Sometimes the angle of a feature changes as you go along, and work goes unused. That was the case with Empire‘s coverage of Thomas Vinterberg’s new adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. I visited the Buckinghamshire set in the autumn of 2013, watched some filming and interviewed Vinterberg, Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen. But when it came time to run some coverage, we decided on a long-form, career-focused interview with Mulligan, rather than a set-visit piece. So these are my otherwise-unpublished interviews from that day in Middle Claydon.
An English heritage drama doesn’t seem the obvious thing for you to be directing.
I don’t know what the obvious thing is for me to do. If I knew then I would be doing it. I can say that I read a lot, and I read this script and I was entirely engaged by these characters and this whole fate that spins out through the script. To some extent I’ve always been attracted to the idea of doing something ‘classic’. I mean, Festen, although very modern at the time, had very classic themes, which is what I loved about it. It had candelabras and tuxedos and good versus evil!
Did you know the novel?
I knew about it, of course, but as a Dane it’s not part of our heritage. My Dad is a literary critic. And now he’s a film critic too. He gives me rave reviews! So I’d heard of Hardy but he’s definitely not part of my upbringing.
This story is much filmed already. Were you cautious about doing it again?
No, because my impression is that… This is a re-written version of the book, it’s not a remake of a previous film. I wasn’t too bothered about that. I could have been, but I couldn’t afford to be if I wanted to do the film.
Do you feel that you’re bringing an outsider’s perspective to the material?
I saw you talking to Allon [Reich, producer], and I think that was certainly their idea in hiring me. You have also along with Thomas Hardy a long tradition of BBC and costume dramas which have gone in and out of fashion many times here, like WWII movies have in Denmark. Each country has its own thing that they keep returning to. I’m not part of this. I don’t mind all these frocks and bonnets. I don’t have all these filters. In that sense I guess I just look at it as a drama: a beautiful story about human beings and destinies. I don’t care about the rest. It’s not that I fear it or have a question against it. It’s a convention that I’m trying to overcome. Maybe that’s an advantage. I don’t know. I think it is, because it doesn’t trouble me. I’ve had people say this is very BBC, and I’m like, wait a minute, the BBC does a lot of quite good stuff! I guess at the end of the day I’m just doing this as close to what I like as I can. I don’t know what that is. I leave it to you guys to define. Hopefully if I’m truthful to my own ideas about it, it’ll vibrate in a lively way and we’ll see the fragility behind all these characters and feel with them.
So it’s up to us to find the thread between this and the rest of your work.
Yeah! I don’t know how I should avoid that thread, really. I’m not doing it in a super stylised, crazy, modern way. I’m not using bullet time.
You’re shooting on film?
I did Dogme, and I think there is this misunderstanding in many people’s minds that I’m part of this form avant garde. I never was. I’ve always just been occupied with human beings and charaters. I was then and I am now. But we’re shooting this on film for that same reason: we’re trying to get as close to the people as possible and make it vibrate as lively as possible. It seems to do that a lot better on film. It was difficult to get the camera, actually. We’ve got the old steam tractor: the good ones are all on bigger budget movies! It’s a period drama, and it just somehow rings right to shoot on film. It looks fantastic. My job, what I try to do, is make people grow. Here’s an actor: I want to take this actor out of his or her comfort zone and see what this can bring, or bring them right into the centre of their comfort zone to see how enthusiastic they can be. That’s what I try to do also with my cinematographer, Charlotte Bruus Christensen. She was really enthused by working in this medium. We looked at The Godfather, and how its blacks are really black, and the nuances there can be of black. Digital is dead: it’s either black or not, whereas on film you can get a richness of black. I saw two things: I saw a lot of richness in the black, and I saw my DOP flourish. So that’s also why I’m shooting on film. It’s about giving people the right things and taking the right things away from them. Acting is a lot of don’t do that: they get comfortable if you take control of them. And then, like a rose bush, you cut branches off to stimulate their growth. So this process for me is a constant attempt to enthuse myself and be on thin ice, exploring, not doing anything too comfortable, not reproduce to much of myself or anyone else: constantly make sure it’s an exploration, and that everyone around me is on that journey as well.
So the improv preparation is part of that exploration.
Totally. I always do that.
It’s interesting to improvise around a text that’s so set.
Oh but I felt at times that the text was too set, so I wanted to challenge that. I always feel a little uncomfortable if you’re just saying the words. We’re here, and it’s different to the way it was when it was first written. Sometimes we do just say the words, but at least we explore what can come out of them. The rehearsal period really gave the actors a lot: a rock solid foundation from which you can then be completely free. That’s the whole idea. You have to do thorough, hard, sometimes boring work to create the platform from where you can take off and feel free, so in front of the camera they can do what they want. All actors are very different from each other: there’s never one method. Some grow from being extremely mapped out and the precision that takes you deeper and deeper, closer to something. Whereas others like to prepare to a certain point and then let go and improvise. Again it’s about how I get them to grow. The biggest thing for me is if you can create moments that ring really lively, that stay with people. Have you seen Fanny and Alexander? This is an example I use: the farting uncle. He’s not really an important character but everybody remembers him. He’s a slice of life: everybody knows that character. He’s become one of us. That’s big. Then it has a perspective. For me all the work is about what happens before these characters step into this; what happens after; what they hide; what they don’t see: the film around the film. If that can stay with the audience then you can create a bit of life that stays with people.
With this movie I’m on thin ice in some ways because normally I do… I won’t call it realism, but it’s something very truthful. With this film we can allow ourselves to be melodramatic, and I kinda like it! It’s uniforms and funerals and churches and prisons… I’m stepping into something that is new to me, like archetype drama. Melodrama rings to Brits very negatively, but if you look at the word as it’s actually meant, it’s not that bad actually. Let’s just say archetype drama.
I always do that preparation period with the actors. It’s very painful sometimes, because it’s very naked. It’s harder than the shooting process itself. It’s just an empty room and a lot of pressure for the actors, but most of the time it really brings you somewhere. Sometimes it’s really nice for the actors just to have said the lines. Sometimes I’ll rehearse before the scene, so to speak, so if I have a proposal, say, I’d rehearse the man waiting in the lobby for the girl he has to propose to. When I write my own scripts, which I always do, very often these moments become the scene, and more interesting than the ones I wrote to begin with. They become part of the writing process.
With this one it was different, because someone else had written it. David Nicholls came in and we re-wrote stuff. But yes, it was new to me. This whole thing is new to me, which is one of the reasons I’m doing it. It brings me out of my comfort zone. It brings me out of my country – which is a very comfortable, small place where mediocrity is hidden behind every corner. It’s a fairytale just to come here. I’m working in another language with different actors, and I didn’t write it. There’s a lightness to that! That attracted me.
How does your cast here compare to working with your regular collaborator Mads Mikkelsen?
There’s none of these characters here you can compare. They’re two different planets. Mads is fantastic. The Hunt is different, because I wrote it. I met with Mads and he, the character in the script, was this blacksmith, man of few words, De Niro in The Deer Hunter sort of character. Then Mads came on board and he’s that already. There was something flat about that, so three weeks before shooting I called him and said, what if he’s a schoolteacher. You can step aside from yourself and we’ll give you some stupid glasses and some bad hair… and the whole thing changed. Stuff like that also very often comes out of rehearsals. Here, obviously, there’s less you can change. It’s in my contract! This is Fox, it’s Murdoch, it’s different. It’s not state support. I’m art! But I kinda like it. It’s like being hired in, a little bit. And it’s always flattering to be asked, but you have to get over that: it’s vanity.
The thing is, on my own projects, it’s a lot of pressure. I’ve invented it from the beginning, which of course makes it very precious but also extremely heavy sometimes. So there’s a lightness to this, a playfulness. Okay, how do you do it here? Oh you actually have fifteen people working in parking! That’s very exotic to me! I have a person coming over and giving me antiseptic gel on my hands. You can forget that in Denmark. The state don’t want to pay for that!
But it must be a different pressure to be responsible to somebody else.
Exactly. But all I can do here is the best I can do. Obviously I’m giving 200% of myself to this, but the other way you can constantly be doubting whether you should have started it in the first place. So it’s two very different things.
So this is Hardy. You’ve done Dickens before, and Jane Austen. Is this a deliberate extra tick on that list?
I know! No… I did a lot of that stuff when I was younger; lots of TV things. But I hadn’t done anything like this for a while, apart from Fitzgerald, any of these costume drama sorts of things for a long time. Then this one… I’d never read the book, I kind of knew the story vaguely. I got a call about them doing a version of it with Thomas, and then I read the book. And it just seemed like, what a crazy opportunity!
The press release describes you as ‘the perfect Bathsheba’. Are you happy with that?!
I’ll take it! Hmm, that’s a bit of a worry. I actually really love her. We’ve been talking about this now for a year – I met Thomas this time a year ago when The Hunt was just out and he was in London. I sat down and had a drink with him at the Savoy bar and told him there and then that I wanted to play the part. We’ve spent a year talking about her and working on the script with David Nichols. Even during shooting I’ve fallen more in love with her. She’s such a great character. Just as an actress she’s a really rare opportunity, not just because of the things that she goes through but the way she handles them. She’s amazing.
Everyone calls her ‘modern’. Do you agree with that?
Yes, I think so. I think it’s a modern idea that she has her own property and she’s not actively looking to be married and tie her life up in that way. She’s just living in entirely her own way, and these men come in and out of her life. That’s a pretty feminist idea.
There’s a bit at the start of the book where she meets Oak for the first time and tells him he can kiss her hand if he wants to, and he says he hasn’t even thought of it. When he kissed your hand at the altar just then I thought that looked like a really nice callback to that scene. So did you use that scene at the beginning?
We have that scene but instead he holds her hand for a bit too long. So no! Not exactly. That’s the thing with an adaptation. Every day we come in with the book and campaign to have more and more, but we can’t have a 16 hour film. But it’s so great to have the novel to refer to. There are so many great moments, and things that echo in your head when you’re filming: great descriptions. Scenes where she’s just living her life three quarters of the way through the film and how to frame that. There are all these descriptions of her, saying that she’s living sort of like a ghost, and she can sit back and think what a gift life used to be. There are all these amazing descriptions of her. So even when you’re doing silent scenes with no dialogue you can just ruminate on that Hardy language, and it’s such a gift.
Thomas said he likes to ‘prune his actors so that they can flourish and grow’…
God, what does that mean?! Shit, I don’t know what cut off me. Thomas and I talk a lot every day about what we’re doing. We fight a lot, in a nice way. We disagree. Sometimes I’ll do something because he wants me to do it, and sometimes I tell him I’m doing something for me. But somehow we always end up agreeing! I’ll be like, ‘I’m doing a Vinterberg take! I don’t want to do it, but I’m doing it because you asked me!’ And then I’ll do a Mulligan take, and finally we find our way. Or I’ll say ‘This is my idea’ and he’ll say, ‘I 2000% disagree with you!’ I’ll be like, ‘How can you disagree with me 2000%?!’ Then finally we work our way round. That’s been the case with everything. Then finally in the last couple of weeks we’ve got to the place where you get to when you’ve been working with a director for a while, when you know you’re on the same page. He’s got incredible instincts. So I suppose he keeps me… I have a tendency to disappear into minimalism and he tries to bring the story out of me a little bit. And I think he tries to… he’s got an amazing map of her journey. In the beginning she’s such a girl and so young, and we’re jumping around so much and all these things happen at the end of the story… He’s got an amazing handle on that.
You had quite an extended period of rehearsal and improvisation at the start, which sounds very normal for Thomas but not for most productions.
That was one of the great things. We did these weird improvisations before we started, so all of us had acted together. I’ve done it a lot in theatre as well, when you’re trying to figure out the back stories. I played Boldwood’s sister at one point, and we did an improvisation about what happened to him as a young man that made him that way that he is. We did another one where Michael played my employer when I was a governess, and how that all went down. Once you’ve acted with someone it’s a bit like when you go on holiday with a bunch of people and take your clothes off and wear your bikini for the first time. Once you’ve done it then you’ve done it, and everyone feels so relaxed around one another that when you get to set you can play around more. It was amazing. We’re so lucky to have had that. That never happens on a film.
At what point did you come to this? Who was already involved?
Thomas was – he was part of the decision to do it, as were Carey and Matthias [Schoenarts]. What I loved about the prospect of this was a very interesting combination of elements. The guy who directed Festen is doing this! That’s immediately interesting and exciting.
So you’re the hapless Mr Boldwood. Is that a fair description?
I don’t think hapless is a fair description of any human being! I don’t see him as hapless at all. Why do you think he’s hapless?
Well he starts off as a recluse rattling round an empty house, then develops an unrequited romantic obsession as the result of a practical joke, and then he goes to prison for murder. The dude cannot catch a break.
I think the point for me was that he starts in jail and he ends in jail. At the beginning he’s already in a prison of his own making, and aware on some level that he’s going mad and needs something to happen. He doesn’t know what: he’s kept himself away from other people and got very hurt when he was younger and has protected himself ever since and almost become a Citizen Kane sort of character, in his massive house. He’s sort of haunting his own house. Then an opportunity to change his way of life comes along. Hardy describes him as having two huge forces, perfectly balanced, inside himself, but as soon as they’re slightly out of kilter, massive apocalyptic things are let loose inside him. I like that description and I thought… Hardy says that women have been interested in him for years and he’s had no interest. So I wondered why a Valentine would do this to him. Why doesn’t he just throw it away, if he’s got not interest? Why is he even bothered? I thought he must just have been primed; something has obviously changed in him. He says to Bathsheba when he proposes to her, ‘I feel that my present way of living is bad.’ I thought that was an interesting choice of words to use about your life: bad. And I got this very strong idea of a man who has huge forces roiling underneath the surface, and is aware of it, and is aware that he may well be pulled apart by it, and so needs some way out. This card sort of presents that, and I think it could have been from anyone. I don’t even think he’s necessarily in love with Bathsheba. I think he’s fighting for his soul, and that’s what unravels as time goes on. So I don’t think he’s hapless! I think he’s someone who’s in a really bad way, and tries to save himself, and doesn’t, and ends up exactly where he was afraid he was in the first place. It’s just more literal at the end.
Were you already familiar with the novel?
I was sort of familiar with it, but to all intents and purposes I came to it fresh. I’ve never seen the other film, so I had very few preconceived ideas about it. I was really struck by all kinds of things about it. I thought it was very powerful and kind of… It’s a cliché to say this: I’m sure any person he does any kind of classic adaptation says, ‘It feels very modern! Very relevant to now.’ I’m not actually sure how relevant to now it is, but it did feel very modern in terms of the characters and the character of Bathsheba… I like how specific Hardy is about uncivilised life in the wild and the interplay between that and the civilised aspects of human culture. And the fact he became more and more bleak as time went on.
There’s a lot of humour in early Hardy but he’s not often adapted humorously. Do you have a sense of the tone of this version?
Not really, no. It’s hard to get that until you see the finished thing. And also, my journey is very bleak, so I don’t know how that affects the rest of it. But certainly my sense because of some of the people involved is that there’s a bit more light and shade. I hope what Thomas brings to it is very specific and grounded and real. We did a lot of improvisation to prepare in the beginning when we were rehearsing – that was terrific and made a huge difference. You do that in theatre a lot, but not in film, and it’s such a good idea, I think, with a ‘classic’ or a period thing, because it’s so easy to become a bit generalised or to make assumptions that ‘back then things were like this’. As soon as you improvise, it has to become immediate, because you’ve got nothing else to draw on: no research or script, just what’s in your gut. It forces you to make authentic choices, so that was great. I got to improvise almost every bit of my past life, and all the relationships. I came out of that rehearsal period really excited and connected to what the journey was going to be. Central to my character is what’s happened to him when he’s much younger. That was my start. Something happened to him when he was younger that affects everything afterwards, so being able to improvise around that really grounds it and opens up all kinds of possibilities.