Q&A: Thomas Vinterberg


More than a decade after the breakout success of "The Celebration" and the Dogme movement he helped create, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg is back with "Submarino." An unflinching look at Copenhagen street life, it's the story of two brothers: one an ex-con, the other a heroin junkie trying to care for his six-year-old son. Vinterberg talked to THR's German bureau chief Scott Roxborough about the back-to-basics approach in his new film. Just don't call it Dogme.

The Hollywood Reporter: What attracted you to this story?

Thomas Vinterberg: A couple of things. As a father myself, I was struck by the beauty in which it describes how one tries, and here fails, to be responsible for one's children. I found that even though this is in a very gritty, gray environment that hasn't much to do with my own life, it had a universal appeal. It made me want to go the bedroom and check to see if my kids were still breathing. I thought it was a strikingly beautiful and yet honest and brutal story and that combination really appealed to me. The book (by novelist Jonas T. Bengtsson) isn't wrapped in anything sentimental. It is quite harsh but also quite beautiful. It was a time in my life wanted do something really straight and pure.

THR: Why did you feel this need to get back to basics?

Vinterberg: It's difficult to explain. I like changing every time I make a movie and I like challenging myself. But maybe its because I just turned 40, I felt like starting over. I felt like returning to the kind of filmmaking I started with, the naive sense of purity the films had that I made when I just came out of film school. Not a glossy professionalism but just a simple story told simple and straight.

THR: Was it difficult to recapture that sense of naivete?

Vinterberg: You can't become naive overnight, unfortunately. But what helped was in financing this project, we did a deal with the financiers, the Danish television channel, that half of the crew and half of the actors had to be first-timers. That was a condition of receiving funding. So the director of photography and the scriptwriter, for instance, were both people who had never made a film before. A lot of the actors were first-timers. As you might know, I like rules. I like these little games. So that for me was a way to start over. This eagerness and curiosity that comes from just starting out is something you can't do for money. It was a very important and very refreshing element to have all these young people on set, challenging me to not work as I normally would do but being forced to adjust to them and their personalities.

THR: What sort of research did you do for the film?

Vinterberg: This project awakened my youthful curiosity and I began to explore this part of Copenhagen that I knew nothing about. I researched it in depth. I had to know everything about drug dealing. How much does one gram cost and where you go to get the pills, that sort of thing. I was helped by an old friend of mine, also called Thomas, from primary school. We had gone our separate ways after school. I started a career as filmmaker and he started a career as a heroin addict. He almost died, OD'ed -- several times. But then he got clean and became a teacher and is really active in these neighborhoods, helping the kids there. He took me in. He told me things I never imagined. You know addiction isn't just about the dope. It's a strong power within all of us. Addiction also is universal. Some people are addicted to (online videogame) World of Warcraft, some are addicted to cheating on their wife. The whole idea of being addicted and having children is what interested me: that you have to choose between your own needs and the needs are your children.

THR: You made this film on a very tight budget, under $2.7 million. How did that effect the production?

Vinterberg: Everything had to be very simplified. We had a very small crew, just one gaffer throughout the whole film, for example. Time was very tight. I had to boil every scene down do its essence. I couldn't have any mannerism. I had to speak a very simple language. Of course, me and my DP tried to be poetic in a way but also very matter of fact. This created a simplicity and shows in every scene. It's there in every frame. For me, it was a sort of cleansing film.

THR: The search for simplicity, working under strict rules, seems to have some parallels with the Dogme movement.

Vinterberg: Yes, I guess, in a way. It was clean and pure in the same way that Dogme was but I don't really want to talk about Dogme.

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THR: Why not? Is it something you want to put behind you?

Vinterberg: No, but it's all I've been talking about for 10 years. I've got all my automatic answers on tape and I can play them for you if you want. But "Submarino" was different than Dogme. It was much more playful and not arrogant at all. This is just a movie. It's not a movement.