Excerpts from Interview with Stellan and Lars about "Dogville"

December 22, 2003

It is almost midnight in Sydney when the phone rings, as arranged. "I am in my office," says Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. "We have this little studio in Copenhagen. It's a little after lunch, so I'm just having some coffee."

I tell him what time it is in Australia. "Is it that late?" he says. "What a strange place you live in."

Now that's ironic. With Zentropa (1991), Breaking The Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000), von Trier has established himself as the CEO of Strange Inc. A man who once said, "A film should be like a rock in the shoe," von Trier seems to inhabit a world where there is no middle ground whatsoever.

As a person, by all accounts, the 47-year-old is eccentric, neurotic and polyphobic. As a filmmaker, he is equally bizarre, which gives him an uncanny power to polarise. The Cannes Film Festival awarded Dancer in the Dark its Palme d'Or.

In Dogville, Kidman plays Grace, a mysterious, beautiful stranger who turns up in a tiny backwater in the Rocky Mountains. Fleeing from gunshots, Grace is warmly embraced by the townsfolk, until they turn and begin abusing her relentlessly. So she contemplates revenge. In other words, once again von Trier has written and directed a film about a woman who is strong and noble, but also a victim.

I had read that von Trier was making a trilogy of films about tragic women, beginning with Breaking The Waves, continuing with Dancer in the Dark and concluding with Dogville. When I ask about this, von Trier - who, according to another story, was born Lars Trier and adopted the "von" at film school - just laughs. "I want to make 100 films about tragic women," he says.

"No, the idea is to make three films with this character Grace and we're going to go along with that, but it's not going to be Nicole playing in the next two. She wants very much to do it and I want very much to have her in it, but we both have other [projects].

"I don't know when Lars changed his mind about the trilogy," says Stellan Skarsgård, a von Trier regular who co-stars in Dogville. "Or when he invented the new trilogy." With von Trier, it seems, the goalposts are on wheels.

"Now all three of these films are about Grace travelling around America," Skarsgård says.

This is controversial, too. Von Trier has a phobia about aircraft, and just about every other mode of transport, so he has never been to the US.

"It was great fun at a press conference in Cannes because an American journalist accused Lars of being anti-American," Skarsgård says. "Lars said, 'I've never been to America, so if the picture I give of America is not truthful, it's not my fault. It's just a mirror; this is the way America portrays itself to me.' "

Von Trier says the makers of Casablanca never went to Casablanca and that anti-American accusations have inspired him to make even more films set in the US. So now Dogville is part one of what he calls his U, S and A trilogy.

Another controversial aspect to Dogville is its style. To dub it minimalist is a heinous overstatement. It was shot on a single, blackened stage in Sweden where houses, shrubbery and even a dog were identified by nothing more than an outline painted on the floor. The result is a film that is much more theatrical (and specifically, Beckett-like) than cinematic.

"Lars's style of working has developed a lot," says Skarsgård. "He's much more extreme now. Back [on Breaking The Waves] we did each scene whatever way we wanted. This time we were shooting 360 degrees all the time. And Lars was carrying the camera, so it was just the actors and Lars on the set."

It must have been a demanding way to work, which is a von Trier trademark. After Dancer in the Dark, Bjork vowed never to act again. A pity, given her performance won the best actress award at Cannes, but so far she's kept her promise.

"As a movie actor, you're never in control because they can cut [edit] you better or worse," says Skarsgård. "But you always have the illusion that you have some control over your role. When you work with Lars, that illusion is gone - you know you don't have any control over your role."

"The way he works, he calls it sampling. That means that you actually work on the scene and see how far you can take it in different directions. So you do a scene totally different and several times. Then he cuts between all those different takes and composes it himself."

"When I'd done the rape scene a couple of times, he suddenly said to me 'Stellan, can't you play it as a romantic comedy?' And I said, 'Um, I'm not sure that's going to work, Lars, but I'll do it.' And, of course, it didn't work, but there were a few exchanges that were very interesting and he cut out just those two lines and put them in."

Does von Trier himself think he's a demanding director for actors? "That really depends on what their attitude is," he says. "If you're the kind of actor that starts by reading a script, then deciding how this character is going to be and what is going to happen, then I think you may be disappointed. In the way I'm working, it's very difficult for an actor to control where the film ends. It's playful, I would like to call it. And if you're interested in that, and Nicole was, and loved to do a scene over and over again and try different things, then I think it's a good experience. Otherwise," he laughs, "it can be a very tiresome experience, I'm sure."

Says Skarsgård: "There were so many confrontations between Bjork and Lars because for her entire life she's been in total control over her music and videos. Having two control freaks on the set is hard."

[Sydney Morning Herald]