Nymphomaniac is the ninth project that Molly Malene Stensgaard has edited for Lars von Trier – or the ninth and the tenth, if you consider the fact that it’s been released as two separate volumes. Each of those volumes has also been released in two different versions, a shorter cut and a Director’s Cut, all of which Stensgaard oversaw the editing process.
It was the Director’s Cut that Stensgaard and von Trier initially constructed, the second volume of which is debuting at Venice Film Festival. This will in a sense culminate the external narrative of Nymphomaniac, which has slowly been released around the world in its various volumes and cuts since last December.
Here Stensgaard talks about her collaboration with Denmark’s arguably most singular auteur and their mammoth undertaking to create a sense of unity in a film that stretches five-and-half-hours, with a story spanning 50 years and using multiple narrative layers.
Q: How did you and Lars von Trier first start working together?
I started working with him by coincidence right after I graduated from the National Film School of Denmark as an editor in 1993. I was working as a co-editor on the first part of Lars von Trier’s TV series The Kingdom. It kind of started from that, and we’ve been working consistently ever since, except for Breaking the Waves and Antichrist.
I think that there is a trust that we share, a trust that has been developed through the years, of course. But basically, there was trust from the very beginning. I was very new, and I wasn’t expecting to go right into a collaboration like this with a director like that.
Q: What do you think is the key to your working relationship’s longevity? Beyond trust, at least?
First of all, I think we share a sense of humour and have a lot of fun. And secondly, I think that Lars trusts my selection of the actors’ performance very much. That is the strongest base that we have – that we do agree a lot about the performances when we see them.
Sometimes, when I look at the early work that I did with him, I can see that at that time it was like 80% intuition. That’s changed during the years, but I think for me it’s like a life-long second film school that’s been going on – because there are elements in storytelling and film in general that he’s just so extremely advanced in. So it’s possible to learn constantly from him.
Q: What about von Trier stands out for you, in terms of the collaboration between editor and director?
I think what might be surprising for many people is that Lars is not a dictator when you work with him. I think that in general experienced directors are very good at describing the vision they want and giving you an overall idea of where this boat is headed. As a result, Lars really expects the key workers around him to contribute with their own ideas and solutions. So he’s very much not on your back constantly pointing out what you should do.
I think that’s very surprising to a lot of people. They think that the better you are as a director, the more in control you are. But one of the great things about Lars is that he dares to give up control during the process so that he gets something back. That’s also from the actors, the DOP … all the way around. Of course Lars knows that we will make changes and develop the film until he’s happy – but he also knows that he will get offers and suggestions when he works like this.
Q: I’d think that’s really the way it should be.
It should. And I think with a film like Nymphomaniac for instance, you have to surrender to the fact that you don’t know everything at a certain point. Otherwise, you don’t actually get the gifts that the process should bring through the film, right?
Q: Absolutely … How did von Trier actually approach you with Nymphomaniac? Did you know initially that it would essentially mean you’d have to cut four different films? And how did that work exactly?
We knew from the beginning that there would be various versions. But we didn’t really work with that. We worked with one film, and that’s the film that is Lars’ version, the Director’s Cut. Then, after we’d worked with that for eight months, we used a month to do the shorter version. So it wasn’t really like trying to do different versions at once. We just did one film – a film that we really liked. A long film with a break, basically.
Q: How do you go about structuring a film so long and complex as an editor? That must be a very intense and challenging process.
You just have to start somewhere. I think that with Lars’ films they are quite often close to the script, structure-wise. It’s not like with other films and other directors I’ve worked with where you do a lot of structuring in the editing process, shifting scenes around and mixing it up a lot. But with Lars’ films, which are often so complex and complicated, there isn’t a lot of shifting around to do.
I think with Nymphomaniac a challenge was that we wanted the film to have different styles throughout – and also have them look extremely different. How to achieve that, we just had to discover as we went along.
Q: And how did that work, exactly?
We did a first cut of Volume One, and then Lars and I kept working on that while my co-editors started on a rough cut of Volume Two. So when Lars and I were done with Volume One, we moved on to what they had worked on. That’s not how we normally work. Normally we do all the materials at once, and if I have co-editors, they work from my selection. But Lars and I could see with this project that it was just so enormous.
Working like that was quite exciting for us – to discover just how fresh we were able to stay if we didn’t dive into all the details all the way through. So, that process was actually good for us. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be finished yet, and we would have died on the way … Of course, to work like that demands co-editors that you really trust. Luckily I had that.
Q: What were some of the specific challenges that came up working this way?
I think that there were really three things to figure out with Nymphomaniac. One was how the framed story with Seligman and Joe in the apartment would work. I was quite surprised about how strong those scenes remained. It was basically just two people talking in a room. And enormous amounts of dialogue! But during the process we could see that this particular part of the film was a very strong element in itself.
So I think that was one thing, to try to figure out how that would work – how often should Seligman and Joe turn up, how long should they be present and when. Also, when would it just be a concentrated, intimate scene between them, and when was it to be disturbed by these digressions that we worked with. And that was the second thing that was important for us to discover how to get right – how to structure all these digressions through the archive clips and graphics in the image.
The third thing was that all the chapters should look different. The challenge was how we could work up a film that looked so extremely different all the way through and still make sure in the end that there was some sort of unity to it … So those were the three elements that we tried to work with – besides the characters and the story, of course.
There was a lot of discovery throughout, but there always is with Lars’ films. In this case it just took longer to be wiser about how we were going to do things.
Q: Beyond Lars von Trier, this process obviously includes collaborations with various post-production teams – sound, visual effects, music. How did you work with them?
I think one of the great things with Lars is that he’s very loyal with the people he works with. And there are a lot of benefits to long-term working relationships, a lot of things you don’t have to figure out. You have a working language that’s been developed through the years. That’s not only the case with myself and Lars in the post-production. It’s also the case with the sound designer Kristian Selin Eidnes Andersen and the visual effects supervisor Peter Hjorth. We have a long-term working relationship as well. I think what’s quite unusual is that we work so simultaneously, especially Kristian and I. He started working with the sound basically from the beginning of the editing. So there are a lot of talks and discussions trying things out, which is very productive and constructive, I think. It’s a very interesting collaboration. I really enjoyed it.
The other thing on this film is that I had one co-editor, Morten Højbjerg, who I always work with. He was with me all the way through, and it was really nice to have someone else to discuss ideas with. And then there were two extra co-editors to go through the cut with us. So there was a period where I wasn’t editing that much myself. It was more like running between the different rooms in order to get to this first rough cut that Lars and I could work on. In that sense, it was a lot of trying to make the process run as smoothly as possible, and also making sure it fitted what was best for Lars. He was also, of course, a bit exhausted after the shooting. So we did try constantly to evaluate how to do things to make it work for all of us. And that was quite a task with this film because it was so large.
Q: With the Directors’ Cut of Volume Two about to be released, how do you suspect audiences familiar with the initially released shorter version will react?
I think they will know the difference. Much more so than with respect to the shorter and longer versions of Volume One. It is just much more obvious because with Volume Two there are some very distinct scenes and sequences that you don’t find in the shorter version.
Audiences will see that there is one new sequence in particular, and I think that sequence is one of the strongest discussions between Seligman and Joe in the whole film. In that sense I think they will concede the Director’s Cut version of Volume Two as deeper and more rough.
Volume Two of Nymphomaniac Director’s Cut is world premiering Out of Competition at Venice Film Festival. Volume One premiered earlier this year at the Berlinale. Both the shorter and the Director’s Cut version are produced by Louise Vesth for Zentropa.
Peter Knegt is a contributing editor and writer for the independent film news site Indiewire.
Editor Molly Malene Stensgaard, born 1966, graduated in film editing from the National Film School of Denmark in 1993. Stensgaard is widely recognized for her work for Lars von Trier, their collaboration starting right after her graduation as she came onboard as co-editor on part 1 of von Trier’s TV cult classic The Kingdom (1994). Since then she has worked on all of von Trier’s feature films (with the exception of Breaking the Waves and Antichrist) – including The Idiots (1998) Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005), The Boss of It All (2006), Melancholia (2011) and Nymphomaniac (2013).
Other collaborations include Annette K. Olesen’s One to One (2006), Katrine Wiedemann’s A Caretaker’s Tale (2012) and Daniel Joseph Borgman’s The Weight of Elephants (2013). Among her upcoming editing credits are Omar Shargawi’s Middle East drama Medina and Christina Rosendahl’s political thriller The Idealist, both out in 2015. Stensgaard has also a string of documentaries under her belt.
From 2006 to 2010 Stensgaard was feature film commissioner at the Danish Film Institute, where she was responsible for green-lighting numerous titles.
Co-editors on Nymphomaniac
“To work on a film like that demands co-editors that you really trust. Luckily I had that,” says Molly Malene Stensgaard, who was assisted throughout the process by Morten Højbjerg, Jacob Schulsinger and Per Sandholt.
“Provocative”, “preposterous”, “funny” and “utterly fascinating” … International critics were generally intrigued by Lars von Trier’s erotic epic when it opened in its shorter, theatrical four-hour version last year in December.
Running five-and-a-half hours, Nymphomaniac Director’s Cut is, just like the shorter version, released as two separate volumes. Volume One world premiered at the Berlinale, and Volume Two is opening at Venice Film Festival.
The story of Nymphomaniac charts the development of a woman’s sexuality from childhood to middle age. When we first meet the protagonist, Joe, she is found beaten in a dark alley by a bookish bachelor, Seligman. He takes her home and tends to her wounds, while she takes inventory of her extreme sex life. Spanning eight chapters, the film recounts Joe’s experiences in a story rich in associations and interspersed events. At the heart of the film are three actors: Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe, Stacy Martin as young Joe, and Stellan Skarsgaard as Seligman.
Both the shorter and the Director’s Cut version are produced by Louise Vesth for Zentropa.
Director Lars von Trier, born 1956, graduated from the National Film School of Denmark in 1983. He was co-founder of Zentropa and one of the four original “brothers” behind the Dogme 95 manifesto. Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark won the Palme d’Or and the best actress award (Björk) in Cannes. Antichrist and Melancholia also took home the awards for best actress (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst, respectively).
Lars von Trier’s Film Family
Editor Molly Malene Stensgaard is one of Lars von Trier’s many long-time collaborators behind the camera, which also include assistant director Anders Refn, visual effects supervisor Peter Hjort, sound designer Kristian Selin Eidnes Andersen, production designer Simone Grau Roney and costume designer Manon Rasmussen.
Since Melancholia, the film family has expanded to include director of photography Manuel Alberto Claro, story supervisor Vinca Wiedemann and producer Louise Vesth.