celebration—the first film to bear the group’s certificate of approval—has long since abandoned the strict guidelines. His follow-up, It’s All About Love (2003), was a dystopic sci-fi film that took place in the future. It featured artificial cinematic tricks and even credited Vinterberg as the “creator” (all Dogme no-nos).

But Dear Wendy, Vinterberg’s latest, is a black comedy that revolves around guns and the people who love them. While this parable about an alienated youth (Jamie Bell) who forms a peculiarly pacifistic gun club is a satire of America’s obsession with weaponry, the Hollywood-style firefight that ends the movie would have had the folks who demanded that cinema be purified of such excesses pulling their hair out by the roots.

The 36-year-old Dane, however, doesn’t worry about such things anymore. He’s moved on, as has his partner in crime, Lars von Trier, who has also abandoned the stripped-down Dogme approach. (Von Trier penned Dear Wendy’s script and had planned to direct it himself until he became obsessed with a trilogy on America. The project was then passed to his friend, who was instructed to “breathe life into it.”)

That’s exactly what Vinterberg has done. He’s turned what could have been a cantankerous diatribe on the self-destructive love that firearms inspire into a sly dig on how good intentions can become corrupted by power. Hearing that the man who vowed to help stamp out gratuitous violence has crafted a film that’s rife with bullet holes and squib wounds seems like a mismatch, but the end result makes you wonder who else could have produced such a sure-shot satire.

“(Dogme) almost became a brand name. It lost its innocence, its purity, any sense of purpose. You could get Dogme furniture in my country! They would just slap it on anything to make it seem ‘edgy.’”

David Fear (MM): How did this collaboration between you and Lars von Trier come about? He was supposed to direct Dear Wendy, right?

Thomas Vinterberg (TV): He’d written the script and had planned on directing it, yeah. Then he became obsessed with drawing white lines on black floors, so… (laughs)

MM: That’s the funniest description of Dogville I’ve ever heard.

TV: I can say that because we’re friends and I respect him immensely. Our connection obviously goes back a long way… There’s a very communal mindset among the small circle of filmmakers working in Copenhagen. We watch each other’s movies, read each other’s scripts and give each other advice. But when he decided he wanted to do the trilogy, he was adamant that I do Dear Wendy.

MM: Why, exactly?

TV: I’d asked him, ‘Lars, honestly, what do you think I can bring to this project? Why me?’ And he said, “You can bring life to it.” Meaning that I’d probably go a more realistic and less theatrical route than he would have gone, and that’s what he wanted for the movie. He’d written a very philosophical, morally correct—and politically incorrect—story about the allure of guns, and within that I saw a touching story about youth and alienation… trying to create a sense of belonging outside of society’s normal parameters. So I became very intrigued by it.

MM: But there’s still a large amount of Dogville-like theatricality in the film, and the scenes of the street diagrams in the town are textbook von Trier. Did you feel you had to keep a lot of his aesthetic ideas in the film?

TV: It wasn’t out of obligation… Scenes like that worked beautifully as is, so there wasn’t any reason to change them. Given the fact that Lars has never set foot in America—he’s only giving his interpretation of it—I wanted to keep a certain amount of artificiality there. I could have shot in an actual small town in the States to give it a sense of reality, but that somehow seemed even more false to the script. I wanted to maintain that theatricality, but also ground it a bit more.

The script was much along the lines of Dogville—very Brechtian. I wanted to keep some of that intact, but I was also interested in looking at what makes a man fall in love with a gun! (laughs)

It’s funny. People have pointed out that there are some similarities between Dear Wendy and Dogville. Mostly, however, they just automatically label them both anti-American, which I don’t understand, really. Neither I nor Lars is anti-American. This is the country that gave us Sean Penn! And I don’t think that the NRA or Bush’s foreign policy represents what your country is about. The moment that fear, a greed for power or an unhealthy dose of national pride comes into play, things have a tendency to curdle and fall apart. That obviously doesn’t just apply to one country or another—it goes for everybody. But the film is not a tirade against your nation. It’s a satire in the most classic sense of the word and deals with certain notions in a humorous manner.

MM: What do you think is the most difficult aspect of making a satirical film?

Chris Owen stars in Thomas Vinterberg’s Dear Wendy.

TV: It’s making sure your point is made and yet still keeping it fun. That’s a difficult balance. Sarcasm is only valuable if it has an element of humor around it. I am, by nature, a sentimental fool and I come from a more naive perspective. I don’t normally toy around with ironic, sharp considerations, so doing a film like this was a learning experience from day one. But I think that, when it’s done right, there isn’t a better way of dealing with a social issue like gun control than by making it the subject of a satire.

MM: The protagonist, Dick, claims that he’s a “gun-loving pacificist.” Given how the film ends, do you think it’s possible to be both a gun lover and a pacifist?

TV: I do. I think that the film posits that this experiment the Dandies are conducting might have worked if things like jealousy and insecurity wouldn’t have intervened.

MM: But aren’t those things part of human nature?

TV: Hmm… Yes. So it would only work in theory, I guess. I do support the regulation of firearms. Not a total ban, mind you, but there need to be limits. There are too many wrong hands out there. I’ll admit, in researching and making this film, I did fall a little in love with guns. They are beautiful pieces of machinery. But I have gone back to my hippie-ish, left-wing ways now. (laughs)

MM: Can you talk about the use of voiceover narration? It’s essential to the story, although it seems to violate one of the cardinal rules of moviemaking.

TV: Which is exactly why we used it so much! There’s a misconception that voiceovers always signal a failure to do one’s job as a storyteller, and that’s a notion we’re keen on breaking. It can create a distancing effect, but I wanted to let people into the main character’s thoughts. We actually cut some of the voiceover out, but yeah, it’s still wall-to-wall narration. (laughs) I like it, though. Some of my favorite films—Apocalypse Now, Barry Lyndon, a few of Scorsese’s films—have a lot of narration. The worst part of using it, unfortunately, is it gives you too many choices. You have the option of endlessly reworking it right up until the week before it’s released.

MM: I imagine you’re probably sick of talking about the Dogme ’95 manifesto. Didn’t you declare it “dead” at one point?

TV: I’ve probably done over 1,000 interviews about it over the last 10 years… I think I answered 600 questions on Dogme in the first year alone! No, I’m always happy to talk about it. And yes, I said it was dead in a French newspaper in the late ’90s.

There was a period where I thought this thing we thought up was ultimately dead. It had been drawn up as an alternative to what was out there… a way of cutting through the crap. But then it almost became a brand name. It lost its innocence, its purity, any sense of purpose. You could get Dogme furniture in my country! They would just slap it on anything to make it seem “edgy.”

But the moment I declared it dead, there was this huge backlash against me from these people who were still following the rules. I realized it was only dead for me. It became selfish for me to say it was over just because I no longer felt it was vital. So the “brethren” convinced me that we should embrace its legacy and make it widely available. You can download the certificate off the Internet now. It’s up to the individual director now to determine if their movie meets the Dogme ’95 standards. It’s made me look at the whole concept with fresh eyes.

MM: Considering that The Celebration helped make films shot on digital video seem more acceptable to people, how do you feel about the format 10 years later?

Jamie Bell as Dick and Danso Gordon as Sebastian in Dear Wendy.

TV: I think the major turning points in the history of art often happen by accident… The last thing that I’d planned on doing was spearheading a revolution, which is what some people have said I’ve done. Ironically, the original Dogme ’95 rules stated that you had to use Academy 35mm film. But none of us could afford it! (laughs) We had to use [digital] out of necessity. After that, however, we all became interested in exploring what the format could do expressively.

The way the imagery in The Celebration seems to disintegrate mirrors the family that’s falling apart, and some of the scenes look like impressionist paintings that blur so beautifully. Now, in Copenhagen, almost everybody shoots digital, and it’s sad. There’s no warmth; everything is too sharp and the daylight is too bright. It’s superseded film because of cost, but look what we’ve lost!

Luckily, technology is coming to the point where you’ll be able to duplicate the textural feel of celluloid imagery soon. We shot Dear Wendy on HD and it’s pretty close to what we’d have if we shot on 35mm. The camera, of course, was as big as a house—and we had to go through hell later on to make it. But I think there’s a great aesthetic you can capture with digital video, and I wouldn’t rule out using it again.

MM: Do you think you’d ever try making another film according to “the rules?”

TV: You never know. I was just starting to figure out what my artistic voice was when this hand grenade called Dogme went off and changed my life. I felt like I’ve been trying to go back to that early period of discovery before I was interrupted. But yeah, I wouldn’t rule it out. Maybe for the 20th anniversary I’ll go back to my Dogme roots and start all over again! MM

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