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Once upon a time in America

A conversation between directors Lars Von Trier and Paul Thomas Anderson



By: Magazine "Black Book".

Translation: Luiz Roberto Mendes Gonçalves.

   Okay, let's cut to the chase: A conversation with Lars von Trier and Paul Thomas Anderson is a movie buff's salacious dream. As two of the world's foremost film directors, they have created some of the most remarkable cinematic experiences in recent memory. Despite starkly different approaches, both are linked by a concern for the "outsider" in society: the lonely hearts of Anderson's "Magnolia" and "Drunk in Love" find counterparts in provincial America to "Dancing in the Dark" by Von Trier, and in the new "Dogville".
   Both give their films a precise and focused discipline that leaves little to chance. Von Trier, in particular, has developed a reputation for combative relationships with his actors, notably with Björk during the making of "Dancing in the Dark," but his stern approach often results in career-defining performances. Anderson has also drawn brilliance from their collective productions, especially from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has worked on all of his films, and Adam Sandler, whose complex and tormented performance in "Drunk in Love" was one of last year's big surprises. The two directors met at Von Trier's Zentropa filming studio outside Copenhagen to gossip about actors, exchange views on America and talk about some of their favorite movies. 

Lars von Trier - I would like to talk about this actor business because I really liked "Magnolia" and I thought there was a kind of familiar feeling in the results you get from actors, and you told me it's because you love them._cc781905- 5cde-3194-bb3b-136bad5cf58d_
Paul Thomas Anderson - Hum-hum. 
Von Trier - That was a shock. If you love them - let's say it's true -, how do you work with them? 
Anderson - Well, they say the lines. So... 
Von Trier - say: ready? 
Anderson - Vai. 
Von Trier - Will you? And then they say the lines? 
Anderson - Well, here's the thing. When I wrote "Magnolia", I was writing for the actors, so I could hear in my head how they might speak, I wrote with that edge. But actors don't scare me. Do you know what scares me? Bad actors. A good actor is like a great musician, but a bad actor terrifies me because it means I have to find something to say or do. And that's really frustrating because you want to be focused on everything, and instead you find yourself fumbling helping someone memorize lines or not hitting furniture, and then you want to strangle them. I was really lucky because the first real actor I worked with was Philip Baker Hall. It was like meeting someone who is instantly there for you, who wants to work with you and not against you. So I guess I got a corrupted idea that this is how it has to be, so I'm shocked when Burt Reynolds comes along, or someone like that... I think you secretly love actors. 


Von Trier - [laughs] I try not to, but actors are the only thing that stands between you and a good movie. That's the truth. But we are talking about control. It's a bit like filming animals - they are uncontrollable. 
Anderson - Not all. 
Von Trier - No, and they should be uncontrollable. If you want to get something out of a person, you need to give them a little trust, of course, which is why I make the whole thing more of a game than a direction. But there are actors and actors. Stellan [Skarsgärd, who worked on "Dogville", "Dancing in the Dark" and "The Waves"] is not an actor. 
Anderson - But I feel the same way about Philip [Seymour Hoffman] or John C. Reilly: they are not actors - they are my family. 
Von Trier - Yes, but as they are family you also know what they can and cannot do. It's like your uncle - you know what he's good at and what he's not. Of course, they can be so familiar that you don't give your uncle a chance, which is also unfair. 
Anderson - Is the relationship you have with your assistant director, editor, photographer or costume designer something similar, which you can trust more than you can trust an actor? 
Von Trier - Right now I'm shooting in cinemascope, so I'm walking around with this ridiculous huge camera, with sound equipment, lighting equipment, you know. And then there are a hundred people around me who sort of just say "good luck" and walk away, and we're alone for four hours, the actors and me. So really all my fears are in this technique, because I have a lot of claustrophobia. If I don't do anything, nothing happens. I'll tell you, in the last four months I've been going through the worst low of my entire life and my mental health is extremely fragile right now. 
Anderson- Why? Is it something that happens when you finish a movie or after it comes out? Is there a pattern or do you recognize the reason? 
Von Trier - Well, there is a pattern, of course. When you produce a film, all your strength goes into it, so you cannot use your strength to constantly imagine that you are dying. And then you also have this kind of Baden-Powell [founder of Scouting] feeling that you just have to keep marching for eight or ten weeks, or however long, which is fine, of course, the masochistic feeling that you just you have to go ahead and get hurt, and if you get hurt enough it doesn't matter - you die for a reason. 
Anderson - But can you avoid that feeling when you're writing? Are you writing now? 
Von Trier - No, no. I think the reason I'm really numb right now is this wait for Nicole [Kidman]. Because normally I write a script, and I rarely do it, but since I've been waiting for it for a year and a half, things have stalled, I feel rotten, terrible. Not about the movie - if you're scared of dying then you don't care a damn about a movie or how it's received or who works in it, but it's just the fact that working on a movie is a way to get into a positive mood and get a bunch of stuff out of your system. Nicole and I decided a long time ago that we should do more movies together, but it turns out that hasn't been possible after a year and a half of suffering [waiting for a break in Nicole's schedule], and I can't do other movies in between. It's a trilogy I wrote with the same main character. 
Anderson - When did you think of that, when you were writing "Dogville"? Did you know it was going to be... 
Von Trier - No, I finished it and I liked the project a lot, and I liked Nicole a lot, I mean, I liked her character, Grace, a lot, because she is a little more aggressive, a little more human than the other characters I worked on. 
Anderson - Wait, is it because she is a more human character or a more human actress? 
Von Trier - [long pause] It's because it's a more human character and a less human actress, but the mix of Nicole and Grace was really good, and I liked that, so I suddenly saw that I had an obligation to continue with Grace, to continue that way of filming, because it's very easy to invent new things all the time, but it's not very mature, I think.
If I really wanted to say something with this film, I felt I should reinforce it by continuing in that vein. Because, in my opinion, there are two types of directors: those who each time set a new standard, like Kubrick. Then there are the directors who keep doing the same thing over and over again. Of course there are mixes between these two types, but somehow the mature is the one who always does the same thing. 
Anderson - You will say something different in a few years. 
Von Trier - Let me go back to... I like Nicole's ruthless nature. I don't know if "inhumane" is the right word: I know it sounds negative, but that's not really what I mean. She is that kind of larger-than-life star who has remarkable discipline and technique. Taking that kind of size and forcing him to break a little bit was a very good thing to do... but also taking his ability, his professionalism and his willingness to work, which are very positive things, and trying to break them a little bit. little to the benefit of the product, which she was very happy to do, and you can see it too. So I had the idea to go on and do three films, but three films that take place in the United States... [the actress later decided that she will not act in the other two films]
Anderson - Lars, what do I need to do for you to come to the United States? 
Von Trier - Need to destroy all of Europe. [laughs] 
Anderson - Okay, I'll do that. I'll do anything. 
Von Trier - But listen, I'm American. 
Anderson - What do you mean? 
Von Trier - I'm already there. I'm participating in American life. 
Anderson - [laughs] Are you? 
Von Trier - I know exactly how it is. It's like boredom, more or less, but you know, Americans used to be Europeans, or the ones I can easily relate to, and maybe they're not the... no, I won't say that._cc781905-5cde-3194- bb3b-136bad5cf58d_
Anderson - Say! Say! Continue. 
Von Trier - Those who went to America were not the smartest [both laugh]. No, listen, please delete this. No, but there are many stories about people who went to America because they were starving. And in liberal society you go where you don't starve - that's the idea - but people aren't allowed to do that anymore, for some weird reason. It is no longer considered a good idea to go where there is food. America is also closing its borders, right? Which was a great quality, I always thought, of the American idea as I see it: letting everybody in. In Scandinavia integration is a big thing, at any time they say to you: "Are you going to become Danish?". "Yes, yes, yes", they say, "of course", but someone is shooting them in the back, right? Integrating, then, is very important, learning the language, learning the customs, not killing your animals in a painful way, all of that. Saying that you can only come visit us if you know the language, if you do this, if you do that... Well! This is a Scandinavian model, because they want to integrate them into society so they can... educate them. But this is so arrogant! And since I've never been to New York, I love the idea of Chinatown and all that stuff, that's fantastic. I really think it's a wonderful idea. I'm sure America isn't like that. But somehow I think it's part of the idea. 



Anderson - You know, Lars, when I watched "Dogville" it didn't seem like America. It was about any small town, narrow minded, it wasn't about America to the core. 
Von Trier - No. I totally agree. The only thing I've done about America, or that should relate to America, is a kind of positive feeling I try to create, some things I remember from Steinbeck or Mark Twain -feelings or environments..._cc781905-5cde-3194- bb3b-136bad5cf58d_
Anderson - Wait, I can't believe this, because Steinbeck has been an obsession of mine for the last year. Did you read it a lot? 
Von Trier - When I was young, yes. 
Anderson - There is a collection of short stories called "America and the Americans" which is amazing, I wanted to give it to you. There's a part of it that feels exactly like "Dogville," which has meant a lot to me over the past year, because he fought in World War II, he wrote about Vietnam, he wrote about McCarthy's interrogations, and he saw all of that. He was indeed a great novelist, but he was also a journalist, and one of the great American writers. 
Von Trier - I haven't read that much, but the film's narrative, which I thought was very American, I was later told was not at all. 
Anderson - The narrative? It's very British! 
Von Trier - Not British. I spoke to John Hurt about it, and he said, "That's not British." So it's kind of Danish-British, trying to be American. 
Anderson - But, you know, if I didn't know him I would have no idea where the hell this movie came from, or many of his movies. 
Von Trier - I think that's really good because it's almost like David Bowie, you know, we were pretty sure he really was from Mars. 
Anderson - How did you come up with the idea of ending "Dogville" with "Young Americans"? 
Von Trier - Paul Bettany [actor who plays the village intellectual Tom] and I were huge fans of David Bowie, and at one point, when morale was really low on the set, we played him over the speakers for everyone to dance to. I always loved that melody, but I didn't understand the lyrics. I still don't understand it. [The conversation is interrupted by a call to Paul, letting him know he has a flight scheduled for New York.] 
Von Trier - Don't worry. 
Anderson - I'm not worried. Do I look worried? Lars, I'm sitting here with you... you are my hero. I can't worry. 
Von Trier - It's like sitting down with Bush, can't you worry? 
Anderson - If Bush invited you to the White House, would you go? 
Von Trier - Wouldn't that make it easier for me to sit on a plane. 
Anderson - But we drug him, give him some pills, everything goes away, we take him to the car in a wheelchair. 
Von Trier - I'm sure Bush has the power to take me to the White House if he really wants to. 
Anderson: But if Bush called you and said, "I want you to come to the White House and talk to me about what you're saying." Would you? 
Von Trier - Oh, no [laughs]. And you? 
Anderson - No way. I heard that Clinton loved "Boogie Nights" and that got me excited, it made me really like him. And then they actually asked for a copy of "Magnolia". 
Von Trier - We sent "Waves of Fate", I think. 
Anderson - To the White House? 
Von Trier - For Clinton or her daughter, I don't know. They just can't go to a video store, it's impossible -too far from the White House. 
Anderson - I don't know. Clinton used to like to get out of the White House a lot. I did late-night trips to McDonald's, things like that. I think he wanted to leave the house. 
Von Trier - Compared to Bush, Clinton seemed like a good guy, didn't he? He played the saxophone... 
Anderson - Played saxophone, chased women, I mean, he's the kind of president you like... I grew up in California and I love California, and for a long time it really had a meaning, until recently, with Arnold Schwarzenegger. And New York is remarkable in that sense, when I get off the plane, the first thing I notice is... yes, how fat everyone is, but I also realize that everyone is there, everyone is there._cc781905-5cde-3194- bb3b-136bad5cf58d_
Von Trier - And what does that mean? 
Anderson - It's an exciting and reassuring feeling. I don't get the sense of American pride. I just have a feeling that everyone is there, striving for the same thing, that all over the world everyone is after the same thing: just a little bit of happiness each day. 
Von Trier - We can't disagree with that, of course, that's the way things are. 
Anderson - I've been to Croatia, where they like to say that "there's a different government on every street here, there are 87 political parties". I feel the same way about America. I rebel against powers and principalities. I will always rebel. 
Von Trier - I'm representing all the good things America should be. But saying that I know your country could be a better place, as a non-American, is the most provocative thing you can say, and why? It doesn't have much to do with nationalism or borders; it has to do with politics and its basic idea of what should be done with human beings. 
Anderson - Where did you get the title "Dogville"? 
Von Trier - I talked to ["Family Party" director] Thomas Winterberg, actually one of his colleagues, and we were talking about concentration camps, so it became America, straight [they laugh]. No, we were talking about how they managed to maintain discipline and life in the concentration camp, and his theory, which I believe, is that they turned people into animals. When they are animals, they are much easier to control. It's very easy to turn human beings into animals: let them be cruel, let them be anything - it's such a fine line - and that was part of the strategy in the concentration camps. Then we talked about dogs, and I said the movie had to be called "something-ville". 
Anderson - So there are some things... 
Von Trier - [laughs] Actually, many things. But the strangest thing is that in my situation - which you can't put yourself in - I know so much about America. Eighty percent of my media, the media I see, have to do with America, 80% of newspaper have to do with America in one way or another, 80% of television. Can you imagine that? 
Anderson - Isn't that the case in most parts of the world? 
Von Trier - Yes, it is, but that puts me in a situation where America is also part of me, whether I want it or not, or whether you want it or not: it's part of me. And that's why I have every right to say anything I want, because I've heard more about America than I've heard about Denmark, for God's sake! 
Anderson - Lindo. 
Von Trier - I actually watched "Magnolia" to cast my own movie - but I really liked it. It was kind of European, although now I don't like European movies either, because they're too American. It's very much a matter of taste, but it's very satisfying when someone dares to do what they find most interesting, and I believe that's what happened with "Magnolia". I think it's extremely important to please yourself. 



Anderson - I can count on one hand, maybe on both hands, the people I trust and I think that if I make a film, I make it for myself, absolutely first. But there are people I want to show it to, I want them to like it, but it doesn't matter if they don't because they're going to tell me why and how and what the reasons are. And that's fine: it's by no means debilitating or painful, but if you can put them in the palm of your hand... 
Von Trier - It was very important for me to show my first film to Andrei Tarkovsky, and he hated it. He thought it was crap. The film was "Element of Crime". He hated it, you see... It was a bit like growing up. But I wouldn't respect him if he said anything else. The problem with watching movies is that you have some really good directors that you look up to, but everybody burns out their talent, everybody. Or die. Or both. 
Anderson - Do you remember movies well? I never remember the movies well, but I remember the ones that I like, that meant something to me, and I remember "Running Waves". I was in the middle of editing "Boogie Nights", alone on a Sunday night, and when I saw him, it really was like the clouds parted - suddenly the sun started to shine, gray as the film was. But I don't remember his details. 
Von Trier - That's because what you like and what I like in a movie is not at all. We see movies differently than most people, which is why we don't remember the whole thing very well. But I really like some movies that I didn't like when I first saw it. 
Anderson - Which ones, for example? 
Von Trier - [Kubrick's] "Barry Lyndon" is still one of my favorite movies, you know? It's a very strange film, but it's still monumental. 
Anderson - When I saw it, I thought it was pretty serious and then I saw it a second time and I said, "It's incredibly hilarious!" I actually felt that way about "Dogville", you know: "What an amazing, crazy comedy!" But it was almost that kind of bizarre relationship with a movie, when you absolutely don't understand it at first. 
Von Trier - I was talking to Nicole [Kidman], who had talked to Kubrick about him, and he didn't like "Barry Lyndon" at all. It is clear. He told her it was too long. I mean, the last scene, where she writes her name on a piece of paper, takes almost half an hour, right? To write the name... So, if he thought the film was too long, I could indicate one or two frames to be cut. 
Anderson - Did you get to know him? I ask this because I met him. It was actually when I met Nicole. He really didn't like me that much until he realized that I had written the movie that I directed. It was then that he decided: okay, now I'm going to be nice to you. Just like: if you're a director, go to hell, but if you're a writer... 
Von Trier - Another film I really like is "The Sniper" [by Michael Cimino]. 
Anderson - When did you watch it? When was it released? 
Von Trier - Watched it ten times. 
Anderson - Really? And what are the others? 
Von Trier - Lots of old Italian movies. Pasolini, Antonioni, of course. It all depends on when you become aware of cinema. I was ready around the time of that German period, with Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, but it took me a long time to become fascinated by the nouvelle vague. This question of when you are open to this is very interesting... I think it is not many years, five years or so. 
Anderson - For me, the first thing that comes to mind is "Jaws". 
Von Trier - "Shark"! Never watched it. 
Anderson - "Jaws" was a very, very, very big thing for me. My father worked in television in Los Angeles - he did dubbing and was friends with a lot of technical people and, when it was possible to have a video machine at home, he recorded "The Wizard of Oz", "Monty Python" and the "Saint Grail". There was also a pirated copy of "Jaws". Those were the movies I was able to watch over and over again. And the VCR was as big as this room, it looked like a tank, and the tape was the size of a truck - and I would come home and watch every night, every day, "Jaws", "Monty Python" and "The Wizard of Oz". Later things happened here and there - as I said, when I watched "The Waves". It was interesting because I felt confident enough that I didn't want to copy "Waves of Fate". I just thought, "Wow, I can do this." It was almost as if he realized he could be so honest. 
Von Trier - Do you think "Waves of Fate" was honest? 
Anderson - Don't tell me that! I don't need to know that. I don't want to know that! 
Von Trier - No, it was made with good intentions, but I wouldn't call it honest. For me the story is very complicated, because all those themes I'm working on are actually themes... forbidden in my house, all the things that were considered in bad taste. 
Anderson - What was forbidden in your house? 
Von Trier - The whole thing about religion and miracles and blah blah blah... it was a surge of freedom to be able to write that stuff. But I thought it was a very American film. I always do. 
Anderson - That's why I liked him. Lars, are you done writing this movie? 
Von Trier - Yes, it was written a long time ago. 
Anderson - How long does it take you to write? 
Von Trier - Three weeks. 
Anderson - I take three years. 
Von Trier - Yes, but I just don't look back. If you want to read the script, welcome. If you're going to assemble the cast, I think you should read it. Because you love actors and have a better relationship with them maybe. 
Anderson - I think you secretly love actors. 

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The above interview and the following two were originally published in "Black Book" magazine.
Translated by Luiz Roberto Mendes Gonçalves.

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