Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I was super excited for the chance to talk with Anders Thomas Jensen for two reasons. One, his weird-o style of storytelling is right up my alley and Men & Chicken is fucking awesome. And two, he did the shooting draft pass on The Dark Tower. I had to talk to this guy.
We had a nice chat and he didn't run away when I sprang some Dark Tower nerdiness on him. We talk quite a bit about his process on Men & Chicken (which is pretty fascinating) and his outlook on storytelling in general. Then I jump into Dark Tower and while we don't go super in-depth he does give a pretty strong answer to my question about the greatest challenge in sitting down to do his pass on the script.
Hope you guys enjoy!
Quint: Hey, how's it going, man?
Anders Thomas Jensen: It's good. I've got two kids home with some sort of flu, but I just put a video on for them, so I'm ready to go!
Quint: Nice! So, if I hear any vomiting in the background it's nothing to be concerned about. Gotcha.
Anders Thomas Jensen: (laughs) It's just them!
Quint: Well, thanks for taking the time to talk to me, man. I really appreciate it. I adore your movie. I love stories that aren't afraid to go into unusual territory, so naturally I loved your movie. What makes the movie work, though, is the heart at the center of it. It's weird and violent and crazy, but it has a huge heart underneath all that. Was that a priority for you when you were pulling the story together?
Anders Thomas Jensen: Yeah, I worked very much with the actors to do exactly that. We had a mix of genres, from slapstick to almost like horror. The narrative is very, very strange, so we knew we'd be lost if we couldn't ground the characters in some real emotions that was somehow relatable to a normal, thinking audience. We worked a lot at finding that balance.
In the script there was some more weird stuff that I actually took out when we rehearsed. It sounds crazy because they are weird, but they were more weird!
Quint: I also imagine casting David Dencik and Mads Mikkelsen was your secret weapon in making that work. They work so well together and embrace their characters so wholeheartedly that you don't have a choice but to follow them along on their crazy journey.
Anders Thomas Jensen: Yeah, exactly.
Quint: Did you write the characters for them specifically?
Anders Thomas Jensen: I always write for actors. Very often you can't get the ones you write for, but I've done four films and I've had this on-going thing with Mads for the last 20 years. Every time I write something I think of him, so I definitely did the Elias character for Mads. I seriously can't see anyone else in the role. I know you always say that when you've done a film, but it really would have been hard for anyone else to do that character because Mads is great at getting real emotions through these layers of insanity. I definitely did that character for him.
I thought of David a little later on, but still very early (in the process.) I also brought both actors in for rehearsals very early on.
I thought of all the five guys, except for one and I won't say who, very early on. Normally I have Ulrich Thomsen, who has been in three of my other movies, so I did do a character for him, but he couldn't do it. It's impossible because they do these TV shows now. The second they stopped shooting Hannibal they started shooting Banshee. You can't get the two guys in the same film.
Quint: Can you talk a little more about the rehearsals you were doing? What was the main goal there? Was it to get everybody ready for a quick shoot or was it more about making sure the characters worked off the page?
Anders Thomas Jensen: The Danish system is very good, although it's now getting ruined because they're all becoming global actors. Normally I'll do a quick flash draft and send out to the actors very early on. I'll have the basic structure and the basic thoughts about the characters, but I really like to bring on the actors and let them be part of creating the characters. I did that on this film, too.
It becomes increasingly more and more difficult to do because we're getting the same (Hollywood style) system here, too, because everybody's getting so busy. Me and Dave Dencik flew to Toronto and did rehearsals with Mads at night when he was shooting Hannibal. When he came home we did some more readings and rehearsals. They've been very much part of creating the characters themselves. I really like that.
Quint: I'd imagine that also invests the actor more in the project, too. It's not just the next gig for them, it's something they have some ownership of.
Anders Thomas Jensen: You wouldn't necessarily do it if you were doing a studio film with a hitman or something, but when you're trying to find a balance with some really, really weird characters it's necessary, I think.
Quint: One of the elements of Men & Chicken that I really loved was how the violence went hand in hand with affection. All the brothers are super aggressive towards each other and it doesn't really matter if they're pissed or trying to show affection, they still hit as hard.
Anders Thomas Jensen: (laughs) That's my kids! Since I did my last film I got four kids. That's where the whole story came from! The scene where they are arguing about the plates, I literally lifted that dialogue out of my own living room. When you have four kids, within 10 minutes they will hit each other, kiss, hug, fight, hit each other again and it's all good.
That's where that came from. Basically they are all kids, except perhaps for David's character, but the rest of the guys are five years old mentally.
Quint: Where did you guys shoot? Where was Ork?
Anders Thomas Jensen: The budget was pretty high, so we had to shoot where they said, but we did find this old, abandoned insanity ward, a hospital from the first world war. It was 64 buildings just standing in the forests, falling apart. Me and my cinematographer stumbled on that and I actually rewrote the script because I had to shoot there. It was such a unique spot. So we shot there and we shot pretty much everywhere around Denmark. We only shot a little in the studio, so it was mostly on location.
Quint: Making the most out of a location can be great. Spielberg did that to great success in Jaws. Wicker Man is another movie that jumps to mind that made the location an integral part of the story.
Anders Thomas Jensen: It adds something completely unique to a film. I totally agree. But you're not always lucky enough to have that as a possibility, but if you find a place like that you'd be crazy not to incorporate it.
Quint: When I was in Middle School I vividly remember walking into the school library and checking out a book that had a huge impact on me. That book was The Gunslinger and I became a huge Dark Tower nerd at that moment. So, I have to bring up The Dark Tower. I won't press you for spoilers or anything...
Anders Thomas Jensen: The good thing is I really can't say anything, but I can try to answer as best I can.
Quint: I'd just like to know what you felt the greatest challenge you faced was when you came to the project.
Anders Thomas Jensen: There was a draft there, with a structure. For me it was the director asking me if I would do a pass on it and restructure it. I didn't know The Dark Tower series. It's funny. The Dark Tower is huge and iconic here in the States, but in Europe it's not. A lot of people don't even know the Dark Tower.
So first of all I had to sit down and read it. I was, of course, blown away by the universe. I think the greatest challenge was to get the scale of the universe. It's insane! So, some work needed to be done and I jumped on board and did the work together with the director. It's a very boring answer.
Quint: It's funny that you say Dark Tower is so big here. It's getting to be that way, I think largely because of Marvel doing their Dark Tower comics, but when I was growing up reading these things nobody knew of them. Some Stephen King fans never bothered to read them. It wasn't mainstream and probably still isn't, but the fandom grew hugely in the last four or five years. It's coming to Europe, is what I'm saying.
Anders Thomas Jensen: (laughs) It is, definitely.
Quint: You're so good at making weird characters work onscreen, I think that is what gave me some hope when I heard you were doing a pass at the script. The Roland/Jake relationship between Roland and Jake is the heart of that story just as much as the relationship between David and Mads' characters are the heart of Men & Chicken.
Anders Thomas Jensen: Yeah, exactly. That's a huge part of the draft. I mean, you know that there's so many stories you could do from these books. It's a lot about making the right choices. I can see some of the choices are already (riling people up on the) internet with opinions on the casting. I don't think you can make a Dark Tower film and make everybody happy, but we at least have tried to make a good film.
They're shooting now. They're a week into shooting, so it's going.
Quint: I think we should finish by talking about the difference between working for hire on a quick rewrite versus something as involving and personal as Men & Chicken. How different is the process of working on one kind of project from the other?
Anders Thomas Jensen: It's two different things. I like the synergy between doing my own stuff and then jumping on to help with other director's stories. It gives me energy in the other camp, if you know what I mean. In the studio system there's many more voices that you have to hear in comparison to (Men & Chicken) where you're basically you, your producer and some actors. Here you have to be diplomat. There's so many other aspects of being a screenwriter, but it's nice.
Basically, what it all comes down to you when you put all things aside, it is the same. It's about telling a great story, making the characters work and creating a strong structure. You just have to focus on that, no matter which process you're in. That's the truth of it.
Quint: Creativity is creativity, man, and I really like your brand of creativity, so I'm very excited to see how that translates to this big, crazy Stephen King-y world.
Anders Thomas Jensen: Me, too!
Quint: Well, than you again for your time. I hope your kids feel better.
Anders Thomas Jensen: (laughs) Thank you very much.
Men & Chicken is out this weekend, so if you like good things make sure to seek it out. Hope you guys enjoyed the chat!