An auteur is characterized by the idiosyncratic qualities that he or she is able to imprint on every project—a signature made of themes, symbolism, stylistic choices, and even specific actors as muses.
The notion of a director being the author of a film is by its very nature an individualistic concept in a highly collaborative art form. Although he is unquestionably an auteur, for Danish moviemaker Thomas Vinterberg, this theory has always been filtered through the years he spent living in a commune, as a child and a teenager, with his parents, and multiple other people. His commitment to depicting conflicts between individual and community emanates from that singular chapter in his life, and, likely, his need to define his identity when surrounded by many others.
Directly addressing those memories, Vinterberg’s most recent feature, appropriately and simply titled The Commune, is equal parts romantic drama, coming-of-age tale and an argument in defense of the emotional stability and trials that come from having a large group of people as an immediate support system. Not unlike his breakout Dogme 1995 hit The Celebration or the Oscar-nominated The Hunt, the central dilemma is challenging the group mentality that can easily become dangerous when unquestioned, whether it’s a family hiding a horrific secret, a town perpetuating a lie, or marriage suffering from a lack of intimacy in packed house. Though he admits that his best work is that which comes from a personal place and done in his homeland, Vinterberg believes that his ventures in international waters, most recently with Far from the Madding Crowd and the upcoming Kursk, are a breath of fresh air that revitalize him—at least for now.
Foregoing stock answers typical of a press tour, Vintegberg spoke candidly with MovieMaker from the house he grew up in and where many of the revelations, conflicts and unforgettable interactions that inform his storytelling took place. You can take the director out of the commune, but not the other way around.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did your experiences growing up in a commune shape the stories you are attracted to and how you tell them? Were there any lessons from that time that you carry with you today?
Thomas Vinterberg (TV): It shaped them a lot. Looking back at my life since the commune I’m finding out that I’ve been attracted to all sorts of parallels to my childhood. If you look at the themes of my movies they very often speculate on the individual against community and also, privately, being part of a film crew is like that. The Dogme movement is in many ways a very clear parallel to what my parents did back then like jumping off a cliff hand in hand doing something completely new, untried before, but yet together, which creates a fantastic energy and a sense of togetherness. My upbringing has denied a lot of what I do. Also, being a child in a house like this, which was also full of huge conflict, you have to learn to navigate the egos at a very close range. I found that interesting as a child, looking at the interviews before moving in and looking at how people sell themselves and then shortly after finding out what they really are [laughs]. I learned a lot of lessons from that. That’s very useful in my work with actors and in creating characters.
MM: Would you say that you have a directorial signature or that there is a connecting thread between your films? If so, what is it?
TV: When I talk to other people they feel that I have a signature, though maybe less so with Far From the Madding Crowd because it’s not my own original work. But in the films that I write myself that’s what people say. People look at me with a particular face and say, “That’s a Thomas Vinterberg movie.” I’m not sure what they mean, but I believe them. I’m leaving that to others to define what that is, but my attention goes to some places as all other directors, mine goes to family structures, communities, and character driven movies with specific elements in them. I guess, yes, I have a signature, and that signature is more invisible when I’m not doing my own scripts.
MM: In The Hunt you focused on a single character against a community, and in The Commune you have an ensemble each with their own worldviews. How did the level of difficulty change when writing the latter?
TV: The Commune was much more difficult to write. It’s obviously more difficult to navigate in having some many characters born in one go. I found that fascinating and interesting, but also really difficult. Going on one person’s journey, it was very much Mads Mikkelsen’s journey in The Hunt,” was easier. Making a film about a commune, I felt, “Wel,l we gotta live up to that. We gotta spread out. We gotta represent all of these characters’ journeys.” I enjoyed that.
MM: Walk me through your writing process. Do you develop each character first and then bring them together into a cohesive story, or do you work on all of them at once?
TV: I’ve written both The Hunt and The Commune with Tobias Lindholm, a writer-director who was Oscar-nominated last year for A War last year. What we do is try to define a thread to the movie with all the characters combined. We go through it once. We write it once and after that we take each character and mold that person. We give that person a journey. We write past and a future for this person. We do that separately for all them and then we put it all together again and see how it flows. We constantly construct and deconstruct all of these characters but also the whole. What we use most of our time doing is talking about “the film before the film”—characters’ pasts, where they come from, what the film will grow out of—so that the film is not just what you see on the screen, but that it has an opened crack into a life behind what you see on the screen.
MM: Both Trine Dyrholm and Ulrich Thomsen appeared in your breakout hit The Celebration (Festen). What was it like to work with them together again after nearly 20 years?
TV: It was fascinating. First of all I love them dearly, they are my friends. Secondly, they are fantastic actors. That aside, it’s also interesting to grow older together. That’s a very important theme of this movie: the loss of innocence. In my second movie, The Celebration, they were a young couple falling in love running away from the ruins of a family at the end of that film. Now here we are, our skin has grown older, a lot of things have happened, we’ve had children, we’ve gotten married and divorced. Now here we meet in the middle of life and. For me that was a fascinating experience it was like reaching a landmark both privately but also in the movie. It was interesting to be in front of them and feel a little heavier and more mature.
MM: The three films we’ve talked about—The Celebration, The Hunt, and The Commune—share themes and even similar scenes. Is this an unconscious reflection of your memories living with numerous people as a kid?
TV: When I did The Celebration, I felt, “Here is a film about a house full of mad people around a table accusing each other.” I’ve been in that situation many times in my childhood. I really enjoyed growing up in that house. For me it was a golden era that I miss dearly. Obviously, also full of conflict and internal wars on the house, but altogether it was beautiful. All those three films are very influenced by this way of growing up. My favorite situation at work is to make a scene around a table with people talking to each other.
MM: Some people say those scenes are the most difficult to shoot…
TV: Not for me. I enjoy it. My next film, after the French-American film that I’m doing now, will be a celebration of alcohol and there’ll be a lot of table situations. [Laughs]
MM: You’ve now gotten into a pattern where you make one Danish film and then one international film. Do you feel like you have to change the way you direct and think about a project depending on the setting?
TV: I feel relief from that. A lot of people around me encourage me to only do my own films, which I take as a compliment. And yes, I think when I did Far From the Madding Crowd my signature was less visible than when I do my own movies, but I get a great sense of relief and playfulness in just being a director, just working for hire, and doing someone else’s work. It’s a luxury for me to leave my country once in a while, it’s a very small country, and do other people’s work and do what I was taught at film school. I find great relief and satisfaction in that. Then I also find it even more satisfying coming back home, working with my friends and working on my own scripts. I’m enjoying that dynamic so far. At some point I’ll run out of time, my life is not gonna go on forever. So maybe I’ll have to start focusing more on my own stuff. I don’t know that yet. I’ll figure that out.
MM: Are there any difficulties for you today to finance or make films in Denmark? It’s difficult to think some of your films could be made in a box-office driven industry like the one in the US.
TV: It’s not a struggle for me to make films in Denmark. We are financed by the state here. Films have state support as an art form, which makes it possible to do films like those in the Dogme movement. You’d be able to finance that without that support. Imagine calling a Los Angeles banker and convincing to make a film about child abuse under the 10 Dogme rules. [Laughs] You can forget it. I can tell you specifically with The Hunt, I wanted that to be an American movie. I wanted that to be an out in the woods, close to Canada, American, English-language movie. It took me three phone calls to find out that there was no way I could convince anyone to finance a movie like that in America. Ironically, I’ve had several offers to make it into a TV series there. I feel very lucky being in a country where we have this support system in which is not necessary to show commercial value from the get-go. Quality is what’s being supported more than commerciality.
MM: In your experience, and thinking of what we see in your films, do you think humans are predestined to be individualist and selfish or can we thrive in more a communal environment? Some of the characters in The Commune suffer because they are not ready to completely give in to the group mentality.
TV: I don’t think you can generalize that. I think in the 1970s a lot of people were oppressed by and a lot of people were enjoyed the group thinking particularly in Scandinavia. In the ’80s we earned the right to be individual, to be private and even be selfish. Some people flourished under those circumstances. We are all different. I tend to be a lot more communal than some of my friends, but I’ve also seen people run over by living in a commune. There is no natural recipe. If you are willing to give, willing to share and if you are curious about other people then it’s definitely worth trying. A lot of people complain about loneliness and yet so many people live separately. Even couples live in their own apartments separately. I would recommend that a lot of these people buy a house and a box of beer and move in together. I regret something about the movie: It ends pretty dark. But I really miss living in a commune and recommend it. This movie says that you can survive everything if you are together. You can even survive the death of a child. They sit there around the table at the end and they are smiling and laughing because they are together. That’s the message I thought about when I made the movie. Obviously everybody sees it individually and there is a lot of pain toward the end of the film, but I have to say, I miss living like that. MM
The Commune is now in theaters in New York and Los Angeles and opens in additional select locations May 26, 2017, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.