[21 April 2016]
Oscar-winning director/screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen’s latest movie, Men & Chicken, is so good that his die-hard fans may just forgive him for the ten-year wait between films.
Men & Chicken was a hit on the festival circuit, garnering praise for its depraved humor, distinct production design, and inspiring themes. Jensen once again teams up with his muse, Hannibal‘s Mads Mikkelsen, for a twisted comedic romp that is sure to have fans of black comedy squealing with glee. The combination of Mikkelsen’s star-power and the film’s positive buzz (Jensen won the best director award at Fantastic Fest) bodes well for Men & Chicken’s pending release in the United States. Jensen took some time to speak with PopMatters, and during the conversation, he touched on writing versus directing, his penchant for creating repugnant characters, and the precise moment in his life that inspired the film.
No one is ever going to mistake Jensen for a Save the Cat! School of Filmmaking disciple. Jensen accrued a dedicated fan-base with his talent for crafting absurd characters (his last couple of films centered on a Neo-Nazi and a pair of cannibal enabling butchers). Those wondering if the decade between movies has dulled his edge, need not worry: Men & Chicken introduces its co-lead Elias (Mads Mikkelsen), during what should be a romantic dinner with a potential love interest. Instead of a charming Don Juan, Elias comes off as a delusional Don Quixote, and the audience is left aghast as he repeatedly talks down to his wheelchair-bound date.
Jensen has a knack for getting his audience behind what on the surface appears to be awkward, morally appalling characters. “It’s a challenge,” he admitted, “but it’s a fun challenge. I tend to say that if your character is just nasty, evil without reason, then it’s very difficult to do.” Jensen believes that the key to winning the audience over is finding a relatable element within the character: “If you can sense that the character doing it is grounded in some real human emotions, you understand him. Then it’s actually very doable.”
Men & Chicken is a difficult film to describe, as it’s a genre-bending black comedy, which features a chronic masturbator as the co-lead. Jensen admits that Men & Chicken was a hard sell. “It was a very difficult pitch, especially with co-producers from other countries that weren’t that familiar with my universe. It was difficult.” Jensen’s accomplished filmography went a long way in getting the film greenlit, “It was basically, the three films I did earlier were quite big successes at the box office, and they were far out too. So it was based on my previous work and certainly, the cast.”
When it comes to financing, Jensen says that the film’s relatively large budget (roughly eight million dollars) comes from having a star like Mikkelsen attached. “They would never have let me do this without Mads Mikkelsen in it. I would never have had the budget as high as I had. I have to be honest about that. I mean, if you have him in the lead ... he’s a star there. He will raise your budget, so he’s a big part of it, too.”
Denmark’s Dynamic Duo
Mikkelsen and Jensen have worked together so often (Flickering Lights, The Green Butchers, Adam’s Apples), they’re like Denmark’s version of DiCaprio and Scorsese. At this point, Jensen often factors Mikkelsen into his writing process. “I always write something for him. I sit down and I think of him and I try do to a character for him.” Jensen says that Mikkelsen’s ability to bring something unique to each role keeps surprising him. There’s also an ulterior motive for their long working relationship. According to Jensen, “It allows me to be a bit lazy, too. When I start writing something for myself I always have these five, six, seven actors in my head, and he [Mads] is definitely one of them.”
In addition to setting the box office ablaze back in its native land, Men & Chicken has been a hit with both audiences and critics on the festival circuit. However, Jensen doesn’t think that Men & Chicken’s success will have a drastic effect on the movies that he makes in the future. Jensen credits Denmark’s subsidized system, which already allows filmmakers a great deal of creative flexibility (as long as they maintain a low budget). While Jensen’s success has come from smaller budgets films, he wryly mentioned, “It has been interesting to try to find the limit of how high a budget you can do and still get your money back.”
Men & Chicken’s incredible sets have a Grey Gardens-type of ramshackle elegance to them. In order to attain the film’s desired look, the crew set up in a location an hour outside of Berlin and shot in 64 buildings. Jensen says that those buildings were just empty shells, and gives all the credit to his production designer, Mia Stensgaard. It took Stensgaard over a year of hard work in order to nail Men & Chicken’s withered aesthetic. “She is a brilliant production designer, Jensen said, “she was the first person that I brought on. It all started with the production design.” Jensen also believes the crew was fortunate to track down such an ideal location, “There’s a gift in finding that place, an abandoned Machu Picchu place outside of Berlin. It was sort of just one of those things where everything came together in the right way.”
As any veteran director will happily tell whoever is within earshot, when it comes to making movies, things will inevitably go wrong. In Men & Chicken’s case, it was the cast’s facial prosthetics. Jensen says that the actors’ hair lips would often prove unwieldy. The prosthetics were bound by elastics on braces, which the actors found physically taxing. “They needed breaks every half-hour, and sometimes the pieces popped in the middle of a shoot. So there were huge challenges.” Jensen said they applied “a little CGI” to recolour some of the stuff afterwards. “On the whole, it was unproven territory,” says Jensen, “nobody, I don’t think anybody ever did five people with hair lips. It went beyond my wildest imaginations, but there was problems.”
Newfound Creative Inspirations
Fans have endured a ten year wait since Jensen’s last film, Adam’s Apples. During his directorial hiatus, Jensen has had four children, and this new aspect of his life has clearly impacted his work. Men & Chicken’s emotionally stunted lead characters are prone to infantile outbursts and instances of childlike behaviour, so it makes perfect sense when Jensen admits that he couldn’t have made this movie before becoming a father. One of the film’s most memorable scenes involves a bit of childish squabbling while at a dinner table, “The whole idea came from, I had four kids since my last movie. The scene where they’re arguing over dinner plates is literally just lifted out of my living room. It was the kids, that was the inspiration.”
While writing Men & Chicken, Jensen refused to let genre conventions restrict his broad influences. The film is bookended like a fairy tale, features loose sci-fi and horror elements, and leans on slapstick and pitch black humour for laughs. As a writer/director, Jensen is adept at placing a lot of moving pieces on the table, and finding the best way to make use of everything at his disposal. He is currently attached to a hot Hollywood project that also mixes fantasy, sci-fi, and horror: the big screen adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower. It’s not often that a screenwriter’s artistic sensibilities are such a natural fit with a project that he’s working on. Jensen says he was approached by the director and the studio, “I read the book and said, that’s great material. I just jumped on board. It’s as simple as that.”
Don’t expect to see Jensen’s signature flourishes pop up in The Dark Tower when it hits theaters next year, he’ll be sticking to the vision of the books and the script’s initial draft. “Of course, you can’t do anything without getting some of you in there, but it was an assignment. The work needed to be done and I did it. It’s not going to be as crazy as Men & Chicken.”
Although screenwriting does help to satisfy his creative itch, Jensen is both blessed and cursed with a director’s spirit. While listening to him discuss his work process, it became clear that his return to behind the camera was an inevitability. Jensen feels that the isolating nature of writing is a big drawback. “It’s a love-hate relationship. In a sense it’s very unsatisfying to do a script and pass it on to somebody,” Jensen says, “they’ll never make it just as you see it. On the other hand, directing is also very unsatisfying because you’re never allowed to do exactly what you want, and there’s so many obstacles you have to tackle in comparison to writing where everything is just possible. The synergy between it works perfectly for me. I know it’s been ten years. But normally after two, or three, or four years, I want to go out now and direct. And then, as soon as I direct it, I just want to go back and do scripts. It keeps my steam up.”
Beneath Men & Chicken’s surface level physical comedy, prosthetic hair lips, and crude humor, the film tackles some rather complex emotional themes. Jensen believes that the comedy genre allows people to address life’s big questions without coming off as pretentious. “It is easier to do it in a comedy because you can be less subtle about things,” Jensen said. He also made it clear that addressing deep philosophical concepts with humor is not the same as taking them lightly, “With humor, it tends to fly better.”
Jensen admits that he has tried to take on these themes in his own non-comedic screenplays, “Every time I try, I have a hard time not getting the comedy in there. Perhaps one day, I’ll grow up. I keep that [lack of comedy] for when I work with other directors. I also really like this mix of genre. When I do something myself, I think I’ll keep having the comedy element in there to be honest.”
Anders Thomas Jensen
Jensen is nothing if not prolific, in addition to directing several feature films, he has over 50 screenwriting credits under his belt. As the interview came to a close, Jensen was asked if he had to select his most defining work, and lock it away in a vault for audiences to watch 100 years from now, what would he choose? Jensen’s answer was that he believes very few films, if any, succeed on every level. He would rather edit ten sequences from throughout his career and put the compilation into that vault. When pressed on the issue of selecting his definitive work, Jensen’s answer conveyed the spirit of a true director, “I hope that I haven’t done it yet.”