By Elayne Taylor.
The films of Lars von Trier are frequently experimental, often explicit, and always challenging. And it is perhaps no surprise that even his musical, Dancer in the Dark, is no exception.
The film stars Icelandic singer Bjork as Selma, a nearly-blind, single-mom, factory worker, together with legendary French actress Catherine Deneuve as Selma’s friend Cathy. And although described as a musical, in truth the film transcends the typical boundaries of that genre. Relentlessly tragic, members of the audience at the Cannes Film Festival were visibly shaken when the house lights went up, and Dancer seems more the child of grand opera than cousin to the American musical. Despite controversy and mixed reactions on its release, the film won the Golden Palm at Cannes, and was both Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated.
This article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting Volume 8, #1, 2001.
How did you start writing Dancer in the Dark?
I thought I would like to do an execution scene and then I put the story together. It was actually intended to be a remake of Breaking the Waves. We call it style, you know, if you repeat yourself.
Why an execution scene?
I remembered In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s film. In that film, this poor man who’s going to be hanged is in a harness. And this I put in my script. And then my stenographer called me from the state of Washington saying that they only use that in Texas. But they had something else and she was standing right next to it.
Collapse boards they call it. It’s not that everything has to be exact, because you can never match real life. But I could never have invented a board like this. Never in my life could I have thought of that.
You did a lot of research and got coverage from American readers?
Oh yes. I had conversations with American lawyers and people who knew how things were back then. I had a very big problem getting Selma convicted in the courtroom. People reading said there wasn’t a chance I could get a blind woman executed. Then I had to change the crime and put in a lot of evidence for the court.
I found out that it would be really bad for her to say something good about the Communists, so I put that in. And then it also helped that she didn’t flee her country because she wanted to flee her political system. She actually came to get the operation for her son. Research can help you shape characters.
You’re writing a new script right now…
I’m preparing and I haven’t got the slightest idea. I’m putting up a lot of difficulties for myself. For example, I put up those Dogme rules, and they changed the whole film. I have changed a lot over the years with my approach. I’m writing stories simpler and simpler. In my earlier films we made a very complex script and storyboards. Even the edits we storyboarded before the film was shot.
Are you referring to Zentropa?
Yes, especially Zentropa. Everything was planned. The bad thing about that is when you go out and film it, you can only reach seventy percent of what you have dreamt. And then it’s kind of depressing. But if you do the opposite— only writing a sketch and keep the story simple—then part of the script work is with the actors. Because they put things into it, you get something instead of losing.
Dogme taught me to make a stronger bond with the actors and use them in a better way. Now, I would like to move to more abstract film again.
Was there a big switch from writing Zentropa to writing Breaking the Waves?
I changed, yes. But in all my films the scripts are quite close. All the stories are about a realist who comes into conflict with life. I’m not crazy about real life, and real life is not crazy about me. After Zentropa, I had the idea to make an emotional film. It was quite a cynical decision, in that sense. Although I took it very seriously. It wasn’t a joke.
David Morse quoted you as saying, “My script is shit, do the subtext.”
Carl Dreyer [The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ordette] was a famous Danish director, who spent many years on each script. He started with eight hundred pages and then cut down and cut down and ended up with sixty pages or something like that. So the whole process was simplifying.
For actors to work with character, maybe the words in the script should never be said. We had exercises in this film where I would simply say, “Now let’s do it again and not use any words from this script.” I can tell from that if everybody knows what we’re doing and what the conflict is. I get them to try to say it with their own words.
So you can pinpoint exactly what the actors are clear about or what they don’t get.
Absolutely. I developed this technique over the last five or six years. I shoot a scene in many different ways, shades, angles and intentions, and then in the editing put the whole thing together. Now that I’m working on video, with one hour of tape, I just go on filming for the whole hour without stopping and then discuss and suggest that the actors do it a little differently. Or suggest that what they came up with here and here could be used there.
I remember a very good example of this when I worked with Bjork and David Morse on this scene where they’re sitting in the trailer, and he’s saying he doesn’t have any money, and she’s talking about going blind. We shot about one hour and it was very intense and extremely good. Bjork was suddenly changing the pace and getting excited. I said to David, “When she does this, go with her.” I sat alone with the two actors and the camera, and it came to life.
The script is not alive when I write it. The process where it comes alive comes after, when I do it with the actors. When I know who the cast is going to be, then I may rewrite a little bit, but actors always give you something on the day. It’s a little bit like being a chef—going to the market to see what we have today…
I wasn’t expecting a mushroom soufflé but here it is.
And for breakfast! Surprises come, and you see what kind of mood you get out of it.
For the first twenty-five pages of Dancer in the Dark I felt played with—not sure if I was going to like Selma or not. I loved being given time to make up my mind about this character. Did you write it this way originally or did it come out of working with the actors?
It’s in the original script. It’s very clear. If you compare my technique to drawing, I would draw a picture and then erase it a little bit here and there. It’s much better that the audience have the feeling that they can decide about Selma than if you hit them over the head from the start that she’s a golden-hearted woman.
It was extremely important to me that this boy, Gene, should not be a dream of a child, that he and his mother should not have a lot of love on the surface. I write the story, and then I go against it, here and there. It becomes more like real life if things are not extremely obvious.
Selma seems angrier in the script. Did Bjork soften her on screen?
That is possible. When you shoot a scene in many different ways, as we did, then the final decision comes in the editing. My way of working is to sample and collect a lot of different things.
When Selma first storms out of the factory and confronts Gene about skipping school, the script says she slaps him hard three times. But she only slaps him once on screen.
Bjork changed that. She didn’t want to slap him at all. She said, “I never slapped a person in my life.” And then I said, “I remember something about a journalist in Hong Kong…” and she said, “Only once!” I remember this journalist got banged into the concrete floor. But I still couldn’t get more slaps out of her.
There is a scene in the script where Selma plays a prank, pretending to order expensive ruby jewelry from a shopkeeper. Why didn’t that scene make final cut?
Bjork made Selma more grown up. I had something in mind that was closer to the character of Bess in Breaking the Waves. Bess was always fooling around and making strange faces. It didn’t work for Selma.
Let’s talk about genre. You seem to have created a tragic musical melodrama for the proletariat. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
My films are a little dark, right? So if I should make a musical it would be dark too.
My first idea was to make more of an opera than a musical. An opera typically has a melodramatic story. All the emotions come from the music and the singing. I was eager to try to use them because people have been crying at the operas for many years. I suppose some people think it’s bad taste. It’s never really used in film.
It’s a little strange that in other countries they have melodramatic musicals, but for western audiences it’s uncommon. In my view, musicals were always closer to operetta, which normally is a lighter story.
Are you thinking about genres or are you a genre-breaker?
Yes, I am thinking about them. And trying my best to take them very seriously. I hate films that make fun of genres or other films. I prefer deconstructing, ’cause then you’re just taking parts of the film and putting it in a little box and saving it.
Genres are the genetic material we have for film, so we can put it together respectfully in different ways. Maybe we can invent new genres. I’m sure this can be done.
At the end of the script, there are notes about the musical numbers. For the “In the Musicals” number, you write, “This is where all of Selma’s pent-up musical clichés blaze up. This is where the idea of the musical must ring forth loud and clear. It must be so beautiful that it hurts, drawing on anything to hand. We must dig down to the ultimate clichés. And they cannot lie! Everything is so simple here that untruth has no place.”
You really have some inside documents there. This was between me and Vincent Patterson. I have learned that if you want people to contribute, then you should give them as much information as possible.
I also wrote a little text that you probably also have, called Selma’s Manifesto. It was a text of five pages about where these songs and dances came from, so Bjork and Vincent could work from this paper. It’s very difficult to write a musical. It’s not something that you just phone somebody and ask how do you write it.
Your female characters are three-dimensional and loaded with emotional dynamite. What allows you to create women characters like this when so many writers fail?
I have this very good friend who is a writer and he tells me that one way of writing is to take yourself and divide yourself into different characters. He says this is typically the way I write. I can see some logic in that. I use myself in these women, although I wouldn’t have liked them as men.
I’ve always been surrounded by strong women, you know. I’m not concentrating on giving a portrait of a woman. I see them as quite complex and human.
What’s your favorite scene in the script?
The scene that we talked about earlier in the trailer. You have to be excited when you write. I write extremely fast when I’m excited, and when I’m not, I don’t write anything at all. I did a script for this Dogme film I did [The Idiots]. I wrote it in three and a half days. Other scripts have taken years.
In the Dancer script, if you find that scene in the trailer, you’ll see that it’s not close to the words on screen, but somehow it was clear enough to ignite the actors. That’s what I’m most proud of.