Director Anders Thomas Jensen talks ‘Men & Chicken’

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We discover more in our exclusive chat with the Danish filmmaker

Men & Chicken has got it all: peculiar, off-beat characters, dark humour, shocking moments, a mystery with a bizarre twist, philosophical conversations discussed around a volatile dinner table, and, of course, plenty of poultry. Writer and director Anders Thomas Jensen returns with his signature brand of black comedy and long-time leading man, Mads Mikkelsen. Prepare to see the askew world of Men & Chicken as the creator tells us his inspirations for making the film, why Mads Mikkelsen is ideal for the idiosyncratic role of Elias, and how filmmaker Susanne Bier has impacted his writing style for gritty drama.

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We may be able to read certain inspirations from Danish culture into the story of Men & Chicken, as Jensen has collaborated with Dogme95 directors and performers in the past. “It’s such a big movement. There are two sides to Dogme95; it was something you did back then and now it is over but you bring the best parts of it with you, unconsciously. With Men & Chicken, it was partly influenced by Dogme95 but the main inspiration came from my kids. I have had four children since I directed my last film, you know? Basically, I was inspired from watching them fight! [LAUGHS] The shock of realising how fragile a species we are and how we learn everything from scratch, every time. The scene with the dinner plates – I literally took that from my own living room! Of course, my children were four, six, eight, and ten-years-old which is the funny thing about it. The inspiration was definitely having kids.” Perhaps the conversations were not quite as philosophically based as in the film? “I borrowed from other themes for that. [LAUGHS] It is the basic inspiration! I think everyone who has kids discovers how fragile civilisation is which can very easily turn bad. There is violence and a lot of edges to human beings that need to be ‘cut-off’ before we can be moulded to interact and maintain a decent society.”

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The dark and outlandish humour verges on the slapstick comedy that resembles that of The Three Stoogies or Laurel and Hardy. As Jensen works with a regular pool of actors, there must have been a lot of fun on set and possibly a sense of freedom with dialogue and improvisation. “Once we shoot, we don’t really improvise that much but we do have a lot of fun. I normally do a fresh draft of the script and get it out to the actors very early on. I do a lot of rehearsals and a lot of readings. But there is a lot of improvisation a month ahead of shooting during the readings. Once we start shooting, time is so valuable so I like to be prepared but I really like all of the actors to participate and be a part of the process.”

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For UK audiences that may not have seen Jensen’s previous films, such as The Green Butchers and Adam’s Apples, the offbeat tone works with another comedic element: incongruity. We are not so much used to seeing the typically serious and dramatic characters of Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Nicolas Bro, and Søren Malling in these bizarre roles, which is incongruous in itself. “It’s funny because it was the first time I had worked with Søren Malling but with Mads – a lot of people know him in the US as Hannibal – but I’ve known Mads for over twenty years filming very weird parts for him. So, to me, this is the “normal” Mads Mikkelsen, rather than Hannibal or the dramatic roles. He’s a brilliant actor who can do almost anything.”

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As Jensen has worked with Mads Mikkelsen on a number of productions, from one of the filmmaker’s first shorts Café Hector, the roles are tailor-made for the actor. “With Mads, I always write a part for him in almost every script I do. [LAUGHS] It’s an ongoing thing. I tend to visualise actors and cast ahead of time, however, it’s seldom that you can get the ones you want because of the logistics and schedules, etc. It can be good or bad; a new person can come in and bring something completely different to the character. But I always have a part for Mads. He is in all of my films and we have a good working relationship. Mads’ character Elias is so ‘far-out’ that I need to find a way to relate it to a – how would you say it? – “normal-thinking” audience. It can be very difficult so it is a big advantage that I can build on characters I have written before. I would find it seriously difficult to try and create this extreme character for an actor I have never worked with. Mads is a big part of it.”

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Not to mention the ample amount of poultry and livestock, there are a number of physical scenes in Men & Chicken that we can guess were physically demanding and challenging for the actors to perform. “There were a lot of physical moments to shoot within a short schedule. It was also the first time I worked with David Dencik, who plays Gabriel, and he isn’t really a physical actor. The first four days of our production schedule basically saw David being hit in the head with big pots and frying pans. It was quite challenging! After two days he was most likely thinking “What the hell did I get myself into?” Those action scenes were quite tough to do. We had a lot of scenes to get through and there were many takes because somebody would start laughing.”

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Anders Thomas Jensen is an Academy Award winner for his 1999 short film Valgaften and has gone on to win awards at the Bodil festival, the Monte-Carlo Comedy Film Festival, and the Robert festival to name few. Men & Chicken has collected accolades for its production design and Best Supporting actor for Nicolas Bro earlier this year. “I haven’t actually travelled to the festivals that much with Men & Chicken because I have been working on other projects, but it’s always fun. It’s great to go to countries like the US, Canada, and Germany and experience the different reactions from the audience. People tend to laugh in different places. I know from my previous films that people from Japan will laugh at different times than people in Spain, which I really like. Personally, it’s more fun for me to watch a film that way as I see it thirty or forty times at the festivals. There are some cultural reactions to do with taboos but I haven’t actually found a common thread in why people find certain parts funny. I’m not sure I can say something clever about that!”

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There are dark moments that we may find ourselves caught off-guard, laughing out loud, and then questioning why we find controversial parts so funny. “I really like that too. I think it derives from the mix of genres. I love to mix up genres in all of my work and I also love that when I’m watching films myself, otherwise it’s a bit boring. But for industry people trying to write film descriptions – they hate it because it’s hard to sell the film. For me, I do not need to know whether to laugh or to cry. I like the challenge of not knowing and that unsettling feeling when you are sat in the cinema. It’s really something that I aim for; to mix as many genres and to play with the emotions of the audience. My first feature-film, Flickering Lights, was a big success as a comedy in Denmark. Then I won a drama award for it in another country and a horror award in Italy! [LAUGHS] I’m not sure whether it is a good thing to win a horror award when your film is a comedy! [LAUGHS] Although, I hate it when I get exactly what I’m expecting from watching a film.”

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The Danish filmmaker’s delight in genre-bending can be related to his eclectic filmography. Men & Chicken, The Shamer’s Daughter, and The Dark Tower. Each has roots in fantastical worlds. While Jensen’s screenplays like A Second Chance and After the Wedding, directed by Susanne Bier, are closer to gritty realism. “It’s refreshing and that’s the beauty of my job; it’s never the same and you can start all over again with another project. I like to move around with genres and I just like films. I would love to do a film in every genre and try to mix them. For me – I know it’s a cliché – but as long as there is a good story in there, you can tell it in so many different ways. That’s what it comes down to.”

Read our interview with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau for A Second Chance here.

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In addition to his melange of Danish movies, Jensen has also written scripts for the English-language with The Duchess and, in most part, The Salvation which offers a different perspective to the creative process. “There are challenges as English is not my first language so it takes a bit more time to write. [LAUGHS] In Denmark, by comparison, it’s an auteur system – you don’t have any interference with your work. The biggest challenge when you make something abroad is that you have a lot of people, such as producers, having their say. If we go back to the Dogme95 movement, the basic idea is that there was a director and a screenwriter and they were financed; they had the money and they could do what they wanted to do. It’s much more of a collaborative experience on international projects than in Denmark. Both ways are good for me as I can work in both situations.”

Find out more about The Salvation from the director Kristian Levring here.

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With the higher level of artistic control in Denmark and with Jensen’s status, how easy is it to get funding for films with initiatives such as the Nordisk Film and TV Fond and for films with a dark tone and subject matter? “It can be easy to get funded in Denmark. However, with the Nordisk Film and TV Fond, they chose not to be part of Men & Chicken or my last film Adam’s Apples. If you are experimental and you are not Lars von Trier it can be difficult to get financial backing. There are some issues with funding but luckily there are some really brave TV stations and other initiatives to help. There is also the star system now. If I didn’t have Mads Mikkelsen attached to the project I wouldn’t have been able to get Men & Chicken made because the production was too expensive. I won’t say it’s easy; it’s always a struggle if you don’t make something that’s politically correct. As Sweden is part of the Nordic countries everything has to be politically correct! [LAUGHS]”

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Jensen is continuing his international career as co-writer for the adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, with fellow Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair). “I have been working together with Nikolaj Arcel for a few years now. We talked about the film, went to the US, and we were collaborating on another film at the same time too. With The Dark Tower, it was a script that was based on a script and we worked on that – it’s not much of a story really how I become involved in it! It was like any other project; you get a script that needs some work on it and you try to give it your interpretation. I’d never read The Dark Tower books; I didn’t know anything about them. I think it’s bigger in the US than it is in Europe. So it was a whole new universe that I didn’t know existed – a fantastic universe. It was basically something that just landed in our lap.”

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With films Jensen has written the screenplay for, we wondered how closely involved Jensen is in the production when another director is helming the project. “The process is that we’ll sit down and talk about a theme that we have a common interest in and then I’ll go away and write the script. I’ll get notes and do some rewrites. But I try not to interfere too much. It can be difficult as I am a director as well, which means there are two directors working on the script. I do visit the set but I keep myself in the background. Honestly, I don’t often go to the sets of the films I have only written for. I follow the dailies and I like to see the rough cut – that’s all. Of course, during the editing I will give my opinion but then you have to let go. In the end – you’re the screenwriter and it’s the director that makes the decisions. With Susanne Bier, we are great for each other. I tend to be cynical and use a lot of irony. A lot of the scenes I write for her I almost vomit and say, “There’s no way you can do this – ever.” [LAUGHS] It’s the worst but she tells me “No, go on, try it!” She pushes me to do it and I have to slap myself on the knuckles to stop myself from writing a funny line. Susanne Bier taught me that good taste isn’t always the way forward when you do drama. I actually think that’s right; you have to go beyond the borders of what you are used to which is great.”

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Viewers will be able to notice Bier’s advice has inspired Men & Chicken when the mystery hinted throughout the film reveals a shocking ending. “It is definitely the most ‘far-out’ film I have done. I like it but you lose some of the audience because it is so extreme! [LAUGHS]” The concepts of religion, evolution, and science are also controversial themes in the film. “I try not to moralise or take any side. I am a big fan of advances in technology – we should knock ourselves out, go for it, and see how far we can take it. I’m not trying to say a message in the narrative; they are just themes. But I do feel that all life has value which is very interesting to me – but that’s a big discussion!”

Words and interview by Antony Smith

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Men & Chicken released on DVD and Blu-ray Monday 15th August through Arrow Films. Pre-order your DVD or Blu-ray copy from the Amazon store here.

Men & Chicken is also available on digital and demand. Buy it and download the movie from iTunes here.