Cannes 2012: Director Thomas Vinterberg on 'The Hunt' (Q&A)

Thomas Vinterberg  P 2012

The Cannes Jury Prize winner discusses the Danish film boom, his Competition entry and looks back on the Dogme era.

The last time Thomas Vinterberg had a film in Competition in Cannes — the child abuse drama The Celebration in 1998— it won the Jury Prize and launched the hugely influential Dogme digital cinema movement. Vinterberg has left Dogme far behind him but he revisits the themes of The Celebration in his new Competition film The Hunt, the story of a man falsely accused of being a pedophile.

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Vinterberg spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the legacy of Dogme, why he cast tough guy Mads Mikkelsen against type and the secret behind Denmark’s deep pool of cinema talent.
The Hollywood Reporter: How does it feel coming back to Cannes where you won the Jury Prize back in 1998 for The Celebration?

Thomas Vinterberg: It feels good. I’m honored to be there again, among this, I think, very tough group of Competition films. But I come to Cannes almost every year, whether I have a film here or not. I love just lying in the sun here, doing a few meetings and then watching some movies.

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THR: The Celebration was the first Dogme film, the cinema movement you founded with Lars von Trier. Looking back, how would you assess the impact of Dogme on your own work and on cinema in general?

Vinterberg: I think Dogme was inspiring for quite a few peoples and sort of started a digital movement. Personally I found it extremely uplifting and fantastic making Dogme movies but I felt I completed it with The Celebration. I think that was the end of the road on Dogme for me. It was as far as I could go. I had to find a new way.

THR: Is there anything from Dogme that you took with you and influences you in your work now?

Vinterberg: Of course I learned from it. What we did was abandon all the tools of film making. So now, whenever I use these tools I think about what I’m doing and why. I got addicted to being on the thin ice, Dogme’s suicidal approach, because it keeps you thinking, keeps you exploring. But Dogme is over for me. I think we completed it and it’s time to move on. As an artist, you want to avoid repeating yourself.

THR: After The Celebration, you went to Hollywood and made It’s All About Love with Sean Penn and Joaquin Phoenix. Would you go back again to making English-language movies?

Vinterberg: I would love to work again in the U.S. There is an amazing bunch of actors there that I love and adore and grew up with. I loved working with Joaquin and Sean Penn. But I felt I had to get back to where I come from. The success of The Celebration was like a hand grenade exploding in my face. It suddenly gave me so many opportunities to explore things I had never done before. I’m proud of the work I did but I felt I had to get back and explore where I come from. But I’ve had a great time working in America. I shot a Metallica video in Hollywood and there were like 100 people on set. There was even a guy there to put antiseptic gel on my hands. Amazing. If I asked for that on a Danish set, they’d probably kick me out of the country. 

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THR: Where did the idea for your new film, The Hunt, come from?

Vinterberg: It actually goes all the way back to the year 2000 when a famous Danish psychiatrist knocked on my door. He had these case studies and said ‘look at these. You have to do a film about this.’ Now, I’m used to people telling me this, so I was polite, said ‘thanks’ took his papers and put them away.

Then, recently, I needed a psychiatrist myself  — I had gone through a divorce — and so I sought him out. And, out of politeness, I went back and read those case studies. And I was amazed and fascinated and I knew I had to do a film about this.

THR: These were real case studies of Danish psychiatric patients?

Vinterberg: They were real cases from around the world. Most were about false memory syndrome and invented memories. The Hunt isn’t based on any individual case but it’s inspired by the ideas in them.The physiatrist’s idea was that thought, ideas, can be a virus. Once a certain idea about a person takes hold, it can spread like wildfire. If The Celebration was about kids being victimized, this film is too but about victimization of another kind. When someone is accused of child abuse, the kids get interrogated by policemen and psychiatrists who repeatedly ask them the same questions. Sometimes, the kids give the grown-ups the answers they want. They say, ‘yes, he abused me.’ Then everyone goes crazy and for the child, his whole world falls apart.
THR: In the film, after the man is wrongly accused, the whole village turns against him.

Vinterberg: I felt this set up allowed me to tell a bigger story — one about the loss of innocence in the Western world. When I grew up in the 1970s in a commune, everyone was naked and no one was abused. As a boy I could easily sit on a naked man’s lap and no one thought anything of it. Now for very good reasons, the world has become frozen by fear, angst and suspicion. That’s why the film starts off with a bunch of naked men jumping into a lake. It’s about family, togetherness and community. And then, throughout the film, this lake freezes over as the village begins to suspect, fear and persecute.
THR: When The Celebration premiered in Cannes the Danish cinema scene was basically you and Lars von Trier. Now we have a Danish boom, with directors such as Susanne Bier, Nicolas Winding Refn or Niels Arden Oplev working in Hollywood.  Where is this Danish boom coming from?

Vinterberg: That’s a really good question. There are really good people here but maybe it’s because we help each other. There’s a real sense of community. We read each others’ scripts. I hang out with Lars and Ole Christian Madsen who is shooting an HBO series right now (ed. Note: the Alan Ball-created Banshee). These people are friends and colleagues and we help each other. And for the same reason, there’s a strong sense of competition. We push each other and that makes us better.