Interview with Stellan about Lars Von Trier - The Great Dane

December 26, 2003

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Stellan as "Chuck" in Dogville

When Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård first visited Lars Von Trier at his home, the diminutive Danish director introduced himself in his usual distinctive manner: "I don't like to touch people," he said.

Skarsgård, who towers over Von Trier, promptly embraced him. The renegade filmmaker was nonplussed - and then delighted. He cast Skarsgård in Breaking the Waves, the first of three films they have made together.

"I've kept on hugging him, too," Skarsgård says. "He's getting better."

Talking to EG from a hotel room in Rome, Skarsgård is discussing his latest venture with Von Trier, the stark and pointed drama Dogville, which also stars Nicole Kidman. A morality fable that offers a critique of American values, the film is set in a small Rocky Mountains town during the Depression.

When Kidman's character Grace arrives in Dogville seeking sanctuary, the handful of residents grant it grudgingly, only to gradually exploit her efforts to become a viable citizen, first through forced labour and then sexually.

In typically perverse fashion, Von Trier has never been to the United States because of a fear of flying. But for Skarsgård there was no choice about whether he would be a part of his friend's latest film.

"I'm interested in whatever Lars does," he says. "I was in Paris collecting a lot of European film awards for Lars for Dancer in the Dark, and when we were on the phone afterwards I said, 'Lars, you're getting too commercial'. He told me, 'Don't worry, I'm writing a film that no one will want to see and I'm writing a line for you right now'."

That is the kind of pronouncement Von Trier specialises in: a pre-emptive challenge. His films divide audiences and his personality inspires either great loyalty or enmity from those who walk on to his sets. Skarsgård  is definitely in the former camp, and says Von Trier is not as ideologically fierce as his reputation has it.

"In Scandinavia, we know a lot more about the beautiful sense of humour he has," says Skarsgård  who, like many, was a fan of The Kingdom, Von Trier's impishly surreal 1994 TV series. "We don't perceive him as darkly as people who are only familiar with his latter films."

Having co-authored Dogme 95, a back-to-basics manifesto that called on filmmakers to strip away artifice by using hand-held cameras, natural light and by shooting on location, Von Trier has changed tack with Dogville. The film was shot on a darkened soundstage with chalk outlines on the floor to mark the walls and a few props for the actors to work with.

For Skarsgård, a veteran of Swedish theatre, it was a familiar sight, albeit one that required a different approach.

"The moment I stepped onto that stage I felt like I'd stepped back onto a theatre stage and you get that little extra kick in your spine and the adrenalin rush because you want to fill that space with your presence," he says. "But in film you have to do the opposite, you have to be intimate.

"Theatre helped in that you were used to working without props, without a door - you're used to the sparseness. It's just the actors and the text."

While Skarsgård was aware of this in advance, having seen models of the set, many of the ensemble cast were not clear on what they were getting themselves into. Alongside Kidman, Von Trier forged an eclectic group of actors, ranging from Hollywood royalty (Lauren Bacall and James Caan) to young graduates of the independent scene (Chloe Sevigny and Jeremy Davies). Skarsgård offered them some simple advice: "I told them to give up, relax and have fun."

The actors had to get used to Von Trier's shooting methods, an intimate procedure where the use of 45-minute digital video cassettes meant that scenes could evolve at the director's will.

"You can try different things, stop a take halfway through to have a discussion, you can just stop and go back and do a line several times," says Skarsgård, who appreciates the creative freedom it gives him.

"You can do whatever you want, but that can be frightening for some actors. A lot of actors prepare in a very exact manner and they have a firm idea about their character and how that character would react in any situation.

"That's an illusion of control that actors have in a normal film - Lars takes that away from you. With Lars it's happening, you investigate the scene, you find out just what can be squeezed out of it."

In a controlled environment, and without the cost of film to consider, Von Trier was able to shoot reams of footage to give himself maximum choice in the editing suite. At one point, after several takes of an emotionally taxing set-up where Skarsgård's character forces himself on Grace, the director suggested that the scene could be played as romantic comedy.

"It was funny, but it didn't work," Skarsgård recalls. "But a few lines were subsequently useful."

The contrast between Von Trier and the Hollywood studio system, which Skarsgård  has become involved with since his role in Good Will Hunting, could not be more pronounced.

Skarsgård is promoting Dogville in his spare time on the set of Exorcist: The Beginning, a prequel to the seminal horror film by director Paul Schrader (Auto Focus) that is being reshot by Renny Harlin (Die Hard II).

"There's a new script, extra cast members," says Skarsgård. "My first reaction was that we were digging up an old corpse, but essentially it's a whole new film.

"The stupid side of filmmaking is getting more annoying - they give you too many marks to hit and too many restrictions because of the lights and camera. The most important thing in a scene is the acting and that's been forgotten."

With Von Trier, Skarsgård says, "you just act, which is great". The director even set up a confessional booth, complete with video camera, so that his cast could record their observations or vent their frustrations.

"I had great fun on Dogville," Skarsgård says, "but if you were depressed or drunk at four in the morning, it was easy to just go to confession."

Of course, there's no surprise about who ultimately heard these outbursts. "Lars has all the tapes."

[The Age]