Why cheat yourself?

It is easy to circumvent the Dogme-rules but it wouldn’t be particularly fun, says Søren Kragh-Jacobsen. When there are no consultants or script-doctors to read your manuscript, no test-audience to watch the film, and it’s just a question of writing the story, editing it and banging it up on the screen, then why cheat? You would only be cheating yourself

By Peter Rundle

Excerpts from an interview given by Søren Kragh-Jacobsen in his office, Thursday November 5th 1999.

Søren Kragh Jacobsen – the Dogme 95-rules are laid out very clearly both in the Manifest and The Vow of Chastity. What more is there to say?

“It has been extremely important for me to express what we are doing. You may have heard it before but I can’t help compare it to the unplugged wave that started in 1992. I have never been able to distinguish between making music and film – to me it’s the same thing: either it’s got the beat or it hasn’t.”

“When I had read the Dogme 95-rules and let them sink in, I thought: Why the hell does Eric Clapton start playing unplugged in ’92? Anybody who has been in a record studio, and I have – in modern studios too – knows how much you can spoil your expression, pitch the voices, sample other things into them – make them broader and more full-bodied. I guess these big musicians have also experienced this. So driven by MTV they play a lot of sessions unplugged. In all probability to find out: How tight are we, how good are we and how far can we go with what we have.?”

“And I feel that there is a direct link from that to making films our way where what we made out there is what you see up on that screen. For me, that was the heading for all this. And it has worked. From the bottom of my heart I am delighted that I have done this – I feel that it was a cleansing process, a purification.”

“I can quickly give you a run through the rules. Finding your location where the things are – well, when I had my story line I found that farm out of 23 farms that I looked at over a period of two days. The furniture was all there and it nearly took me by surprise how little you need to tell a story.”

“We would have said: It’s expensive moving actors down to Lolland, we can never control the light, and the acoustics are probably awful. Then someone would have made a phone-call and found out that the farm was situated below a military flight path – which it was – and that they were having an exercise – which was a nightmare for three days. The conclusion would have been that we definitely wouldn’t want the farm there – we would build it in the studio. But I came to realise how little the dead things mean when the actors are working and the story is right – and that is what Dogme is all about: Focusing on a good story and some good acting.”

You said that the furniture used in the film was all there – but there wasn’t any hydraulic lift…

“It’s true that I borrowed a hydraulic lift from a painter who was working next to the field where we shot the last scene. Thomas has confessed that he mounted his video camera – which weighed the same as a box of chocolates – on a broom handle and lifted it up to get some of his overviews. In principle that’s no different from me getting permission to drag this hydraulic lift out to those corn circles which I wasn’t even sure were there. I knew he was making them and I knew where, but I didn’t know when. We’re talking equipment here, but actually the rules don’t really mention that. We could, in effect, have laid out tracks for the camera without breaking the Dogme-rules. In a discussion with Lars I said: Okay, I’ve ordered some tracks and a dolly – because it only says the camera must be hand held and I can get this really dynamic drive. It was entirely provocative from my part. There is no rule that the cameraman cannot hold the camera by hand sitting on a dolly – but it would have been against the whole spirit of Dogme, of course.”

Then there is rule number two – the one about not separating picture and sound.

“Well, in the beginning I really felt that that was the daftest of the rules. But after having worked with it I must say that it works beautifully. It has some draw-backs but not many. When you are working with one camera, the rule increases the intensity of the actors behind the camera who never give themselves 100 percent when they are not on camera. When they are cueing the colleague who is on camera, they normally know that their part of the dialogue never actually ends up in the film. I often say to the actors: You really should give it a little more, because it spreads to the guy who is on camera but they always want to save their best shot until it’s their turn. They can’t do that in a Dogme-film, because even if they are not on camera their voices are. If you don’t crosscut, you keep the sound, so from the moment you have decided not to separate sound from picture the actors keep the intensity all the time.”

“It was very important for me not to break that rule. And since it was equally important for me to use a lot of music to distinguish Mifune from the other films, I looked at which kinds of music it was possible to cut in. I found that you could do that very successfully with Flamenco, because it generally stays within the same tonality. It was very difficult to cut in the last piece – the one where I push the orchestra in front of the camera because I hadn’t a clue where else to put them. In that scene the music has played a big part in the editing process. And apart from that it was really good fun and very stimulating having a accordion player stand behind me in that sugar beet field at five o’clock in the morning.”

“Later on in the editing process those staccato-breaks also suit the film really well instead of a very smooooth fading which in reality makes it deadening, banal and boring. I simply love being ripped out of one scene after the other – I really like leaving a piece of music as if someone dropped a glass. Often I shot the scene twice with music and twice without. It gave the musicians a real incentive to be at their best all the time because they obviously wanted to be in the final version. We actually should have added a rule number 11 stating that you should only do two takes of each scene. That would also have made the actors razor-sharp. But some other directors can do that, of course.”

This thing about doing a lot of takes with music and without may be very convenient for the directors who then don’t have to make up their minds until the editing phase – but it doesn’t exactly sound very much in keeping with the Dogme-idea that everything must take place on location…

“You can say that. Maybe we should only have done one take of each scene – then it would have been more of a gamble. Actually, I can’t understand why other directors who are inspired of these ideas don’t say: We’ll create Dogme 2000 and make our own rules. We might get rid of a rule or two and substitute it with another one – that would be my dream. To have a headline saying: We’re trying to focus on different ways to reach this feeling – we are a new group, Dogme 2000, and we have refined this concept.”

Are there other rules that you would add or discard if you were to present a proposal for Dogme 2000?

“Actually, I generally feel that the rules have been really nice to work with, but the idea of only doing one take of each scene has often come to me. Because I see how often you actually use the first take where the actors are still hungry and it also requires the director to have done his homework properly. But I am sure that you could find other things”

“Then there is rule number three which says that the camera must be hand held. I have shot this film with Anthony Dod Mantle who also filmed The Celebration and it was important for both of us to move in a completely new direction. So every time he got started on the restless camera, I said: I believe that the dynamics are between the actors and not in the restless camera. For me that is not a new style – it was already seen in the Danish film “Balladen om Carl Henning” and completely refined in Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom and Breaking the Waves, so I didn’t find any reason to use it here. For me the challenge has been to see how quickly we could work without a tripod, and hand held means that Tony never rested the camera on anything – that is 100 percent guaranteed. There were times, at three o’clock in the night, where I said: For Christ’s sake rest it on your shoes, because it was extremely hard on his back. But he wouldn’t.”

“The film must be in colour – that’s the fourth rule. Because there is no questioning that a black and white film gives a kind of aesthetics. That becomes clear if you watch the wonderful Danish film “Let’s get lost”. It’s beautiful because it has that light and powdery quality about it. But for some reason Mifune isn’t ugly and that is about how we have pushed the film. We have shot everything indoors on 1000 Asa which means that you can more or less shoot up a bears arsehole, as they say. So you push the film two stops, and that way you get a very living texture which I find beautiful.”

What price do you have to pay when you push the film like this?

“There is no price, but it has made it possible not to use the little cineflow lamp on the camera which the rules actually permitted us to do. Because then it would just have looked like footage from the evening news. So we have only used the lights in the room – max 60 watts. That means that the light gets extremely red when there are no filters and extremely blue or green if you are suddenly shooting in a corridor with neon lights. But I feel that it works really well with my film. I thought it was wonderful when Tony came home and pointed out that the whole love scene had turned red, because it was only lit with three bloody light bulbs! Brilliant! Love is red – the red devil. And when Liva is moving around in a lot of coolness, it is extremely blue and cool.”

“It is very easy to circumvent the rules, but it is not my style. Especially not when you are so wonderfully free as you are here. For me, that is the heading for all this – that you have final cut in every respect. No one has to read your manuscript, no script doctor, no test-audience, no consultants. You write your story, shoot the film, edit it and bang it up on the screen. I mean: Why cheat here – you would only be cheating yourself?”

“I can guarantee you that there are scenes in Mifune which I have edited out because of the absence of filters. Sometimes there was so much sunlight that it was impossible to use some of the footage. Other scenes have been thrown out because they were too dark. So in that sense the physical restraints have affected the story.”

But at the same time you state in your “confession” in the material about Mifune that you have covered some windows on the farm.

“Yes, well there isn’t anything in the rules that literally prohibits that, but in principle it is a form of lighting. I could of course have chosen not to give a stuff about aesthetics and say: We’ll simply do this night scene while the light is pouring in through the windows, but suddenly that offended me professionally – but many of the night scenes have actually been shot at night.”

Then why not this one?

“Because we didn’t have the time or the money. It might cost 800-1000 dollars to get an extra production night, and that is where my production people can put a gun to my head and say: We don’t care – there isn’t any more money, and we can’t buy you another night. That was what happened towards the end. It was the highlight of that scene, and I simply couldn’t combine it with the other scenes, so I told them to throw some heavy cardboard in front of the windows. They did that, I admitted it, and it’s a clear violation, but I didn’t feel we would have got the same result, if I hadn’t done it.”

“I often wonder: What would have happened if we hadn’t done it? The truth is that the film probably wouldn’t have suffered from it. We would have gone straight from the dead of night with the girls running around in the living room to broad daylight, but on the other hand there were so many script errors that people never notice – scenes where Anders Bertelsen is wearing a red jumper running round the house, and then suddenly he’s in a t-shirt. But if they believe in the story, they don’t care.”

Maybe we haven’t noticed the script errors – but many of us have undoubtedly brought a mental list of the ten commandments with us into the cinema. The result being that we can watch Star Wars without giving special effects one thought, because we believe in the story – and at the same time watch Mifune and spend a lot of energy wondering where the accordion player is standing – isn’t that a bit of a paradox?

“Yes, in Sweden some critics actually claimed that I have broken the rules by adding background music afterwards – which I haven’t – and the British are even worse. They have gone to the length of discussing whether we have made genre-films. On that point Lars has clearly complied most closely with the rules, because you can’t call The Idiots a genre-film – it is almost a form of documentarism which goes beyond fiction – where you could argue that Thomas has made a family drama and I have made a love drama. But in regard to the paradox, It’s fine with me if we help heighten the attention of the audience and create an interest as to what the lack of technical aids can to do a film.”

That brings us to the last two rules. Now, none of you actually shot your film on Academy 35 mm which according to Lars was because you made the point that the camera was too heavy to carry and that the rule referred to the distribution format.

“Yeah, well fine. But I happened to shoot my film on 16 mm, so I am the only one who has used a proper film camera, and only one camera, mind you. The others have more or less used a full scale OB-crew and made a tv-production with several cameras. In regard to the last rule about the directors not being credited, I think that it would have been really fun if we had actually released four films where people had to guess who had actually made them. But when the film merchants entered the scene we lost control, of course.”

“To sum it all up, I would say that it is the most egoistic film, I have made. I have never thought less about the audience than I have with this film. I thought: I’ll write a story that I would like to go and see on a Saturday night myself. I regard Dogme as a course of treatment, and I certainly wouldn’t rule out the possibility of making another Dogme-film. Not straight away, because I wouldn’t want to be on a treatment-programme all the time – but maybe in ten year’s time. For a mid-career director like myself with maybe five films left, it is the best cure if you have ever thought: What happened to my spontaneity? After all, it works, and I am certainly going to bring with me some of the things I have learnt to my next film: Less lighting, more acting – giving the actors the room they need and try and follow them instead of making them follow us. To create the dynamics, the spontaneity, the freshness which Mifune has – as you can see up there on the big screen.”