I AM Louise Vesth | The House That Jack Built

 " The House That Jack Built " - production still feat. Uma Thurman and Matt Dillion - courtesy of Zentropa

"The House That Jack Built" - production still feat. Uma Thurman and Matt Dillion - courtesy of Zentropa

 

The House That Jack Built” written and directed by previously self-pronounced “persona non grata” filmmaker Lars von Trier, premiered out of competition at the 71st Festival de Cannes on the 14th of May, eliciting audience reactions varying from outrage and disgust to admiration.

The controversial film centred around a serial killer named Jack played by Matt Dillon; was greeted with a reported 100 early walk-outs, by audience members who chose not to watch what was described as “vomitive” and “pathetic” scenes—including child mutilation and the murder of ducklings. 

"The House That Jack Built" takes place in the 1970s, USA. It follows the highly intelligent Jack through five incidents; introducing the murders that define Jack’s development as a serial killer. We experience the story from Jack’s point of view. He views each murder as an artwork in itself, even though his dysfunction gives him problems in the outside world. Along the way we experience Jack’s descriptions of his personal condition, problems, and thoughts - through a recurring conversation with the unknown Verge – a grotesque mixture of sophistry mixed with an almost childlike self-pity and in-depth explanations of, for Jack, dangerous and difficult maneuvers.

 
 
‘[It] made me very relaxed,” von Trier remarked to Cineurope. “It’s quite important not to be loved by everybody because then you’ve failed. I’m not sure if they hated it enough, though. If it gets too popular, I’ll have a problem. But the reception seemed just about right.’
— Lars von Trier
 
 

Despite von Trier’s often divisive persona, he has had a long history of working with or being sought after by some of the most respected contemporary actors in entertainment, including; Willem Dafoe, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, and Lauren Bacall - just to name a few.

 
 

I AM FILM spoke briefly with von Trier’s long-time Producer, Louise Vesth, who has worked with him on multiple films, including: “Melancholia”, “Nymphomaniac”, and most recently, “The House That Jack Built”; for her insights on his film company Zentropa—and what is going on behind the glare of public perceptions about the filmmaker and his work.

There has been a lot of controversy in the news surrounding Zentropa, in relation to women and alleged sexual harassment. What is your perspective on that?

LV: Yeah, it’s old. Journalists stick to the same stories for ages. I’m not a fan of that. Zentropa is a women-based company. I’ve been there for 20 years and I never felt male-dominated. Exactly the opposite. I think it’s a place where you can very much be as you are.

And then, of course, we have had early on, many years ago—a CEO, Peter (A. Jensen), who was very provocative in his way of leading, and that obviously created some problems for some people. But, it has nothing to do with women. It’s everybody. He’s still there. I mean, I love him.

It came up because the time is what it is. In my opinion, it has more to do with the way he thinks about leadership, than it has to do with the #metoo movement. Probably, somebody will disagree, but that’s my opinion.

Speaking to the Nordic TV and Film Fund Vesth added:

I think the whole #MeToo campaign is great and it was about time for women to be able to speak out. It has forced many companies to look at their own working environment, including Zentropa.  We made a full investigation and all employees and managers sat together to discuss this. Zentropa has always been a colourful and loud speaking company and we needed to change things. I think everyone should do this, once in a while.
— Louise Vesth

(In October 2017, singer Björk detailed alleged sexual harassment by von Trier, who denies her claims, as reported by the LA Times.) 

You worked with Lars on multiple projects including, “Melancholia”, “Nymphomaniac”, and now “The House that Jack Built”. After collaborating with him so closely, why do you think so many A-list actors want to work with him?

LV:  I think he sets them free. He very much believes in a challenge. And Lars knows that when he works with good actors, he doesn’t need to tell them exactly what they have to do. He will guide them. And he will ask them to trust him; that he will make them great. And then, they trust him. That sets them free. As a result, they deliver the great moments in his films, that we’ve seen so many times.

His films have featured complex female characters. In your opinion, does he respect women?

LV: Of course, otherwise, I would not work with him.

How would you describe his character?

LV: He’s extremely sensitive. Extremely sensitive. I think people know that. He has been provocative and he has to stand up to it. He has said what he has said. I just don’t understand why—seven years after he said something that he immediately said he didn’t mean in the way it was received when he tried to make a point in a very bad way—that we’re still talking about it. I mean, seriously, let’s move on.

We all know about his perceived persona and the controversy. What is something that we might not expect about him, outside of the public eye?

LV:  I think he’s very open and honest. I think that everybody knows what there is to know. He always tries to answer all the questions that are asked of him, and that has created some problems for him. But, he’s not hiding anything.

He is trying to live with all the demons that he has, and that probably created a lot of problems for him along the way.

 “The House That Jack Built” appears to reflect what is happening in the zeitgeist in that there are many people in positions of power who are being unmasked as predators. Was that intentional?

LV: No. Lars feels he has made films about a lot of good women, and now he is making a film about an evil man. I don’t think there are any excuses (reasons) for that.

"The House That Jack Built" Official Trailer (2018) © 2018 - Zentropa

I just think that Lars tries to break clichés, and tries to dig deeper into what it is that creates the evil that we all have inside of us, as human beings.

It’s not like he’s trying to create any answers. He’s trying to tell a story. And it’s not about him; it’s about Jack. Jack is a serial killer, and obviously, that makes him really evil. But then, he (Lars) tries, using his perspective of the world, to understand what that means.

What does it mean to be good? What does it mean to be evil? And can we take these two things apart or are they related very strongly?

He wrote this story two years ago. For him, I think it’s about creating an entertaining story and at the same time—giving it a strong signature, and kind of challenging the audience, so that at least, they leave the cinema and think about who they are, what it is (about), and what the world they live in is like.

Films are obviously difficult to finance, particularly Arthouse films about controversial subjects. Do you feel you have the creative freedom to create whatever projects you like?

LV: No. No. I think that to achieve your goals on a specific project, it’s so difficult. It’s just so damn difficult to make a great film. You have to be so careful about every detail—where the creative process is there—to try to make the best decisions for the director.

So, that’s my job. I’m good at making other people great. That’s what I do.

Finally, if you could give any advice to new producers currently at the film market, what would it be?

LV: Work hard. Never give up, and stay true to yourself.


"The House That Jack Built" premiered at Festival de Cannes on the 14th of May and will be released in the USA in Autumn, by IFC Films. 

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed by I AM FILM interviewees are their own.

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About the Producer

Louise Vesth

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Louise Vesth, graduated from the producing programme at the National Film School of Denmark in 2001 and has since worked as a producer at Zentropa for over 20 years. Vesth also holds a BA in economics. The Hollywood Reporter named Vesth as one of 12 international female leaders in the film industry to watch. [Source]. She has produced Nikolaj Arcel's period drama "A Royal Affair" which was a nominee for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award in 2013. 

She is best known for her work on "The House That Jack Built" (2018), "Melancholia" (2011), "Nymphomaniac: Vol. I" (2013), and "Nymphomaniac: Vol. II" (2013).