Cannes: Zentropa Execs Talk Rocking the Art House With Lars von Trier (Q&A)

From left: Sisse Graum Jorgensen, Peter Aalbaek Jensen, Louise Vesth and Marie Gade

The brain trust behind Denmark’s indie juggernaut discusses its rise and fall (and rise) and why Lars von Trier someday will return to Cannes.

Founded by producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen and director Lars von Trier in 1992, Danish production house Zentropa has done more to transform the Scandinavian film industry than has any other company. The model for the firm — named after the fictional trans-European train company in 1991’s Europa, the pair’s first feature project together — was United Artists’ talent-centered approach. It paid off. Jensen, 58, remains the nominal CEO, but he shares day-to-day control of Zentropa with producers Sisse Graum Jorgensen, 42, Louise Vesth, 41, and Marie Gade, 40. Among them, they have produced a string of acclaimed films, from von Trier’s Palme d’Or winner Dancer in the Dark to Oscar nominees The Hunt from Thomas Vinterberg and A Royal Affair from Nikolaj Arcel.

During the ’90s, Zentropa’s back-to-basics Dogme 95 movement — which demanded directors shoot in digital, using only natural light and sound — hit the indie movie industry like a freight train and inspired a generation of filmmakers. It also made Zentropa rich. But it nearly came crashing down four years ago after a series of flops left the company close to bust. A low point came in 2011, when Cannes, always a big supporter of Zentropa’s work, labeled von Trier persona non grata after his infamous comment about being a Nazi during a press conference for Melancholia.

Von Trier will not be in Cannes this year, but with Zentropa director Nicolas Winding Refn on the jury and the company’s latest film, The Salvation— a Western starring Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green — screening out of competition, Zentropa’s presence will be felt.

Peter, how did you and Lars von Trier meet?

Jensen: I went to Danish film school … and after graduation I made my first film, Perfect World, which will go down as the greatest flop in Danish film history. I went straight from film school to bankruptcy. But I had to make a living, so I worked as a production manager on commercials. And it was on a commercial that I met Lars. At the time, he was bankrupt, too — not financially but careerwise. He was so obnoxious, no one would work with him. I’d heard a lot of shit about him, but he surprised me by being really funny. After working together for just a few hours, he asked me if I could help finance his next film, Europa [which went on to tie for the Jury Prize in Cannes]. … Afterward, we joined forces to set up Zentropa.

STORY: Lars von Trier's Zentropa Launches VOD Site (Cannes)

How did it differ from other Scandinavian production companies at the time?

Jensen: At the time, the market share for Danish film locally was something like 6 percent [now it is closer to 30 percent]. There were maybe eight to 10 Danish films made per year, and they were 80 percent-financed by subsidies. The films were bad. Everyone was spoiled with too much public money and too little energy and good spirit.

Gade: When I joined Zentropa, it was actually just for an internship. I wanted to be a journalist — I didn’t think you could make a living in the film business in Denmark. This was before Dogme. It was the ’80s, and Danish film was just, well, bad, in my opinion.

Jensen: With Zentropa, we wanted to increase the number, the volume of Danish films and make films without the old, established companies. And the focus was different: We wanted to support the directors, not the production company — be director-driven. That had never been seen in Denmark before.

You pioneered the pan-European model for financing films. How did it come about?

Jensen: Well, very early we tried to get Lars’ Breaking the Waves financed and found we couldn’t do it. We didn’t have the money, so we made a TV series instead: The Kingdom. The financing came from all over Europe, which became a sort of model for us. And the style inspired us for what would become Dogme. We were using hand-held cameras and lighting bought from a retail shop — shooting as cheaply as possible and getting as many minutes shot per day [as possible]. It was taking the power away from the technicians and giving it back to the actors and directors. The Kingdom was the first Danish TV series that sold outside of Scandinavia. That was a real eye-opener for us, that we could sell our shitty little Danish stuff to the world.

Jorgensen: What first struck me and still fascinates me today is our international approach. We are a small Danish production company, but in everything we do — the development of our films, the financing, the marketing, the selling — we always think: How can we get these films out into the world? How can we give them an international platform? We are a production company, but we are also an international sales company, and that has been part of the Zentropa DNA for a very long time.

STORY: Cannes Fest Director Comments on 'Persona Non Grata' T-Shirt Lars von Trier Wore in Berlin

Breaking the Waves was your international breakthrough, but the real boom came with the Dogme 95 movement.

Jensen: I first heard Lars mention the term Dogme in 1991 or 1992. I told him it was a shitty name and to forget about it. It was Lars’ idea, but then Thomas Vinterberg joined quite quickly. Then it took off. It got a little crazy. I remember when we sold [Anders Thomas Jensen and Soren Kragh-Jacobsen’s] Mifune in Berlin in 1999, there was a queue to buy the film. It was a bit of hysteria. The market probably paid too much for the Dogme films, but they were fresh. They looked different; they had energy. The other films out there at the time looked boring by comparison.

Fueled by Dogme, Zentropa became a huge company – what was the craziest thing you did during those boom times?

Jensen: Well we always liked to provoke There was a lot of nudity. It became our trademark. Lars and me running around naked. It was a cheap trick and a bit childish but it got us a lot of attention. The management of the company, however, was quite careful. We were making money.

There's a story about you calling off a shoot during Dancer in the Dark just to get back at Bjork.

That's true. She had run away from set. She was gone 4-5 days in a row. Everyone set up in costume and makeup and no Bjork. When she came back, Lars came to me and I said 'I know what you want to do, you want to cancel today's shoot.' So we did. Lars and I went and played tennis all day. It cost a lot of money and it was stupid. But boy did it feel good. 

When did things begin to go wrong?

Jensen: The period from 2008 to 2010 was a nightmare: Everything we produced flopped. We’d become too unfocused. We’d been making profits for 16 years — making money without really focusing on the product or marketing — and that made us sloppy. Suddenly, we lost it. We thought, “OK, three or four flops, and we’ll get back on track.” But no, we made 20 flops in a row. It almost destroyed the company.

Vesth: Honestly, the way we produced the films, they were missing the market. We sort of lost the idea of our stories, and I think our talent felt that, too.

How did the crisis change the company?

Jensen: I had to fire 50 percent of the staff. A lot were my personal friends, people I had persuaded to buy shares in the company — and now, when the shit was hitting the fan, I was firing them. It was a huge burden personally.

Jorgensen: Actually, I think the crisis saved us. It brought us back to the Zentropa way. We returned to spending the little money and time we had on developing projects, putting them into films where we had great confidence that they can work both locally and on the international market. This is what we always aim for now when we produce.

Jensen: Sometimes you need to be in deep shit in order to be creative – makes you more sexy – makes you feel have to be innovative – to get back to the market. Our films after that - A Royal Affair and In a Better World – brought us right back - in terms of box office, international sales and festival attention.  

Jorgensen: Now we have changed the financial condition of the company - we are much more solid. I think, I would like us to try to be more experimental again. Because to be honest, we haven't had the money to do that for the past few years.

STORY: Lars von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac' Campaign Birthed From Nazi Comments at Cannes

What do you see as the biggest challenge in today’s marketplace?

Vesth: The financial structure of our business is being challenged because the digital revolution, the VOD revolution, is making the world smaller. When it started, I thought it could actually help the smaller, more artistic films. I was naive. Now what you see is because of the digital possibilities, the world is even smaller. Everyone wants the same thing at the same time, so the blockbuster effect is even worse than it was in the analog world. Awareness is everything because people all over the world want to discuss the same things at the same time — and things become old so quick. The world has become very small.

Jensen: That's the biggest challenge: how can we get attention for a film? We make films for the art house audience, films that generate articles in the press, because the art house audience are still readers. We never spend much money on marketing we need to get press attention and use that as our marketing along with a festival platform. Like with Vinterberg's The Hunt. The story - a man accused of pedophilia -  got the attention we needed to use to market the film.

What has been your worst moment at Zentropa?

Vesth: I remember a particular press conference in Cannes.

Gade: That was my worst moment as well, and I wasn’t even involved in the project.

Jensen: I had been up till a quarter to 7 that morning, dealing and drinking with a buyer. I had agreed with Lars that the big surprise at the press conference should be he would be nice and gentle — the surprise would be there would be no surprise, no provocation. I went to sleep thinking, “It’ll all be fine.”

Vesth: I was in the room. I remember he said a lot of stupid things, but the feeling in the room … people were laughing. I remember walking out of the room and asking the other producers: “Did he really say, ‘I’m a Nazi’? Did he say that?” And they said: “Yeah, but people were laughing. I think it’s all right.” We checked all the Internet sites, and the story was, “Lars’ next film will be a porno.” Everything was calm. Then America woke up. If only America would just stay asleep! As soon as they woke up, all hell broke loose. And of course if you just read the transcription of what he said, and don't see the press conference and the context of it – it just sounds crazy. Reading exactly what he said – you can't read the sarcasm, the irony.

Will von Trier ever return to Cannes?

Jensen: I think so. We were in talks with Cannes last year to bring Nymphomaniac there, but it wasn’t ready and then the timing wasn’t right. But Thierry Fremaux and Lars are on speaking terms. I definitely think Lars will be back in Cannes.