Thomas Vinterberg’ s (pictured) new film The Commune opened yesterday in Danish cinemas, ahead of the film’s screening in official competition at the Berlinale. In this exclusive interview he speaks about recreating feelings from his childhood, directing Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm 17 years after Festen and he pays tribute to his role models Ingmar Bergman and Mogens Rukov.
How did you get the idea for The Commune?
Thomas Vinterberg: First of all I grew up in a commune myself. There has been an intense curiosity from people abroad about the subject. Then I gave in to a theatre director - Matthias Hartmann, head of the Burg Theatre in Vienna who said: why not try your dramatic material on my stage? Festen as a stage play came from a film. Why not do the opposite? We did it and the play The Commune was a big success, with tears and laughter in the audience. I said: great. Let’s make a movie now!
How different is the play from the film and in what way did Tobias Lindholm bring to the screenplay?
TV: Tobias brought an essential contribution because the play is set in one room, whereas we travel with the characters to their various universes and only occasionally do they meet in the commune. That said, some dialogues are almost identical to the stage play and these dialogues were the result of improvisation. With the film, there is also a strong sense of reality which is Tobias’ trademark. Our ambition here was to create slices of real life.
For you what are the main themes of The Commune: its title and poster suggest that it’s a film about the 70s and a hippy commune, when in fact it’s more a coming of age story about a young girl witnessing the implosion of her parent’s marriage, staged in front of a group of friends!
TV: Everyone I ask sees a different main character in the film. For me, it’s really about the loss of innocence and the end of love, something that is often inevitable with the passing of time. There is an ending to love, an ending to childhood, and the film captures the pain that goes with it. There was a golden and naive wonderful time, but that is gone taking in its trail the innocence that was part of it.
Would you say that The Commune is your most personal film? You go back to your childhood, to the film that kick started your career – Festen - and your own life partner, actress Helene Reingaard Neumann has a major role in the film…
TV: It’s a very personal film but I’ve been careful not to make it private. It’s no longer my own commune, my own divorce or love life. It was a difficult balance to find, but I showed it to people close to me. They could feel the atmosphere from the time but there is no gossiping. The film is based on a true feeling, not a true story. As for directing Helene, we were very careful to be strictly professional on the set and I was perhaps extra tough on her! But this was perhaps the happiest time on set for me.
Recreating the 70s must have been real fun and in the first part of the film you recreate brilliantly the feeling of camaraderie, openness, selflessness of the period. How was your collaboration with the set designer and costume designer?
TV: The set designer Niels Sejer [A Royal Affair] and costume designer Ellen Lens [It’s All About Love] are perhaps the best you can find. For instance if you look at the costumes, most of them are from the 60s, not the 70s, because when you go back to 1975, a lot of people where still wearing clothes from the 60s. So they made their own expression of real life at the time. In Denmark, back then everything French was very trendy and luxurious. Drinking French wine was the top! All the smallest details were picked up by the smart designers.
How was it to be reunited with Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm with whom you hadn’t worked since Festen in 1998?
TV: It was amazing and they’ve both become sharp instruments and incredibly generous. There was a mutual curiosity, tenderness between us and I loved it.
Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen who plays the teenager daughter Freja is impressive and one of the key characters in the film as silent witness of the disintegration of her parents’ marriage…
TV: The character Freja is my own eyes from back then. Basically, we had a wizard as casting agent Jette Termann who trained her and the other young actor who plays Villads [Sebastian Grønnegaard Milbrat) a bit roughly. But Martha is definitely a natural talent. She was perfect as the spectator in the story.
You must have had Ingmar Bergman and Festen in the back of your head when you wrote and shot the many confrontational dinner scenes at the commune…
TV: Bergman is always in my head. He is part of my upbringing and I was fortunate to meet him and get advice from him. Many scenes are directly influenced by him, such as the scene where Ulrich [Thomsen] is in bed with Trine [Dyrholm] and suddenly tells her what’s going on. He is brutally honest. I kind of see this as my Bergman moment.
The celebrated screenwriter Mogens Rukov who founded the screenwriting department at the Danish film school in 1988 and was your teacher there, also co-wrote with you Festen and the stage play The Commune for Vienna’s Burg Theatre. His recent death just before Christmas must have been tough for you. What did he teach you as a writer and as a human being?
TV: He taught me everything. He made everything small bigger, both in life and drama. He took away all the reasonable behaviour and replaced it with desire, wisdom and greatness. He was a great inspiration for me and it was indeed incredibly sad to lose him.
What’s next for you? Another English-language film following up on Far from the Madding Crowd? Another Danish film or a TV drama?
TV: It’s too early to say, and I don’t know what the order will be for my various projects, but I do have a new Danish feature project with Tobias Lindholm, a celebration of alcohol! I love the project and we’ve worked on it for quite a while. I am reading a lot of scripts and I must say that some of the best stories come from TV. We’ll see what will happen!
Written by Annika Pham