An aesthetic choice

From the moment you write a manuscript, choose your actors and place a camera, you have made an aestethic choice. You are not depicting reality but creating an artistic work, says Kristian Levring who admits not having been able to set aside his personal taste, when he made his Dogme-film.

By Peter Rundle
Excerpts from a phone-interview given by Kristian Levring from his editing-suite in London, Wednesday November 10th 1999. 11.24

Your movie “The King and I” is the last of the original four Dogme-films. You have finished shooting it but since it doesn’t open until the spring of year 2000, maybe you should begin by giving us an idea of the plot.

“Basically my film is about a group of people on a bus trip through Africa. Due to certain events, the driver takes them to the wrong place in the middle of the night, and they end up stranded in a desolate ghost town. While one of them walks for help, the others stay behind waiting and since there is nothing to do, they soon get very bored. To pass the time one of the stranded passengers, an elderly actor, gets the idea of staging Shakespeare’s King Lear with the other passengers as actors.”

“Some find the idea amusing while others think that it is the most ridiculous thing they ever heard, and since he hasn’t actually brought King Lear with him out into the desert, the play he stages is the King Lear of his memory, modified to fit with the people he has at his disposal. In that way he makes it a Dogme King Lear. The film focuses on what happens with these people when they start thinking about their characters, their roles, who they are and the art in their every day lives.”

Your film being the last of the original four, you have been able to see the other three before starting to film yourself. How has that affected your interpretation of the 10 commandments of the Vow of Chastity?

“I have thought a great deal about not being allowed to make a genre-movie – rule number eight. It’s a very difficult rule. You have the obvious genres: westerns, film noir and then you have things like the French cinema which has become a genre because the films always take place in cafés at night. In my opinion you can talk about a genre, when movies start to refer to other similar movies – which gives us the problem that Dogme then runs the risk of becoming a genre of its own. That is why I have tried to make a film that doesn’t look like the three others, so that we won’t get this Dogme-genre – I think that is really important.”

What could become some of the clichés of the Dogme-genre?

“For instance, it could be the hand-held camera getting mannered. It could also happen if you don’t play with the rules as for instance Lars does when he uses live music on the set as background music. In my case, I have chosen to refrain from using music all together, but I have used a lot of microphones to record the sound of wind in the desert. When I saw The Celebration I found it liberating that there was no music. If it had been given the big violin-treatment, which had been very easy to do with that film, the experience had not been the same – when you are told to get emotional, it’s different than when you are just plain emotional. That’s why I find that background music is being completely misused – now it’s dramatic, so we hear the dark cello, or now we want some action, so we add some heavy rock. The only music in my film comes from a cd-player that one of the characters has brought with him.”

Here we are talking about rule number two which states that music can only be used if it is performed on location. But it also says that the sound must not be produced apart from the picture – which Lars has taken to mean that if you alternate between different cameras, you have to use the sound-track from the camera, you are using. What have you done?

“Yes, that was one of his ideas, but the rules don’t say anything about it. We recorded the sound on a separate tape recorder. I have done much of the shooting with three or four cameras because I wanted to use the same sound in the different shots – and here I have made my own little rule which I haven’t abided to one hundred percent, but nearly. If I have a camera on actor A, another on actor B and a third one on actor C, I have tried to make it work like one scene. I came home with 150 hours of material but have tried to use the same takes. Many of the scenes are simply one take, where I have discarded everything else. It has been really interesting. Actually I realised that when I did my job as a director what happened was that if actor A was good, so was actor B and C.”

In other words, when we see actor B the second after actor A has made a declaration of love to her, it is actually the second after and not, as we are used to, B’s reaction shot several hours later while she is looking into a wall?

“Yes, that is often the case in my film.”

On the other hand Søren Kragh-Jacobsen gives the rest of you some flack, because you have used video – he says that in effect your films are OB-productions. And in that sense you have made the most “authentic” OB-production because you have operated with several cameras and one sound-track…

“Yes, you could argue that. But on the other hand I have scenes which last maybe four minutes and where we have only switched between the same two cameras in one take. And that’s where I feel we have captured some kind of reality which in my opinion is very true to the Dogme-idea. You can always argue against it, but the important thing is that we are all making something different and that within these rules we can make things that are very different. My film doesn’t look at all like an OB-production, because some times I have also pointed a camera at some landscapes which I have then been able to edit into the scenes – and again often from the same takes. I haven’t been completely consistent, but let’s say that in 80 percent of the cases the scenes have been shot together in one take. It has been very fascinating to work with the actors, build up and build up – and then suddenly feel that we had it: Just that once during four minutes as if all the lines were best in that one take.”

How many of them were first takes?

“We had one second take, but this is where we get to one of the things I found deeply fascinating. It was so easy to get ready for a scene that after we rehearsed that scene with the actors, it took maybe only 20 minutes before we had the cameras ready – as opposed to normally where it would take maybe three or four hours. In that way we quickly reached the heart of the matter and could spend four or five hours on the actual scene. And because it was so relatively easy getting everything ready, we could do many of the scenes again. If I felt they could get better, we would return the next day after having slept on it. I might have made a few small changes and then it could take us perhaps an hour and a half to do the scene one last time which nearly always gave a dramatically improved result.”

The line between rehearsal and shooting must also have become more blurred this way?

“Yes, very much. Also the film has been shot chronologically – meaning that we started with scene one and ended with the last scene. That isn’t a Dogme-rule but we couldn’t really do it any other way because these people who are stranded get more and more sun burnt, their beards grow longer, and the Dogme-rules do say that we can’t use make up. On that point the actors were really wonderful – they simply went out and burnt their heads to shreds which impressed me immensely – especially the Americans. They also lost weight and all that has also contributed to the result, I find. The time span of the story is roughly the same as the time it took to shoot the film.”

If we try and flip back through the rules, which deliberations did you make regarding rule number one – the one that states that everything takes place on location and that you can’t bring in props?

“After I had got the idea for the plot, I heard about several ghost towns, some of them in South America. But I chose Namibia, because things had been left behind in this town – things that could be used as props. I went down and had a look at the place and then changed the script to fit in with the location.”

What did you find besides empty houses?

“For instance a big table. You see, the houses aren’t completely empty. It is an old mining town, diamond mine, which has been inhabited on and off and is now a museum. Therefore the government is very anxious to save the things which are still left – things like kerosene lamps, old tools and a sofa. And in that respect I have chosen to regard the town as my location meaning that everything within that town I could move around. But you could certainly challenge that view – what is a location? But if the actors themselves have packed a suitcase with stuff they could imagine taking with them on a bus trip, if they have carried it out of the bus and into a house, I have let them do that. I asked them to move into the houses, as if they were to settle down with whatever they had brought with them and I let them choose the house they fancied the most. The same thing applied to the purchase of the bus which I had no part in, so we got what we got. For me the important thing was that it wasn’t an aestaethic choice – my bus looked awful.”

But I guess nobody had the courage to come back with a nice air conditioned luxury bus to go with the battered ghost town?

“You couldn’t get that at all. Actually I would have preferred a luxurious modern bus to make the contrast as big as possible, but then we would have had to get it in South Africa and drive it up – and that was more than I was prepared to do.”

That brings us back to the hand held camera which you started off accusing of potentially creating an actual Dogme-genre.

“Yes, that is why I tried to give my film as little of the hand held feel as possible. But the hand held camera has a very important function in that it gives the actors an immense freedom. When you have rehearsed your scene, you place the cameras accordingly. You can adjust all the time – the actors don’t have to keep their marks, and that gives an enormous freedom. And when you use the tiny video cameras, the actors don’t really think about them – it gives them their space, and as an instructor it presents you with so many gifts that I had never dreamt of. They don’t have to think about where they are standing – they just have to try and be their characters and if they feel like turning around, they do it. For me that was a great plus.”

In the omnipresent docu-soaps you often get the impression that the cameras have been there for so long that the participants completely forget their existence. Is it possible to attain that degree of unawareness with professional actors?

“Yes, that was what I tried, and you can actually do that. Especially American actors are very camera-conscious and in the beginning when we shot with three cameras they would ask: Which camera am I on? My answer was: I’m bloody well not telling you – we are registering this, I don’t want you thinking about which camera to play for. I also made my own extra rule which said that the camera must never stand between the actors – they should always be able to see each others faces.”

Then there is the part about colour which was Lars’ idea – the film must be shot in colour.

“Actually my background in that respect is very similar to Lars’ because I have been doing commercials where you really work with colour. Lars has always avoided “normal” colours, he has always manipulated them and that is also what we do in commercials.”

So that must have hurt deep in the very soul of a commercial director.

“No, it has been really fun. I love photographs and you can get fantastic photographs with no light. Now I happened to shoot on a spot that was very photogenic, a place that became beautiful in a completely different way, and that fascinated me – I mean, reality is beautiful, isn’t it?”

If we take a slight leap in things, there is the whole discussion about cameras. The rules talk about Academy 35 mm, and this is where Søren and Lars tease each other trying to pin the blame over the fact that three out of four films – your own one included – ended up being shot on video. What happened?

“I remember that discussion, so I am a witness. Originally we agreed that the film had to be shot on 35 mm, but then Søren said that that was too heavy for the cameraman. Lars totally disagreed, since he had just shot Breaking The Waves, but we discussed it and as I recall we all ended up accepting that you could shoot it on 16 mm which Søren was very keen on. But then you still have to convert it to the 35 mm distribution format, and actually I think it was Thomas who said that whether you converted from video or 16 mm couldn’t make any difference. So we agreed that you can use video but that if you wanted to be a complete purist, it had to be shot on 35 mm which none of us have – partly because of the economic issue. Funnily enough Søren actually ended up wanting to shoot his on 35 mm. He really fought for it but there wasn’t enough money. I think he wanted his film to look different – he didn’t want them to look alike.”

This is where Lars points out that the video cameras have so many built-in features today that they can actually neutralise some of the other rules. How did you, for instance, tackle such a thing as white balance?

“The camera has a number of standard settings for night and day. We used those and left the rest to the camera.”

None of the others have used the spotlight that the rules actually allow you to. What about you?

“I actually brought one with me but we never used it. All the night scenes have been shot using only the light from the kerosene lamps we found in the town. I found that more than adequate, since we used Sony’s new three chip camera which separates the colours better – it’s the largest of their consumer cameras where you can adjust the aperture very precisely and avoid that grainy quality.”

Was it an economic or an artistic decision to use a consumer camera and not a professional one?

“Well, they met my needs and also I wanted to use more cameras which we could afford this way. But the good thing about them is also that they are so light and therefore easy to hold still which I aimed to. I also had them modified so that they didn’t have any external cables at all which meant that the cameramen could move completely freely. We then had a cordless connection to my monitor.”

The readers have had the opportunity to amuse themselves with the confessions of the three other Dogme-brethren. But since your film isn’t out until next spring, you haven’t publicised your transgressions. Can you give us an idea of some of your sins here?

“For me the most difficult thing was the aesthetic bit. Even though we all claim to refrain from any form of aesthetics, the moment you choose one picture you choose not to use another, and that is an aesthetic choice. I think I can say that I find it difficult to look myself straight in the face and say: I am not creating a picture. It is a work of art. You are not depicting reality. As soon as you direct an actor and you have written a script, you are not depicting reality. I think that has been the hard thing for me and I can see that it’s also been the case for the others. Because I have written a script, chosen some actors and created some pictures. I have decided that the camera should be placed here and film it.”

But in order to be completely firm ground in that respect you would have had to edit the film blindfolded and more or less cut it with a blunt pair of scissors.

“Yes, and even then I would still have written the script.”