Thomas Vinterberg’s new movie “Submarino” is a dark, grim story about two mentally tormented brothers, haunted by a traumatic childhood. Nick, the older brother, is an ex-con, full of aggression and self-loathing, who tries to reconnect with his younger brother who is a junkie and a single parent. 200% spoke with the Danish director, during the London Film Festival, about his interest to explore human frailty, what he learns from his film characters, how his unsuccessful films affected his confidence as a director, and the place of Dogme 95 in the history of film.
200%: At the introduction of the film you said to the audience: “When everything goes well, you will be totally depressed after two hours.” Could you tell me, as a film maker, what drives you to make people become depressed by watching your movie?
Thomas Vinterberg: I’m a Scandinavian and I have this deeply rooted fascination by the dark side of life. Maybe because I’m surrounded by darkness, in terms of sunshine hours, more than half of the year. For me it’s a masochistic, weird satisfaction to dive in the absolute bottom of life. In the case of “Submarino” I was deeply fascinated by the story because it is also, other than being a dark story, a story about a true hero, Nick, a guy who is constantly trying to help people. He is also failing, but he is trying to help people. I also find that tenderness, love and caring for one another is being well shown in dark surroundings. When I made that remark “you will be totally depressed by watching the movie” at the introduction of the film to the audience, I said that as a joke. But what I meant, if I would have been honest, is that hopefully you have been moved by this movie and hopefully you’re caring as much as I do for these characters when the movie is over.
200%: As the director of “Submarino” could you explain, in terms of creativity, what have been the biggest challenges, or perhaps even struggles, of making this film?
Thomas Vinterberg: First of all, the main character of the movie, Nick, is not necessarily from the starting point of the book “Submarino” – on which the film was based – a very dramatic character. He is mostly sitting in a room looking into a wall. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone and when he does, he ends up knocking them down. As a dramatic character it was very complicated to bring him to life, to work on the screen. In the book its very much about his thoughts. That was a struggle, it took a long time. Secondly, finding a balance all the way through this movie was also a challenge. Not to make it too dark, not to make it possible for the audience to reject it and still make an artistically consequential movie. I wanted to go all the way, I wanted the film to be a smack in your face, but still, obviously, I wanted to communicate. Finding that balance was very difficult.
200%: What made you decide to do this film?
Thomas Vinterberg: The main reason for doing these type of movies, is to explore human frailty. The vulnerability of human beings is what I’m looking for all the time. That is a big challenge, a lot of work in the writing process, and also finding the actors who can convey that. For Nick’s brother, who is a junkie and a single parent, you have to find a guy that you can hopefully forgive even though he is shooting up heroin and leaving his son in front of the television with no food. That’s a constant battle, but it’s also what I like.
200%: Some interviewers conduct interviews as they are interested to know more about themselves. Do you chose the subject of your films also to get to know more about yourself?
Thomas Vinterberg: Interesting question. I’m trying to be observant and trying not to be self-absorbed, which is difficult, because making movies as a director includes being a performer for the press, being a career pilot and, sometimes, it’s a little bit like being a soccer player – you’re as good as your last game. Therefore the camera very slowly turns back at you, but I’m constantly trying to turn it back away from me and facing life instead. What I find there, I guess, is maybe it is stories about yourself. When you look at characters in movies in which you’re interested, or in script writing, you have to write about what you know, and I always end up finding that these are all corners of your own personality. Maybe, then, the answer to the question is yes. It also scares me as, then in a way, it is self-absorbed again.
200%: So when the answer is yes what did you learn about yourself during the making “Submarino”?
Thomas Vinterberg: What I really got fascinated by is that often you make movies about people you want to be like. Obviously, I don’t want the life of any of the characters in “Submarino”, but there is something very heroic in the way Nick rests in himself. There is a certain calmness, gravity and self-sufficiency to this character, which I really adore. He really doesn’t care what people think about him for one second. If it’s a restaurant where you can’t smoke, he smokes if he wants to smoke, not because he wants to provoke – just because he wants to smoke – I was inspired by that. I think I learned to care a little bit less about what other people think of me – to be a little bit more oblivious. Sometimes if I get too nervous about being in a Q&A, or, if I know reviews will come out tomorrow, I think about Nick. He wouldn’t give a shit. [laughs]
200%: As a film maker do you feel the urge to speak clearly and seriously of the lives and times in which we are currently?
Thomas Vinterberg: No I feel an urge to make relevant stories to the times that we’re in. But those stories could be period pieces. That’s the thing that drama can do; it’s universal. It doesn’t have to be a mirror of the environment and the here and now. I don’t have any social responsibility when I’m making a movie, I have artistic ambitions of avoiding careerism, of avoiding making ‘applying for the Hollywood system’, to make something that really matters to me and try to make something – if possible – that only I can do.
200%: Would you like “Festen” to be remembered as the first Dogme 95 film or just as the film itself?
Thomas Vinterberg: Both. I’m proud to have made the first Dogme film, it was a golden time for me. I think Dogme was a fantastic movement. Thus, the symbolic value of having made the first one is great. For me “Festen” takes care of itself. I’m not protective about how it is remembered – it’s remembered and it will never be forgotten. I’m just happy about how it is remembered: a smack in the face that people loved.
200%: Upon reflection, being one of the creators of the “Dogme 95 Manifesto” what do you think will be the place of the movement in the history of film?
Thomas Vinterberg: I think it will be defining the 1990s as the time when digital movies arrived, which is ironic as one of the Dogme rules was that films had to be shot using Academy 35mm film. I think it will be remembered as the time when movies were put back into the street and into the hand of ‘reality’ somehow.
200%: After “Festen”, which was a huge success at the box office, your films “It’s All About Love” and “Dear Wendy” were not as successful at the box office – did that affect your confidence as a film maker?
Thomas Vinterberg: Yes, it did. The making of “It’s All About Love” and the release of that movie was a very painful experience in many ways. When I did “Festen” it was in a weird way the finalization of something. I felt it was the ultimate movie in that direction. I can’t go further that way, it’s done. We hit bull’s-eye. After “Festen”, therefore, I had to redefine myself, I had to re-start and that always puts you in a very fragile situation. “It’s All About Love” is a film that needs caring all the time. It’s very dysfunctional in many ways. Dramatically speaking I can understand why people can reject it, but it is still the film which I’ve done that I find the richest. It’s the film I love talking about. When I grow old I will, at some point stop, hopefully, being embarrassed about how it went and then I think I will grow very proud of it. “Dear Wendy” was a difficult story to make – it is like my ‘troubled’ child. It behaves very bad socially but I really care for it a lot, maybe even more than any of the others. “Festen” is my rich and famous son who travels the world and sometimes sends some money to his father. To experience that your films are not successful at the box offices was very painful. It’s also about vanity, the addiction of being used to the success – a lot of unhealthy matters actually, but they were washed away entirely and everything fell apart. Looking back at it, it sort of maybe saved me. It put me in the position where I could do “Submarino” – I had to completely restart. It took me back to the point where I was at film school, that kind of purity and closeness in the stories is what I’m about.
200%: You say you had to redefine yourself. Did you also feel you lost your film makers gut instinct?
Thomas Vinterberg: Yes, I lost everything. I lost purity, I lost my innocence and that’s what happens when you become famous. When you succeed with something the struggle disappears. It’s a very dangerous and uncreative situation in which to be; of course you lose your instincts. I lost the whole recipe of what I am about.
200%: Would it be fair to say that “Submarino” is your return to back-to-basics?
Thomas Vinterberg: Entirely! I was left in the shadow and from there I could just do my movie and do it as I like, and how I was meant to do it. Making “Submarino”, with actors making their big screen debuts and a young crew, is a kind of physical manifestation of what I wanted: to change my surroundings and my thoughts back to how it was in the beginning. Working with the first time Director of Photography and first time writer was so vibrant, energetic and so devoted and they were so not full of themselves, but full of the project and that, for me, was what I wanted. 
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers (10/2010)
Picture: Per Arnesen

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