No one would ever accuse Anders Thomas Jensen of being an amateur, but when he stepped on set of his fourth feature as a director, “Men & Chicken,” he felt like one.
“My whole crew and all the cast became so good. They’ve developed so much in those ten years where I’ve just been writing,” says Jensen, during a rare visit to Los Angeles from his native Denmark. “I remember the first week I was like, ‘Wow, I really have to get my act together.’”
Fortunately, that’s exactly what Jensen is so good at, which is why he hasn’t been able to direct since 2005’s “Adam’s Apples.” A frequent collaborator of Susanne Bier, Kristian Levring, and Lone Scherfig, Jensen has helped fuel Denmark’s increasing presence on the international cinema scene from the days of the raw “Dogme 95” movement, co-writing such films as “Brothers,” “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself,” “The Salvation” and the Oscar-winning “In a Better World.” However, while he’s shown a speciality for meticulous, emotionally devastating dramas as a screenwriter for others, Jensen would seem to let out his unrestrained id for the films he directs himself, crafting perversely funny black comedies with a philosophical bent in such films as “Adam’s Apples”’ where a neo-nazi aims to shake a priest of his faith while striving to make the perfect apple pie or “The Green Butchers,” in which a pair of meat men discover human flesh flies off the shelves at their shop.
“Men & Chicken” may be Jensen’s most audacious film yet, following a pair of brothers (played by Mads Mikkelsen and David Dencik in rare comic form, in any sense of the word) that becomes a quartet when the two discover upon their father’s death that he really wasn’t their father, subsequently setting them on a path to find out whether their genes are responsible for their many issues. Literally taking place in a former insane asylum dressed here as a mansion that’s seen better days, the film ponders existential mysteries as the brothers engage in bruising, “Three Stooges”-esque battles (often involving heavy pots and stuff animals as weapons) over their birthright, connected in the fact they’re eccentric, but not their specific eccentricities.
Shortly before the film blows the minds of American audiences, Jensen spoke about the inspiration for “Men & Chicken,” working with actors he knows so well to create such bizarre characters, and finding the perfect location to set his latest directorial effort.
Do you actually save the craziest ideas you have for yourself to direct?
In the old days, I said it’s because nobody else wants to do it. [laughs] But I do so many genre films and move around so much that when I sit down and say I’m going to do something for myself, it does tend to become a bit more experimental. I really like that mix of genres and I also like to watch films that do it. I know you need genres so the audience knows what they’re getting, but in a way, it’s a pity because it’s nice to be surprised when films take some turns that you didn’t expect. It takes a whole year [to direct], so I need to do something that I really connect with, that I enjoy myself.
Since you’re so prolific, is it a difficult thing to set aside as much time as you need to direct a film?
It’s just shutting down everything else and saying, “I’m gone for a year.” That’s what I do. I log out of everything. It’s been ten years since I did it, so it’s been a long time and it was nice to be back and also to be reminded of why you are a writer because in a way it’s very satisfying to [direct] your own work, but it’s also very, very depressing because everything is possible when your write.
How did “Men & Chicken” come about?
I had four kids since I did [my last directing effort] “Adam’s Apples,” and it was basically watching those kids and seeing how evil we are when we come to this world. We’re born with nothing. We have to learn everything from scratch. Every parent [comes to understand] that, but it just was a shock to me. The scene [in “Men and Chicken”] where there’s a fight over the plates [each labelled with a different animal that the brothers squabble over, thinking it says something about them personally], that’s literally my own kids. I just lifted the dialogue out of my own living room. I just remember one night sitting and thinking what if we just took our four kids, put them on a deserted island and said, “Figure it out yourself,” what would happen then? That’s basically where the story came from. Civilization is so, so thin. We have to learn everything in comparison to animals. We’re really, really a fragile race and dependent on each other.
That’s a really big idea and while in your dramatic work, specifically your collaborations with Susanne Bier, you haven’t shied away from such things. Is it easier to get away with them in a comedy?
Yeah. You are. You can allow yourself to be less subtle about some things in a comedy, but that’s it. You could’ve made this film as a clear-cut drama, but you would’ve lost some of the edges. Almost every story can be told in different ways – it’s just turning the wheel a notch, and the basic story of this, you can tell either way. I just like to tell them in the dark with this twist of dark comedy in there. There are elements of drama in this, too, and horror. There’s thriller. There’s slapstick. It’s even more comedy than I’ve done before because of all the fighting.
Beyond your own family, did you have an interest in genetics before this? It felt like you might’ve incorporated some research.
I did. I think it’s incredible. There’s a whole world out there and I’m very pro-biogenics. There’s so many things we could solve and do better than whoever created it. It’s been a very big interest for me for many years and I did have to do a little research because it becomes very technical, so I had to find a way to make it not too technical.
The structure of the film is deceptively simple – the majority of it is set at a house, but you never feel confined to one location since each room has its own personality. Was it a set or a house you found?
We found [a house], this crazy place like an hour outside of Berlin. It looks like it’s one house, but really it’s 64 buildings two times – one for men and one for women. It’s an old German war hospital and then it was an insane asylum. Hitler was sitting in there after World War I. I wrote the story and [the characters] were staying at this farm, and then my cinematographer had passed this place and said, “Let’s go down and look at this. When I saw it, I just said we have to shoot here, and then I did a rewrite to make it fit. We shot everything on location except for the living room. For logistic reasons, we had to build that on a stage, but we worked a lot with [the production design] and spent a lot of time adding to it. But so much was given from the structures and the buildings there. That’s always a gift, to find a place like that.
Many of the actors here are known for their dramatic work, though Mads and Nikolaj were also allowed to be goofy in “The Green Butchers.” Is there something you see in their personality that you can bring out in a film like this?
I do try to find something in there and I also know that they like the challenge of doing something that is very edgy. As long as it’s grounded in some real emotions and real feelings, you can take characters pretty far out and friends with them [outside the set], so sometimes I see sides of them which I would like to explore more. In the comedies I do, we work a lot to find a balance of how far can you go [while] being relatable to a normal audience, but they’re very good at that. We’ve worked together for so many years and I wouldn’t dare to do this film with some actors I didn’t know at all. I doubt if you could hit that balance.
Do you actually involve the actors in the process of developing the characters early on?
I always do like that. I have the basic idea and I do like a flash draft with the structure in it and the basic elements of the characters, but I’ll send that out to the cast and we’ll read it. I’ll meet with them and we’ll do readings and I’ll rewrite. I like to create the characters along with the actors. I always try it when I do a Susanne Bier film. It becomes increasingly more and more difficult because now they’ve become stars and they’re traveling all around the world. In the old days, we would just sit down for a month. That doesn’t happen anymore, but we find the time. I really like to implement all of their stuff because they’re really talented actors, so why not let them work along with you?
When it came to the crazy hair and makeup of the brothers, who’s involved in creating the look?
I had to find something that connected them genetically, so we did so many tests with the ears and noses. [laughs] Of course we had fun with with the hair, but it was hard to tie them up genetically, but the fun part is always finding those little touches.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
We started out with all the physical stuff, with all the pots and pans. The three first days of shooting [were the fighting scenes]. I didn’t really see it in the production plan that it was going to be so rough on David, the lead. He’s not a physical guy, and for the first 20 hours, he was just beaten up with large props. On day two, he was like, “I’m not going on if it’s going to keep on going like this.” He was hit with pots and pans and stuffed animals.
I would hope that the giant pot was like some rubberized thing.
It was, but you could still see it’s still not light. It still hurts a little, but not as much as a real one.
We’re here in Los Angeles, presumably as much for this film as your work on an adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” for “A Royal Affair” director Nikolaj Arcel and Sony. Is it different working in the Hollywood system versus the Danish system?
The work is the same. There’s more voices here, but that’s just a fun challenge to balance it all and of course, the budgets are bigger, so the films are bigger. But that’s the biggest difference. It’s still making the characters and the story and the structure work. The best thing is the weather. It’s better here.
Can you promise you’re going to keep making these strange little movies of yours?
It was fun doing one again and I’ll definitely do another. It’s probably going to be a couple of years, but I will.
“Men & Chicken” opens on April 22nd at the NuArt in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York before expanding across the country. A full list of theaters and dates is here.