Dear Wendy: Vinterberg and Lars von Trier

With “Dear Wendy,” Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (“The Celebration,” “It’s All About Love”) examines a group of young peace-loving misfits in a poor mining town in the American South that unexpectedly develops a passion for guns. In collaboration with fellow Dogme 95 creator Lars von Trier (“Dogville” and the forthcoming “Manderlay”), who wrote the screenplay, Vinterberg aims to depict gun culture and its ramifications on modern life at home and abroad.

Reuniting with his previous collaborator Lars von Trier, Vinterberg was intrigued by “Dear Wendy” in its initial script form for its political allegory as well as its politically incorrect spirit. Although von Trier receives full credit for the screenplay, Vinterberg toned down his colleague’s notorious provocations, as well as his plan for a minimalist stage-like setting that recalled “Dogville” and “Manderlay” in its use of characters as quasi-chess pieces.

Where did the idea for “Dear Wendy” come from

Lars von Trier: I can’t remember, maybe because I psychologically passed the project to Thomas.

Thomas Vinterberg: I think Lars went out hunting one day and found it interesting and amusing to conceive a love story about a man and a gun. Initially it wasn’t the story that ascinated me as much as the idea of directing something Lars had written. We had so much fun working or playing together before. Our way of working is very different, but that was an inspiring thought. When I then read it, a number of things about it really appealed to me. Making a group portrait about such a crazy project, this experiment, was extremely inspiring. It has all these great aspects of social behaviour, which interest me as a director, and I understood why Lars felt that I could add to this project.”

LVT: I had written the film for myself, but it was important for me that it had a realistic tone otherwise it wouldn’t be dangerous. So I asked Thomas to do it, he could add these absurdities of realism. He is very clever in that respect and he is great with details.

TV: We have fundamentally different approaches to filmmaking. I start with a certain characteristic, a tension between two people, and then slowly find my way to a story. Lars does it the other way around.

LVT: I really start with the music. I have these things that I save up, and The Zombies was one of them – their sound and the emotions it brings out. I didn’t listen to them when they initially came out, but I have for years now. You can’t see it in the film, but at one point the script was literally built around the songs.

Working with Lars von Trier

TV: We have worked together since 1995, when we formed Dogme 95. We are the ultimate opposites when it comes to our work and form, and it’s therefore inspiring every time we collaborate. Lars is precise and systematic, almost mathematically exact, especially in the way he continues to experiment with film’s form. I work more intuitively and searchingly, endeavouring to do what I can to create life and humanity on the screen. The thought of uniting these qualities in the same film was appealing, and when the opportunity arose, I basically said yes before Id even read the screenplay. I have, since then, gone to the trouble of doing so.

Is Lars von Trier Irritating

TV: One of the things that doesn’t irritate me about Lars is that he is so up front about the fact that people do feel attracted to firearms. That itself was so provocative that I wanted to step in and see where I could go with that. I think what the film says is that it’s not the gun itself that is evil. What we should focus on is the hand that holds the gun. It’s the moment when fear or greed or desire or power enters the picture that the concept of firearms turns ugly.

Approach to the Subject

TV: “Dear Wendy” is about a group of young people in a poverty-stricken coal-mining town somewhere in the American Southeast. They remove themselves from their surroundings by forming a club in which they can carry and worship their handguns while remaining true to their pacifist views. Pacifists with weapons is what most of the Western world consider themselves, I thought as well. I reduced the characters’ ages by ten years and did everything I could to work against the stylized story. I have tried, throughout the entire project, to anchor the film in a form of reality and familiarity, thereby remaining true to the film’s unusual and fascinating storyline. Since I began work on the film, I have found myself facing a series of disturbing thoughts and emotions regarding the love of weapons.

Changing the script, like the ironic voice-over

TV: Primarily I changed the age of the young characters his characters were initially fifteen years older than they are in the film. But a lot of the script was already there. I tried to develop the part of the script that was about being young and disappointed with what life puts in front of you — the idea of born losers who want to become something else. For me there was this very touching story hidden in the script about some young people who have to make a choice in their lives, between going into death together or going back to a normal, grey existence.

I really like this kind of voice-over. But I also saw it as my greatest enemy or challenge, because it goes against the filmmaking I am an ambassador for. What is dangerous about a voice-over is that it can lift you out of the story instead of hold you to the emotions on display. But I really liked it here. I see the guy in the film as Lars, so it is great that the guy talks with Lars’ voice so to speak. But we did several things, which took him away from Lars again. One was to make the main character 12 years younger; the other was getting Jamie Bell. That is what happens when you hire an actor, this new person completely changes your conception of the character by the way they look and speak.

LVT: Making him younger was a great idea. I supported that from the start.

TV: The thing we spend the most time and probably money on was the casting of the film. We knew we had to get the exact right group together to pull this off.

LVT: I think that works extremely well.

TV: Yes, they were really great. We had a lot of very great talents who were interested in doing it, but I think, Dick was the most vulnerable. His character manipulates a lot of people and ultimately creates a quite horrible thing around him, but he is just this young boy. I had to talk a lot with Jamie about his character, to give him an emotional anchor. To explain why he starts talking to a gun and things like that.

LVT: I never understood why you had a problem with that.

TV: No, that is because it is something you have decided, that is the way you are – here’s a guy who’s in love with a gun. I can’t just accept that and work with that. So we needed to find explanations for it, talked about loneliness, escapism things like that. It is too banal to say in the film, but it gave us an emotional sounding board.

LVT: I love that way of storytelling, probably because we were told at film school never to do that. My first film was only a voice-over. In reality, I think, I have some literary ambitions I can live out by writing these long stories. It gives you the opportunity to explain a lot, which you would have to spend a lot of screen time on if you didn’t explain it that way – analysis and suggestions as to how one might understand something as well. I was mad about “Barry Lyndon,” and especially the voice-over and I have tried to mimic its tone, because it suits me very well. This sarcastic tone is also very dominant in “Manderlay.

The Columbine High School Massacre

TV: I felt in some way that this film was related to what happened at Columbine a comment on it. I think we are discussing issues related to Columbine, the idea of having to choose death in the end. That’s a parallel to Columbine. But there are a lot of other parallels and allegories in the film. When I started thinking about the concept of pacifists with guns, I also thought about peacekeeping missions of the Western world and the escalation of arms in order to maintain that peace. (In Lars’s microscopic way of thinking), he was talking about world politics in his script. But at the same time he was talking about the refined, psychological and inexplicable thing that happens when a man holds a gun in his hand. It almost becomes something erotic. On a very refined level, the film explores peoples’ attraction to firearms in an almost sexual way.
UK and America

TV: It’s an odd parallel the dirt-poor American South of the present day and the Edwardian Dandies — and it’s one that I have tried hard to conjoin into one film. Many scenes in the film are intended to be satiric a portrait of America and its gun culture as seen in an almost clichd manner, with Bill Pullman’s Officer Krugsby character as a clear example. But there’s also a commentary on the overly snobbish and ritualized European behavior of the original Dandy. There’s a conflict in this film between the man of action and the man of the spoken word. I wanted this to become a big discussion in the film, the same sort of conflicting dynamic the United States and France have had over the issue of the Iraq war, even though this film was written before the U.S. invasion.

Anti Americanism

TV: I don’t understand the word anti-American. I find it a terrible generalization and I could as well say that I love America. There is so much great art in America; my ten favorite movies are American; and New York is my favorite city. Sixty percent of my upbringing is American and it’s the same for Lars. It’s the frontier of Western living. In Europe, we have McDonald’s, basketball, American television, American films. Weve grown up in the suburbs of America. It’s very obvious that people in our countries are curious about America. They feel an urge to debate its power. And they have the right to be provocative about it and at the same time remain deeply fascinated by it. It’s not like were sitting on the other side of the ocean finger pointing. Were a part of your community.

Young Ensemble Cast

TV: I took four trips to the U.S. for casting sessions, casually grouping actors in different ways in order to find the ones that worked best together. After I had settled on the young cast, I held a three-week rehearsal period during which time he encouraged his young actors to improvise as a group in order to help each one better find his or her specific characters. I also wanted them to get to know their firearms, not to mention also indoctrinating them in the ritualistic behavior that goes along with being a Dandy.”

I held dinners with the young cast during which each member was required to appear in character for an entire evening in order to make him or her comfortable handling whatever situation I threw at them. If they could improvise so well it was because they knew everything about their characters. I could say to them, while the cameras were rolling, Talk to your firearm! And they knew exactly what to say. This sort of character work is what I like best about my own work. It wasn’t difficult for the actors because they were all so good.

Casting Jamie Bell

TV: I thought he had this great vulnerability and childishness in his face, which contradicted the less sympathetic character of Dick. It created this layer of softness that I really liked. Dick was a bit of a demon when I first read Lars’s script. I thought it would be more interesting to have a demon with some softness and purity to him Jamie had youthfulness but he also gave off this well-educated Britishness. He was this tremendously complex, almost grown-up person that I felt really fit in with the character. The fact that he’s British but happens to be growing as an American movie star was for me the ultimate conglomerate.

Time frame

TV: “Dear Wendy” is intended to be set in the present day, but with its stereotypical characters and retrograde depiction of small-town life juxtaposed with late-model automobiles and semi-automatic weapons the film feels oddly out of the past, exuding a fascinating sense of disconnect. “We threw in a lot of things, like the Zombies’ music, the character of the police officer and the black maid, that create a sort of timelessness. We wanted it to feel like a piece of theater the sort of vision of America that you might see represented on the theatrical stage. The timelessness came out of that by accident, to be honest, but I saw that in the towns I visited in West Virginia and I thought it fit fantastically into the greyishness of being a loser. We wanted the young characters to show off their loser status as much as possible. Those old mining towns sort of looked like that.

Zombies’ Music

TV: Several key songs by the Sixties’ British Invasion group The Zombies take center stage in the film. We incorporate song lyrics from The Zombies’ oeuvre as character dialogue. This had everything to do with the Anglophilia that comes into play with the Dandies, referring to the 19th century British tradition of flamboyant men in ornate finery wielding sharp tongues — sartorial icons like Beau Brummell, Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde, who transformed Victorian England with their audacious wit and style. The ritualism of the Dandies in the film sort of steers you back to England. For a cult, you need trademarks. And one of them became the music of The Zombies. The script was written around the songs and the use of lyrics, as dialogue was even more obvious in earlier drafts.

Using Zombies in the film

TV: No, at first I didn’t want to. But I came to see the things in the script as rules, building blocks for the film we were making. It is a typical example of the difference between us, because my jumping-off point would be what works on a emotional level, while Lars builds a whole sequence around what is said, the exact words. My way is more intuitive and less mathematical. That might mean something gets lost.

LVT: And properly a lot has been won.

TV: What was so fun about this experiment was that the script was so tight and well put together. It could bear to be challenged.

LVT: It could use being broken.

TV: I think it needed a less logical even irrational life. But it did take me some time to get the same fascination with The Zombies as Lars had, which I felt I needed to have. I had to have a desire to use it in the film.

LVT: But you have that now, don’t you

TV: Hell yeah, I think they are super cool.

Experience with handguns before the movie

LVT: I didn’t try to hold a real handgun until I was at film school. We weren’t allowed to make films with guns there, so that’s what I did. I have never actually fired one for real, but I have shot with a rifle and shotgun quite a lot.

TV: I tried my first gun at film school too. I tried hunting once with a shotgun, but I didn’t hit anything. There was a bird right over my head, but I had forgotten to take the safety off, so I didn’t get it. I felt the rush, but I never managed to kill anything. I grew up in a commune and didn’t even have a toy gun. But I took the actors to a shooting range in preparation for this film, and we tried to shoot different types of handguns and I also tried a AK47. It was quite wild. There’s a thrill in firing a gun. It is almost a dependency.
LVT: A dependency
TV: When I had tried that rifle I felt that I wanted to do it again, but that has faded again. It didn’t last very long.
LVT: Almost no matter what you delve into, you are bound to find some kind of beauty in it. The beauty in the detail, the moral side is something else. And when you hang around people who are interested in guns, you hear all these expressions — stopping power and things like that. It is really a fetish. When you look around the Internet, you come across a thousand websites dedicated to this, where people have written poems to their guns and deranged things like that.
TV: I have learned a hell of a lot about handguns, and Lars is right when he says that it is an amazing instrument, which can be fascinating to study. But there is a clear definition between that and what it is used for. Where I grew up weapons was a symbol of something bad, but it is just a thing, which you can use in a right way or wrong way.

Thomas Vinterberg’s Bio

Thomas Vinterberg was the youngest student ever to study at the National Film School of Denmark when he began studies in 1989. He graduated as a director in 1993. That year, he directed the short film “The Boy Who Walked Backwards.” The film went on to win awards around the world, including the Public Prize at Clermont-Ferrand (1994), Best Drama at the Toronto Short Film Festival (1995), as well as Best Short Film and Audience Award at Nordic Panorama (1994).

Vinterberg founded Dogme 95 together with his colleague Lars von Trier in 1995 and the year after that he directed his debut feature, “The Biggest Heroes,” which won three Danish Robert Awards.

In 1997, he directed his first feature film based on the Dogme manifesto, “The Celebration.” The film was also recipient of a wealth of awards around the world, including Special du Jury at Cannes (1998), the Fassbinder Award at The European Film Awards (1998), both the L.A. Film Critics Award (1998) and New York Film Critics Award (1998) for Best Foreign Film, seven Robert Awards and three Bodil awards. The film was sold to virtually every territory and was a huge success.

Together with his Dogme brothers, Thomas Vinterberg directed an experimental Dogme film on Danish television, D-Day. 2003 saw the premiere of his first, international, English-language feature, the futuristic fable “It’s All About Love,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Claire Danes. Dear Wendy” is Vinterberg’s second English-language feature.