Ulrich Thomsen, star of Counterpart, Banshee, and Festen, talks to us about writing and directing Gutterbee, his new feature satirising small town America (with German sausage).
It's almost fitting that when I sit down to talk to Ulrich Thomsen, it's the first day of President Trump's impeachment trial. The day's headline story doesn't need to be acknowledged before talk of The Donald is linked to the roots of the story behind Gutterbee - the second feature film written and directed by one of Denmark's most prolific actors.
Gutterbee is the story of two hopeless dreamers, Mike (Antony Starr) and Edward (Ewen Bremner), who join forces in a quest to erect the ultimate German sausage restaurant in an abandoned church in the titular town. It's a social satire about the nexus of identity fear, where religion becomes an intellectual cul-de-sac, and racism, homophobia and intolerance reign supreme.
"The movie essentially is about identity, primarily white American identity. The Western world today has come to some version of a standstill in terms of who we are and how we've been conducting ourselves, our political systems, consumerism, free enterprise and all that for 50 odd years. Basically, we can't do that anymore.
"The capitalist system has proven it doesn't really work because it only works if someone is paying the price for it, like workers being exploited in sweatshops. The distribution of wealth has always been flawed and not equal to everybody.
"We’re paying the price for that through global warming, climate change and people coming from all parts of the world to Europe and the US who want to have a part of that wealth. Even though the world has become bigger, it's also become smaller. We've seen Brexit your part of town. We see the EU completely collapse when refugees are coming in because they don't know how to deal with it.
"Now we’re almost 8 billion people, so we're at a time where we have to redefine ourselves in the richer part of the world because we cannot do what we've been doing for all these years.
[Gutterbee] deals with small-town America and definitely the politics of Trump and what he stands for. It's the Muslims who are to blame for everything or it's the Mexicans, “We’ll build a wall,” all these delusions that are fear mongering and that are based on a false agenda. It's ridiculous what comes out of this guy's mouth. The political lingo or linguistics is unfathomable. However, if somebody says it's somebody else's fault, it's easy to understand, but it doesn't solve anything."
Listening to Thomsen's intelligent analysis of the geopolitical world, it's easy to forget we're talking about a film that's a comedy centred around the opening of a German sausage restaurant - an allegory for immigration, itself a catalyst for bigotry. It's clear that a lot of thought has gone into the deeper themes satirised throughout the film. It's a story that could be applied to small towns in other Western countries, but there's something uniquely American in it's telling.
"I could definitely make it in Britain as well if I wanted, and a small town Denmark, small town Hungary, small town Germany, France, I could have done that. But when I heard Danish politicians and even German politicians saying 'Make great again,' adapting this phrase that Trump came up with, I thought, 'Okay, well, we definitely know what that is about.'
"Also, I’ve worked a lot in America and I like it. What’s important from my point of view is that everything is based on articles I've read, documentaries I've seen and people I have encountered. Even the sausage trivia is real. The sausage has an interesting history and I liked using that as a plot vehicle for a story because I wanted this to be real. If a foreigner shows up in America with a movie, or any piece of art, and pretends that they know better, I at least wanted to be able to vouch for the content. I didn't want it to be something I came up with to mock and ridicule. That would be too easy.
Which is also why the movie plays a little better in America. People seem to understand it better over here because it's so based on American folklore, and politics, and history, and the American dream, and things that they say and see when the turn on the television. I've had some very interesting screenings over here, they laugh a lot throughout the whole movie because they recognize it."
Such is the authenticity for which Thomsen has endeavoured to capture, that some of the humour and context of the film may be lost on some non-US audiences not so familiar with American culture.
What all viewers will recognise, however, is the quintessential small American town, the key element of this story - with the location settled upon captured by an Oscar-winning cinematographer.
"We have wonderful DOP, Anthony Dod Mantle who is British but lives in Denmark, and shot Slumdog Millionaire. I worked with him early on Festen back in 1998 and he was my next one neighbour from for many years. I sent him the script. He loved it and said, “Let’s do it.”
"Then I obviously needed a small town in America. New Mexico had a good tax incentive. I went there, I scouted and we found a small town called Roy, three hours outside of Santa Fe. It completely fit our purposes. Places in New Mexico tend to be a little Native American in its architecture, but this town had a more Midwestern feel to, so it fit very well. It was 'a road runs through it' kind of town, and kind of sad as well because it's abandoned pretty much.
There was a fully equipped bar that had just closed down, which was perfect for our purposes because it would cost me probably $70,000 to build and to dress, but it was just sitting there. It was a difficult production at times because we couldn't house our film crew locally, which impacted the time we had on shooting days, which were already short because of filming in winter. However, we made it work as well as we could."
I suggest it must be a little awkward to get buy-in from the people of the town if they find out the nature of the film you're making is somewhat at their expense.
"If you go to a small town and you tell a story that deals with a lot of politics, it can show these people as being very extreme. That's always how it is when you condense a drama into an hour and a half. It becomes an extreme. You’re using their private homes and their environment to tell something that is a little ridiculous, in our case suggesting that Trump is not the best thing for the world right now.
I was very upfront with them, I told them what the movie was about, and the politics, and told most of them that they could just say no. If we couldn't use the bar, we'll shoot somewhere else, but the people in Roy were very sweet and very accommodating."
The logistical considerations of a feature film weren't entirely new to Thomsen, after having his first feature In Embyro already under his belt. In fact, unlike some directors looking to cut their teeth, he skipped shooting short films altogether and has dived straight into features.
"I think shorts are very hard to do, a good short at least, than a full feature-length. You got to have a full life in seven minutes or so. They're hard to do. It's a difficult form. I just went straight into feature-lengths because they're all I've done pretty much.
"I've been in approximately 100 productions as an actor and so when you prepare for a part, at least a bigger part, you kind of direct the whole movie as you read in your head. The images come up and you see a blocking and I thought when it came to directing, "What's the big difference?" Of course, there's a huge difference [chuckles].
My first film was a little, arty indie moody thing that went to Shanghai in competition there and got around festivals. It didn’t sell anything but that wasn’t the purpose. I made a company with my producing partner and the film was just to get us started with a very low budget to see what we could do."
With all the experience of those 100 productions as an actor and the that of directing his first feature, I ask what lessons he took into directing his latest project.
"I learned it before, but I learned it again. I know why people work with the same people again and again. You watch other directors' productions, and they work with the same people and I totally understand that. Finding a good crew is like finding your wife, so to speak. This is the one you want to spend your whole life with because you know what you get. There's no time for bullshit.
"Unless you just have a shit load of money, you’re limited to a budget for a couple of months' of shooting and then the post-production. There's no real time for any chemistry disorder.
"Also, I learned 'preparation, preparation, preparation' as if you're a real estate broker, 'location, location, location'. You can never prepare enough.
"That's something that's difficult with any film, as even though you write it and have all these locations in mind, you then find the real location and it's slightly different. That ripples out through the scene or the script and all of a sudden you start to adjust it, and you start shooting and these fucking actors have better ideas than you have [laughter], and the scenes start to shift a little bit.
"Everything is a moving organism. You're not really aware of when that happens and also you've got to find a way just to go with that flow. It becomes a little frightening because it's a snowball effect. You're not pushing the cart, it’s actually started to roll down the hill on its own.
I'm sure later on if I get to make more movies, and I've got a few planned out, it will get to a point where I can push the cart a little more consciously."
I ask if throughout his prolific acting career, if there are any directors in particular who he has learned from that have informed his own directing style. There is no one in particular he has has sought to emulate, but there is one famous compatriot who offered him a few words of advice.
"This is a funny story, I think at least but there's a truth to it. I met Lars von Trier and he came over to me and said, "Oh, this is your first film. Are you going to make movies now?". "Yes," I said, “Have you got any good advice?” and he said, "Yes, don't listen to anyone." Then he left. I thought, “Sure, you can say that. You're Lars von Trier, you're a genius, man.”
"After making the first film, and this one as well but definitely after the first film, I got to know what he meant. There's a lot of opinions. Actors, producers, DOP, editor, all have opinions, but if you want to get yourself out there and call yourself a director, or writer, or painter, whatever, you have to stay true to your original vision and try to get it out, and out of that you learn.
If you keep adjusting it for money or a little insecurity like, “Oh, he has more experience, he probably is in the right and I'm in the wrong,” you just lose track. With art, your idea is just as good as anyone else’s, it's just different opinions. At the end of the day, somebody might have a different idea about that story, but it's very important that you have the courage to stand by your original idea and vision. People can agree or disagree with that. Did the finished product come out the way you anticipated? It probably didn't, or even if it did, you learn from that, otherwise you get lost in opinions."
One example of where he was willing to listen to others, was in the casting of the film. Thomsen knew Antony Starr well from their time together on the TV series Banshee, but it was Anthony Dod Mantle who suggested Ewen Bremner after first working with him on Julien DonkeyBoy. It's said some other actors came and went from the project, but eventually the film would boast a great cast that also includes Deadwood's W. Earl Brown.
"Antony Starr, I met and worked with for years on Banshee. I talked to him very early on about this. The character from Banshee is not this character, but his private persona is closer to this character. He’s a very funny guy. So yes, he came on board.
"Ewen is a very good friend of Mantle's, so he said “What about Ewen?” I said, “Of course, great idea.” He read the script and was a little reluctant to begin with - the script is a little quirky, it’s a little odd - but yes, I convinced him and I said, “It’s going to be good fun,” and then he ended up wanting to do it. He works perfectly in it.
The film is now on the festival circuit, including screenings at the São Paulo International Film Festival and Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival at the end of last year, plus 2020 screenings at Santa Barbara International Film Festival and International Film Festival Rotterdam, with a recently announced UK festival premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival. That being said, Thomsen is already turning his eye to further distribution for the film and what that entails.
"As we speak, I'm exchanging emails and deal points with various distributors to find a platform for it outside of the festivals. I'm getting very good feedback from people, so I'm sure it will find its way in some regard into the world.
"As you know, it's just hard for indie films these days. Movie theaters are gone and everything is television now and streaming. It's such a shame because when you see any film in the cinema, any film, being small or big, it’s just so much better. I saw my film play to a sold-out crowd of 900 people in a huge auditorium in Rotterdam on a big ass screen. Everything makes so much more sense.
There's a funny little clip that you can google, where David Lynch is talking to some journalists and he says, "If you think that you have seen a movie on a cell phone, you're an idiot." and it’s true! I know it's going that way. The streaming format on tablets and devices has taken over and it's just a shame. It doesn't matter what kind of film, it's just so much better in the cinema."
Gutterbee will make it's UK premiere a the Glasgow Film Festival on Saturday 29th February.
You can follow Ulrich on Twitter: @UlrichThomsen