Thomas Vinterberg: The mark of the Danes

His new feature, a subtle analysis of small-town America and the power of the gun, was filmed in Denmark. The director tells Kaleem Aftab why
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The Independent Culture

On a week-long trip to the capital, Vinterberg was combining promotional work for his latest film Dear Wendy with a talk at the inaugural Short Film Summer School. Vinterberg didn't make it to the school; the morning after the 7 July bombings in London, he decided to cut short his trip and take his two children home to Denmark.

Curiously, an eerie sense of violence being preordained is the theme of Vinterberg's striking third feature. In an allegorical tale penned by Lars von Trier (the director of Breaking the Waves and The Idiots), the Wendy of the title is, in fact, a handgun. The movie takes the form of a letter to Wendy written by 16-year-old loner Dick (Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot fame), explaining how his fervently pacifist views were slowly compromised after he found her. Dick, with gun in hand, convinces other young outcasts in the imaginary poor West Virginian mining town of Estherslope to join him in a gun club christened the Dandies - a club based on the seemingly contradictory elements of pacifism and guns. Before long, the Dandies find themselves in a predicament that forces them to break their cardinal rule decreeing that their weapons should never be drawn.

Vinterberg, 36, says: "I think the question the film asks is - why do we get this sensational feeling when we have a gun in our hands? For a leftist, as I am and as I've been raised, it is really something to say, 'Wow, it is satisfying to hold a gun.'

"Together with the actors, I shot a couple of rounds. In some weird way, it's addictive. I instantly wanted to shoot again. The ability to decide over somebody else's life with the pull of a finger was just very fascinating. It is almost a sexual thing, and it is definitely treated as a sexual thing. Power and sex, desire towards power, anxiety, all these things that are implanted in your libido. I guess it is all represented by a beautiful piece of mechanics."

The metaphysical component of Dear Wendy is provided by the symbolism that links the Dandies with Western governments, and the US in particular. "Pacifists with guns: it is very precise in the sense that it starts a whole row of impossible thoughts, but it also puts a finger on something that exists," Vinterberg says. "It is not far from a peacekeeping mission, and how the Western world is looking at itself. I think it very precisely points out reasons for the bullets, like fear, greed and power. It's about the hands that point the guns, and pointing out that it's not the gun itself that's the problem."

Staying in the abstract, Vinterberg also wanted to give the town of Estherslope a timeless quality. Although at first glance the main square looks like it comes straight out of a John Ford western, there are certain elements, such as the traffic lights, that are distinctively modern. The costumes of the Dandies and the guns on show become more modern as the film progresses, and Vinterberg added Sixties music to the mix. Following in the footsteps of Von Trier's Dogville, Dear Wendy was shot just outside Copenhagen in the former military base that is now the home of the Danish film-making collective Zentropa.

Von Trier shot his American-set films Dogville and the forthcoming Manderlay in Denmark because, famously, he's scared of flying; he's never actually set foot in the US. Vinterberg has no such excuse, but he felt that Dear Wendy would be undermined if it had been shot on location. "It would have been a whole other film if I shot it on location. I don't think that a location like this exists. America does not do squares that much, they do parking lots and malls. Also, it would have been very complicated and expensive, and ruined the normal Danish arrogance of making films about America while sitting on the fence at the same time, which I also found was a part - a problematic part - of the project.

"Also, with my last film, It's All About Love, I did fly around and was on location a long time. I wanted to come back home, and the thought of stepping out of my office and shooting a project was exactly what I needed."

Home life and Lars von Trier are two subjects that keep cropping up in conversation with Vinterberg. Born in Copenhagen, he went to the Danish International Film School in his home town. There he honed his talents, and his short films The Last Round and The Boy Who Walked Backwards won several awards.

Von Trier caught wind of Vinterberg's abilities and invited the young film-maker to be one of the founding brothers of the Dogme 95 movement. Dogme was an attempt to get back to the basics of film-making and to strip away many of the more expensive tools that aid film-makers, especially those directors with big Hollywood budgets.

The first film to arrive on the big screen carrying the fabled moniker Dogme #1 was Vinterberg's debut feature, Festen. It tells the story of a man who, at his father's 60th birthday party, announces that he and his sister, who has recently committed suicide, were molested by their father when they were young. The Dogme rules forced Vinterberg to take several innovative approaches, resulting in a movie that was like a breath of fresh air for European film-makers. A decade later, Festen is seen by many as the brightest spark of the now much-maligned Dogme 95 movement.

Overnight, Vinterberg became the poster boy of Dogme. He was flown from festival to festival, promoting Danish film in general and Festen in particular. The level of acclaim meant that the almost inevitable subsequent fall was all the greater. Vinterberg was unprepared for the backlash that greeted his next film, It's All About Love.

Looking back, Vinterberg is able to acknowledge his errors. "Right after Festen, I sort of got stuck with all the success. I talked to Ingmar Bergman at the time, and he asked me, 'What are you doing next?' I said, 'I don't know.' He told me that I was crazy, and that two things would happen because of this: either Festen would fail and it would affect my self-confidence when I went to do another project, or it would be a success - and that would be even worse. He was right about that and it was hard to move on." He also started to miss being with his wife and young children.

It's All About Love was in part inspired by the time he had to spend away from his family promoting Festen. Starring Claire Danes and Joaquin Phoenix, with Sean Penn as a man who never touches down between airplane flights, it's an abstract journey that tries to tap into the emotional essence of love.

The consensus was that this underrated movie suffered from "second album syndrome". When the film was refused entry into the Cannes Film Festival, Vinterberg showed that his ego bruised easily; he immediately tried to re-edit the film in an effort to improve it. Failure at the box office and bad reviews compounded the misery. He admits: "It was a painful process, the way It's All About Love was received, because it was sort of rejected by eight out of 10 people." This time, though, Bergman's advice had been heeded and Vinterberg had already signed on to direct Dear Wendy.

Reinforcing just how different the receptions of his first two movies had been, Festen's success took on a life of its own. A Danish theatre company made a stage play from the script, and several international companies followed suit. Festen the play had a successful run in the West End earlier this year.

Vinterberg, who has seen a couple of versions of the play, says that not all the productions have been to his liking. But watching them, he adds, has been a cathartic experience. "I'm done with Festen, but I enjoyed watching the play, and I enjoyed it for another reason than the audience did, because now someone else is maybe having a riot with it, and getting something out of it. It is sort of a ball that is running away from me, and it took an enormous effort to push it away."

Vinterberg fears that his best film may be his short, The Boy Who Walked Backwards, and that it has been a downward trajectory since then. This seems like the view of a man who takes too much heed of his critics. In any case, Dear Wendy, with its mix of narrative and symbolism, falls between his first two feature films, and so marks something of a new direction.

One narrative device Dear Wendy shares with Festen is that the introduction of a black character creates a change in the tone and direction of the plot. Vinterberg says: "Lars and I are both directors out of a very white country, embarrassingly white. For Festen, I wanted to give my best friend a role and a reason to come from New York for the summer, so I wrote a part for him.

"In Dear Wendy, I think primarily it is about Lars and the white man feeling inferior to the black male. Lars and I, we are always men sitting on the fence having other people doing things and writing about things, but in normal life we are not so fearful. Sebastian, the black boy in the film, is a man of action. Lars is always talking about black men's genitals and the size of them and he is deeply fascinated and envious about it, and I do too.

"In this way, the film treats America in the same way the film treats black men - something we're somehow inferior to, and attracted to at the same time. This is not a very precise answer. The more precise answer is that Lars does not want to be politically correct." It's in this sort of provocative view that Vinterberg is closest to Von Trier. Yet he's at pains to highlight the differences between them; most notably, he says, in their approaches to film-making. Von Trier has a more dictatorial approach, against his more organic character-driven insights.

Vinterberg has now decided that, after a decade-long connection with Von Trier, he needs to be assessed on his own merits. He is now developing a script with Festen's co-writer Mogens Rukov, again based in Denmark. It's a journey home that suits the father who is still trying to prove himself as more than simply the man who gave Festen to the world

'Dear Wendy' is out now