Hollywood’s Best Film Directors


Lars Von Trier

In "Hollywood's Best Film Directors," we go behind-the-scenes with some of Hollywood's biggest names. They talk about their lives and work, explaining what makes them so successful. The series includes heavy-hitters Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and M. Night Shyamalan, among others.

AIRED: May 20, 2020 | 0:26:05

Man: Action!


-Action. Got it. -Cut!

[ Clapperboard snaps ]

Narrator: Born in Denmark, this great director

came to international attention when the Cannes Film Festival

awarded his very first film "The Element of Crime."

Next came "Breaking the Waves,"

a huge success which was also awarded at Cannes

and garnered Emily Watson Best Actress nominations

at the BAFTA Awards, the Golden Globes,

and the Academy Awards.

In the year 2000,

"Dancer in the Dark" won the Golden Palm at Cannes

and the Best Actress prize for Bjork.

Because of his intense fear of flying,

he never went to Hollywood,

but brought Hollywood to him in 2000

when Nicole Kidman joined him

for his experimental film "Dogville,"

also featuring such names as Paul Bettany,

Ben Gazzara, and Lauren Bacall.

While in a deep depression, he wrote and directed

the dark and disturbing "Antichrist,"

starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg,

who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes.

And just a few years later, his leading actress Kirsten Dunst

would win the same award for "Melancholia."

Never ready to end innovation and provocation,

he followed that up

with the controversial "Nymphomaniac,"

featuring an impressive cast --

Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard,

Willem Dafoe, Shia LaBeouf,

Christian Slater, and Uma Thurman.


Hello. My name is Lars von Trier,

and you're watching "Hollywood's Best Film Directors."

The very best.

We are in in Denmark.

I have to tell myself that all the time.

We have a film studio out here, an old army base.

We now have our company here,

which is a place we bought extremely cheap.

So, yeah, we're happy to be here.

There's a lot of space.

We have a sound stage and a lot of editing facility stuff.

And yeah, it's good to be here.


I grew up in the north of Copenhagen,

and I had an uncle

who was doing documentary films.

And every time I visited him,

I was very, very curious about the editing tables, you know,

and all this mechanical stuff,

and so there was no really --

Then I started doing 8mm films, even with sound.

And the technical side,

I always found extremely fascinating.

My parents were civil servants,

but they inspired me like, you know,

any mother inspires a son, you know.

I had a very, very nice upbringing

to the north of Copenhagen,

which is nice and green.

And my mother gave me this famous 8mm camera.

The camera was a very nice camera

because it had a lot of features.

You know, it could go slow motion.

It could go single frame.

You know, all these things had to be tried.

I was a loner, and...

I was a strange kid, of course.

And I loved the nature very much.

I spent a lot of time in the woods.

I of course saw films growing up.

Television was just about beginning in this country.

But I saw several films.

And first, I'm sure it was Disney, you know,

and even the non-animated stuff, you know.

I remember something called

"The Valley of Beavers" or something like that.

And I was completely fascinated. Completely fascinated.

And since I was reading, you know,Donald Duck,

it was called -- the magazine -- then it was 100% Disney.

So, I'm just trying, in my career,

to struggle a little bit away from the Disney line.

[ Camera shutter clicks ] Good.

I tried several times

to get to, you know, to get a pass

so I could get into the Danish film school,

which was very difficult, I thought.

And I think they saw me as a freak.

They might still do.

But it was --

Before that, I'd been making films in first 8mm

and then 16,

which costs a lot of money, of course, to, you know,

when I made films of an hour.

So, it was fantastic to come into the film school

and suddenly, you know, you get funded,

that you have your own stuff, material, and all of that.

But the first day when I came to the film school,

I was so nervous not to get in.

I was really -- you know, this was my third time.

And then when I got in,

I got straight down to the technical department

to get a spray

on a board outside the office of the headmaster.

I wrote "The film school is dead."

So, that's me.

[ Laughs ] Ah!

[ Laughter ]

The film school experience changed me a lot

since I met some photographer and then the editor

and we we stuck together, you know, the whole way through,

and that was fantastic.

We had a wonderful time.

I wouldn't say that the teaching there

was so fantastically great,

But this let you meet some guys that you really got along with.

And we've tried all the different stuff

and different lightings and different...

I think, yeah, it was a good time.

[ Eerie electronic music plays ]

My movies back then

were likely out of date very far.

And all the teachers said,

why do we make such dull films? [ Chuckles ]

And I said, "Well, maybe later,

they will be a little less dull."

Thank you. Beautiful.

And then we just do a close-up of -- Man: Yeah. Yeah.

Beautiful. Much better.


My first feature film is "Element of Crime."

And that is of some kind of a police story.

But we we made it at night in winter

with lots and lots of rain

with some special lamps

that that couldn't stand any rain at all, you know.

So everything was chaotic,

and, yeah, we're down in the sewers mostly, also,

so you can imagine.

I was very lucky because we have some consultants

that gives out money from the film institute.

And this consultant was very, very unpopular

with the film people here.

So, I saw my opportunity to kind of run there

while he had no projects.

So, he took the project.

I'm sure that's the only way in for me.

I was very confident

that everything should go smoothly.

It was -- I've never been afraid

of, you know, that a film wouldn't work

or should have been done another way.

No. No. No.

Yeah, maybe now, you know, when I'm getting older,

you think sometimes, "Ah. Was that wise?" You know?

But at that time, no, not at all.

I was just...all go.

[ Alarm blaring ]

"To push the envelope" is a good expression

because I think that you have to give everything you have

and to go as far as you want

because you never know if you're ever gonna make another film.

So it was just -- Yeah. Yeah. All the way.

We had relatively big scenes

with, you know, helicopters and stuff like that,

which was enormous fun.

A helicopter is the greatest toy,

you know, you can ever put your feet in.

But I think the film cost is a little bit too much.

So, everybody said to me after making such a dull film --

It was still dull. You know? [ Laughs ]

So they said after this dull film,

there will not be another dull film for you.

But as we all know, there were.


The luckiest thing that happened to me

was at the Cannes Film Festival.

Took the film and put it in the official competition

because that's something that you really in Denmark admire

is that you have some degree of success in another country.

And this was France. It was good.

Would have been better if in America.

But France, it's very good, and it helped me a lot.

And Cannes Festival has been there for me every time,

so I'm very happy.

And Gilles Jacob, you know, the leader then,

has been like a father to me.


Man: Action!


-Action. Got it. -Cut!

[ Clapperboard snaps ]


Yeah, I've had a fragile mind, you could say.

So, I've had some depressions, and one of them,

the result of the depression was "Melancholia" the film.

I just remember looking at the sky and thinking,

"If the moon now comes and crashes into the Earth,

it's okay with me," right, which is unfair to my family.

But [Chuckles] you know, being so egoistic yourself.

So this, the film "Melancholia"

is about a planet crashing into Earth.

[ Vocalizing Offenbach's "Can Can Music" ]

"Antichrist" the film was based on some shamanic journeys

that I do now and then, you know, that's --

I don't know if you know,

but that's kind of an Indian thing

where you travel on the beat of a drum.

And so a lot of the pictures there,

for instance, the poor fox that has line

is from one of these journeys.

"Antichrist" was a cheaper film.

It was only these two persons.

And I must say, they were great to work with.

Willem is a wonderful person.

Normally, I have got quite good relationships

with my actors, and I stay in contact.

But Willem, we have stayed in contact for a long time.

And he is just a brilliant guy.


Pre-production from me has changed over the years.

In my first films, I made a lot of storyboarding

and was thinking every shot down to the last detail.

But I stopped that on the same reason

as I changed my way with the actors.

It's also that if you have

planned something too much, almost,

then you will get

maybe 70% of that, of what you dreamt.

But if you don't dream anything and you just go in,

improvise a little, let the technicians work,

let everybody work creatively,

then you might get much more than 70%.

Are they ready for greatness?

The casting on "Breaking the Waves" was, uh...

We were meant to do the film with Helena Bonham Carter,

and then she couldn't do it.

And we were really -- we had some problems

because we were about to shoot, and very shortly.

And then we did.

They did casting for us in London, and we went there.

And then we saw Emily come in onstage in bare feet,

and there was no doubt

that she would be our Bess in the film.

I think she really did a very good job

on "Breaking the Waves."

I've been working with Stellan Skarsgard

many times,

and he's a very good friend.

We talk on the phone once a week,

and, yeah, I really like him.

He's a big guy, but he has this gentle way

of, acting and of --

Also, when he's not acting, he's --

Yeah. He's become a very good friend.

I'm quite sure that Nicole was asking

if there was a part for her in this film.

I don't think she was ever in doubt if she wanted to do it.

She was and she is a very, very hardworking woman.

But all these actors are so good,

so I can only praise them, you know.

Yeah, it was a gift.

Thank you very much.

I think that especially the female actors

are relatively easy to cast

because I think that I do parts

that are a little different from what they do normally.

The male parts, maybe not that good and interesting.

I think we had another actor in mind,

but then we were making inquiries in America,

and then Kirsten just said, "Yes I want to do it."

You know.

And that's what you really need to know

is somebody wants to do the film that you want to do.

So, it was fantastic. Yeah.

I always had the dream to make porn film.

So, that's, you know -- that's a very Danish thing.

So, I thought maybe I could do that

and of course do it my own way.

But then again, I was a little reluctant to start.

But then my DP said to me,

"I don't think you should do like other older directors,

that the girls get younger and younger

and with more and more bare skin.

You know, that was enough for me.

You know, I take very little,

like, provocation to get started.

So straight away, they got very young.

I don't remember it to be very difficult

to have to get the actors for this film.

I never really had problems getting actors

because we pay very little.

So, you know, if they come,

you know that they are there for the part and for the film

and not for, anyway, not for the money.


"Breaking the Waves" was actually an experiment

in the sense that I would like to reintroduce

sentimentality in film, in Danish films,

as, you know --

Sentimentality for my parents and for a lot of Danes

were terrible nonsense.

You know, you shouldn't go there.

So I tried to be as sentimental with this film as I could

and to see how that would work

and if people would kind of eat the story raw or whatever.

And it was also the first film

where I really started working on the direction of the actors.

And this was very good actors this time.

[ Indistinct conversations ]

Of course, it's always difficult

to shoot film, like "Dancer in the Dark"

when you have Bjork there that disappears.

You know, and surely enough, she disappeared

when we had all the people ready on the train.

We had closed the train line.

We had put another train there.

We put a lot of dancers, blah blah blah,

and everything was ready.

And who was gone? Bjork was gone.

And so that makes it always difficult.


This is one of the points

that you shouldn't say what's in your mind

because her big breasts, of course,

was the most -- [ Laughs ]

Cut. Cut!

Kirsten Dunst was a terrific actor

and wonderful to work with and beautiful.

The idea of these stripes on the floor was very clear,

but it was difficult because I think we were

maybe 100 people on the crew,

and as soon as we should film -- I filmed it myself --

I had a mic here. I had a lamp here.

The only thing I was missing was this big drum

on the back -- you know, boom boom.

And then every time we started,

I said "Ready for our picture" or something like that,


Then Lauren Bacall would say, "Just a second."

And then I would have to run,

you know, this half kilometer down to her.

And then she would say, "Which part of my back

would you like to film today, Mr. Director?"

And it was like this all the time

because we had a lot of funny people.

But, you know,

when you're carrying a really heavy camera,

it's not so funny all the time.

But she was funny, of course.

157, take three.


"Europa" was was challenging in the way that --

It was shot in Poland, most of it,

because half --

or, no, one third of the railroads in Poland

were on steam still.

And there were, of course, a lot of ruins and stuff

that we could use.

The story of "Europa" had to do with

a phenomenon called Werewolf

that was supposed to be an army of Hitler Youth

that after the war would kind of make sabotage and stuff.


[ Speaking foreign language ]

So at a certain point, they found out

these extras, the costume they were wearing,

were worth more than the money they would get for it,

so that meant that they started to disappear,

and we had to kind of hold on

to the few ones that are left

and film them several times to have enough.


You're in my seat.

No, this is mine. I play for you.

Oh, okay.


"Dancer in the Dark" is again an example

that you can't fool the United States

because I had this idea.

I know I will never get a normal Oscar, right?

But if I now choose a category

where there was almost no films --

So, I said, "Ah, a musical. That must be the thing."

Because I knew that there were still at that time --

I don't know if there is still --

a special Oscar for musicals.

And I said, "That fits me fine."

And then when they saw the film,

they said it wasn't a musical.

And of course they had found me out

that this was a trick.

But still, how how can you call this film not a musical?

They sing, they dance,

they, you know, do anything like in a musical.

But the Oscar people were too smart for me,

so I didn't get the Oscar.

I was very happy when Bjork got the award in Cannes

for for Best Actor.

[ Applause ]

-Thank you. -Cut.


I remember Shia.

And he --

He wanted to do the sex for real.

That was very important for him.

And I said, "I'm sorry. We -- We have --

I don't think that the women would like that as much as you."

So nobody -- He was good.

But he wanted to go all the way, of course,

so I had to stop him.

[ Laughs ]

He is a crazy man, but very funny.


Man: Action!

-Action. Got it. -Cut!

[ Clapperboard snaps ]


Yeah, "Dogville" is the one film

that I'm proudest of that I've made

because I think that it has some qualities,

but also, I think that at that time when we did that,

I couldn't see anywhere else in the world

the film would be produced, you know,

because it is, of course, not a very commercial idea

just to draw all the houses on the floor.

But I think, story-wise, that it works very well.

And Nicole was fantastic.

My son has just started watching films.

He's 17.

And I'm very proud

that he's now been in the cinema for the third time

to see "Blade Runner."

And "Blade Runner" has a special place in my heart.

It's definitely among my top 10 films,

and it is still a masterpiece.

I have very many American films.

I have Orson Welles -- you know, "Touch of Evil" --

and I have some Russian films by Tarkovsky.

And then, of course, I have Scorsese and Coppola,

which are masters.


I'm quite fond of what I've done so far.

The most important thing for me is to be brave enough

to go as far as I can, you know,

and take all these ideas to their maximum.

That's important for me

because I think then maybe,

you know, for instance, when we did "Element of Crime,"

we worked in a style

that was very avant garde-ish at that time.

But a few years later

comes, you know, I think "Alien" number two or three

or something like that.

It was exactly the same surroundings.

So you can only see

that something that is avant garde at one point --

if there are any use of it in commercial film,

it will be used.

So I see this my doing, a little bit like a laboratory,

you know, experimental,

and some some of the things can be used later in other films,

some things can't.


I would be lying if I said I didn't like it

when people come up to me and say

that they like the things I've been doing.


But of course, if it's people you know

and that you admire,

then of course it's even better.

But film students and critics --

Of course, I'm very happy,

and they make me think

that I've done something with my life.

You know?

[ Applause ]





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