Fantasia 2010: Tomas Villum Jensen Talks AT WORLD'S END
While Tomas Villum Jensen is familiar to Fantasia audiences from his acting turns in festival faves In China They Eat Dogs and Old Men in New Cars, as well as the arthouse hit Adam's Apples (2005), he's also got a hefty back-catalogue of directing credits, and it's safe to say that At World's End is his most ambitious film to date - not to mention that it also happens to be the first big-budget Danish adventure film!
A BBC film crew is massacred in the jungle of Sumatra and the shooter is alleged to be a Danish Citizen - who claims to be 129 years old and dependent on a rare flower to keep him young. With the shooter facing the death penalty, the Danish government hopes to bring him home and have him declared "mentally disordered", so they assign a bumbling young psychiatrist from the Danish Prison Service named Adrian (Nikolaj Lie Kaas of Adam's Apples and the forthcoming thriller The Whistleblower with Monica Belluci and Rachel Weisz) the job of going to Jakarta to give him a mental evaluation. Urged to take on the case by his pessimistic father who thinks him a failure, Adrian embarks on his trip with inquisitive gum-smacking female assistant Beate in tow. Much of the film's humour is derived from the extreme xenophobia all around, and Adrian's struggle to communicate results in his being mistakenly arrested as a sex tourist and brutally beaten by the suspicious Indonesian police. But this bespectacled loser with socks and sandals becomes a reluctant action hero - with rooftop shootouts, bloody prison-breaks and death-defying helicopter stunts - as it becomes apparent that the local cops and gangsters alike are all after this elusive immortality flower.
At World's End is far-fetched and fun, a throwback to 80s adventure-comedy films like Romancing the Stone, The Golden Child or Big Trouble in Little China, full of grown-up action and even underscored by some unexpected existential yearning. Master screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (In China They Eat Dogs, Old Men in New Cars) stepped up his typically insular black humour to accommodate the larger-scale international action of At World's End, and the result is a truly daffy action comedy. We spoke with Producer Christian Potalivo and director Tomas Villum Jensen about their own adventures in trying to bring this unique film to life.
Can you tell me about your influences in creating an adventure story like this?
Christian Potalivo: There is a great deal of inspiration in the old school treasure-hunt films from Hollywood - a film as Romancing the Stone - but with our Danish humorous, ironic take on this genre.
Tomas Villum Jensen: As a Director you have to deal with every little thing in a movie. What kind of socks is the leading actor wearing in scene 78? Where are we filming? The cast, music, editing? In this film we had to work on the other side of the globe, in Indonesia, Australia, Singapore, and of course in Denmark. So there was also a lot of travelling planning going on. The crew was all new people, in every new country we came to. So we really had to adjust very much to conditions. In Indonesia we prayed every day before shooting, and the whole crew of 100 people held hands and prayed; something I personally liked a lot. Overall, you can say that the creative responsibility is the director's.
Christian - How does this film fit in with your catalogue of work to date? Many of your past films have been 'family' films, and this film is quite violent!
CP: I do not have a preference concerning the kind films that I want to do. My main concern is if it is a good project with a good story! When I was fresh out of film school, I had the opportunity to do some cool family entertainment films, as well as developing a project like this, which was much more time consuming. My shorts are also in completely different genres, ranging from poetic comedy to political satire. The violence in the film is mainly there to underline the humour and the grotesque situation the plot revolves around.
Tomas - you are known primarily as an actor, and have appeared in many of the most critically-appreciated Danish exports (like Adam's Apples and In China They Eat Dogs), and you've even done the voice of Garfield in the Danish version of the film! - what drew you to this story as a director?
TVJ: The latest cartoon I did was G-Force - I played the lead as Darwin, dubbing the voice of Sam Rockwell! I have worked as a director for the last 14 years; in 1997 we got Oscar-nominated for Ernst and the Light, and the year after I directed my first feature film.
This type of story is something I always dreamed about making. It's the first adventure film made in Denmark and I love the genre. Danish films are often about a divorce, or a family who loses a child.... Films that in my opinion are boring and belong on television. The big screen is for big dreams, big landscapes and great adventure!!!
Can you talk about the challenges and benefits of the different shooting locations and international producing partners?
TVJ: It was fantastic - to travel and shoot in 4 different countries. In Australia we got a fantastic film crew of people that had been working on big budget Hollywood films shot in Australia. The camera department came directly from the Baz Luhrman films, and these guys where just great. The grip department were 4 guys - normally we only have one on a Danish film. So the whole crew was 4 times bigger than what we are used to.
In Indonesia it was the first time they saw a Panavision Camera!!! And shooting car scenes in busy Jakarta on a lowloader is the most crazy thing I ever did!!!
Christian - You said in an interview that Danes and Australians are like-minded. What did you mean by that?
CP: I think there is a very down to earth, enthusiastic and respectful way both countries approach the craftsmanship and creative world of filmmaking. We are two nations of beer drinkers who share a good bit of humour. Also, we both have a film industry where - when we do local films - we don't necessarily have the big funds, but must work in a creative way to find solutions on how to tell a story or solve problems, since we haven't got the means to pay for a solution.
There is some very overt culture clash in the film - The Danish
characters are very uncomfortable with emotion, the Southeast Asians are
unyielding and violent, and the BBC crew is characterized as obnoxious
and incompetent. What were your goals in setting up the relationships
between characters of different countries?
CP: I think one word says all: Humour. It was a great challenge to play with all these cards, on one hand. Adrian is really in the wrong place at the wrong time.
TVJ: The world is getting smaller, and the death of an English crew in Indonesia could easily end up involving a great number of countries. Reality often is more crazy than fiction! The simple way of personifying people from different countries is not to put anyone down or anything - it is a simple way of serving the story, and using the clichés in a new ironic and funny way.
Can you talk about your approach to humour in the film? It seems much more pronounced than in earlier films In China They Eat Dogs or Old Men in New Cars, which have a very dry sense of humour - and yet it is from the same writer, Anders Thomas Jensen.
TVJ: Well it's a difficult question to answer. I think the times
today are different. It would be different to make In China They Eat
Dogs today...My favourite films are all from America - I love all
the big scenes, with great action, and we had the script to go do it.
The films you mention are very low budget films, with low budget
solutions. Which is great, but different from this.
What is the relationship between the Danish Film Institute and filmmakers in Denmark in general? What's the protocol for getting the DFI on board?
CP: The DFI is an institution under the Danish ministry of culture. They subsidise local films and co-productions, under a very detailed system, that takes account of both artistic films and more commercial films. That way Denmark has a cultural support to the film industry, that ensures the continuous development of the media and the content, as well as close contact with the industry and the Danish audience. It is a unique system that is greatly beneficial for the industry and the filmmakers. But also a system that is challenged all the time by the industry and the filmmakers, so that the development of Danish film continues in new and better directions.
TVJ: I personally have a good relationship with the Danish Film Institute - they have supported the 6 feature films I have directed.
Christian - you've now produced an Oscar-winning short film, The New Tenants. How does that affect your ability to get funding for your projects? Have you seen a difference since the Oscars?
CP: Of course this leads to some attention - but there is still a great difference between shorts and features. Some doors open a bit more, but it always comes down to the project in the end. Denmark is a small country, and for the local side of it, it doesn't have any influence. It's just a great experience, to be involved in a project that is honoured in that way.
How have you seen Danish cinema evolve since the 1990s and the reign of Lars von Trier?
CP: There are always ups and downs, and different ways to measure success. Lars von Trier has had a great influence on Danish cinema, and is a great ambassador for Danish film and film art. But luckily the last 20 years have shown that Danish film is much more than Lars von Trier. A wide span of directors and writers are getting noticed, and this develops Danish filmmaking. Anders Thomas Jensen, Lone Scherfig and Susanne Bier stretch the market internationally, and still make films in Denmark of high artistic and commercial value. Tomas Villum Jensen has in the same years made some of the most-viewed films throughout this period - and made the mainstream film in Denmark much more accessible. Right now the Danish industry is having a hard time. But the arts + entertainment industry has a fantastic way of reinventing itself; this is what happened with Dogme and the rise of mainstream in Denmark, and something is probably going to happen again in some way.
TVJ: I don't think Lars von Trier has had very much effect on Danish cinema. His films don't sell that many tickets in Denmark. I think I have sold 4 times as many tickets as Lars on the last 6 films we have made...I think he has done fantastic films but also some really bad ones. But a lot of directors wanted to make films that were more American than European or Danish. We started to look out, and felt what we did was good, we did not feel ashamed anymore. The same happened with the Danish actors - suddenly they felt they were good enough.
- Kier-La Janisse