Dogme secrets revealed by Lars von Trier’s “most promising actress”
The 17th International Short Films Festival of Aix en Provence, in December 1999, apart from the competition, focused on Scandinavian cinema. Louise Hassing had just returned from the Moscow premiere of The Idiots to take part in a conference on Dogme 95. Dogme films rely heavily on actor performances, and Louise Hassing was very impressive in The Idiots. So we chose a bar with the right atmosphere and began.
ERIC SCHLOSSER: First film in 1992 (Kaerlighedens Smerte, Pain of Love, directed by Nils Malmros), for which you win two awards: the Bodil (the Danish equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Actress and the Robert, which is given by the film critics. From 1993 to 1997 you study at the State School Theatre. You next appear on television shows in Sweden and Denmark before The Idiots, in 1998, for which you win the Bodil for Best Supporting Actress. Lars Von Trier says you’re the most promising actress.
LOUISE HASSING: I’m really impressed! How do you know all that?
I’ll tell you someday . . .
(laughs) I guess that’s what makes a good journalist . . .
Let’s focus on you. What did you do before Kaerlighedens Smerte?
After high school, I went to California as an au pair for a year. When I returned, I worked in a kindergarten for one year and then quit because I knew that if I was going to do theatre, I had to do it now. I did some amateur acting before I went to a casting call and got the part in Kaerlighedens Smerte.
Did you always want to be an actress?
Yes I think so, but I just didn’t want to admit it. Maybe I was afraid to be disappointed.
How does Theatre School prepare one for a film like The Idiots? I mean, the spectator wonders if what he sees onscreen actually “occurred” during the shooting. The film sort of annihilates the fiction involved in the fiction. How was it different for the actor?
For me it was very hard not to think, you know, “here is the character and here is me.” But Lars didn’t want to discuss the character, he wanted us to be real, not to pull the character from ourselves. He would tell us not to deliver anything to the camera but to just be, which was hard initially but after a while I actually forgot that I was on, and I think that’s when actors are at their best. I liked it very much. But I think that without my school experience, I would not have been able to so trust in myself.
In a way, usually there is the character and there is you, but here there was no clear line between.
Maybe not so black and white as that, but yes, it was more like the two flowing together. You remember the scene in the window. It was really hard to make. We shot it three or four hours a day over five days; it was never good enough. I was home thinking about how we should do the scene, and when I came in the next day to tell Lars about it, he said no, no, no, it doesn’t matter, just talk about your own childhood. He really wanted it like therapy, dig in me as a person. This sort of method acting is one way to work, but I wouldn’t want to work like that all the time.
You would burn out in a sense.
Did this open you up? Did it affect your acting?
I think I acted the same way in my first movie. I work very much from the inside, but I did learn a lot. There is so much more freedom in Dogme, I could fill the space more. What I learned in The Idiots was where my limits as an actor are drowned . . . and I think that Lars went over them many times. But looking back, I see what came out of it, and it’s good. But it’s a big price to pay in a way. Not that I wouldn’t have done it, but it touched something very special and I wouldn’t like to do it again like that.
Watching The Idiots you feel that what you see onscreen happened on the set, and in The Humiliated (the making of), it’s hard to tell when the actors are playing or just being. Trier seems to have violated the natural distance between the director and the actor/character.
Yes . . . but I’m very ambivalent about it because I think Lars is a genius . . . he is fantastic . . . (she pauses). The last scene was very hard to do, since it had to serve as a release for the entire film. I was going to cry just like the audience was going to cry. It had to be very emotional. We actually had a crisis because Lars kept on saying that it wasn’t enough and that I had to be more ugly, more . . . and I blocked, which sometimes can happen to actors. I even got a stomachache and had to be hospitalized for a day. But a day later I was able to open up again. It’s necessary to have the courage as an actor to trust in your director and let go. It’s like a love relationship; if you can’t really let go, it won’t work. So thankfully Lars is a good director.
You wouldn’t accept that from just anyone, someone who wouldn’t be a tormented genius like Trier?
(laughs) I don’t know. I actually think that I prefer a little bit more professionalism, “now I’m the director and now I’m private.” You know, Lars’s idea when we started shooting was that all the crew would live in the house for those six weeks, but none of us wanted to do that, we wanted to go home and sleep (laughs). But I think that Lars did relive some of his childhood . . . maybe filled in some gaps in it, as he really wanted to be a part of the crew.
How was it shooting the orgy scene?
Nude scenes aren’t particularly fun. Lars made it easier because he came in one day, undressed down to his socks, and said we’re going to be nude today and if you don’t do it now, you’re going to think about that scene all the time and won’t be able to relax. But things were tense anyway because it was very odd. The first day we shot just actors together, without, uh, the real thing, and the next day the porno stand-ins came and it was very uncomfortable. We just had to be in the frame while the stand-ins were doing their stuff. Lars did this scene to be true to this spassing thing. If we didn’t show that, he wouldn’t have it all. And it’s true to Dogme because the scene shows the real thing, with no artificial light to make it look beautiful.
What is Dogme’s place in Danish cinema?
I think it’s history in Denmark too, right now, something that drew a line, like a new wave, and the movies are very successful. I don’t think Lars expected it to be that big commercially. He thought it would be more narrow, underground.
I read somewhere Lars joking about Dogme, saying it’s a way to make shitty little low-budget Danish films. The acting in Dogme films is really terrific. Is it due to the way the films are made, small crew, small camera, or all Danish actors are born actors?
(laughs) I think it’s both. And it’s a combination of things, the right time, the right people working together. And of course, the thing about the Dogme rules is that they stand against all those movies with nothing to say, where the form is more important than the actors and their relationships. It gives the actors much more space, and that’s what we want because when we have space, we get creative. If it’s like this (she holds her hands closely together), it’s very difficult as an actor to feel.
Would you say that it’s more difficult in a traditional movie to be that natural?
I got much more relaxed in The Idiots. Sometimes I forgot that I was acting. That’s when an actor is best, when he or she is not conscious of the camera’s eye. The Dogme rules are very good for actors.
Besides the technical aspects, like handheld camera, what do you think creates this sense of the “deprivation of the fiction” in The Idiots, this “cinema verité” feeling?
Sometimes we would make a scene in which we were really bad, embarrassingly bad (laughs). Lars eventually kept a lot of those scenes and, when I saw the movie for the first time, I thought, “Oh no, why take that one and not the other one in which we were better?” This could be one of the reasons. In a traditional movie you’re searching for something more perfect, which is not how real life is.
Still, there are other movies shot in approximately the same conditions that don’t even come close to the feeling in the Dogme films.
You mean not only in The Idiots, but in all of them?
Yes, The Celebration and Mifune as well. The latter was shot in 35mm and not in DV, the handheld camera is discreet, but for me the feeling is the same. Lovers, the French Dogme #5, shot according to the rules, is a nice film but you are always conscious of the performance. You never really sense that this or that was unplanned. Real life doesn’t burst into the fiction the way it does in the Danish films.
I understand what you mean, but it’s hard for me to see from the outside. I think it has a lot to do with what I told you about not delivering something to the camera, not being conscious that now you’re on. I also think that Danish actors have something very natural.
Do you think Danish schools for actors or filmmakers are generally good?
Actually I didn’t like my school, which is for actors, directors, and technicians. The teaching was confused and it was very much up to me to find out what I could do. There is no tradition like Stanislavsky school, or this or that method in Denmark . . . but maybe it’s good not to have methods! (laughs).
The Idiots, The Celebration, and Mifune have many things in common. Each is set outside of the city, with a group of people in a family house. It’s sort of a study of a group in a natural environment. The King is Alive, Dogme #4, which will be released soon, is very much the same (a group of tourists lost in a remote village). Were the stories conceived together by the Dogme brotherhood?
No, I don’t think they knew of each other’s projects, so it’s coincidental. The removed setting probably makes it easier to get to know each other. They are good conditions in which to think about relationships, a group of people, away from common day things. What about Lovers?
It’s about two people in the city (laughs). It’s fine but it’s too quiet. It lacks the tension of the other movies, where even the lighter moments feel on the verge of something darker. Everything is de-dramatized.
You know, I just got a thought about going to group therapy. I’ve never tried it myself, but it seems comparable.
I think your tradition of making a real toast when you drink is also important. It plays a big part in The Celebration, is present in Mifune, or even the bottle thing in Idiots. It serves to trigger a confrontation from the people who are reunited, on a cinematic point of view as well.
You’re right. I never thought about that. We always do that in Denmark.
Do you know if the idea for The Idiots came to Trier after he thought through the Dogme rules?
Lars came up with the story ten years ago. I don’t know about Thomas Vinterberg. Lars really started everything, but I can’t really answer, I don’t know.
How do you choose a role?
Usually by the story, the director. But I all the time want to develop as an actor. I think I’ve played enough naive, virginal characters. I would like now to be more evil, to be a bitch (laughs), show that I have other sides. So I would probably turn down the next nice-girl character to avoid being typecast in these parts.
Your character in The Idiots is very close to you?
Yes, very much.
And it’s less interesting for an actor to work on a character close to himself.
Yes of course. I’m an actor, I want . . . not to be me (laughs).
How did you meet Trier?
He saw me in my first movie and wanted me for the part of Susan.
Was there a script, or was the plot mostly improvised during shooting? It’s hard to tell.
After Lars cast the film, we all met at his house for a preliminary discussion, after which he went to Sweden for five days and wrote the script. When he came back we each did some individual work, for a month, talking about the characters with Lars. We then had two weeks of rehearsal to try to get more into the characters. When we started shooting, we often stayed close to the script and then began to stray out in the corners and improvised more. Maybe five scenes in the movie just occurred, like the one where Nikolei Lie Kaas is jumping down the hill on the skis. It was just a crazy idea that we completely improvised. What is also interesting about being an actor in a Dogme movie is that one of the rules is that the camera has to follow the actor. You never have to think about being in the right spot; if you feel like running, you just run.
Were the people “the idiots” meet in town extras or “real people”?
They are all extras. In the restaurant, in the bar, the Hell’s Angels type as well.
It looks like no one is aware of what’s going on, as if there were no camera. How were the scenes made?
For two weeks we chose locations, saw how “real people” (laughs) reacted to the camera in the street. When we shot, nothing was entirely unplanned. A lot of situations developed on the spot, but everything, all the reactions, are made up, directed.
How many hours did you have on tape before editing?
About 70 hours from three cameras.
Where you surprised when you saw the movie?
Yes, I was surprised that it turned out so good, because it was so chaotic being part of it. I was very nervous about what would come out, because I knew I had sometime exceeded my emotional limits and didn’t know what Trier would keep. Also I was very surprised how close the movie was to the script.
Would you do another Dogme film?
I would always do a Dogme film, if asked, because I think it’s a very creative way to work for an actor. When shooting a traditional movie, I always feel very “stiff,” if that’s the word. It’s difficult to feel the flow. In Idiots, for example, because of the DV, we could just keep on shooting. The Dogme rules are very good because they focus on the actors and the story. But I would still do traditional movies.
When you see yourself in The Humiliated, so emotional, does it affect you?
The first time I saw The Humiliated, I was very touched, but that was because it was one year after we made The Idiots. I really understood how I felt. But, generally, no. It’s more like, I think I’m ugly, you know, things like that (laughs).
What are you working on now?
I will do a play that Jens Albinus (Stoffer in The Idiots) is writing and will direct in the spring.
Are you a movie fan?
Yes, I go three times a week. I just saw a very good film called Shall We Dance. Have you seen it?
No, I haven’t, but I’ve heard about it. It won a lot of prizes in the States. Are there any actors or directors you would like to work with?
Yes, many. Patricia Arquette, Isabella Rossellini, Juliette Lewis, or Uma Thurman are good. And a lot of French, Italian, Japanese, American actors . . . whose names I can’t remember (laughs). As for directors, Roman Polanski, David Lynch.
Is there a question you would like me to ask you?
Do you want to know what my religion is (smiling)?
Sure. What is your religion?
I’m a Buddhist.
Really! How did that happen?
(laughing). Well a friend of mine was a Buddhist, and I started chanting with her. It’s Japanese Buddhism, and it really sort of healed me. When I started, I was full of anxiety (this was just before going to Cannes for The Idiots). I had this fear, I don’t know why, of going outside of Denmark. I had a very bad experience two years before when I fainted in Italy and thought I was going to die (laughs). My life became sort of a prison. This friend helped me focus on what I wanted, and it all happened. It’s not really a religion, but more like pragmatic philosophy. The idea is that we all have the Buddha inside of us; we just have to make it happen. When I’m chanting or reading, I’m at peace with myself. I practice two hours every day, and it’s good self-discipline for an actor.