On stage, she plays Martha, the aggressive and wounded, alcoholic wife in "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Off stage, the actress, Thea, is mixed up in a drama that has many of the same tragic, toxic ingredients.
"I love the dept of a Cassavetes film. A single glance or frame makes me feel so much more than the fast cutting almost everyone uses today."
A recovering alcoholic, Thea is struggling to win joint custody of her two young sons. However, neither her boys nor her ex-husband – and probably, at heart, not even herself – really believes she is truly reformed and dry. Thea is Thea, a prima donna better suited to acting her heart out than living an ordinary life.
Paprika Steen stars in the pivotal role of Thea. Internationally, Steen is best known for her performance in Thomas Vinterberg’s "The Celebration" (1998), while in Denmark she has long been a leading star of stage and screen.
"Applause" features authentic footage from a production of "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at a Copenhagen theatre, where Steen won raves as the restless, wounded shrew – the role that Elisabeth Taylor, in the film of the classic Edward Albee play, made a rite of passage for actresses of a special mould.
“Paprika Steen was always the key element,” Martin Pieter Zandvliet says. “From the beginning, we wanted her for the role. It was written directly for her. She’s a very upfront, spontaneous person. She says what others only dare to think.”
‘I hate ordinary people!’ Steen says, as Thea, then immediately recants, though without much conviction, ‘Oh, they’re alright.’
ECHOES OF CASSAVETES
"Applause"’s unusual mixture of film and theatre was not initially conceived as a key element in the 38-year-old director’s first film. It was an experiment. Let’s see if it works, the film’s creative team told each other.
“My main worry was that it would seem contrived or pathetic,” Zandvliet says. The shots of the live performance at the theatre focus exclusively on Steen. Her fellow actors aren’t even in the frame. It’s a pure power move, acting at its raw best.
The stage sequences give the film a documentary edge, and Steen ends up performing in an unusual hall of mirrors. She is an actress, masterfully and bravely plying her craft on stage. She is a diva in the dressing room, bullying her wardrobe assistant and bitterly scrutinising time’s ravaging march across her face. And she is plain Thea, desperately trying to get her life back on track by acting the most difficult part of all – that of a completely ordinary, responsible person.
The spirit of "Applause" has echoes of John Cassavetes. Indeed, Zandvliet swears by Cassavetes’ eye for human drama. Writing the part for Steen was directly inspired by Gena Rowlands’ appearances in Cassavetes’ films. In fact, Zandvliet even considered the possibility of persuading Rowlands to act in his film. Wisely, he dropped the idea. A true tribute is better off being discreet than too obvious.
LOW BUDGET, HIGH CEILINGS
Zandvliet, a former surf bum who chased waves around the world for 15 years, now had to navigate the choppy waters of the film world. It’s not easy for a self-taught editor and director to break into film.
He and his producer, Mikael Rieks of Koncern Film, originally applied to New Danish Screen for funds to make a 50-minute film. This DFI subsidy scheme is for new directors and experimental projects. The budgets are low, but the artistic ceiling is high. Moreover, New Danish Screen has a precedent of promoting medium-length fiction projects to fulllength features if the material and potential are right. That’s what happened to "Applause".
“I think they were very careful not to pressure me. They wanted me to pursue my ideas in my own way. That was the most important thing,” Zandvliet says. He was first introduced to the world of film 13 years ago when he dated a cinematographer,Camilla Hjelm Knudsen. At the time, his only experience was filming surfing competitions.
While in New York, he realised that film editing was a good place for him to start. He and Hjelm Knudsen made a film, "Angels of Brooklyn", and he later had a breakthrough of sorts when he cut "Rocket Brothers", a documentary about the Danish rock band Kashmir. Then he started writing – writing up a storm and inching towards the dream of directing.
GOOD ACTING RATHER THAN A GOOD STORY
In a time when Hollywood is crawling with superheroes and CGI, plot and genre films dominate the movie industry, Applause is clearly coming from a different place entirely – from another tradition that seems almost forgotten, a cinematic tradition centring on the human soul and on acting, that is less about effects and more about what moves us.
“As I see it, I’m making a stand for films of a past age – an age I hope will return,” Zandvliet says. “The subjects Cassavetes and Bob Fosse took up were carried by a much greater faith in the characters and more love for them. I love the depth of a Cassavetes film. A single glance or frame makes me feel so much more than the fast cutting almost everyone uses today.”
"Applause" is a welcome change of pace from ubiquitous, frantic fast-cutting. Per Sandholt, who edited Applause, was asked to hold the cuts for as long as the acting held up.
“Personally, I fall completely in love if I can get the actors to play well. I’d almost rather have really good acting than a good story or an effective plot,” Zandvliet says.
Cassavetes, in his day, gathered his own tight “film family” around him. You sense something similar in the trio of Zandvliet, his co-writer Anders Frithiof August and his producer Mikael Rieks. Rieks’ partneris Paprika Steen. Their son Otto plays one of Thea’s sons in the film. Technicians swapped hats, and the actors read over each other’s shoulders. The furniture in the film even belongs to Steen and Rieks!
THE WORN STAGE OF GREAT FACES
"Applause" is not a film about alcoholism, but booze is still a big part of it. Michael Falch, who plays the male lead, is a real-life recovering alcoholic. The lines in his face are so deep they look like they were put there with an axe. Steen’s diminutive facial craters do not escape scrutiny either. This is not traditional beautification but intimate theatre on the worn stage of great faces.
“There’s a consensus in movies that women should be pretty and that beauty consists in having no flaws. But I think women are more interesting when you can tell they have lived life,” he says. “It’s okay to show some cellulite, not that I’m out to spotlight anything unattractive. I just think it’s much more beautiful when you see the scars. Showing life adds character. Paprika Steen – like Gena Rowlands – only gets more beautiful up close”.