torsdag den 24. januar 2019

"Kursk": Interviews med Thomas Vinterberg og Matthias Schoenaerts

I dag, 24. januar 2019, har Thomas Vinterbergs seneste spillefilm, "Kursk", premiere i danske biografer. Hovedrollerne spilles af belgiske Matthias Schoenaerts og franske Léa Seydoux, med engelske Colin Firth i en vigtig birolle.

Desuden genforener Vinterberg de svenske titaner Max von Sydow og Pernilla August ("Den gode vilje", "Jerusalem"), og han hiver flere af sine danske skuespillervenner ind foran kameraet i engelsktalende biroller (bl.a. Lars Brygmann, Bjarne Henriksen og Magnus Millang). Som cheffotograf har Vinterberg for femte gang valgt Anthony Dod Mantle ("Festen").

Luc Bessons franske selskab EuropaCorp har produceret thrilleren om den russiske atomubåd, som forliste på bunden af Barentshavet i august 2000. Vinterberg optog "Kursk" i Belgien, Frankrig og Norge for så længe siden, at den svenske skuespiller Michael Nyqvist, der døde i juni 2017, medvirker i en lille birolle.

> Læs mit interview med Colin Firth ("A Single Man")
> Mere Anthony Dod Mantle på Bries Blog-O-Rama

Jeg interviewede Thomas Vinterberg og Matthias Schoenaerts på sidste års Toronto Film Festival. Rundbordssamtalerne foregik på engelsk, som det vil fremgå af citaterne nedenfor.

Thomas Vinterberg (instruktør)

Matthias Schoenaerts was already attached to the lead role in "Kursk" when he brought the script to you. What was your initial reaction?
Reading this particular script with him in mind moved me, basically. He's radiating masculinity, humanity, warmth, a lot of complexity, and this character just came to life very quickly when I read it. Also I found an opportunity there to elevate the project from being a political thriller and hopefully into something grander. About humanity, about running out of time, about life and death.

My wife [Helene Reingaard Neumann, ed.] is a priest, she just became a priest - she was an actress before. She told me that where we come from, we used to talk about death. People died younger, and it was part of everyday life. That has changed over generations. There is a focus on being young and improving your life, but less people confront themselves with the fact that there is an end date. It has become the obligation of the literature and the film world to deal with these issues. And I found myself struck by this, by the bravery of these men in their last minutes and obviously the sadness of the story. But it did change quite a bit since I read it the first time. There was an opportunity here to make a big film on a certain scale and yet still, to some degree, make it my own which I found unique. There are not many of those projects around anymore.

"It's so fucking far away from Dogma."  
- Thomas Vinterberg

With the two Utøya films this year there has been some debate about the responsibilities of portraying real-life tragedies.
First of all, there's one more step for us. One thing is that we are telling stories about lives that exist. Another thing is that we are doing it in English, and it's supposed to be Russian. Both these steps were giant steps for me which humbled us to a large degree and made us very careful about each step that we made. This script is based upon a book called "A Time to Die" which is the result of very thorough research and conversations with all these families. But when we brought this from the book by Robert Moore into the world of fiction, we also realized that this is the world of fiction. We gave them different names to allow us that freedom.

THomas Vinterberg, Léa Seydoux og Matthias Schoenaerts ved verdenspremieren i Toronto 6. september 2018 | foto: Rodin Eckenroth/WireImageGetty for TIFF

In real life [the lead character's name was] Dmitri Kolesnikov. He was the captain, he wrote a letter, but he didn't have children. As far as I know, he was in the middle of a divorce and there was some ugly shit going on which did not fit this film. That's where the world of fiction becomes different from real life, and that's where I felt I was stepping back from reality. Now then there are all the technicalities of what happened. There are four different books about this, they offer each their own theory. The one we bought is the one we believe in, mostly, and that's the path I went down.

Then I partnered up with consultants. The character played by Colin Firth is called David Russell in real life, he was helping us all the way through. He was on sets with us, and he taught us the world of submarines. Then there was a Russian submariner who had been on nuclear submarines in Russia who helped us as well. And we know stuff post mortem. We know that these bodies were half-burned meaning that some was in water, some was not. From that you can guess that either they were already dead when they were burned or a situation like the one in our movie ... we don't know. That's where we come down to a mixture between guessing and following the leads that the submarine gave us.

You have changed the names of some characters, and what happened in the submarine is obviously fiction. How did you decide what needed to stay true to the actual events?
That's a huge question. Every dramatic element, every line, we had that conversation. Obviously nobody really knows what happened, for good reasons. We can guess, and as I said there are four different books offering four different theories about what happened. BUt it was a constant balance between reality and fiction. I found it really important, and we did our best to be humble to the truth and keep exploring it, even into technical details. This oxygen generator, you won't believe how much time I've spent trying to figure out how they look, how they work, what about these cartridges that they swim for, blah-di-blah.

I had endless Skype calls and conversations with the writer and David Russell. Sometimes things didn't work out because it was too far from reality and we had to cut it out. I remember this conversation with this very civilized man, David Russell, and the American writer, Robert Rodat. He said, "So, Thomas, Robert, how can this and this possibly have happened against sea pressure? It's ten bar, and I'm just wondering ...". And then a long break, and Robert's not answering, and I'm trying, "So, Bob, where does this come from?". And he answered [in gruff American voice], "I pulled it out of my ass." (laughter) These moments we had, and we had to go back to the truth. It was a constant effort to come as close to reality as possible.

Thomas Vinterberg (t.h.) og Peter Simonichek under optagelserne til "Kursk" | pr-foto

Did you initially seek the Russian defence ministry's cooperation?
There are a lot of these questions. (laughter) And the question about Putin, was I forced to cut out Putin. I wasn't. It's a boring artistic decision, actually. Anyway, we did at some point investigate shooting this film in Russia, trying to get closer to the truth. What we met were so many complications and so much interference with the script - not that they wanted it correct, they just wanted it heroic in the right places. We stepped away from that pretty fast and decided that we needed the artistic freedom. I think the film has become more truthful that way.

What kind of reaction do you expect from Russian audiences and authorities?
I'm very nervous about that. It means a lot to me. If we take the easy part first, the Northern fleet or the Russian fleet - if they ever pay attention to this movie - they won't find this portrait flattering, and probably there will be some kind of reaction. They will probably be sending out stories to counter our portrayal of this. But I don't know yet.

Are you worried that they will say you are exploiting the story for entertainment?
They could say a lot of things. I'm not that worried because they have said such horrible things that were so far from the truth that I hope people understand there's so much propaganda going on. The woman [played by Pernilla August, ed.] that starts screaming at the press meeting, she was there in real life. You can find her on YouTube. And she's sedated live on camera which became the end of free press in Russia, that particular event. What they've said about this woman is ridiculous. They said that she's an actress, I think even ex-prostitute. So I don't know what they will say.

That's not much different from what we're seeing at Trump rallies.
No. That's a very important point. For me, this story hopefully elevates away from being finger-pointing. There is the Russian fleet that is portrayed here, and there was the decision of saving the lives of 23 men or maintaining their naval secrets and national pride. I find that choice ... interesting. In the Western world we like to see ourselves as people who are saving Private Ryan. One guys is enough, you know. But here there is a sacrifice for the community. Obviously I think, in the name of humanity, that they should have been saved. But there is more to it than that. There is a sacrifice, a sense of community of brotherhood and a sacrifice for your country which is just different than in the Western world.

Mathias Schoenaerts og Léa Seydoux i "Kursk" | pr-foto

This film gives more space to the wives than most similar films, being present at the press conference and speaking their mind.
My honest reaction is that we were trying to approach the truth as much as possible. These women showed the bravery of doing a riot against the authorities on open camera. I found that very heartbreaking and very strong. And I did not do that to satisfy a gender debate. I did it because that's what happened. This was an important part of this story, of this tragedy. I think the character that Léa Seydoux is playing is heartbreaking. I've narrowed my vision into what happened, and what do we want to convey with this drama. Is that a satisfying answer? (laughter)

The challenge of working in and under water, was that merely a necessity of the story or was it something that interested you as a challenge?
It was like complete new territory for me which made it a bit of a fairy tale. It's fascinating how difficult it is to shoot in water! First of all, you have to put a lot of people down there. Then you have to put a lot of stuntmen surrounding them. Then you have to put a lot of electricity and lamps into water. Then you have people who have to take care of that electricity and then the insurance people to make sure that we don't all get boiled - or get boiled in a proper way if we get boiled, or whatever. It's a huge deal. It was complicated but it was interesting for me because it's so fucking far away from Dogma. And that I liked. It was new territory.

But it was tough primarily for Anthony and the actors. I was behind the monitor with a cup of coffee, feeling good about things, but they were in the water all the time, 12 hours a day, and it was baking warm. It was 42 degrees because the water had to stay warm so the room was 42 degrees as well. And they had to act that they were freezing - for months. So it was really tough. But those guys liked each other and got really close. I mean, they were in that water and the minute they got out of the water between takes they had to get into a pool. An even smaller pool. Because they were wearing wet clothes and we couldn't take it on and off. So a very interesting chemistry appeared amongst those male actors, I'd have to say.

There's also an uninterrupted shot where two of the submariners are swimming under water for several minutes.
I'm not gonna give you the full recipe for that but that was really difficult. First of all the pool was not deep enough for them to swim downwards so we had to put the set sideways, and then the bubbles went the wrong way. There are a lot of technicalities, a lot of swim training, and this other guy, the Belgian actor next to Matthias, can hold his breath for more than three minutes. There's a lot of stuff behind that, and a little bit of digital help as well, of course. And a lot of safety. But this one was particularly difficult, it took three days for that one shot.

There was a time preparing this movie where I wanted a lot more of those long shots because this film is about eventually running out of time, and I thought it was interesting then to stretch time. But then I went into the cinema and I saw "The Revenant" and "La La Land" so I didn't want to be part of a movement of long takes so I reduced it to that one essential moment which was really complicated. But we had a lot of complications. It's really difficult to shoot on war ships, and explosions. But I have to say I enjoyed it, and I had Anthony Dod Mantle with me who has a lot of routine and has done a lot of big movies. He could drive the crew around with a whip and really make things work. It was fun.

Thomas Vinterberg under optagelserne til "Kursk" | pr-foto

How much of the film was shot on an actual submarine?
The beginning when they board the submarine. The interior is a real submarine, Le Redoubtable, it's a French submarine. Then the room, the explosions and all of that, we built in studios.

Everything else is CG?

The picture opens up to Scope format once we go into the submarine. Why did you decide on this change in aspect ratio?
When I was sitting with my DoP going through the scenes ... First of all I was fascinated by the size of the submarine, but what fascinated me even more was the power of nature and the fact that this huge machine could be dwarfed and minimalized by the vast sea. I wanted to emphasize how small they are, these men, and how lost they are. Also on the contrary, at the end of the movie they are running out of opportunities, running out of air. I felt that this confined space could be even more confined by this frame. But when you get ideas like that, it's ... We're never clever when we do that. It's things you feel. And then you meet a journalist and you have to find a way to explain it. We have to stay emotional. I find it really important that people have elaborate and intellectual conversations about movies, but it's equally important to disconnect to that in the process of making them. There has to be a short distance between the hand and the heart when you make these matters. But this is the explanation I can offer.

You've cast Max von Sydow and Pernilla August in bit parts - they are almost cameo appearences.
I wouldn't say so. Pernilla is an amazing actress and director, but she doesn't stand out with the same story ... maybe for Swedish people. But Max von Sydow is a legend. He comes as Max von Sydow into the movie and brings a lot with him which I thought was interesting. I didn't really know what it meant but I've always been so attracted to whatever he's done. Then he's the warmest and nicest man as well.

Was David Russell, the real-life character that Colin Firth portrays, on set?
I will never forget when I brought them together in a hotel in Covent Garden in London. Here was David Russell and David Russell meeting each other and exchanging ... It was so moving. Colin was so moved as well to hear the stories that the real David Russell had to tell. Obviously that spun into a kind of friendship, I guess, or a lot of mutual respect.

Did he talk about this idea of comradery that exists between people serving in armies?
A massive scene that we also shot, spent a lot of money on and then cut out, happened in reality. When the huge ship Peter the Great realized that they were dead, and the British ship, the Seaway Eagle, was heading home, all the soldiers of the Russian ship stepped up onto deck and cheered them on their way back home which was a very moving thing. I remember him talking about that and tearing up. I found that so interesting because it was like two continents reaching out to each other on one level and then fearing each other on another level. It's something I feel really sorry about that it couldn't fit into the movie. But it just couldn't because people don't care about them at that point. They want to see the family. But I've shot it, and I can send it to you! It was super-expensive and complicated. (laughter)

Mathias Schoenaerts i "Kursk" | pr-foto

Mathias Schoenaerts (Mikhail Averin i "Kursk")

You were the one who brought the script to Thomas Vinterberg's attention. What appealed to you about this story?
First of all, its based on true events. It has a big social-political dimension. It's a survival thriller. It's a film about hope, family, loss. It's also man versus system. It's about injustice and indifference. About hypocrisy, also. This movie is not necessarily about Russia. It happened in Russia but the dynamic that the movie is revealing is a world-wide phenomenon. And I was like, which director can bring the scope that the film obviously has as a survival thriller but still keep it intimate enough that we can relate and attach ourselves to the emotional journey of these characters? And I thought Thomas was the guy to do it.

You worked with Thomas Vinterberg previously on "Far from the Madding Crowd". What is it about you and him together?
We just enjoy working together. Sometimes you just feel it when youre working with someone, it feels comfortable, it feels generous and playful, and there is a good synergy. You feel you bring out the best in each other.

What can you say about working with director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle? He was in there with you, in the water.
Yeah, what an amazing, rock and roll individual. The trinity was really nice, Thomas, Anthony and then the actors. It was a really nice dynamic between the three of us. I loved it.

How long can you hold your breath underwater?
I trained, and eventually I was able to do it for 2 minutes and 40 seconds. I started with 1 minute 20 so I doubled the time by training, so that's not bad. But the guy I was training with, the free-diver, was able to do it for seven minutes and 30 seconds.

Mathias Schoenaerts i "Kursk" | pr-foto

What was it like for you to film in this claustrophobic set for weeks on end?
It wasn't the most comfortable but it was very helpful to get close to the sense of what the real crew members went through. Nothing to complain about. I mean, small spaces is one thing but small spaces with a lot of people ... its not what I enjoy the most. To be honest.

Thomas Vinterberg said you became comrades.
Of course. It creates a bond.

What do you do to keep these friendships as an actor? Because you travel a lot, you may never see each other again.
That's true. But I think a real friendship consists also of accepting that reality, being real close right now, and until we meet again, my friend.

Being an actor consists of saying goodbye a lot.
That's true, but I'm a sociopath. [laughter] I don't have a problem with that. I say goodbye all my life, all the time.

I couldn't imagine you in a submarine for very long. You are too energetic for that.
It depends, it depends. I could make you believe anything. Trust me. I can even sell you a bike with no wheels if you were blind. Ha ha!

What do you look for in a script or role?
You look for things that are gripping. I like movies that slap me in the face or pull my heart out, fascinate me, make me laugh, they do something with me. They trigger me. I don't like stuff that leave me indifferent. You don't wanna be part of those things.

Matthias Schweighöfer og Matthias Schoenaerts (t.h.) i "Kursk" | pr-foto

Was there a film like that in your childhood that made you want to be an actor or like "that guy"?
No, I never really wanted to be an actor when I was a kid. Even today, I like acting but I dont know if I want to be an actor. I like acting a lot, that's for sure.

What did you want to be when you were a little boy, then?
[Schoenaerts in annoyed childish voice] That's none of your business! ... I dont know, soccer player, astronaut? The typical. Or architect.

So why did you decide to act?
I was completely into acting but just because you like acting you don't [necessarily] want to be an actor. It sounds like it doesn't make sense but it does make absolute sense. I did classical education and then did some theater and ended up doing movies. I mean, I like playing soccer but I'm not sure I would like to be a soccer player. I love the game, but honestly, to be a soccer player, I think, must be an insanely boring life. As a profession. Jesus Christ! But the game itself, I love it. I would love to play five times a week or five times a day, even.

Does this mean you take acting as a game?
No, not at all. I'm playful about it but its not a game, its not a sport.

Is acting in English different for you than working in your own language, or French for that matter?
I prefer working in other languages. Actually I feel more comfortable in French and in English than in my own language. I told you I'm a sociopath, ha ha! In the beginning I had to work on it but now all of a sudden it's ... The more you speak it, the more it becomes second nature.

I am sure you've been asked this a thousand times before … but what exactly is the correct pronunciation of your surname?
That's probably the sound, chhrrr, of the last name is something you don't [have in your language]. It's very uncommon. I think you only use it in Flemish. In every other language, it becomes "sk". ”Sch” in English is "school", like sk, but in Flemish it's schrr. If you didnt grew up speaking it, the muscle ... In Flemish it's Matthias Schrrronarts. I will have to deal with it for the rest of my life. There are so many things that are so much worse, I don't mind.

Thanks. Can I take a picture with you? It's for the social media.
Sure. For the sociopath media, ha ha!

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