Interview by film critic Sheila Benson

In re: Breaking the Waves - 1997

A French photographer is taking forever to shoot Emily Watson, down in the garden of the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, so with time pressing, Stellan Skarsgård, her co-star, begins without her.

The two stars have been pressed into service to speak about their experiences making "Breaking the Waves" in place of the film's director, Lars von Trier, because von Trier, 40, suffers from every kind of phobia, including traveling. At the film's first notable screening (Cannes in the spring of 1996), it even prevented the director from accepting the award when his film won the Grand Jury Prize.

If there is any shock in meeting Skarsgård and Watson, it's how tall they both are. It goes contrary to the norm-on-screen - she looks tiny, yet she's tall and he's far taller still. Skarsgård is definitely the old hand of the two at interviews; at home in Sweden he has starred in more than 40 films. Watson, whose experience before "Breaking the Waves" was with England's Royal Shakespeare Company, is still new enough to the interview process that she says whatever is on her mind.

Skarsgård is droll, with a wonderfully funny, utterly self-deprecating manner. Watson is a clown, who puts on other voices for amusement and to ward off boredom. Together they're irresistible, so comfortable with one another that they finish each other's sentences, with a light, lovely, teasing manner.

Q: Why did Lars von Trier want you for this film?

STELLAN: I don't know. The strange thing is, he said to me that he had never seen a film of mine, which makes him probably the only one in Scandinavia. I'm not sure he's telling the truth, but that's what he said. The producer approached me and I liked the script immediately. So I met with Trier, and we liked each other, so it was very simple.

Q: Von Trier is Norwegian, or Swedish?

STELLAN: He's Danish from Copenhagen. And we did half the film in Copenhagen, and all the interiors are made on sound stage in Copenhagen.

Q: Doesn't von Trier have a feeling about traveling?

STELLAN: Yeah, He definitely doesn't fly. He doesn't like traveling at all; he's got a lot of things that he's afraid of. He's extremely brave as a filmmaker, but he's generally afraid: afraid of dying, he's hypochondriac, he's afraid of traveling, he's afraid of going by air, by boat, by train, everything. He's 40 years old.

Q: Has he tried to work on it at all?

STELLAN: He was actually on his way to Cannes for the festival, and he spent a month and a half to get with a psychologist to prepare for the journey. Then he went down to the station and embarked the train, and the train was one of those modern ones where you can't open the windows. So he went off immediately. And then he rented a car and started driving down, and came down mid-Germany before he couldn't continue any more and turned back. He's very complicated. But at the same time, he is extremely intelligent, hyper-sensitive, and he's a very loving and good man.

Q: When you were shooting in Scotland, how did he get there?

STELLAN: Well, he drove down to Calais and sat there and waited for good weather. And then he took the boat over to Dover, sitting on the top deck with a life jacket on. So he managed to get over.

Q: To you, what is "Breaking the Waves" about?

STELLAN: Love. Trier says it's about good as well. He says, "I've made four films about evil; this is my first film about good." And it is to me; the first time I read it, I fell in love with it and I said, "Finally, a script about love. Finally, a love story I can relate to that is not just the regular bullshit." But it's not a love story in a realistic way, talking about the problems you have when you're in love and trying to get the right girl and that kind of stuff. It's a more mythological kind of love, or love of divine proportions, like a fairy tale love. But it's the ideal love, really, the way love could be, and not often is.

Q: Well, Emily and Jan's brief time together before his accident is so glowing with love and with sex. It's so different from commonplace films in that regard.

STELLAN: Yeah, and the scenes are not beautiful. There's no vanity in it. I think we succeeded to bring this pure, crystal clear love to those scenes. I mean, it's shot in an ugly way, those dresses and clothes we have from the '70s are terribly ugly. And there is nothing beautiful about their sex scenes. I mean,it's clumsy. But they have a warmth, I think, that makes them true.

Q: And, of course, it opens such doors for Bess, doors that she never even thought about before.

STELLAN: Yeah, definitely. Emily has a wonderful way of putting it. She says that usually sex scenes are about being sexy. And you work out to be fit for doing those sex scenes and they photograph you in a beautiful way to make the scene sexy. And sex is not sexy in that sense, she says. And she says every woman knows what it was like the first time, and it's usually a very ridiculous thing. And the first time you see a naked man, it makes you laugh. Because it looks more fun than sexy, actually. And,of course it does. But if you don't concentrate on the depth of the feelings in a sex scene-but concentrate on the sex of it-then you're lost, because a sex scene doesn't look like it feels. The movements are so ridiculous.

Q: How many people were in the room? Was Robby Müller [the cinematographer] there?

STELLAN: No. We were always shooting 360 degrees and we were allowed to walk wherever we wanted in the room, so it could only be the cameraman and us in the room. Robby was watching it on video. And Lars was sitting in his trailer ashore. Actually, we had it video-linked to him. So he watched a television what we were doing out there, and he was cooking spaghetti and was out on the Net surfing. So that was what he was doing. And we were out there freezing.

(Emily Watson joins) (Ironically) We were out there suffering for our art.

STELLAN: Suffering and risking our lives.

EMILY: Too bloody right, mate.

Q: So who directed this?

STELLAN: Von Trier did.

EMILY: From a distance.

STELLAN: But I mean, it's very much Trier's film.

Q: Yeah, but what sort of things would he say?

STELLAN: Do it again, he would say.

EMILY: Be happier.

STELLAN: And do it different, or be happier or have more fun.

Q: Is he a multiple-take director?

STELLAN: Yes, but this was a very special way to work because we could do whatever we wanted, and we always took the scene, like, five or six times-from A to Zed-and in different ways. So he got well covered. And then he picks what he wants and makes the film on the editing table. But it gave us quite an amount of freedom.

Q: Had you ever worked with anybody who's worked that way before?

STELLAN: Never.

EMILY: And also, well, I found you kind of discover more about the scene each time, and things could get dangerous and exciting after a while, or boring, depending on how it went. But by the time you'd done the scene from beginning to end four times, and you don't have to repeat anything and there's no marks to hit, no continuity. There's, you know, a real freedom.

Q: Because of the great moving around of the camera, did you also get a chance to bend the lines a little bit, or was he a stickler for keeping it exactly as he wrote it?

STELLAN: We could do whatever we wanted. But we had a read-through before we started and sort of talked through the script, threw out some stuff that we didn't like and put in some new stuff. But we could do what we wanted.

EMILY: We changed some bits, yeah.

STELLAN: But he really wanted us to do just what we wanted, and was very, very, very open to suggestions and changes. But the script is so good, so there was no need to change it very much. And the structure of the script is wonderful. It's not a kind of a small-talk story, so you can't improvise in this sometimes very boring realistic way where they, you know "Hi, how are you doing, yeah, great, I'll have another." All that nonsense talk. Because in a way, many of the lines are sort of what do you say, chiseled in stone?

EMILY: Also, it's like a kind of spiritual epic, and you don't chat about one thing or another. It's kind of just on another level. Everything is full of meaning.

Q: I asked Stellan this already, so let me ask you. What do you think the movie is about?

EMILY: I think it's about a lot of things. It's about love, faith, about examining your motives, selflessness, selfishness, good. But it doesn't answer its own questions. It provokes a lot of things, and does a lot of crazy things, and kind of elevates itself into this mythic level. But it doesn't have a credo. It's not one line through the film which is what this is saying. You know, it's very ambiguous.

Q: What do you believe Jan [Skarsgård's character] tells you to do after he's hurt?

EMILY: Bess thinks that if she goes and sleeps with other men and then tells Jan about it, he'll get better She thinks she's healing him.

Q: What evidence does she have to believe that?

EMILY: It's because it's what he's told her to do.

Q: (To Skarsgård) Do you think that's what he told her to do?

STELLAN: That's what I've told her to do, but that is not my intention. My intention is to set her free, to make her find someone else and forget me. But it's a very stupid way to do it. At first, Bess has this idea that just telling him will make him feel better and become better. But then later, it seems like just doing it, the sacrifice will get him better.

EMILY: She says we have a spiritual contact. And it becomes more and more extreme in her head; sleeping with someone else is like giving Jan life. And she does. She says to [the character] Dodo, have you been in to see Jan today? And she says, yeah, how is he, better? Oh he's better, right? That means it's working.

Q: And Dodo doesn't know.

EMILY: And Dodo's also said to her, why don't you try listening to him, doing what he says, and Bess thinks, yeah, OK, I will. Little does Dodo know. I mean, it's just the most awful combination of misunderstandings, really. And everybody's trying to look after Bess's best interests.

Q: You'd never done a film before. This was quite a baptism.

EMILY: This film had difficulties. But most actors and actresses in films, in sex scenes, they kind of act sexily, and it's all about titillation and turning you on. And in this, it's like this girl just sees a naked man for the first time in her life and laughs her head off because it's really funny. And it's so honest. People are so neurotic and complex about sex. And just to see a film where somebody has a totally shameless reaction and doesn't know what's going on, it's such a different way of looking at it. I think it's really refreshing.

Q: Where do you think they get these complexes? Do you think possibly it could come from movies?

EMILY: Most certainly, yeah.

Q: And from the expectations that movies give us about what this is really going to be like.

EMILY: Probably most kids these days Š their perception of what sex is going to be like is what they get from the movies, isn't it?

STELLAN: Yeah, probably.

Q: And, what else is there about Bess?

EMILY: She has a kind of an infinite capacity to love and doesn't have that sort of voice in her head that says "stop." So when she loves, she just loves and loves and loves. And she's like someone with no skin in a way. She doesn't stop, and her faith is very strong. And she has a logic. She has a kind of spiritual logic which kind of makes sense, and it makes sense in the film, from her point of view. She's a total disaster psychologically and morally, and in terms of political correctness. And in just about every modern concern in the book, Bess scores naught out of ten. But she works, somehow, doesn't she?

STELLAN: She does.

Q: What do you both think the bells mean at the end?

STELLAN: I think they mean bells.

Q: That's too easy.

STELLAN: Yeah, but it is bells. To me, it's bells. And it shows that yeah, she was right. God even rings bells for her.

EMILY: I think she's saying to Jan, "Oh, you remember when we said we'd put the bells back?"

STELLAN: (Teasing, laughing) You must feel empty, don't you?

EMILY: There are lots of bells in the film, actually. There's the ringing of the bells, then after the church,"Our church has no bells," and I say we're going to put the bells back. And then there's the Christmas decoration bell in the montage sequence, and I'm kind of dancing around with the bell. And then there's the bell on the boat which she rings to call the sailors. When we shot that sequence, the bell broke. The clangor kept falling off.

STELLAN: And I have bell-bottom trousers.

Q: That's what you get for making a movie in the '70s.

STELLAN: Yeah.

Q: Why did he (von Trier) set it then? Did you ever ask him?

STELLAN: Because of the music. I think it was the music, to a certain extent.

Q: So we could hear Procol Harum again?

STELLAN: Yeah. But also it was easier to say that it was like this in Scotland 20 years ago than today. Even if it is like this today, it is easier to make it believable with a little distance in time. And I think he wanted that distance in time.

EMILY: It's also when the oil rigs arrived, and those two communities first came together-the kind of beer-swilling great big Swedes and the little Scottish girls.

Q: What does von Trier give you as an actor?

EMILY: He inspires immense loyalty. And you feel like you're carrying his child. You know, it's like the film's his "being" somehow, isn't it? It's like it's being part of his emotional thing. But he doesn't really say very much in a way, which is a bit of a laugh and a joke.

STELLAN: But he also gives you trust.

EMILY: Yeah.

STELLAN: Trust and freedom and courage.

EMILY: And I felt whenever Bess was having a really hard time, Lars was as well. Kind of suffering, and he's in there suffering with you.

Q: I had asked Stellan this, and I'll ask you. What quality do you think von Trier cast you for?

EMILY: I don't know. Sense of humor.

STELLAN: Don't ask me. I know.

Q: All right.

STELLAN: What do you think?

EMILY: What do I think?

STELLAN: I want to know.

EMILY: I suppose I have a kind of clarity, maybe, and a vulnerability which was right. I don't know.

Q: (To Skarsgård) What do you think it is?

STELLAN: (To Watson) I think it's that, but not only that. It's also the lack of vanity you have and the possibility to be extremely beautiful and a clown within two seconds. And that's incredible. And what happens when you're on screen you have this translucence. You have an amazing face for film. You want to hear more? (Pause) And you're tall and nobody else wanted to do the part. And you're big.

Q: What does Stellan bring to it, do you suppose, Emily?

EMILY: Stellan?

Q: Yes.

STELLAN: (aside) Six feet three.

EMILY: A lot of height. He has a kind of big lion heart, I suppose.

Q: Does Bess feel fortunate to find him?

EMILY: Yeah. He's it. He's, like, suddenly a very warm, sunny presence in her life. And she's never been there before. And he just completely loves her and doesn't judge her, which is wonderful. It's like this big, rough man who's incredibly vulnerable. That's what it felt like being with Stellan in the film. Incredibly open and incredibly vulnerable in a way that men aren't in films.

STELLAN: Somebody today told me about an American star of whom another actor said, "Yeah, he was good in that film, but vulnerable."

Q: But vulnerable!

STELLAN: And this was told to this star and he says, "Vulnerable-me? No! I wasn't!" It's bad to be vulnerable.

EMILY: In that sense of vulnerability, Stellan, he's just an incredibly, generous, I don't know...

STELLAN: Asshole.

EMILY: Asshole. And he has a very big presence and doesn't sort of do very much and is just very expressive and it was a real kind of learning curve like that, working with him.

STELLAN: Good. Well put.

EMILY: Was it enough now?

STELLAN: I think you could have...

EMILY: And he's terribly handsome and very Swedish.

Q: That's better.

EMILY: He has character, he's handsome...

STELLAN: Vulnerable.

EMILY: Incredibly talented, vulnerable.

STELLAN: Masculine.

EMILY: Masculine.

Q: Not a clown. Never a clown. No, not he.

STELLAN: No. A little bit of a clown. But I think it's enough now. Thank you.


[Special thanks to Pat Richoux for sharing this, and to Sheila Benson for granting permission to publish it.]