In March of 1995, two of Denmark's most respected and innovative directors entered into a pact to test their mettle as filmmakers. They agreed to forego most of the luxuries and contrivances of modern movie-making, and each make a minimalist picture without the benefit of sets, stage lighting, sound looping, dolly cameras or even props.
The idea -- given the name Dogme95 -- was to make movies in which the characters were the sole focal point. The restrictive rules agreed upon were called the Vow of Chastity. And the filmmakers were Lars Von Trier (who has become well known for "Breaking the Waves" and "Dancer in the Dark") and Thomas Vinterberg, who made the first Dogme film, "The Celebration."
Two more directors -- Soren Kragh-Jacobsen and Kristian Levring -- joined their Dogma Collective almost immediately, and the quartet set out to challenge themselves and each other, directing one film each under the Dogme95 rules and never expecting the project to be anything more than four artists going back to the basics of their medium, just to see if they could.
Levring's contribution to the experiment, "The King Is Alive," opened this weekend in the US, and it is now one of 26 movies officially sanctioned as Dogme95 in the last four years. Dogme has become a bona fide movement, a hotly debated philosophy and, much to the Collective's surprise, even a marketing tool, virtually guaranteeing every sanctioned film a successful run on the art house circuit worldwide.
"The King Is Alive" is shot on location (as per Dogme rules) with handheld cameras (as per Dogme rules) in the Gobi Desert. The story concerns a tour group of European tourists stranded by a broken down bus who try to maintain sanity and civility by distracting themselves with ad hoc rehearsals for a do-it-yourself "King Lear" production.
What comes of the experience, however, is not a productive pulling together. Bouts of bitterness quickly arise between couples, base behavior surfaces among those who feel they have nothing to lose, and with the portent of possible death looming as large as the blistering desert sun, individuals turn inward to face their own demons.
Levring himself doesn't seem to have much in the way of inner demons. He's a literally a great Dane of a man -- 6'5" with Viking-like long hair and a serious mind, but a happy-go-lucky demeanor. He was in San Francisco recently and sat down for an interview about the dogma of Dogme and "The King Is Alive."
|Q: I'm really enjoying watching the evolution of the Dogme95 experiment. Some people take it very seriously, but I've always understood it to be just an experiment and wasn't intended as a movement.|
A: People get so angry about it! I think the truth is somewhere in between. I do think, though, that we take it seriously. We just had a meeting three months ago where Lars was very angry that we hadn't taken it seriously enough.
A: So we talked about, perhaps one day when we get a little bit away from it -- in 10 years' time or something -- maybe someone will do the optimum Dogme film. That one hasn't been done yet. The first one was just an attempt.
|Q: I interviewed Soren Kragh-Jacobsen (for his Dogme film "Mifune"), and he said, "We were going to do four films, for Denmark, for fun, and for the challenge of doing it with these rules."|
|Q: As in, let's take away some of the luxuries of modern film and just see what we can do with just the basics.|
A: Yep. That's very true. We never imagined it would be something people talked about. It was an experiment, and there was a lot of humor (in its inception). It was a lot of nice times drinking wines at dinner tables. But at the same time, when you do an experiment, you have to take it seriously.
|Q: But you're not trying to reform filmmaking or anything.|
A: We would like to! -- No. [Smiles.] But we would like to show there are other ways of making film. It has become so much the same everywhere.
|Q: Even a lot of independent films are now made as resume builders to get noticed at Sundance and to get a job in Hollywood. Where as Dogme films are in no way a means to an end to -- say, getting the next "Batman" movie.|
A: I hope not! It would be very disappointing if that happened -- if any of us were to make the next "Batman" movie! But what is interesting about it is there are now five Danish (Dogme) films, and they're all getting shown all around the world. It's very rare for just one Danish film, and here you have five Danish films in a row! And I think what has made that is that in some way these rules have had some kind of energy, some kind of strength, that has made us do better stuff, or more interesting stuff.
|Q: I'd like to know about the lighting in "The King Is Alive." The colors are so rich in this film, yet there are very strict restrictions on lighting in the Dogme Vow of Chastity. If I didn't know any better, I'd suspect you of using filters. Was all that beauty just from the desert sun?|
A: We did wait quite a lot for the light. When the light was really right, I would try to work out (the takes) so the scene was really good when the light was right. (And) we shot it on digital -- on DV -- and we worked a lot with what is called the white balance of the camera, which the rules don't say anything about.
|Q: And that allowed you to get the richer colors...|
A: ...without filters, right. I felt I had to prove that within these rules you could actually make something different. So, for example, I talked to my cameraman and told him, "You have to make it handheld, but you should try to make it as still as possible." It does not mean because you're shooting handheld the camera should be like that all the time [he mimes shaking the camera about].
|Q: You shot this film in 1999, it debuted at Cannes in 2000, and it's opening here in 2001. What's with the delays?|
A: Because we shot on digital, we had hundreds of hours of material. We spent six months editing.
|Q: Oh, yeah. That would be a bit of a curse and a blessing of this medium, wouldn't it?|
A: Of course. Also, producers have a problem because they look at your budget and think it's cheaper shooting digital -- which it is until you get to post. In post a normal film is cheaper. It's a different way of working when you have 170 hours. Then they say "Why don't you shoot on digital like you shoot a film on film." But then what's the purpose?
|Q: Of course. It would still be a little bit cheaper, but it wouldn't be as freeing, and the fact that it's freeing is what makes it interesting creatively.|
|Q: How did this film come about. Was this idea born from the Dogme project or did the story exist before?|
A: Well, where does an idea come from? I wanted to do something where Dogme and the story were interlinked -- this whole idea of putting on a play without a theater, without props. I wanted these things to come together.
|Q: Holy cow! Dogme within Dogme. That hadn't even crossed my mind! Suddenly I like the movie even more.|
A: Everything was chosen from that point of view -- even "King Lear" was chosen from that point of view. The play is about a man who loses everything, and that's very much what it's like when you're doing a Dogme film and that's very much what's happening to the characters.
|Q: I find it interesting that the characters are actually facing their individual demons more than they're facing their circumstances.|
A: I know what you mean. This film is not about survival of the body. I deliberately did everything I could to make this talk as little as possible about eating, drinking -- to talk about it enough to make it convincing, but it's not what interested me. What interested me is what happened to these characters when they started doing this play. So the sooner I could get to that the better.