How was AA?
I went to AA meetings every day for half a year. We supported each other to keep sober. These people kind of become your family. I used all my strength to get sober – now I start to drink a little again, so that I can work. When you shoot a film, it’s hard work, and you tend to drink more.
So drinking is a short cut to your creativity?
I’ve taken other drugs that helped me a lot – that was kind of the way I worked. But drinking is more to overcome some anxiety.
Where does your anxiety come from?
I’ve had it since I was a child. I believe that if you are an artist and you’re drunk (laughing), you’re more sensitive. I have this theory: scientists say that 80% of our mental work is to stop the senses. So we have filters to block useless information. But if you are sensitive, then it means these filters are a bit broken. At least that’s what I see at AA. Sensitivity gives you anxiety. Even when I’ve worked with anxiety in therapy for all my life, anxiety is something that you can handle sometimes, while other times it’s impossible.
What is your method for handling it?
It’s not to discharge it, but to go into it, to make peace with it. This theory is good, but very difficult. I meditate a lot as well. But when you shoot, you don’t have time to do something for yourself, and you tend to drink just to be able to get there in the morning. I remember doing this film (Dancer in the Dark) with Björk, and I was crying – almost kind of giving up. It was such a struggle, and she was so crazy that she always wanted to run away. Then I had to go get her and persuade her to come back. But she was one of the best actresses that I have worked with. When we worked, we had such an intense contact, but when we didn’t work, we were just fighting. It was ridiculous.
Does psychiatric therapy help?
I take a lot of medication. Right now it’s good. Sometimes my psychiatrist says I take too much medicine, and I’m not mentally up to my best.
You’re obviously rebelling against something in each film you’ve made. What are you are rebelling against?
Rebelling is part of my family. If you come to a family gathering, the family says something, you have to say something else. Then my family met my wife’s family, who said yes to everything, but my family often said no. If I see a form or a concept, I’d naturally challenge it, to see if there’s any possibility to gain more from it.
People living in a society like Denmark don’t need to struggle against poverty or dictatorship?
That’s it – I’m in a position where I can rebel. As you said, we are living relatively comfortable lives, although we have had some terrorist attacks which have never happened before. So I can make a film that’s different from films that people want to see, which is important.
What is your opinion of the terrorist attack? Should some jokes be forbidden?
Everyone seems to encourage artists to draw whatever they want, and provocatively see it as “cherishing freedom of speech”. But this isn’t always the case. In Denmark, there are extreme rightwing people who wanted to irritate and humiliate Muslims. Politically, it is a different situation in France, as Charlie Hebdo is a leftwing paper.
Does your sense of humour mean that your films are not always interpreted the way you mean them to be?
A sense of humour can also be used to rebel. It’s more about using it as a tool than about making a film to make people laugh.
Each film you’ve made is a statement. Do you worry that viewers might get it all wrong?
A long time ago I said that I’m indifferent to how my films are used and for what purposes. The only thing that’s important to me is that there are different versions of the last film I made (Nymphomaniac), and it’s important to know which one is the director’s cut.
Why is sex essential to your films?
I came from a nudist family. I don’t know what that has to do with sex … it’s the matter of being real. We did it as real as we could by using porn doubles and computer graphics.
Is creating “discomfort” a fundamental part of your creativity?
On the way to making Nymphomaniac, I had been reading a lot. I have read everything Dostoevsky wrote. Now I’m reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, whose War and Peace I liked tremendously. There’s a much longer tradition in book writing, and I had great pleasure reading Joyce and Proust. Lots of the things writers use in books are fantastic; I’m trying to see if I can translate them into films.
Why are all your protagonists female? Do you think you are more in touch with your feminine side?
Maybe. It would be extremely difficult to give the same things to a male lead. Also, I’ve always been a great fan of Carl Dreyer. He always had female leads in his films.
What are you working on now?
I don’t know. The problem is it’s very easy to finance something for a TV series, but I’m not sure if that’s the way I should go.
Does Dogme 95 still exist?
I don’t think there’s anyone still working based on those rules. What happened was it was intended to be shot on 35mm film, and we had a long discussion in the group about if it was possible. We ended up buying very cheap film – but “being cheap” wasn’t the point. The intention was to create a space for actors where they could do their best work.
Was there a reason the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde featured throughout Melancholia?
After watching Kubrick’s films, I also tried to use a musical theme in my last two movies. I was meant to direct a Ring cycle at Bayreuth 15 years ago, and I worked there for two years. But the Wagner family were fighting. Someone who had worked with them in the past told me that the family would trick you by saying yes to everything first, then say no. So I confronted them, and they concluded it wouldn’t work out. Years ago, I said: “If I ever should do an opera, I’d like to do The Ring in Bayreuth.” Ah, it’s still so tempting.