While it feels odd to refer to Anders Thomas Jensen’s Men & Chicken as the welcome return of a hidden talent, it nonetheless very much is a return for the Oscar winning director. The oddity comes from the fact that while it has been a decade since Jensen last sat in the director’s chair, he has been anything but distant from the business, instead working constantly as one of the most in-demand screenwriters on the planet, now with an incredible fifty writing credits to his name in a career spanning not even twenty years.
While Jensen, 43, has remained very much a presence as a writer – his script providing the bedrock for Susanne Bier’s Oscar and Golden Globe winning In a Better World, as just one example – his own deliciously dark sense of the absurd has been absent from screens since 2005’s Adam’s Apples.
“The funny thing is the story came from having kids. When you sit and watch them you’re reminded of how you have to learn everything from the beginning. How uncivilized we are born.”Anders Thomas Jensen
Men & Chicken, sweeping the box-office at its domestic release in February, is the tale of Elias and Gabriel, two very different brothers played by Mads Mikkelsen and David Dencik, who learn some dark family secrets when the man they thought was their father dies, secrets that include the discovery of three brothers living on a small island.
Now, with Men & Chicken opening internationally, audiences abroad are about to be reminded that before Anders Thomas Jensen became so in-demand as a writer, he was a fiercely talented – and very, very odd – director in his own right:
Q: It has been quite a while between directing projects for you. And while you’ve been very busy as a writer, I would love to hear a bit about that gap and how the discipline of writing for yourself differs from writing for somebody else.
The writing process was very good with Men & Chicken. Everything came together very nicely. I had four kids after I directed Adam’s Apples and so I chose to focus on writing because you are the master of your own time when you write. When you direct, you have to leave the family for a year. So that’s basically why I didn’t direct – because I helped out with the kids.
The funny thing is the story of Men & Chicken came from that, having the kids. When you sit and watch them you’re reminded of how you have to learn everything from the beginning. How uncivilized we are born. In a strange way, it all adds up with this film. I can answer almost any question about Men & Chicken with a reference back to my kids. It’s all about those damn kids.
Q: I think to some degree all of your directing work – and even quite a lot of what you write for other people as well – really revolves around this notion of family being something you have to construct and build for yourself as much as it is something you are born in to.
I come from, to put it lightly, a very dysfunctional family. And so it’s been a ride for me. When I did Flickering Lights, my first film, it was basically about family being something you have to go out into the world and find for yourself, it’s not necessarily blood. But then I became wiser. When you get your own family you … it’s a long, big talk. It’s what everything is about for me. It’s a big thing, family.
Q: I had no picture of myself as a parent at all until I became one.
Me neither …
Q: And then you realize that everybody is faking it all the time.
Yeah. [laughs] What I discovered is that as much as I didn’t want to be my own dad – how I wanted to be something better – I also discovered that you have to forgive your own father because you’re so focused on not falling into the same trenches he did that you fall into a lot of other ones. It’s really banal in a way. Every generation is the same. It’s just the way the world works.
Q: When I look at the years between Adam’s Apples and now, it seems from an outside perspective that the Danish film industry has changed quite a lot. On one hand there’s been the whole Nordic Noir thing, and a wave of Danish directors becoming very in-demand around the world, and people like Mads Mikkelsen becoming major stars. So Danish film has become more mainstream. On the other hand I think it has also become a lot weirder. It’s become a stranger place, and more embracing of the odd. Is that your experience from the inside?
Definitely. And I think there’s a connection between the two aspects. When I did a film ten years ago, we talked ninety percent story and ten percent money. And now we talk ninety percent money and ten percent story. That was the biggest change for me. For instance, we didn’t have an agent system in Denmark when I did my last film. Now every actor has an agent.
So, in a way we’ve grown up or – I’m not sure if that’s the right way to put it – become more professionalized. And due to that I think there are some directors – maybe not in opposition, but there is a fraction that says, “we don’t just want to do these linear, narrative, noir films. We want to freak out a little bit.” I think it plays together. It’s great. One of our strengths now is that there’s a huge diversity in Danish film. Almost every genre is represented. That’s good.
Q: It’s interesting to watch, too, because it’s such a small community that it feels like more or less everybody has come up together and knows each other. It’s small enough that you would get called on your bullshit if you had any. You can’t get so entrenched and territorial.
That’s exactly how it is. Yeah. I don’t know how to put it any better. I totally agree.
Q: Another thing that really stands out in your work is the use of a regular ensemble of actors. If you’re making a film, there’s a very, very good chance that Mads Mikkelsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Nicolas Bro are all going to be in there. I’m always curious about that – that actor relationship and the building of trust between you as a director and the actors.
A character like Mads’ Elias in Men & Chicken, we built that character on earlier stuff that we had done and I seriously couldn’t see any other actor than Mads playing that part. It’s something we do together. I’m bad at expressing myself but Mads understands, and he chips in with good ideas. The bottom line is it’s safety. It makes me feel, maybe not comfortable but secure. That’s the main reason.
Also, those guys, for me they represent the very best that we have in Denmark. They’re just good actors. And they take responsibility for the whole film. I really like that about them. It’s not only their own part, they can see beyond their own role. And I just like working with them.
Q: How much pleasure do you take from making Mads and Nikolaj as ugly as you possibly can?
You think it’s all me but every time I’m doing something with them they just … much of it is Mads himself. He likes to be ugly once in a while. It happens that it’s always in my films. So it’s not only me, but I like it.
Q: Is it a bit of a balance for Mads, after being in the Hollywood grinder for a while, to have the chance to come home and cut loose and very much not be a Hollywood leading man?
I think so, yes. He’s struggling with that, being the sexy guy and so on. But the interesting thing with these characters here is that we’ve pushed the limit as far as I think we can. It’s as far as I can imagine I could go, anyway, in terms of what is relatable to a normal audience. That’s what’s really interesting – to find that balance where it’s strange and can be really, really weird, but the basic feelings are still there. That’s what we spend ninety percent of our time on, trying to find that balance with the characters and see how far we can take them. That plays in to the looks and it turns out ugly.
Q: That’s a tricky line to find in a movie like this where you’re taking Mads Mikkelsen and giving him a cleft palate and a crazy mustache and bad hair and making him a compulsive masturbator …
That’s the beginning of it! There are a lot of dramas where it’s “easier” to like somebody if you give them cancer and throw them in a wheelchair and push all sorts of other drama on to them. I’m not saying that’s a cheap way of doing it, but I know that Mads and I always talk about how there’s fundamentally more of a challenge in making a guy like Elias – who, in the first scene, beats up a little man – and then saying, “Let’s see if we can still make a human being out of him.” You know? Can you still get the humanity through?
Q: There’s a thread in your work, elements in this film and in The Green Butchers in particular. I would say an element of the grotesque. And I’m curious if you have a sense of where that’s coming from.
To me, the characters aren’t that off. I grew up in rural Denmark. And a guy like Elias, he exists. You can see him walking down the main street of some little, rural Danish town. He is there. In that sense, the outer aspect of him definitely exists. All of the characters exist in the real world. Obviously you exaggerate, do like reality plus twenty percent or something, but it’s grounded in something that does exist.
Obviously I make the place stranger – it all comes down to how you look at the world – but to me you have to be able to see through. They are real human beings with real emotions. That’s the core of it. If you can touch that and go with that, then you can make it as grotesque as you want. That’s what we’re trying to reach. Underneath it all it’s to find the real emotion, the real feelings. What some people see as really grotesque and really far out, it all depends on who you are and where you’re from.
Q: You mentioned earlier that you feel like you’ve pushed this approach as far as you can. Does that mean some sort of significant shift in your directing work in the future?
I think so, yes. I can sense that I’m moving more towards real drama, clear cut drama instead. You never really know but I wouldn’t want to do five films that are out there like this. I’m sitting and struggling with that right now. But I definitely feel that I’ve been here now and I have to go somewhere else.
Men & Chicken is selected for L’Étrange Festival in Paris (3-13 September) and will enjoy its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival (10-20 September). Later in September, the film is off to Austin Fantastic Fest (24 September – 1 October). Producers are Kim Magnusson and Tivi Magnusson for M&M Productions.
Director-writer. Born 1972, Denmark. The self-taught director and screenwriter won an Oscar in 1999 for his short film Election Night and has written more than 30 features. He wrote the screenplay for Susanne Bier’s In a Better World (2010), which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011.
In his wildly popular Flickering Lights (2000), a gang of bumbling criminals join forces to open a gourmet restaurant. The macabre The Green Butchers (2003) is about two young brothers selling human flesh on the sly. Finally, in Adam’s Apples (2005), Jensen ramps up the ambition in an absurd comedy about the power of evil based on the Biblical story of Job.
Men & Chicken, Jensen’s fourth feature film, celebrates its North American premiere at Toronto Film Festival in September. The film is also selected for L’Étrange Festival in Paris and Austin Fantastic Fest.