Interview: Filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg on Far from the Madding Crowd

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Part of the Danish filmmaking wave that produced the likes of Lars von Trier and Lone Scherfig (An Education), Thomas Vinterberg has bounced around between genres since his early films, but he hasn’t taken quite a departure as he does with Far from the Madding Crowd, a costume drama based on Thomas Hardy’s novel starring Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdeen, a woman who inherits her uncle’s farm, which she struggles to manage while being wooed by three very different suitors, played by Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone), Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge. 

ComingSoon.net spoke with Vinterberg a few weeks back about the decision to tackle this adaptation after the Oscar-nominated dark drama The Hunt, starring Mads Mikkelsen.

ComingSoon.net: This is a really interesting movie for you after “The Hunt.” I feel that in general you’ve been doing very modern films about modern society so to go back in time to direct a Thomas Hardy adaptation seems like quite a leap. Can you talk about that decision to go in this direction?

Thomas Vinterberg: Well, first of all, I like to change. I hate repeating myself, and here was a considerable change, both in genre but also in gender in the sense that my latest movies had been very full of testosterone and this was an exploration of being a woman that I found incredibly modern actually, and visionary. The first thing that has to happen to me when I do a film is unexplainable thing where you sort of fall in love with something. I read this and these characters moved me, the way that Thomas Hardy plays with fate moved me. I was to some degree overwhelmed by it and humbled by it, and it couldn’t go away. And that’s where I decide to make a movie. It’s not, “Now I think this will be right for my career.” And then I felt a certain relief and lightness of doing something I hadn’t been writing. Normally, I invent the movie from the get-go, from the white paper, to the end, like the auteur genre of Europe. This was something different. It’s a collective effort. I’m not the writer. It’s as much a Thomas Hardy movie as a Thomas Vinterberg movie and I felt relief and a sense of playfulness about that.

CS: Had you read the short story first or did you just get the script they had developed?

Vinterberg: I just got a script. This was very traditional. Script from agent. Like it. Do it. That’s the way it goes. Obviously there was a long row of conversations, and I’ve never tried that before, and that in itself was attractive to me. (chuckles)

CS: As a writer yourself, you must look at a screenplay and go, “Okay, I want to change this and this,” or did you read the screenplay and feel it was ready to go?

Vinterberg: Oh, no. Of course, there was plenty of stuff. It was a big challenge from the get-go, which was just the amount of material. There were way too many scenes still in the script and that we carried with us all the way through to the editing. That is I guess a general challenge I guess with adaptations. The whole balance of being loyal to this authorship and still making it accessible and modern and mine. All of that was interesting but difficult.

CS: I believe there have been other adaptations as well, so had you seen any of them?

Vinterberg: No, I saw 20 minutes of the Schlessinger movie and decided not to see any more, because I found it confusing to some degree. It’s made by three of my biggest heroes. I’ve been in love with Julie Christie since I was a child and Schlessinger is great and particularly Nick Roeg behind the camera. I’m a huge Roeg fan, like a giant Roeg fan, and I found that almost intimidating. I decided to pretend that this was a one-off love affair between me and Thomas Hardy because I thought that would be the most pure and inspirational way to go.

CS: Now that you’ve finished the movie, do you think you’ll go back and watch it?

Vinterberg: I’ll see it eventually.

CS: You must be curious how your movie diverged.

Vinterberg: To some degree, Schlesinger did the same thing I did. He embedded into a Thomas Hardy universe, so I don’t feel like I made a remake of a Schlessinger movie. I feel I’ve made another take on a book, to some degree. No, to a large degree. From what I’ve heard of the Schlesinger movie, it’s very different.

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CS: Let’s talk about Carey Mulligan. I think when you do a period movie set in England, there’s a lot of actors you could go to since they’ve done a lot of that sort of thing and Carey is one of them. Was she a very obvious first choice to play Bathsheba?

Vinterberg: Definitely not because she’s been doing other period films. I would be looking for a lot more inner qualities than that, and I think she contains a beautiful combination of strength and fragility. This is a very independent woman, and yet, still she has an urge to devote to a man and the two things defines her in her conflict to some degree. I thought Carey was perfect for that. Other than being a wonderful actress, she’s got some of that persona, so for me, so I cast Carey Mulligan on Page 10.

CS: You already knew while you were reading it.

Vinterberg: Yeah, this is a perfect part for Carey Mulligan.

CS: And it is, because she’s great in it.

Vinterberg: I think so, yeah.

CS: What about the guys? Were they as easy to cast?

Vinterberg: No, much more complicated, because there’s a correspondence between them. They have to form a piano chord together and they have to be very different from each other, and yet still play in harmony if you understand, so that was difficult but joyful because I find them all, each in their own different way, incredibly great actors. Very, very different from each other, in method, in persona, in everything, but it was an amazing time to work with them.

CS: One of the things about doing a period film in England is that a lot of these films are made so how did you go about giving your movie its own distinction?

Vinterberg: Well, to start with, I had a conversation with myself of how much a Thomas Vinterberg movie and how much a Thomas Hardy is this? And how modern is this and how loyal to the genre is this? I decided to go for a balance through all of these things. I wanted the Hollywood sweep of the ‘50s, that sense of Technicolor, the richness of that that I love from “Gone with the Wind” and so forth. Yet still, I wanted to get away from the dusty sins of a period piece and get behind the dresses and get into the flesh and blood of these characters. So I was trying to balance all these matters from the beginning.

CS: How about working with Craig on the music? I think the score is unbelievable and it’s not the normal…

Vinterberg: (does an impression of string cascades) No, no. I very very much enjoyed working with Craig. He’s a master and I was very demanding, because I wanted that extra thing. There is a huge conservatism in film music of today and yet still we wanted string, which in itself is a conservative choice, so I had to sort of encourage him and push him to go beyond a traditional score and hopefully we succeeded.

Far From the Madding Crowd

CS: It’s very striking and I know I can listen to it on its own. It’s also different from what Craig has done before.

Vinterberg: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I think he’s done a tremendous job, and it must have been hard dealing with me. (chuckles)

CS: Another element of this movie is the amount of wildstock because it’s set on a farm—horses, sheep, I think you had a snail in there. I was curious about how you end up working with the wranglers to get them to do what you wanted?

Vinterberg: I had people taking care of that. I’m not good with a whistle in front of sheep. I don’t understand sheep. They’re sort of a frightened, not very intelligent animal and to some degree, they bored me, but I was amazed to see how the British filmworkers could work with these animals and make them do different things. One of them things they did was very moving. They always had two, so if you had a lamb shot, the brother would be right outside, and they said if you want them to talk, to “bah,” you just make them in contact so that duality between the partners. It was the same thing with the horses. It was amazing. The way to calm them down was to have their brother right next to them. But this was very difficult. I mean, we have sheep running over a cliff.

CS: I was very shocked by that scene. That was very dark.

Vinterberg: I had to work hard to avoid making it a Monty Python moment, and I think we ended up in a good way with it but it was a very difficult.

CS: I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to laugh at that moment or not, because it was such a bizarre thing to happen.

Vinterberg: It is. I hope you didn’t laugh.

CS: I didn’t laugh. I stifled myself although it did remind me of something that might happen on Monty Python. I have to say that when I went into the movie and started reading the notes, I thought, “Oh, God, this is going to be one of those movies” and I really enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

Vinterberg: Yeah, English language period is not necessarily middle-aged male target audience, especially if you listen to the Raveonettes. (Note: This comment was made because I was wearing a cap for “The Raveonettes,” a dark Danish band.) But I get that.

CS: Any idea what you want to do next? Have you been writing anything?

Vinterberg: I’ve actually already shot something else, a completely different thing called “The Commune,” my next Danish film about my upbringing in a commune, in a house full of half-naked Academics. That was great fun doing that. I’m still editing.

CS: I was curious because you’re one of those filmmakers who bounces between doing films in the Danish industry and doing films elsewhere…

Vinterberg: I’m curious about that, too. I don’t know what is going to happen, and I guess I’m just open to that reaction I told you about before. When I read stuff or get ideas that stay with me, that I can’t get rid of, then I’m pursuing it. When there’s an element of human fragility in it and something that I can reflect on, then I go for it, whatever language or medium it is.

CS: So even if you’re working on your own thing, as you’re doing now, and something else comes along…

Vinterberg: Yeah, I read a lot of scripts and I’m going to meet my agent ten minutes ago to talk about that. (laughs)

Far from the Madding Crowd will open nationwide on Friday, May 22 after playing in select cities for the past month. You can check out our interviews with Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen here and here.

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