In the frenzy of excitement that greeted Thomas Vinterberg's international smash "The Celebration" in 1998, he received numerous entreaties from all manner of people. One was a Danish psychiatrist who handed him a file of cases and said he had a responsibility to explore the other side of the abuse issues in the film. Overwhelmed with travel, development and new projects, he shelved it.
"I'm trying to find this vulnerable pure quality from my graduate film, where there was no speculation about the future."
Eight years later, Vinterberg was cleaning up his desk and came across the doctor's file. "I read it and was totally stunned by it," he explains. "I felt like I had to do this movie."
The film that evolved from that chance discovery is "The Hunt", the director's seventh feature, and one which is bound to generate the international acclaim and controversy that he aroused with "The Celebration" 14 years ago. The subject this time is a false accusation made by a young girl against a mild-mannered kindergarten teacher called Lucas (played by Mads Mikkelsen). In the hysteria that follows the accusation, Lucas's life comes crashing down.
No instance of wrongdoing takes place in "The Hunt". The film is a more classic story of a man unjustly accused. Lucas – who, Vinterberg says, is unquestionably innocent – becomes the target of hatred by all in the small rural town where the film is set. He is initially presented as a kind and beloved man but is vilified overnight, abandoned by his lifelong friends and physically assaulted.
Vinterberg, 43, also found himself probing wider contemporary issues like the viral nature of thought and identity. "It's uncontrollable," he says. "Especially in the world today where communication is so easy, people are being judged morally in all sorts of different media. You can tell stories about another person that very quickly become the identity of that person. The people in this town give Lucas a mark and create an identity around him that he will never escape. I find that really interesting and frightening."
A Scandinavian man
Central to the success of "The Hunt" is a powerful performance by Denmark's biggest star Mikkelsen who subverts his hyper-masculine persona to play the hapless Lucas. It is the first time Vinterberg and Mikkelsen have collaborated and Vinterberg describes the process as "absolutely wonderful."
"This character is in a way a portrait of a modern Scandinavian man," says Vinterberg. "He is warm, friendly, helpful and humble. He does everything people ask him to, he is being run over by his ex-wife. He is castrated in a way. And the journey we made with Mads was to develop him from this person to someone who has to manage this cold and brutal reality without taking a step from the basic ideals of his Scandinavian character. He has to keep his dignity and not resort to violence."
Mikkelsen and Vinterberg met two months before shooting to go through the script and tailor the character to the actor. Lucas was originally written as a more overtly masculine, taciturn man always dressed in hunting gear. But when the director and actor got together, they resolved to make him more civilized.
"This very manly man, Mads, came into the film with all his beauty and muscles and we decided to flip the character and make him a humble schoolteacher. We worked constantly at not trying to create a myth out of this person but to stay in real life, and Mads is an expert at that. He is constantly demanding answers. Why am I doing that? Could I do this? Could I wear these? He would call me at any time asking different questions about the scenes and coming up with new lines. And when an actor gets the feeling that he knows the character through conversation and improvisation, then all the small details come. He feels calm enough to disappear into the unknown."
Vinterberg recalls a pivotal scene in the film when, on Christmas Eve, Lucas goes to the local church service and faces a congregation of people who hate him.
"Mads wept all day in every take in exactly the same way," says the director. "I've never seen anything so professional. The scene was all mapped out very precisely but we shot it from many different angles and he has to go through several stages – determination, collapse, anger, relief. He wept for eight hours and there are very few actors that can do that."
"The Hunt" Photo: Per Arnesen
Vinterberg describes "The Hunt" as a return of sorts to the purity of vision he had at the beginning of his career. He still considers his graduate film "Last Round" his best. "After that I did 'The Biggest Heroes' and 'The Celebration' and those films were all very close to me in the sense that I can see myself in a very naked way in them," he explains.
But after his Dogme film "The Celebration" scored a slot in competition at Cannes in 1998, won a jury prize there, scored sales, box office success and awards all over the world, Vinterberg found himself the subject of intense attention. Offers flooded in, Los Angeles agents swarmed around and he struggled to maintain his innocence as a creative filmmaker. His next feature "It's All About Love", a futuristic romance in English and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes and Sean Penn, received mixed reviews, as did his next "Dear Wendy", a script by his friend Lars von Trier which gave Jamie Bell one of his first lead roles since his breakout "Billy Elliot".
"I was trying to escape the hysteria surrounding 'The Celebration'," he says. "I experimented a lot with those films because I felt that I hadn’t explored the room that I was in. I felt I had to go all the way out to that wall and all the way to the other wall to find out where I was. I loved doing that because I was constantly on thin ice but of course there were some very painful experiences."
The outsized success of "The Celebration" was confusing, he explains. "It didn't give me much. Artistically it took away my focus for quite some time. I was like a football player after a big goal and the camera was pointing at me for way too long. Now, I feel I am back and actually looking at my stories and looking at the world to find stories. Now I'm constantly trying to find this vulnerable pure quality from my graduate film, where there was no speculation about the future and you are very honestly trying to regard people in certain situations. If you want to do that, you have to stop thinking of yourself as a career pilot."
Like a bicycle team
The film which grounded Vinterberg again was "Submarino", a gut wrenching study of two brothers wracked by addiction adapted from the novel by Jonas T. Bengtsson. The film was selected for competition at Berlin 2010 and earnt him his best reviews since "The Celebration". "With 'Submarino', I felt I sort of came back. If you consider 'The Celebration' like an explosion, the dust had to settle for a bit and I felt I could continue with what I was doing before, knowing a little bit more about how things worked."
"Submarino" also saw him teamed up with hot new Danish writer Tobias Lindholm on the screenplay. Lindholm was fresh out of film school when he was drafted in to write the adaptation but has since co-written two seasons of the hit TV series "Borgen" and directed two of his own films "R" (with Michael Noer) and the forthcoming "A Hijacking". It was only natural for Vinterberg to turn to Lindholm again on "The Hunt".
"We are like a bicycle team when we are writing," he smiles. "Sometimes he is in front and I am following him and sometimes I am in front. We map out the story for quite some time together. We do a 10-page version, then a 20-page version and when we have an idea of the whole story, we start writing. The front bicycle writes 10 pages very fast without looking back and then the other one rewrites it. At the end you have a script which is a Lindholm/Vinterberg script which I then change to make my own."
The script of "The Hunt" approaches the story from an unusual angle in that it sticks closely to the Lucas character. Scenes you'd expect in classic witch-hunt movies – the townspeople getting together to fuel their rage, the police interrogation of the suspect – are not there.
"We tried to stay very close to the main character and avoid making a case study," he says. "This is fiction and we communicate through the heart and then it goes to the brain and back again. So we had to follow the emotional story of this person."
Demons and victims
Also, it's an unusual story in that, for all the drama, everyone is innocent and thinking they are doing the right thing. Vinterberg is a parent himself and understands why and how adults become so aggressively protective of their children at the first whiff that they are in danger.
"The father of the little girl believes in his daughter like every parents should do, and I totally understand him," he muses. "Everybody has the feeling that you know your child, but there is this cliché about kids that they don't lie and in this film, we claim that they do: they invent stories, they often lie to make the grown-ups happy and in this case she is saying what is expected of her.
"Imagine sitting in front of a policeman or a psychologist or your parents who keep on asking you the same questions. What did you see? Did you see this? Did you see that? And imagine that after the third time, it becomes part of your imagination that it actually happened. As a child especially, it is more difficult to divide fiction from reality.
"So to some extent, the kids here are the demons of the film because they destroy a man’s life, but it’s very important for me to emphasise that in a case like this, the kids are also the victims. They are the ones we should protect the most."
Bigger and better apples
So what next for Vinterberg? Will he stay in Denmark and persist in his creative renewal? Or will he venture out into the world again?
"It's a constant dilemma for me between working in Denmark and working abroad," he says. "It's a conversation I have with myself every day because I am still offered scripts set abroad and I am still coming up with stories that could potentially happen in Canada or the US. It's complicated for me because Denmark is the soil I grew up from and I know all the details which are important for the originality of a film. And that sort of disappears the more miles you put between you and your home. Then again, film language is universal and everybody understands everybody." He cites Ingmar Bergman as one of his biggest idols "and he didn't give a shit about the rest of the world. He made his films in his own country. He was painting the same apples and they just got bigger and better. That is very attractive to me."
"Having said that, Denmark is awfully small and I get crazy from being here all the time. I love American actors and the American distribution system, and British actors, so I have to get out of here sometimes. I need to get out to stay alive artistically."
One way the director is pushing his limits is on the stage in Vienna where the Burgtheater Vienna has given him the chance to stage original plays written for the theatre. The latest of these plays called "The Commune" has been playing to packed houses and Vinterberg is determined to make a film of it.
"It all happens on the commune I grew up on in the 1970s and '80s. It's a portrait of the end of a time. It's about the end of a relationship but it's also about the end of love in general as the cold 1980s come in. This is a film I am not in doubt that I want to do, although I don't know in which country. At the moment, we are trying to set it up outside Denmark."
He sighs, the conflict evident on his face. "I don't know. Sometimes I think maybe I am at my best when I work here. But as an artist you want to avoid repeating yourself. I want to explore new territory. When I don't feel like I am doing that, I feel old."