Acclaimed director Lars von Trier likes to strip his actors bare (often literally) in order to have a clean slate to create feature films with artistic integrity.
With that image of von Trier in mind, Canadian filmmaker Eva Ziemsen decided a little more than a year ago, when she was a graduate student in London, that the best way to get the elusive Danish director to agree to an on-camera tête-à-tête for a documentary she was working on was to get naked.
"My offer to conduct the interview naked was a gesture to bare myself first, before I asked him to bare himself," explains Ziemsen, who holds a master's degree in feature film from the University of London. "In doing that, I hoped he would understand that I understood him."
By all accounts, getting a grip on this eccentric, ingenious filmmaker is about as easy as stapling a poached egg to the wall. As one of the creators of the Dogme 95 manifesto, von Trier leads a pack of filmmakers who create movies (von Trier's The Idiots, and Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration) that are a Spartan, aesthetically puritanical reaction to the excesses of Hollywood special effects. Among other things, they make use of hand-held cameras, natural light, diegetic sound (only the actual sounds made by what is on-screen), and shoot only on location.
But before Ziemsen offered to strip off her skivvies, she called von Trier's assistant, Thomas, and made a more "proper" pitch. She was politely fobbed off. "He very nicely explained to me that it was impossible because Lars had recently finished all his interviews for Dogville [the dark rape and revenge film starring Nicole Kidman] and that he was no longer accepting interviews. He was far too busy working on [his new movie about slavery] Manderlay.
"I hung up, but instead of being disappointed, I felt provoked," remembers Ziemsen. "I immediately took the position, I'm going anyway." Ziemsen's classmates, she readily admits, thought she was daft for thinking she could barge into a meeting with one of Europe's top directors. "But I saw this obstacle as an invitation. And definitely as an invitation by Lars von Trier to play his game. I understood this. At least in my mind, I understood this," the pretty blonde says, smiling sweetly.
So she bought a cheap plane ticket to Sweden, and took two train connections to get to von Trier's studio compound, called Zentropa, an old army base near Copenhagen that's been converted into the largest film facility in Scandinavia. It was a cold, grey Friday in November, 2003.
Armed with her camera, loaded down with cables, and miked for sound, she entered the building. The receptionist hid her face as Ziemsen turned the camera on the poor woman.
The first person to walk through the doors was von Trier's polite assistant, Thomas.
"I spun around, but my camera was completely fogging up. I wasn't really prepared for this Michael Moore style, despite barging in on them. He remembered me from the phone, and started to smile. I mentioned I came all the way from Canada, via London, via Sweden, via Copenhagen. It wasn't working, and he was already trying to get rid of me. Then I caught a glimpse of Lars speeding away on his camouflage golf cart," remembers Ziemsen. "That's when I blurted out, 'I'll do it nude!' "
The ideal metaphor, she figured, for the stripped-down philosophy of Dogme.
"This brought a smile to Thomas's face," she adds. "He said, 'Stick around. I'll get back to you.' "
Ziemsen cooled her heels in Zentropa's lobby for more than two hours, looking at various Palme d'or awards and several from the Toronto International Film Festival. At one point, von Trier's co-owner in Zentropa, Peter Aalbaek Jensen, played the drums located in the main entrance.
"Finally, Thomas came in and said, 'Canada wins for patience.' "
Ziemsen says the 49-year-old von Trier looks like a typical "nice Danish man," admittedly one with some pretty extreme phobias. He never travels by plane or trains any more, and arrives in Cannes in a special, climate-controlled transport vehicle. It's little wonder the man has some issues. In 1995 his mother confessed on her death bed that she'd had a tryst to conceive him, and that he was the son not of a Jewish communist academic but of a Roman Catholic classical musician.
Ziemsen remembers extending her hand, and saying, 'Thank you for agreeing to do this." To which, von Trier looked at her blankly and said, "Agreeing to do what?"
She asked him if he only agreed to do the interview because he thought she'd get naked (which she never did). He said no, but he gave Ziemsen 20 minutes, and they talked of film, the process of it, and how it can evolve into something a filmmaker is proud of.
"He told me a good film must be about something you care about. And know about. And is deeply personal to you."
Despite his reputation for being relentlessly demanding, even harsh, with his leading ladies (Bjork quit acting, for life, after Dancer in the Dark. And Kidman opted out of a multiple picture deal with von Trier after Dogville), Ziemsen says he was "very gracious and answered my questions very directly." She was referring to the fact that von Trier has been known to turn on the interviewer, answer questions with questions, or go off on tangents by asking their religion.
"He respected me in some way by giving me all the answers I asked for," shrugs Ziemsen, who was born in Germany but emigrated with her parents to Halifax when she and her brother were young children. Toronto is now her home.
Ziemsen, who has her own fledgling film company and has completed seven short films and documentaries, is not sure why von Trier decided to co-operate. "I have a little label on my camera that says 'tell the truth', located just by the record light. He noticed it. And pondered it for a moment. I think he suddenly knew more about me.
"He affirmed everything I was trying to do with my own film," says Ziemsen, who in addition to teaching multi-media at Humber College and guest-lecturing at York University, is also working on an autobiographical film called Sara's Peace, about a Jewish-German family on a journey of self-discovery. "It really lifted me and affirmed I was on the right track, not to focus on the commercial side especially in the creative process."
Her short documentary, called A Conversation with Lars von Trier, is almost finished, and she hopes will be ready to submit to festivals this year.
Since the interview, Ziemsen has worked to maintain a relationship with von Trier's studio, sending the owners handmade scarves one Christmas, with Canadian flags and their names embroidered on them. (Since von Trier wears bandanas, she sent him a camouflage head scarf to match his golf cart.)
Those gestures paid off. At the Berlin Film Festival last year (with Sara's Peace yet to be made), she ran into von Trier's partner, Jensen, who happened to be wearing her scarf.
They had a meeting in a tiny coffee shop, and Ziemsen pitched him on being a co-producer on the film. "They agreed to read the script. They loved it, and brought in a German affiliate, Heimat Film. They have a firm interest to co-produce the film as a Danish, German, Canadian co-production."
For months, Ziemsen has been pounding the pavement trying to solicit support from a production outfit here. "My film is about forgiveness, acceptance and peace," she says.
So far, she has not found a Canadian interested. But she's hardly giving up. "At the end of my interview with Lars, I pitched my feature to him in a millisecond. He said, 'Sounds fantastic! I want to see it. Show it to me when it's done.' Then, serendipitously, his company ends up being one of the co-producers."
Ziemsen says her experience with von Trier taught her never to take no for an answer. "I also learned if you're never willing to risk anything, the chances of gaining something become much more limited."
She's now back in Berlin. If she runs into Jensen, she's going to try to persuade him to build a little hut, modelled after Dogville, within the sprawling Zentropa. She wants them to name it the Unofficial Canadian Embassy. And before she jumped on the plane, she sent them a floor plan.