Jensen opens barn doors and lets weird chickens out

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


Men and Chicken
RPL Film Theatre
August 11-14

Danish cinema is a lot more common than you’d imagine. Actors like Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal), Nicolai Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) and Ulrich Thomsen (Banshee) are regulars on must-see TV shows. Director Susanne Bier is currently killing it with her adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manage. And then there’s Lars Von Trier, who disturbs us to the core every couple of years with tales of people who make poor life choices.

Perhaps less known than his peers but just as significant, Anders Thomas Jensen has penned some of the most successful Danish films to cross the Atlantic — After the Wedding, Brothers, In a Better World and Love Is All You Need.

Jensen has also been given the considerable task of adapting Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.

Thanks to Jensen’s pedigree, Mikkelsen’s growing popularity in North America (he is set to make his debut in both the Marvel and Star Wars universes this year), the very strange Men and Chicken gets to open in Regina (see review).

I had the chance of talk with Anders Thomas Jensen at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. A long-time friend of Mikkelsen (he has been in all four movies he has directed), Jensen confesses the actor is closer to his peculiar character in Men and Chicken than the suave Hannibal.

Men and Chicken’s underlying concept — homespun genetic engineering — is so out there, I have to ask you how an idea like this came to you.

Since I directed my last film (Adam’s Apples, 2005), I had four kids. The idea came from observing them and discovering how fragile civilization is. It’s learned behaviour. Some of the scenes are lifted directly from watching them fight.

But you amped up the violence, I hope.

Eh… Kids are very violent. It’s human nature. If you put a bucket on the beach and two kids, they would start fighting at some point.

The film reminded me of the Three Stooges.

It wasn’t a conscious choice, but they’re part of my cultural background.

As a scriptwriter, are you very precious with your work or do you allow certain deviations from the page?

I build the characters along with the actors. I do a quick first draft, let them read it and collect feedback. When you have such good actors, it is nice to let them be part of the process. I do a lot of rewrites and rehearsals, but once we start shooting — since time is so precious — we stick to the script.

Are you surprised Men & Chicken is getting such a wide distribution?

You’re always hoping. It’s certainly very dark, very Danish, but the themes are universal. Men and Chicken plays with different genres — we go from horror to slapstick in the same film — and distributors would rather put movies in a single box. We’re on the border of what’s relatable to a normal-thinking audience, so — alongside the actors — we made sure we had real emotions beneath the madness.

There’s something about Danish cinema and pushing boundaries. Do you have an idea what propels your country’s industry in that direction?

My educated guess is that because our TV is more traditional and linear, filmmakers choose to go the opposite way. All countries have the talent, but in Denmark we have a system that can get these ideas financed.

Most of the world knows Mads Mikkelsen as the suave, sophisticated Hannibal Lecter. In Men & Chicken you cast him as the polar opposite. How counterintuitive was to give him the Elias role?

I’ve done films with Mads for almost 20 years, doing characters similar to this one. Mads is more like [his character] in Man and Chicken. It’s odd for me to see Mads as Hannibal. It just shows the enormous range he has.