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A Danish director’s dilemma: Go big or go home?

True stories – they can surprise you. Sometimes, even in the midst of a serious interview, your subject will suddenly say something like this: "There were naked people, genitals all over, sitting on people's laps, with no clothes on."

That was Thomas Vinterberg, the renowned Danish director, talking in a quiet hotel corner during the last Toronto International Film Festival. He was there to chat up his new drama The Hunt, which won prizes at the Cannes and Vancouver film festivals, and opens in select cities next week. The surprise was, those naked people aren't in the film – they were in his real life (we'll get to them in a minute).

To be fair, The Hunt does inspire conversations of an intimate nature. Mads Mikkelsen (the villain in 2006's Casino Royale) plays Lucas, a kindergarten teacher in a closely knit Danish community whose life falls apart when one of his students falsely accuses him of showing her his genitals. Though she immediately admits that she fabricated the incident, the adults in her life won't allow her to talk about it, in an attempt to protect her from reliving it. Calmly but relentlessly, Vinterberg lays out how Lucas becomes a pariah, and how mistrust persists well after he's exonerated. What's most chilling is how fair-minded people are so willing to believe the worst of their friends, and how quickly the social fabric can unravel.

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"What it says is, the spoken word can't be taken back, so be careful what you say," says Vinterberg, 44 and movie-star handsome, with the blue eyes and floppy hair of a Danish Hugh Grant. He speaks in a high-speed deadpan, pausing only to indicate an occasional joke. "This movie is about a small village, but with media platforms and social networks, the world is a small village. In the split of a second" – he snaps his fingers – "a whole identity is changed. That is both disturbing and fascinating."

Vinterberg also wanted to explore the nature of "Scandinavian men today," he says. "We're very soft and civilized. So the movie becomes a discussion of whether to stay civilized or to step into action." When the immensely patient Lucas finally snaps, "it's a sad moment, because he leaves the path of the good, turn-the-other-cheek Christian. But then again, that's what we're all waiting for."

That's another shocking realization: Watching this film, you find yourself willing Lucas to fight back. "A lot of people call him passive, but I disagree with that," Mikkelsen said in a separate interview. "When he's first accused, his boss says, 'Come back tomorrow, we'll talk about it,' but by then the ball is rolling. What is he supposed to do, stand up and scream? If he does that, he's guilty. If he does nothing, he's guilty. If he moves away, he's guilty. I think he does the right things at the right moments, but it's too late."

Vinterberg had originally written Lucas as a plumber, a man of few words. But when Mikkelsen signed on, "I suddenly thought my strong character was boring, because Mads is so strong already," the director says. "So I humbled Lucas, made him an almost childlike, naive believer in the good. That vulnerability makes the whole film for me."

Vinterberg takes the issue of child abuse seriously; he explored its effects in his 1998 film The Celebration. "But we also have to look at the other side, how other things are sacrificed in the name of protection," he says.

Growing up in 1970s Copenhagen, he and his parents – his father is a journalist and arts critic, his mother a therapist – lived in a commune, 14 people sharing a villa in a bourgeois neighbourhood. That's where he encountered the aforementioned nude lap-sitting, but it caused "absolutely no problems," he insists. "No child abuse, just love and care, and innocence and purity. And that's gone today. All that."

And he is adamant that "it wasn't crazy hippies running around smoking weed and screwing everybody. It was well-off academics drinking beer." He liked it so much that, at 16, when his parents split up and moved out, he remained living there.

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At his private school, too, the teachers were communists, and Vinterberg chuckles as he recalls how one once pulled his pants down to give his third-graders a sex-education lesson. "He said, 'Here's this, here's that,'" Vinterberg says briskly. "It was that simple. Now, this guy would be in prison. Now, a teacher hugging a crying child, that's all over. I find that sad."

Post-commune, Vinterberg attended the National Film School of Denmark; his student film Last Round earned some laurels, launching his career. In 1995, he and three like-minded directors, including Lars von Trier, founded Dogme 95, a movement to restore purity to film by eliminating anything faked, including lighting, music or sets. But after The Celebration caused a stir, Hollywood came courting, and Vinterberg made two English-language films, neither particularly successful.

He did have one American hit – a video short for the Metallica song The Day That Never Comes. "That was great fun," Vinterberg says, grinning. "All the cranes, and this enormous crew. There was even a guy hired to give me antiseptic cream for my hands. I totally enjoyed it."

"But mainly, The Celebration's success was a confused moment for me," he continues. "Though it came very early in my life, and it's the way I still like to work – very close to the actors, very close to the truth – it felt almost like a finalization of something. As an artist you don't want to repeat yourself. It makes you feel old. It reminds me that I'm going to die." He laughs. "So I had to do something else."

Not conquering Hollywood was "painful," Vinterberg concedes, "but I'm glad I tried it." It still tempts him – he's been sent scripts, he's been attached to projects. "It's an everyday doubt. Work for hire can be nice, because it has less responsibility somehow. But the older I get, the more attractive it becomes for me to do something that no one else could do. Yet I also want to get out of my little country." He pauses, and for the first time he looks vulnerable himself.

"You're hitting a soft spot, because I'm not sure what to do next," Vinterberg admits. Recently he's been writing about his commune years – first as a play, lately as a script. As we spoke, he was considering shooting it this summer.

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"Do you think people want to see a movie about a commune in Scandinavia?" he asks me. "Would you rather I did that than some big American movie?"

Yes and yes. Anyone can make a superhero flick. But only Vinterberg can find truth and pathos in naked Danish academics drinking beer.

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