Savina Petkova talks to Anders Thomas Jensen about his writing craft, the philosophy that permeates his work, and his love of the outcast.
Thomas Anders Jensen has been making films for twenty-five years. Alongside dozens of directorial credits, Jensen’s name appears on as many as thirty high-profile scripts, including Susanne Bier’s Oscar-winner In a Better World (2010) and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006).
Jensen’s prolific writerly presence has imbued Danish — and European — cinema with a comic cynicism towards grand narratives and ideals, yet one that hasn’t abandoned all hope for the future of mankind. Many reviews resort to boilerplate descriptors and platitudes such as “black humour”, “dark comedy”, and other half-baked stratifications that barely scratch the surface of Jensen’s brooding working-class protagonists. The comic interlacing of religion, ethics, and Neo-Nazism of Adam’s Apples (Danish: Adams Æbler) caused an uproar in 2005, and introduced Danish star Mads Mikkelsen into Jensen’s recurring cast of choice, which includes Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Nicolas Bro. Mikkelsen shares the spotlight with his co-stars and the roving trio often melds into a group protagonist, bound by familial, labour, or moral ties.
Riders of Justice is a film that explores the depths of desperation while balancing out a criminal life’s grimness with equal parts absurdity. After Markus (Mikkelsen) finds out his wife has died in a tragic accident, his guilt becomes the driving force of a comical investigation into the circumstances around the deadly explosion. Jensen’s craft shines through not only in dialogue but also in the therapeutic function of conversation — how it’s arranged as well as its contribution to character development — to tackle traumatic loss, together with the loss of stable identity.
We met with Jensen and our conversation quickly shifted from the film’s nitty-gritty to more abstract and remedial questions, as well as the possibility of a separate Jensen-verse.
electric ghost: Maybe we can kick it off with a question about how Riders of Justice came into being and how long it took you to make, from beginning to end?
Anders Thomas Jensen: Well, there are multiple answers to that question. On how it came into being: there were two sides. Firstly, I wanted to do a film that took a clear-cut drama, like a Susanne Bier film, and mix it up with the likes of films I’ve done previously — very dark comedies. So, that was the technical aspect of what I set up to do. Then I had this idea about a man who sort of lost his way and went down a rabbit hole, depressed and without a hold on the meaning of life. That’s Markus’ (Mads Mikkelsen) story. It all started right there, with this character.
I’ve been troubled by these thoughts; you know, for me, what gives us purpose in life is when we’re able to see the connections, to connect the dots. I work, you work, we can buy food, we can feed our kids. When you see these connections, your life is meaningful. But, sometimes, when you do get stuck in a depressive episode and life gets hard, you sort of lose these connections. And once you lose those, then everything seems like it’s just an endless road of coincidences that you have no control at all in your life, and everything’s coincidental. When that happens, there’s a lot of things you can do; you can take pills, choose alcohol, religion, or you can go and seek revenge, try to see these connections into something that hasn’t happened, like conspiracy theories, or how our main character does it. But in the end, as the film also says, perhaps the best thing you can do in a meaningless life is to surround yourself with the ones you love. So all these thoughts materialise into the character of Markus and the theme of fate versus coincidence.
“When you get older you start to acknowledge that there’s absolutely no meaning, that you just have to get the best out of it, and, yeah, surround yourself with ones you love.”
But don’t you think there’s always an expectation of finding the answer, while one is after the question of meaning?
For me, when I ask this question [of meaning], I know it’s a rhetorical one. I think a lot of time in your life you spend finding a meaning… I shouldn’t say “the” meaning, but just making sure whatever it is you’re doing is the most meaningful thing you can do, that you’re not, like, spending fifteen years doing something you’ll regret later or thinking ‘I should have had kids.’ For me, anyway, and for a lot of people, it’s about, at some point, figuring out why we’re here. At least, that’s something you do when you’re young. When you’re younger, you want to know whether there is a meaning and what that meaning is. But when you get older you start to acknowledge that there’s absolutely no meaning, that you just have to get the best out of it, and, yeah, surround yourself with ones you love. But on top of that, you still wonder. I can see now — my children — they have this fear of missing out, they want to be at the right place at the right time, all the time. It’s a big part of our nature, to want to have the most out of life. Because we know there’s an end.
Life ending is what gives it meaning, as the existentialists would say. I also thought of your characters, who, together with their complex vulnerability, are fearless. In their quest for meaning, there’s this lack of fear.
People who are as far out as they are — when you reach rock bottom — have no fear. Actually, the guy who plays Otto, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, both his parents killed themselves and he’s had this terrible upbringing. So when he was like, ten years old, he thought “Okay, I’m not even gonna kill myself, I’m just gonna live, go on and have the best of it.” And, honestly, he knows no fear. You can’t scare him. It’s happened that I’d vomit out of fear, afraid that he’s going to fall down or something [during the shoot]. I am very fearful, so I’m obviously not there. But if you take the characters in Riders of Justice: Emmenthaler and Otto, I mean, a man who killed his own daughter in a traffic accident and has nothing to live for, in such cases you’re not brave, you just aren’t afraid of anything, right? You’re just there. You don’t even hope for much, just that the next day would be a little better than the other. It’s sad but there’s truth in it. So, in a way, the fact that you’re emotionally demolished takes away your fire and indirectly makes you courageous.
“In all the films I’ve done the characters are outcasts, these types of people that perhaps you’ll see on the train or on the street, but never talk to. So I like the idea that these people can find each other and develop a kind of therapeutic forum.”
At the same time, there are attempts at consolation. I’ve noticed the recurring presence of psychology or counselling creeping up in your films. That’s true of Adam’s Apples , Men and Chicken , and now, your latest film. On the one hand, you have Mathilde asking her father to seek therapy, and repeatedly bringing up the theme of his PTSD, and then you have the fake child/adult psychologist spiel too. How do you treat psychology, especially since I can always sense a certain level of suspicion in the way its presence is portrayed?
There probably is. But it’s funny there is. It’s not even that conscious of a decision.
But it doesn’t matter if it’s conscious or not, right? Especially when we’re talking about psychology in particular.
Yeah, yeah! Regarding the first part of your question, I feel like it’s something natural for interpersonal interactions that you develop. In all the films I’ve done the characters are outcasts, these types of people that perhaps you’ll see on the train or on the street, but never talk to. So I like the idea that these people can find each other and develop a kind of therapeutic forum. Actually, in a very weird way that doesn’t abide by any rules, they are able to help each other just by being there, by acceptance, and a little bit of love. I like that idea. On the other hand, I’m very skeptical myself when it comes to psychological practice, and I’ve been skeptical for a long time. Well, there are brilliant psychologists and there are really bad psychologists… I truly believe that people who know you will always be able to be of more help to you than people who do not know you at all.
I want to follow up on your description of your characters as outcasts. You usually take them to extremes, so they reveal more of themselves, so I got to thinking about the other side of the same coin, which would be the role model. I sense your reverence towards marginalised people can be seen as similar to the relationship one has with a role model, but inverted. What’s your attitude towards role models when it comes to masculinity and machismo, and are there any traits you personally admire?
The foremost thing I admire in another person is the ability to listen to your opponent and listen to their arguments, even if you despise and hate them. I try to teach my kids that, for them to try and listen, to try and understand that person, before you judge them. I truly believe that, if people did it more often, the world would be a better place. Especially right now, we have an ability to cut off, we don’t have the tools to take it in. I often catch myself doing it too, thinking “Oh, this person is just a murderer, a complete idiot”, and of course that is exactly what I do in all of my movies. I take people that have either done things that are considered horrible to other human beings, and I try to explore them and make them likeable. I try to make killers and rapists likeable. I’ve tried to show a lot of bad people in a good light. And it’s funny you say this, about the role model, because it’s exactly what I’m doing. I’ve never thought about it that way but it is, I’m looking at all the things you shouldn’t do [laughs], and turning it around to show more.
“I don’t care about provocation. What I care about are the characters.”
But you’re not putting anyone on a pedestal. It’s funny because people describe your approach as black humour because it’s politically correct to phrase it like that but I feel like there’s more existential devotion there. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you come across as a director who’s deeply concerned with interpersonal ethics.
But of course, I am! And that’s a fact. I get a lot of “Oh, you just want to be provocative”, and I’m like “It’s not that at all!” I don’t even think about it, I don’t care about provocation. What I care about are the characters. You can tell their stories in a much more straightforward way, but that would be boring, I think. Sometimes, when you’re invested in themes and issues that are as tough as the ones I discuss, it’s easier to get around it and say what you want to say, if you make it look more extreme: turn it around and put a little sugar on the spoon. That’s what I’m doing [laughs]. But you could make a totally normal drama about a man who’s lost his wife and takes care of his daughter, and meets three men, who have been either raped or killed their own child, yes, you could do that but it would be… Let’s say I wouldn’t watch it if I read it like that on the page.
Maybe that “sugar” is what makes your films so captivating to audiences, rather than simply weighing down on them. I was wondering, is there any political investment in the way you make your films, as to comment on Danish society. I’m asking, since they feel more universal than local but I wouldn’t want to assume.
No. Some people, I think, misread them in such a way. There’s this thing that all the films take place in the countryside and it’s often read as a criticism on urbanisation in favour of rural Denmark, but it’s not that.
I guess there’s always going to be articles and essays clinging to political interpretations.
Yes. But I do hope it’s the bigger themes that stand out.
The characters across your works form a very particular kind of male ecosystems that I’d say they all inhabit the same fictional world, across all films. Maybe they’ll even get along, if they knew each other… And bearing in mind the fact that you work with the same people over and over again, how do you foster such a world of its own independent existence?
I like the idea. And I like creating small worlds. Again, it’s not something I’ve done consciously, but I can see that it is turning into a universe of its own. That’s a funny idea, mixing them all together. [Laughs]
One might attribute such a coherent sense of world-making to an authorial approach to filmmaking. But I wouldn’t compare your stylistic consistency to that of Alfred Hitchcock, for example. To me, you seem a more intuitive director.
Oh, definitely. And I’m trying to maintain this trait. But it becomes harder and harder the more you’ve worked. I remember the first time I killed off someone; that was like “Oh!” Be it a car crash, or cancer… Now, I’ve written sixty screenplays and after you’ve done twenty car crashes, twenty cancer deaths, you have to fight to keep this unconscious approach fresh, keep being inspired by it. Just keep doing it, without thinking too much about it, just let it flow.
But how do you do it, any rituals you maintain or practice?
Yeah, for instance, when I work with other directors as their screenwriter, I do put notes on the wall for structure. But there’s a lot of films where you can see the structure all too clearly. They’re over-structured. It loses a lot because of how well-thought it is. There are no surprises; everything’s like math; there’s too much of a system in it. But for this film, I just sat down and started writing. And I wrote for four weeks and then I had the script. So I’ll go and think about it for half a year, I won’t write anything down, keep everything in my head and then I’ll do it. That’s the best way to keep the intuitive aspect of writing alive and present.
Riders of Justice is available to stream now.