6 Filmmaking Tips from Thomas Vinterberg

By  · Published on May 2nd, 2015

Fox Searchlight

With The Celebration, the first official film of the radical yet tongue-in-cheek Dogme 95 film movement, Thomas Vinterberg helmed one of the most striking debuts to be recognized internationally during the 1990s. Yet Vinterberg’s reputation, for a while, at least, seemed to threaten to never realize the promise evident in his initial accomplishment. For a director whose first film emerged from a manifesto organized around strict and ascetic dictates for authentic filmmaking, it’s surprising that Vinterberg’s filmmaking has never been satisfied to reside within one particular style, addressing subjects ranging from dystopian melodrama (It’s All About Love) to American youth violence (Dear Wendy) to even a situation comedy set in the world of opera (When a Man Comes Home). Even when Vinterberg decided to address again the subject matter of The Celebration – sexual predation of children – with his other well-known import, the highly acclaimed The Hunt, it could hardly have been a more disparate film stylistically and thematically.

All of this makes for a versatile and unpredictable filmmaker, but it also makes Vinterberg’s cinematic worldview hard to pin down in traditionally auteurist terms, and might be the reason why filmgoing across to pond didn’t quite know what to do with him until The Hunt drew him the most attention he’s received since making a filmmaking pact with the guy who would go onto direct Antichrist. And now Vinterburg’s omnivorous tastes have led him to a period drama with his adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd opening Friday.

So here is some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) to help us better understand one of the most intriguing yet enigmatic directors working today.

“Create a Living Soul”

Connections between Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and Vinterberg’s The Celebration are clear. Both films have ornate aristocratic households at their center filled with storied rituals, and each peels away this image of privileged domesticity to illuminate much darker forces lurking underneath. Each film even mandates that its ensemble dance through the elaborate halls of an estate.

But Vinterberg’s honing in on the farting scene as the film’s “slice of life” – a moment of unabashed sophomoric humor in a film by a director not known for it – is telling. It reveals the fact that one can, and should, readily mix certain extremes. The sacred and the vulgar, moments aesthetically beautiful yet thematically horrifying, and tones that range from sober realism to tongue-in-cheek allegory abound in The Celebration, and fit the almost self-parodying manifesto that created it. Embracing these seeming polarities produces moments that feel alive and potent.

Embrace Your Limitations

BOMB: So it was liberating for you, rather than restricting?

Vinterberg: A lot. I guess Americans have difficulty understanding that, but everybody has limitations when they start a project. If you’re a painter you have four sides to work within: the frame. On the political-cultural level the idea was, of course, to break with the conventions that exist in Denmark and all of the conventions you carry around with yourself as a filmmaker.

Dogme 95 embraced the idea that every worthwhile act of artistic creation involves inherent limitations. And by foregrounding those limitations, it reveals their important role in inspiring creative choices, forcing filmmakers to make decisions they wouldn’t otherwise need to in order to produce a different kind of filmmaking. One does not need a manifesto to see the general value and reward to this mentality.

But just to make it clearer, here’s Vinterberg talking with David Bowie about it:

…But Don’t Be Afraid to Venture to a Different Place

“I found I am not an anarchistic form creator; I’m intuitive, and I’m trying to figure out a way to explore human fragility…It’s All About Love and Dear Wendy were form experiments. Now it’s a different ballgame; I can look at what is really close to me.”

In this interview in promotion of Far From the Madding Crowd and the director’s following film, The Commune, Vinterberg discusses the strange, seemingly meandering but never contrived arc of a career that found him bouncing from one subject to the next. Vinterberg claims (as the next tip elaborates) that he rediscovered himself in a cinematic comfort zone with his more recent work in contrast to this era of experimentation, but such experiments were still essential to his filmmaking. As people, we grow and change, so it should be no surprise that filmmakers do not persist with fixed identities.

The industry’s practice of pigeonholing and criticism’s myths about directors’ identities might see filmmakers as unshakable monoliths whose works are legibly connected by a clear thread of traits and ideas, but Vinterberg’s career speaks loud and clear to the fact that a career in filmmaking is often an act of exploration and trial, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

…Or Go Back to the Drawing Board

Vinterberg told Time Out London that, while The Celebration “was a big success… the whole Dogme thing was something I could take no further. I had to start all over again and redefine myself, which left me very vulnerable and created many painful experiences, but also some work I’m very proud of.” The director spoke of Submarino, the family drama he directed before The Hunt, as similar to the films he made in film school, essentially returning his interests and concerns back to square one, but in a new context of a whirlwind of filmmaking experience. In this case, it is hardly regressive to move backwards.

Create a Community as Your Setting

In Vinterberg’s two best-known films, The Celebration and The Hunt, the director establishes a detailed portrait of an ensemble community and slowly unravels through the course of the film. Even though each film centers around a central human drama, the functions of the community – from its unspoken rules and customs to the unique reactions of different characters to each narrative revelation – are essential to the depth and power of these films. Vinterberg takes time to establish the world in which his characters reside, and realizes that the communities in which your characters exist are the film’s setting.

What We’ve Learned: Give Yourself to the Material

As Vinterberg must choose precisely what to adapt and what to leave out from Thomas Hardy’s novel for his newest feature, he continues to recognize the necessity of recognizing – and embracing – one’s limitations. And as Vinterberg asserts that he sought to make a “Thomas Hardy film,” not a “Thomas Vinterberg film,” he reveals (as is evidenced by his career thus far) that the identity of a filmmaker is unfixed. It can change, evolve, experiment, move backwards, or even be erased in favor of honoring source material. As a director who technically wasn’t even credited for his first feature, Vinterberg’s work demonstrates the undetermined place of the filmmaker with respect to the work. A filmmaker can only give who they are at that particular moment to the work at hand, and often giving oneself to a certain project can mean thinking about one’s own identity in a completely different way.