Thomas Vinterberg (Far From the Madding Crowd) Talks Following Ingmar Bergman’s Advice and Rediscovering Himself as a Filmmaker

The Danish director looks back on the trajectory his career has taken and a crucial piece of advice he received from one of cinema's all-time greats.

After I made The Celebration, I felt that I had finalized a way of making films to such a degree that I couldn’t go further, that it would be pathetic to repeat it. So I took the rules of Dogme 95 and burned them. Which was a stupid thing to do. I betrayed myself by looking at my next film as a formalistic game. It would’ve been the right approach for someone like Lars von Trier, but I’m not him. I am someone else. It was fully 10 years later when I realized that I have to start from inside, from a human place. By turning my back on the purity of the character work that was embedded in Dogme — which is very much what I stand for — I was left in an incredibly vulnerable and confused situation. I had to float and try to find new parameters for my work.

The five years between The Celebration and its follow-up, It’s All About Love (which I consider possibly my richest film) were a very difficult time. I did not know my artistic identity at all, and success offered me a great many temptations and opportunities. It’s not great to have too many opportunities. Dogme was about limiting yourself, which, ironically, is liberating. We set rules that were very straight and sharp and focused. But after The Celebration, things became blurry and unfocused, full of possibilities and choices that I couldn’t make. There was also my vanity. I was used to people having their hands in the air, all the way back from my graduate film [Last Round, which was nominated for an Academy Award]. Suddenly, it wasn’t like that anymore. I was rejected by Cannes, and the actors’ numbers I had in my phone were changed. It was very painful and humiliating.

I was having issues with my script for It’s All About Love, so I called Ingmar Bergman and we ended up talking about everything but the script. He said, “Well, Festen is a masterpiece, so what are you going to do now?” At that point, I had not decided if I was going to make It’s All About Love, so I answered, “Hmmm, I don’t know. Maybe this, maybe that.” There was just a long pause, and then he said, “You’re fucked.” I said, “Well, how can you know?” “Well, Thomas, you always have to decide your next movie before the movie you’re doing presently opens.” And I said, “Why is that?” “Well, two things can happen. One thing is that you fail, and then you’ll feel scared and humiliated. It’ll get into your head. Second, and even worse, you have success, and then you’ll want more of it, or you’ll want to maintain it. But if you decide on your next film while you’re in the middle of editing, it becomes a very nonchalant choice. And then it’s shorter from the heart to the hand.”

The negative reception of It’s All About Love was a shock to me, and the response to Dear Wendy was paralyzing. With my next film, When a Man Comes Home, I think I was too fearful, too strategic. Moviemaking has to start from your heart or your genitals, and only then can you be clever. At the time I was making those films, I was in a company receiving a monthly paycheck, and I was becoming more and more frightened of making movies. I burned myself more and more, and fewer and fewer people were coming to my movies.

After When A Man Comes Home, I said, “No more.” Then, my marriage fell apart, I left my company, my financial situation fell apart. My career fell apart, to some degree. But out of the ashes of that ruin, I found the desire to make movies again. I found my way back to where I am, and what I am, by doing Submarino, which is very dark, very pure, very honest. It was so uncorrupted, because I had lost everything, and that’s a great starting point.

From that moment on, I had to make money. A theater director came up from Vienna and said, “Do you want to make theater?” I said, “No, I’m clueless. I don’t know how to do it.” Then he came back a second time and said, “Do you know what I’m going to pay you?” When he told me, I said, “Yes, I’m going to do it… So, what’s the deal?” He said, “Why don’t you test your dramatic material for the screen on my stage?” It’s a fantastic theater, the Burgtheater, with some of the most amazing actors. The first thing I did was try to do a continuation of The Celebration, which had always been on my mind. I wrote The Funeral with Mogens Rukov, my co-writer on The Celebration, and directed it also. It received standing ovations and played for two years, but it’s dark to a degree that killed me and I decided on the opening night that I was never going to make a film out of it.

On the flip-side, I also did The Commune, which was a raw improvisation with the Burgtheater’s actors about events from my childhood, my divorce, my dad’s divorce, the actors’ divorces — a story about the pain of people replacing one another. The audience was laughing and crying at the same time; I immediately felt, “I’ve got to make this movie.”

For me, a film comes from a spark, the moment when I’m moved by something, when the characters step out of the page and become real and vulnerable. I want to convey that on the screen. I’m looking for that inner life every time. Reading the script for Far From the Madding Crowd, when Troy swims out to sea to commit suicide, there was a grandness to it which I thought was so moving. Reading that, it was like an explosion to me. I was heartbroken. Maybe there’s a parallel between that kind of recklessness and the slightly suicidal courage it takes to give all of yourself to a movie. I’ve dived in when there was actually water in the pool, and I’ve done the opposite, when I’ve crashed into hard rock.

Since Submarino, I’ve been involved with production after production, both movies and theater. Far From the Madding Crowd is out in the world, and I’m now in postproduction on The Commune. Though that film is very personal, and has a fragility built into it because of that, I feel like I’ve been in a safer place for a while. I think maybe it’s time for me to challenge myself again, to put myself in a dangerous place. I have no idea what I’ll do next, but I have a while before The Commune opens, so I can still stick to my Bergman rule. Right now, I’m tired, but in a great way. I feel fulfilled.

World-renowned writer-director Thomas Vinterberg was one of the architects of Dogme 95 and directed the first Dogme film, The Celebration, which won numerous awards, including the Jury Prize at Cannes. His subsequent work includes It’s All About Love, with Joaquin Phoenix and Claire Danes, Dear Wendy (written by Lars von Trier), and The Hunt, which won several prizes at Cannes and was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. His latest film, Far From the Madding Crowd, starring Carey Mulligan and Matthias Schoenaerts, is now in theaters.