There are very few films that shake me to my cinematic core. Lars von Trier‘s Melancholia is one of the few this year that did, from the moment the first image graced the screen I was hypnotized by both the beauty of the filmmaking and its delicate examination of the essence of depression. I was fortunate enough to interview three of the lead actors in the film as it makes its New York Film Festival premiere. The interview was conducted in a roundtable setting and covered a variety of topics from Lars working style as a director to the controversial press conference remarks that occurred at Cannes.
How did you get involved with the project? Did Lars von Trier contact you directly?
Kirsten Dunst: For me, I literally got an email which was just like, read this script, Lars wants to talk to you tomorrow, he is really interested in you for this movie. And we Skyped and it was so simple. I know that two directors had recommended me because it was supposed to be Penelope Cruz in the film at first, so two director friends of his mentioned me for the role. We barely even talked about the script, we just talked about The Night Porter and Charlotte Rampling and I don’t know…it was really simple for me.
Did you know how dark a role you would be playing?
KD: I read the script, I knew I wasn’t doing a WB show here. (laughs)
What was your reaction to the script? Did you have any sort of reservations?
KD: I didn’t. I knew that whatever journey I was going on it would be an interesting one and I’m always up for a challenge.
Did you want to work with Lars?
KD: I did, yeah.
How was the tone conveyed to you about the style of the film?
KD: Personally, I know it’s a Lars film but I didn’t think stylistically how it would look so much, until we were getting to these homes. Did anyone else?
Alexander Skarsgård: No.
Charlotte Gainsbourg: You know visually I didn’t even see it as being America. The castle, the setting was his atmosphere.
How is it different working with Lars von Trier as opposed to other directors you’ve worked with?
AS: It’s very documental. It was such an interesting vibe and atmosphere. We all kind of lived together in the middle of nowhere in southern Sweden. You’re kind of used to working where you block a scene, then you have tape marks and then you shoot a master and the lights are coming from here and you got to find that light. And then you show up and he’s just like ‘Alright, let’s see what happens. Oh, that was great’ or ‘That sucked. Let’s try again’ He doesn’t care about continuity, he’s so open and he wants to be surprised. He wants to be like ‘Oh, that was interesting, I didn’t expect that to happen’. But then he can also be like, you do whatever you want. But then he’ll come in and he knows, you kind of feel like he’s editing it in his head as he watching it. And he’s like ‘Oh, that was great, that’s interesting’ and then if there’s something he needs then he’ll come in and he’ll just whisper something like try this and try that. It really was one of the most amazing experiences of my career.
Does he have you rehearse?
AS: No, well he shoots it. And it’s usually disaster. It is, do you remember those big scenes with cars coming and going? And he’s like ‘Alright, let’s shoot’ and we’re like, what’s my cue when do I drive?’ But I get it because there are these moments that will happen. Most of it will be disaster because people show up and be like, ‘Oh shit, what am I doing here?’ But then something will happen in that rehearsal, some little moment or something awkward or something that is real. And you won’t be able to re-create that and he’ll be there with a camera and he’ll capture that. And then you’ll do it again obviously and you’ll fix what didn’t work but then he’ll have those little moments that he can put in
CG: It’s interesting to be off balance also. That’s what he works with is trying to push you a bit off your grounds and it’s very helpful.
AS: Well it makes it real because if you come and you’re like alright I’m an actor and this is what I’m going to do, planted in my head I’m going to do this and I’m going to look over there when I say that line–
KD: Well that’s not fun… (laughs)
AS: Then it’s kind of great that he’s just like no, no, no break that up, do it differently see what happens, just be there.
CG: But I find that now it’s very difficult to work in a different way, like you feel so free then suddenly when someone says, ‘OK we’re going to rehearse.’ And you’re feeling like they’re missing stuff. It’s very difficult.
How much of what was in the script made it to screen and how much was improv?
KD: It’s all in the movie, we did some improv. (to Alexander) I actually improved with you the most, I feel like. The whole limo scene and like the bedroom scene and even if it was just like physical improv, it was just like, ‘guys figure out the scene.’
How was the atmosphere on set?
AS: We had parties on weekends, really had fun because you need that. It’s like you can’t spend two months in that darkness.
Has Lars overcome the depression which is such a theme in the film?
AS: He would never be able to make another movie again and he would just make boring romantic comedies.
How did you handle the arc from the happiness in the beginning of the film to its dark downward spiral?
AS: We talked about that before we started it and we were all kind of on the same page. You got to start somewhere to be able to go down here, you can’t start down there. You want a lightness and excitement, is this going to be a great day? You know they’re both like, ‘OK, we’re at least trying.’ If you start in the limo and it’s just like (makes moaning sound) where do you go from there?
Did you guys shoot in order?
KD: No, not at all, but that was my first scene that I did.
(to Alexander) Was your character supposed to be dumb, unaware of the situation with Justine?
AS: No, I’m dumb as an actor, it’s all real. (laughs) I think he’s just trying desperately, Justine is such like a little fragile wounded bird and he believes he can make it better. He’s like I’ll take care of you as the more she slowly drifts away and he’s struggling and trying to make it OK. There’s a scene that we shot that didn’t make it into the final cut…
KD: Lars was happiest about this scene, he was so happy with us that day. So happy and it didn’t make the movie.
AS: I know and he told me that he was devastated, he’s like ‘it just didn’t work in the cut.’ But it’s a really sad moment, because it’s like Justine says that she’s not happy and he’s like, ‘well, no one is happy. I’m not looking for happiness, it’s OK. You have moments of happiness but no one is really happy,’ And it was just so sad to hear Michael, who you think is the kind of guy whose going to say no this is great, say no we’re content and we’ll have a pretty good life but I’m not happy. Let’s just stay together because it’ll be alright. It was just so sad.
(to Alexander) Did your father, who worked with Lars several times, give you any acting advice about working with him?
AS: No. He just said do it. If you ever get an opportunity to work with him, just do it.
And how was it working with your father?
AS: Everything about it was so amazing. We shot in Sweden so on weekends I went up to Stockholm to see my mom and my siblings. Just an amazing ensemble working with one of the greatest directors out there and my old man is in it and I love working with him and just hanging out with him. It was the first and only time I’ve said yes to a project without having read the script. I just got a call and I was like, ‘alright, I don’t know what he wants me to do, but I’ll do it.’
CG: It was very different. The first one felt so intimate and felt like a tiny crew and we would go to extremes. With this character everything was more subtle, it was more difficult for me to understand and to know where I was going because it was less extreme. And the crew felt different, the whole thing was really the opposite which is nice. I was nervous before I started the second film because I enjoyed myself so much in the first one and I was worried it wouldn’t be as good.
Did you enjoy Antichrist?
CG: Yeah, very very much…in a troubled way, but thats why we do this job, not to go in easy places.
Was Lars a different director for both films?
CG: Very different, I think he was not well when we shot Antichrist. He was always, not always, but he came up saying he didn’t know if he would be able to finish the film and with anxiety crisis he would leave the set and it was really hard for him. So we suffered looking at him, not being able to cope with everything. For this film he was good and saying how happy he felt and so it was nice to see him recover.
How did you react to the press conference at Cannes?
KD: I mean for me, I’ve just had to deal with your face and that press conference turn into a YouTube clip. It was like watching a friend unravel, I felt so awful for him. I knew obviously that it was inappropriate what he said in that forum and I felt embarrassed for him too.
Do you see this role pointing your career in a new direction? You’re not known for this type of role.
KD: Yeah and to me I never – I’ve always done a mixture, like I did The Virgin Suicides, but then I did Bring It On. To me, I’ve always mixed it up, so this is just an opportunity because of my age, too, and there aren’t that many roles like this that are so unconventional for women. To me it’s not a new direction personally, it just is the movie I chose to do next. You know what I mean? It wasn’t like a divisive decision. It came from a very honest and excited place.
I just meant coming off a Best Actress award in Cannes, that this would attract different kinds of roles offered to you.
KD: I don’t know. I did a really raunchy comedy just now, so I’m not someone who –
KD: A raunchy comedy. It was a play called Bachelorette and Will Ferrell producing it. It’s really just like girls being awful. (laughs) That was fun for me. I get to play a real bitch, which I never get to do, so it was fun.
Was it really emotionally taxing the entire experience? Was there a recovery time after?
AS: (looks at Dunst) On Bachelorette.
KD: (laughs) That’s what I was thinking! I went to Germany with my dad after. It’s good to do something immediately after and not sit there alone right after you finish…because you do, you create a family and then it’s done and you have this schedule, too. So I went on a vacation with my dad and it was really nice. And it was weird because we went to this castle in Germany where Wagner wrote a lot of his music and where Ludwig lived, King Ludwig, which Lars named his son after, so it was a nice little – I didn’t realize my dad and I were going to this place. It’s called Neuschwanstein, it looks like a big Disney castle, (laughs) but it was fun because it was a little button on the end of something that I experienced and it was so special to me, so it was cathartic at the end. I was tired, but I wasn’t sad or, you know, there was nothing negative about it after for me.
Is there something you have to get in your head to bring this concept to life? Especially in the end when so much of Claire’s emotion is coming from seeing the planet in the background. Are you looking in the distance and picturing something?
KD: I didn’t.
CG: It’s your imagination.
AS: Ignorance is bliss. My guy has no fucking idea. (laughs) No idea!
In terms of female characters, I feel like a lot of people have negative things to say about the way Lars portrays women, but I think his characters are so –
KD: I know. It’s so crazy to me. It’s like he’s one of the only people writing roles. And women always are the leads.
They’re completely different characters, but they’re both so real and natural. You don’t really see a lot of that.
CG: There is a cruelty and a darkness, but that’s what makes –
That’s what makes a person though. (Laughs)
CG & KD: Yeah.
Would you want to work with Lars again and is there any truth to the next project he was mentioning in the press conference?
KD: The Nymphomania – (to Charlotte) are you doing that?
KD: You are? (laughs) That’s awesome!
AS: I think my dad is in it as well.
KD: Oh, that’s so awesome!
CG: But I’m still crossing fingers, I haven’t read the script. I just read a synopsis.
Is it kind of like the third in the apocalyptic trilogy?
CG: I don’t know. (laughs)
How did you feel when you saw the movie after spending time shooting it?
AS: But that’s why I could actually watch the second half of the movie as a member of the audience and kind of just enjoy it. It’s always weird when you watch yourself, especially the first time, I’m very critical and I kind of dissect my own performance. I’m like, ‘Oh fuck. That was – why? Oh! That’s way too big,’ and, ‘Why did I do that? Oh, really? They chose that take? I remember another one that was much better.’ I wasn’t able to go to Cannes, I was working in LA on something so I missed Cannes, so I went back to Sweden in May and it was in theaters then, or in June right after Cannes and I just, oh, I thought it was amazing. Just the sound, I saw it in the theater and the second half –
KD: The sound is crazy at the end.
AS: It just blew me away.
KD: I laughed at Cannes. I turned to my friend, I was like, ‘What is going on?’ (laughs) Not because I thought it was funny, but it was so intense. I thought it was amazing though. I thought the end was really cool when I saw it all done for the first time. I haven’t seen an ending in a theater like that. And it’s so unexpected because it’s so intimate and then this huge, you know. It is a sci-fi movie. It is. I don’t want to say that it is, but it’s kind of awesome to call it a sci-fi movie because the more intimate, the more weird and, I don’t know, I’d be happy if this went into a sci-fi genre.
The beginning foreshadows everything, but I feel like by the end you kind of forget about all that and you’re still surprised because you get so wrapped up in the characters, which I thought was really cool.
KD: And the planet stuff was never – I was so worried that that would look weird or be distracting or look really phony. Did you guys ever think that?
KD: You always thought it was gonna look good? I was like, ‘What is this blue light?’ (laughs)
CG: I was more worried about the horse riding.
KD: Oh, yeah. That.
Did you ride?
KD: A little. (laughs) We took it for a walk.
AS: A walk?
KD: (laughs) Well, we weren’t galloping through the woods. So embarrassing.
CG: And he didn’t use any of it.
AS: You were sitting on wooden horses, pretending?
AS: I wonder why that never made the movie. (Laughs)
How was it shooting the two parts? Were they separate in the shooting schedule?
KD: Nope, all mixed up, for the most part. We did the reception a little bit together and then we moved locations for two weeks to Gothenburg and shot an hour outside of there at the big mansion.
Is there anything specific that he told you that needed to be different, maybe in terms of the point at which your character is at?
KD: Right. That was natural to me because I’m an actor. You know, I should know where I’m at in the movie. So for me there wasn’t any like, ‘And now, it’s this.’ I know what scene we’re at and where we are in the script.
Did Lars give you any advice before going in, any specific direction that sticks with you?
CG: I remember he asked me to watch Persona.
KD: Yeah. And he told me to watch A Philadelphia Story, too.
AS: He told me to watch A Philadelphia Story, too.
KD: I’d seen it before, but, yeah.
KD: I think because it takes place at a wedding and it’s funny and charming and he didn’t want to lose that essence even though it was a film about depression.
How about your personal preparation processes? What do you all like to do? Break down the script, anything like that?
AS: I just sit and I read the script like three times a day and then I take notes, just write down ideas and then 98% of them will be crap and then it’s just finding those things that you thought of when you read it and finding those interesting things. It’s just inspiration and coming up with ideas and then that’s how I like finding the character, is how I work.
You’ve been working with so many great directors. Is there any aspiration to direct yourself?
AS: I’ve done a little bit of that in Sweden. I directed a short and a couple of commercials. And, yeah, I’ve written some stuff. I’d like to do that eventually.
KD: I’ve done two shorts before. I like it a lot. But I like it small – it would take me a minute to feel confident enough in a story. I don’t have any ideas that I feel confident enough in right now to direct a film.
CG: Yeah, I feel intimidated by that process, but I wish I could.
Do you think that the film has a happy ending?
AS: I do in a weird way.
AS: I don’t want to give it away, but there’s that one little moment between the sisters at the end and I was like, ‘Aw.’
KD: They all saw the movie. It’s okay. Oh, you mean – (laughs). Yeah, okay. Oh, that’s sweet.
AS: No I did! Because you finally connected, you know?
AS: And then we all died, (laughs) but there was that little brief moment.
KD: My girlfriend saw it last night and she had the biggest smile on her face at the end and then other friends of mine looked zombified. I like that the film has so many different reactions that you really can’t conform it or rally explain what the movie – it’s hard to – this is the hardest movie I’ve ever had to talk about because it’s not one that you can sum up or compartmentalize into things. It’s really for the audience to experience themselves, which is rare.
Were you aware of those extraordinary opening images?
KD: I kind of knew what it would look like, a little bit, but I didn’t know beautifully it would all go together like that.
How would you react to the end of the world?
KD: I don’t know. I’d be sad if I never had kids and it was the end of the world, but, I don’t know. (laughs) If it was the end of the world, like, tomorrow I’d probably just drink with my friends or something. I don’t know. (laughs)
AS: I’d go hang out with my family.
CG: I’d just want it to be quick and not know about it.
KD: Yeah, we don’t have to worry about this, so it’s not going to happen guys, it’s okay. (laughs) Not today.
Melancholia is currently playing at the New York Film Festival and hits VOD today, October 7th and theaters on November 11th.