TIFF 09: "In My Opinion You Shouldn't Comfort The Audience." An Interview With Ole Bornedal.

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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TIFF 09: "In My Opinion You Shouldn't Comfort The Audience." An Interview With Ole Bornedal.
Ole Bornedal's violent and troubling thriller Deliver Us From Evil has placed itself as my personal favorite film of the year so far and while the director was in town to present the picture to North American audiences for the first time at the Toronto International Film Festival, I had the chance to sit down with him for a wide-ranging conversation.

TB: One thing that's very interesting about you is how much your films can change from film to film. I'm a big fan of JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY, but to have done that and VIKAREN back to back - such completely different films. Do you enjoy the challenge of that as a director, to experiment a little bit that way?


OB: Yes, I think basically I'm just in for the good stories. Without any comparison, but Stanley Kubrick is of course one of my masters. If you look at Stanley Kubrick's productions they are very different from being the epic to the dark comedy to the horror movie to the war movie. His urge was the same as mine: find the good story, explore the good story, and then of course add your own personality to the choreographing of the movie. I don't want to go into that because there are so many film students who find the thematic line in my movies. I guess it's there, but it's just so difficult to talk about yourself, obviously. Certainly there's a certain style I'm trying to explore that hopefully you can see in all of my movies - playing with genre, playing with the meter and the level in the story, and trying constantly to search for the drama where at one point you feel absolutely safe, and a few seconds later, you are in the opposite emotional position. That's the kind of drama I myself really like.


TB: Which is very much the case with DELIVER US FROM EVIL. It starts with such a calm, quiet, happy - well mostly happy - family story, and it all turns so dark so very quickly.


OB: Yes it does. In that story in particular - because that's the danger in making a story like that: it's very easy to fall down into this European hole of becoming another socio-realistic story about people in daily distress. I had to take it away from that: I had to put a filter on it to make it more adventurous, and create this sort of manga character who introduces the film and ends the film, and sort of lets the whole thing in. Not to fall into that trap which I feel is actually one of the biggest problems in European cinema right now. Quite frankly I find it too boring, just basically showing reality as reality. I don't even know what reality is, I'm not even sure that anyone knows what reality really is. Making films about that in two hours is sort of tragic, at least not of any interest whatsoever to me. This film, DELIVER US FROM EVIL has to find an artificial layer to settle itself upon. I think thematically that's a theme in my character world, even from NIGHTWATCH where I remember the first thing I told the crew and the actors is these characters are like puppets on the screen, their destinies are darker and bigger than they would ever imagine. Now it's just like watching a puppet theatre. These guys don't know what is going on around them. They are victims of the story. This imagining, visualizing this dark hand resting over my characters in my movies is something I'm constantly exploring. DELIVER US FROM EVIL is like Dostoevsky's characters, who are victims of circumstance, victims of a bigger destiny. They don't really have any free will: it just happens. From the start of DELIVER US FROM EVIL, the guy really wants to change, the world is different from now on and snap, the next second his world is tilted again. It's sort of funny. I don't mean to laugh here but I like playing around with destiny and character and putting people in situations like that. I find it very challenging.


TB: When you talk about needing to insert a layer of artificiality, was that the motivation behind the shooting style on this and the colour saturation? I know some people when they look at the stills they say it's like comic panels. It's a long way from being a comic movie, but all the colours are pulled so far forward.


OB: I talked to Dan Laustsen, my DP, about doing this film in black and white and I really love black and white films just for the challenge because I know the director has really been fighting the producers in order to get it. I actually fought my producer on it. I produced this film myself together with another producer, so I could have done the film in black and white, but I felt it wouldn't be okay for this movie. I had to add some colour to it. We did, and I think it makes the film a little more brutal. It needs to be a very sharp contrast, a brutal look. Dan Laustsen is - in my opinion - one of the ten or twenty most interesting DPs in the world. To do a really raw, brutal film like that and make it beautiful in its own interpretation of the word beautiful - that was needed. Just as all the actors are modest, unknown actors, or they're amateurs or first-timers. I needed new faces in the film.


When I wrote the script, I wanted Viggo Mortensen and Mads Mikkelsen to play the two leads, the brothers, which would be quite interesting because they kind of resemble each other. Viggo couldn't, even though I know he would love to make a Danish movie, and Mads was busy doing this long VALHALLA movie traveling down a river. So I couldn't use Mads. I got a little pissed and used the hindrance for something creative, saying "Okay, now we want to do the complete opposite and cast unknown actors." It adds a sort of brutality to the film, at least for Danish movie-goers because they've never seen these faces before.


TB: Well, you don't know to expect from them. When you see Mads - I love Mads - even though he's very diverse, you still know roughly what world he works in.


OB: It is like that. Watching an Al Pacino film, you know what kind of character you'll get, more or less. It's interesting to work with new actors, especially in this story. It's not because I want to work with amateurs: for this story, I felt it fit right in.


TB: When you were developing the story, how long ago did you start, and timeline, was this influenced at all by the Muslim tensions within Denmark?


OB: No, not really. There's no political issue like that in it. Even if you read in the film some of the political issues that have been in Europe over the past ten years, of the various right-wings, and the more-or-less redneckish people in Europe who don't want to take in immigrants. It wasn't really tied in like that. Unfortunately, I would say I'm more interested in filming fiction. (laughs) I am doing a documentary right now, as a matter of fact, so it's not that I do not have a political conscience. I was more fascinated by the idea of a basic American story about some guys outside who want to get in. We have a protagonist inside and the antagonist outside. That's the storyline. That's the almost physical challenge of telling a story outside-inside which fascinated me. We've seen Fritz Lang do it and we've seen Peckinpah do it, obviously. A lot of 'American sheriffs protect the horse thieves in the prison' movies. That was my take on it, but hopefully adding some twists which you've never seen, or as many times before: not safely knowing who the good and who the bad guys are because the whole film is a discussion on what evil really is.


We tend to say we're the good guys and the other guys are the bad guys, but both our countries are involved in this Muslim war and we say they're the bad guys but I'm pretty sure they would say the opposite about us. Who are the good guys and who are the evil guys? I don't think evil is marked and put on the forehead of the other guy across the street. I think evil is contained in everybody, even in you and me sitting here. We just need the right or the wrong circumstances, unfortunately, to have it exposed and then it will be there.


TB: And that is exactly what I think makes this film so powerful. The things that turn the characters, that trigger the events are so small, other than the one initial mistake by Lars, that's the big one. As it continues, it's all these small decisions all the way along and as they happen, you recognize them, you're like "that actually, really makes sense." You can identify it and then you have to watch the consequences play out for all these decisions that you might do yourself.


OB: Yeah, exactly. I find the character of the lawyer pretty interesting because in Hollywood, he would just be Keanu Reeves defending his house. And at the end of the movie he would still just be Keanu Reeves. But in my interpretation, this guy is getting more and more mad and fascinated by what he does until the very end we see on his face that we realize he is actually married to demons by doing what he does. That's the myths and twists.


I think it's a challenge to constantly take in clichés. There's nothing wrong with a cliché, or the banal, you just have to constantly twist it and reinvent it. That's what I'm trying to do with DELIVER US FROM EVIL, and what I've tried to do in my other films. I've had a lot of meetings with American film producers that are luckily getting more and more interested in finding true character and true psychology in the characters I want to work with. I guess that's why they contact European directors. A lot of them ask me about the traffic accident in JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY, which everybody felt was incredibly scary to watch.


TB: Oh yeah, it's an incredible sequence.


OB: It is an incredible sequence, but the basic shot of the whole scene is only one camera. My crew asked "how many cameras do you want?" and I said "I just need one camera. We'll show the couple that watches the accident happen through the windshield." It just shows the car accident as you and I would see a car accident happening out on Bloor Street. It's just happening out there. The sound is dry. It's so real: the feel of the asphalt, the feel of the pavement, the feel of the shattered glass under your feet. They ask "how did you do that?" and I say "I didn't do anything." That's how I did it, by not doing anything really. Whereas in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE you have five cameras and a helicopter shot and an opera playing - which actually pulls you out. Funny enough, adding music to scenes like that actually comforts the audience. In my opinion you shouldn't comfort the audience: you should make the audience very disturbed. That's the thing that I'm trying to work with. I haven't seen DISTRICT 9 yet, but the whole idea of DISTRICT 9 saying "Okay, we have an alien film here, but lets see what happens if you make it just as real as my dirty shirt ... "


TB: Yeah, it completely subverts the alien invasion genre. That guy is good. He's really smart.


OB: Exactly. Spike Jonze is trying to work the same road also. I'm working on a musical right now that I will hopefully develop with a New York company.


TB: A stage musical or a film musical?


OB: A film musical which is a new interpretation of WESTSIDE STORY with of course ROMEO AND JULIET, but set in 2010. I want to make it extremely natural and extremely violent. WESTSIDE STORY is - to put it politely - very poetic; guys in red and green and yellow shirts dancing with their loose wrists. In this version, I'll make it really, really strong and brutal. That combined with the beauty of the music will elevate it to a new level. That makes my sort of filmmaking very enjoyable: to try and find that new ground all the time.


TB: You've been doing genre-influenced films for pretty much your entire career, but that's not something that has happened in Europe very much. It seems - particularly in the Nordic countries - that there's this young generation coming up now that have been well-trained. They understand the psychology of film, they know how to frame, they know how to use a DP - but they all grew up watching TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and want to make those sorts of films.


OB: Yeah, there's a new generation on its way. Until perhaps now, I have been feeling very lonely. I was one of the guys that set off Danish cinema in '94 with NIGHTWATCH, and then for some reason, no one really followed up NIGHTWATCH with genre film. Lars von Trier created the Dogme thing which -


TB: It totally changed the course -


OB: It totally changed the course of things and started a new generation of these socio-realistic filmmakers. I have nothing against art house or anything; I'm just saying it's very difficult to improvise a socio-realistic movie. I only know one master who can do that, and that's because he's a master, and that's Mike Leigh. But you cannot necessarily say "Oh I just want to do it just like Mike Leigh does," because you need to have the talent to do so. So there's been a lot of copying of making those sorts of stories not only in Scandinavia, but also in the rest of Europe, which I tend to find pretty boring. Also the discussion still exists in Europe among critics, film journalists and film workers that we have to be aware that American film doesn't drown us, the American cultural imperialism and all that. I find that discussion very conservative and very old fashioned in this globalized world we're living in right now.  And actually, at the end of the day, of all the movies that come out each year, in my opinion, the best ones are still the American movies.  If you ant innovative, elevated stories, they come from America.  Europe sometimes provides some really heavy movies, particularly because they're heavy on the psychology and character work which can lack in the American story telling.  The combination of these two, in my opinion, creates a great movie.  Solid story telling that can communicate to the audience but with a provocative and challenging psychology in a complex character.  That's wonderful when that happens, which is not often enough I am afraid.

I think in Scandinavian cinema, when I get together with younger directors in master classes or whatever, I always ask them "Why would you want to show reality as reality? We are story tellers.  It's a long tradition.  A long tradition, all the way back to sitting in the cave around the fire.  The story teller wasn't the guy that was telling the other guys around the fire about how to light a fire and how to go out and hunt.  The story telling is about how the fire came to earth thanks to a big god with wings.  That's fantasy."  Why would I want to make a film about a family sitting around the kitchen talking about granddad's tumor, and then he dies and they go to the funeral and that's two hours?  Why would I want to tell a story like that?  Why not tell a story where granddad dies and then he flies out the window and he disappears and you try to catch him?  That's what storytelling is about.  In my opinion that is what all movie making is about: to put a crack in reality and show that the world is somehow bigger then just what you see.  Because I don't believe in what I see.  I don't believe in it.  I think it's boring and I think it's crap and I think it's a lie.  Even our communications are not as complex as we think.  We think we can explain everything but we cannot explain even one third of what we have going on in our minds.  Fiction is about shelving reality and, by doing that, ultimately finding reality. 
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