Masterclass: Anders Refn

Anders Refn is best known with his collaboration with Lars von Trier as editor. He is coming from an artistic family and also the father of the director Nicholas Winding Refn. He began his cinema career as  a prop assistant and an assistant director. Then he attended the National School of Denmark in 1967-1969. He made feature films and variable TV dramas as director; he worked in more than 40 films as editor. During the International Istanbul Film Festival, he has come to Turkey and has given a masterclass called “Breaking the rules. The importance of challenging the visual language of contemporary cinema. Illustrated by examples from my own works and my works with Lars von Trier.” During the class he showed us some scenes from the movies which he collaborated with Trier such as “Breaking the Waves”, “Dancer in the Dark” and “Antichrist”.

Birth of Dogma

The National Danish Film School became pioneer not only in our country also in the world when it established in 1966. For instance in Sweden, in spite of his genius, Ingmar Bergman had become very dominant personality which was blocking the young directors who attempted to get into film business. In our time, directors were working together united and our first priority was making a good Dan movie. We truly believed that it would open the doors for our second movie.  For example, Bill August is one of the best and world wide known directors in our generation.

Yet one of the worst side of us was we might cause to death of emotions and spontaneous approach because of our perfectionism. For instance when we examine Trier’s Europe Trilogy (“The Element of Crime”, “Epidemic” and “Europa”) we see these films keep distance to the audiences although they are very beautiful and esthetic as cinematographically. So we decided to reconstruct the language of cinema in order to destroy that distance. In 1995, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg presented their manifesto which they called Dogme 95. It was a new cinematic movement which was breaking many rules and my collaboration with Lars von Trier was an exiting initiative.

The Shooting and Editing Technique of “Breaking the Waves”

While we were shooting Breaking the Waves”, we used hand held cameras for giving the effect as the scenes have been shot in the family with amateur camera and we ignored the cinematographic approach. Naturally, some of the audiences didn’t like it at all, they were complaining about spinning heads and turning stomachs while they were watching the movie. The story of the movie was very touchy and melodramatic. If we made the movie with classical shooting and editing methods we did thought it might be very banal. When you watch the movie you realize the whole classical cinema rules collapse just in the first scene. We did all the mistakes which could be done. For instance there was a scratch on the negative film. We just settled it in the first scene. We were paying attention  to soft focus plans, I mean we didn’t want every pictures clear and focused. But our director of photography disturbed very much about it. Although camera assistant has been told for making soft focus, our director of photography was correcting the soft focus immediately and making the picture focused. At the end Lars had to write “MAKE MISTAKE” on the monitor.

We were shooting the whole scene non stop with many hand held cameras with different angles at the same time.  Thus our actors’ concentration didn’t ruin. Furthermore, we changed the sub text of every scene, we shot the same scene with different versions. Such as firstly drama then comedy versions. We made collages with them. Thereby you could see the actress while she smiles in one angle and she has different facial expression in other angle. Normally ruining the “Angle-Reverse Angle”, “Left-Right” rules are considered as sin. In the movie, our leading actress Emily Watson looks right and left in mixed way and this give the idea to audiences like they loose their orientations. She has these options freely. When she looks directly to the camera it means the wall between you and the curtain ruins.

We used general lightening for every scene and arranged the set that we would able to shoot in 360 degree angle.

While we were in editing procedure we made different kind of trials, we spoiled the edited scene. James Joyce says “Mistakes are the portals of discovery”. During the times when we thought we made a mistake, we reedited the scene etc. These things were almost impossible in the old times when we used analog technology.  It was very hard to go back when you did a mistake even the director might kill himself rather than reedit it. Joking aside, we owe the digital technology a lot due to it makes us more free..

The most important scene of the movie is the scene of “Bess’ Death” which is very emotional and sad. We deliberately kept short the scene that she was taken from boat and brought to E.R but the Surgery part was on purposely long. Actually the situations are surreal here. Her husband is lying on the next room; her mother is being allowed to get in to the Surgery etc. But these are not ruining the rhythm of the scene. In my opinion, although it is very melodramatic scene, we are successful for keeping the balance which is very important. We tried to keep the scene longer when it is getting emotional rather than cutting it but we were careful about avoiding banality. We decided to cut a scene when its rhythm is going down. I mean when a scene gets peak we cut it immediately like we chop it off.

Few Words About “Dancer in the Dark” and “Antichrist”…

The musical “Dancer in the Dark” had negative comments by some musical lovers and movie critics due to its lack of classical Hollywood musical and also it ruins the rules. But some people loved the movie a lot. By the time Selma gets in her dreams we shot the scene with 100 still cameras. This was really madness. The movie set was like a Swedish cheese with its many holes. The other problem was avoiding the whole cameras not seeing each other and we couldn’t use some camera’s pictures. Actually the reason that we used such amount of cameras was Björk is a musician and singer instead of an actress. Lars wanted to catch her best face expression. I worked as co director and editor in this movie. The music is edited by a French editor. Björk was responsible of the music of the movie, Lars was responsible from the whole movie and the hell begun at that moment. Because Lars was cutting the plans with his way which Björk didn’t like it at all. During this time I realized Lars didn’t know anything about music and Björk won the war!

My personal preference is not to involve in production procedure. But I had to work in production of “Antichrist” due to Lars’ sickness. He was depressed and wanted me on the set. We used a phantom camera which is able to shoot 1000 frame in a second. We thought using the phantom camera was the best way for giving the right emotion of the first scene and indeed it worked. We shot the movie together with Lars and I edited it. When it comes to music, Lars never uses it for make the audiences cry. On the contrary he wants you to cry without music and he did it on his all movies.


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