'Nymphomaniac's' Marketing Tease Features Stellan Skarsgard's Simulated Sex Act

The four-hour epic became the most talked-about indie of 2013 due to ever-more-explicit stills and clips, plus Shia LaBeouf, Charlotte Gainsbourg and especially Skarsgard giving their best O-faces: "All the women on set said 'Wow, that's sexuality incarnate,' and he's 62."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 3, 2014, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Lars von Trier's two-part sex epic Nymphomaniac doesn't hit U.S. theaters until March 21. But thanks to a clever, relentless and, yes, very sexy viral marketing effort by Danish producer Zentropa and Copenhagen agency Einstein Film, the controversial director's latest opus is the most talked-about indie film of 2013 ahead of its European rollout beginning Christmas Day.

"We'd never really done a marketing campaign for one of Lars' films before," Nymphomaniac producer Louise Vesth tells THR. But she knew the campaign was working "when we put up the first short clip and got more than 3 million views. There are only 5 million people in all of Denmark, so we knew this had to be making an international impact."

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The creative campaign grew out of necessity. Von Trier, 57, traditionally has promoted his movies at the Cannes Film Festival, where his reputation as a boundary-pushing auteur (Breaking the Waves, Antichrist) and penchant for outrageous comments have made him an international star. But a 2011 press conference for his Melancholia prompted headlines when he joked that he was a Nazi and could sympathize "a little bit" with Hitler. The media storm led to a ban (since lifted) from appearing at Cannes and to von Trier taking a "vow of silence."

Without von Trier or Cannes, Vesth took a different path. She met with Philip Einstein Lipski and Maria Einstein Biilmann of Einstein to devise another approach. "I said: 'We have this brand called Lars von Trier, which is known around the world. We have a film about female sexuality, and it's got the great title Nymphomaniac,' " recalls Vesth. " 'We've got to be able to do better at marketing this than just a festival screening and a poster.' "

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The resulting eight-month campaign has played out like a striptease, with gradual disrobings of stars including Shia LaBeouf, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Sophie Kennedy Clark and Uma Thurman and ever-more explicit stills and video clips to keep the heat on. In late November, Einstein lit up social media with 14 posters featuring the ensemble cast giving their best O-faces.

"It took about five minutes to come up with the idea, but with the actors, the execution was tricky," says Lipski. "Stellan just stripped and acted out a very believable sexual act in front of us. … All the women on the set said, 'Wow, that's sexuality incarnate,' and he's 62." But Thurman was more circumspect, adds Lipski: "She liked the idea, but she said, 'You have to remember, I'm an American.' "

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Vesth admits she had to deal with "a lot of anxious agents and nervous PR managers." But the buzz generated by the campaign, which she estimates has cost only $500,000, has proved her argument.