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ZURICH 2018

Thomas Vinterberg • Director

“This film was very far from what I normally do”

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- We sat down with Danish director Thomas Vinterberg to discuss his approach to his new movie, Kursk, which world-premiered at Toronto and is now playing at Zurich

Thomas Vinterberg  • Director

Celebrated Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s new film, Kursk [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Thomas Vinterberg
film profile
]
, is inspired by the true story of the K-141 Kursk, a Russian nuclear-powered submarine that sank in the Barents Sea in August 2000 following on-board explosions. Playing as a Gala Premiere at the Zurich Film Festival, the film follows 23 sailors who survived the initial blasts, and the attempts by their families to overcome bureaucratic obstacles to save them. Cineuropa chatted to the Festen and The Hunt [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Thomas Vinterberg
interview: Thomas Vinterberg
film profile
]
director after the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival

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Cineuropa: This is a very technically ambitious production, so did that make Kursk the toughest film you’ve had to make?
Thomas Vinterberg:
No! The most difficult shoot is the one where you shoot a script that doesn’t work emotionally. It was complicated technically, but I found that fascinating, interesting and fun. When you have 18 actors in the water, you need 18 stuntmen to be able to save them, and you need escape routes and a lot of electricity, power and lamps down there, so you need someone whose job is just to look at cables and make sure they don’t fall into the wrong place. Plus, that person has to be hired by the insurance company for them to be able to approve it. It’s a lot of trouble, obviously, and it’s very far from what I normally do.

Initially, you tried to make this film a Russian co-production, but you couldn’t make that work; what happened? 
At one point, we explored co-producing Kursk with a Russian company and shooting it in Russia, but very quickly we came up against the military authorities, who had to read the script and had comments – if you can call it that – and there was also this ongoing, more complicated dialogue about our screenplay, which was not necessarily about trying to make it more truthful, but they wanted it to be more heroic in places. I found it very wrong to give away artistic freedom to the Russian fleet on this particular story – that was too ironic for me – so we decided to step back and shoot it elsewhere.

It features a very international cast; how did you build the team?
Knowing that we had to make an English-language film that takes place in Russia was a big challenge; it was the biggest challenge on the movie, in fact, and a challenge that at one point made me consider whether to make the film or not. So I decided to consider it a specific challenge in that I would have to make it as truthful as possible, and then it became a question of accents as well. So I thought if I mix very British accents or American accents with Matthias Schoenaerts’ Central European accent, it’s going to be too complicated, so I went for Central European, which then tends to be a little bit German and a little bit Danish here and there. I made that decision to try to control this impossible thing with 108 speaking parts and with actors from different countries.

When you have Max von Sydow as a Russian villain, do you tend to think of his performance in Bergman films?
Bergman’s films are huge for me, and Max is a legend. It’s like an institution coming into the movie, and yet he’s still the nicest man on the planet. What spoke to me more [than Bergman] was Pelle the Conquerer; I liked the idea that he was a nice man, a warm-looking villain. I thought the ambivalence of him being such a nice man and him having to make this crucial decision was interesting.

What did you see in this story of time running out for a group of men who are waiting for death that made you want to tell it? 
The bravery of these men really struck me. We are all eventually going to run out of time, which is something that bothers me a great deal. My wife, who is an actress in the movie, has just become a priest, and I keep asking her this question, “Why are we going to die?” People don’t talk about death any more; they talk about youth and trying to optimise their lives. A few generations ago, we talked about death because people died earlier and dying was part of life. It’s not any more; it’s become something we fear, and also it’s become something that only literature and films deal with. I felt that this was the ultimate story about running out of time and how you behave when you’re in that situation – that moved me, interested me, fascinated me and scared me. This heartbeat – this very civilised, orderly cry for help – it really got me.

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