I first encountered Michael Madsen’s “Into Eternity” at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam this past November. What struck me most about the film – a visually and sonically stunning, existential leap into the very future of civilization via Finland’s nuclear waste storage facility Onkalo – was how little it resembled a documentary at all. Images from “Lord of the Rings” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” danced in my head as I tried to wrap my brain around the overwhelming concept of this enormous underground burial chamber that will continue to be under construction until the 22nd century, that is to be built to last for 100,000 years. Fortunately, I was able to sit down with the Danish director in the lobby of the infamous Hotel Chelsea before the flick opened at NYC’s Film Forum to discuss documentary versus fiction genres, the current cinematic climate in Denmark, and the necessity of myth in our modern-day rationalist society.
Lauren Wissot: So you’re in NYC since not only is “Into Eternity” having a two-week run at Film Forum, but the doc was also up for two Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking (Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography and Outstanding Achievement in an International Feature Film) sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image. Unsurprisingly, Banksy’s overly hyped “Exit Through The Gift Shop” ultimately nabbed the top prize. Maybe I’m just jaded, but “Exit” struck me as a fictional work that incorporated documentary elements – whereas “Into Eternity” is decidedly nonfiction but plays entirely like a fiction film. Do you make these distinctions? And which came first for you – the drive to do a sci-fi flick or did that arise organically from your choosing such a surreal subject matter?
Michael Madsen: Well, I haven’t seen the Banksy film so I can’t comment on that. But I think in a way it hampers you to make distinctions between the two forms. For me Onkalo came first, but I knew from the beginning that it would make sense to think of the documentary as a science fiction film shot today – and not something far into the future. I use the narration, in which I address future generations, as a sort of device to distance the audience so that they can perhaps see the present differently. I don’t think it makes sense to just put up a camera and shoot. I think that historically the documentary genre suffers from this focus on the educational aspect – even the name “documentary” – to simply document something. I’m much more interested when people show me things as they see them or as they understand them.
LW: I agree. I unfortunately missed your screenings at this past Tribeca Film Festival but I did manage to catch the doc at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam where it rightly won IDFA’s inaugural Award for Best Green Screen Documentary. “Into Eternity” and Danish director Eva Mulvad’s “The Good Life” were my two favorite films of the fest. And last summer I interviewed (Danish fiction filmmaker) Nicolas Winding Refn about “Valhalla Rising” and I asked him what they’re sprinkling in the water in Denmark these days. I feel like a Danish New Wave is upon us that may even overtake Lars von Trier’s output. Can you talk a little bit about why suddenly there’s so much talent coming out of your country?
MM: I was actually invited by one of the commissioning editors at the Danish Film Institute – where you submit your proposal and they either give you some money or not – he asked me to come by for a day and talk about how I work and so on and so forth. Interestingly, he thinks that the proposals that he receives, they all look the same. He and I share this approach that the development phase is perhaps the most important point in the filmmaking process. If you don’t have a good idea that is well developed you will never get a good film at the end of production. Laying that foundation is necessary. But I’m not myself from the film community in Denmark – I have an artist’s background. And I know it’s been said that the Danish film school tends to produce the same kind of documentary directors, which I think is true. They create very character driven stories. Which in my mind is only one way of approaching the form. I’m actually extremely bored with character driven films – as if the only entrance to reality has to be through a person. But you’re right – there have been quite a few interesting films coming out of the documentary side in Denmark. As opposed to the fiction side, which is in a crisis.
LW: That surprises me to hear you say that. “Valhalla Rising” just blew me away.
MM: I think “Valhalla Rising” is sort of the exception.
MM: Denmark is fossilized when it comes to fiction filmmaking.
LW: Well, I loved Ole Christian Madsen’s “Flame and Citron,” too.
MM: That’s just a Danish version of a Hollywood film.
LW: But it works.
MM: Yes, it works, that approach, but it can only be a vehicle for certain types of stories. This is why to some extent “Valhalla Rising” is so interesting. In this film the attempt is to tell a sort of myth or something.
LW: Though “Bronson,” the film he made before that, was very narrative driven.
MM: I haven’t seen “Bronson” yet. But it’s like what Kubrick said when making “2001” – that he’d like to reinvent what a film can be. You have to look towards myth so that there are no obvious narratives – so it’s an emotional journey or an associative journey. I believe that is much more interesting when and if that is possible. Then you’re not making a film solely for the intellect.
LW: Given the fact that “Into Eternity” resembles an existential, out-of-time movie like “2001: A Space Odyssey” more than it does any documentary I’m surprised you don’t also direct fiction films.
MM: Actually “2001” wasn’t the film that I looked at for “Into Eternity.”
LW: That’s interesting. So what are your influences?
MM: I looked at “Le Samouraï” by Melville and also Antonioni – he’s a major influence on me. “L’eclisse” and “The Passenger” – well, not “The Passenger” particularly for this one – but “The Passenger” is a magnificent film. Also Gus Van Sant – but that was just for the movement of the Steadicam and the long shots. I fancy long shots. I fancy time in film, but I believe that with Melville and Antonioni there is an extreme position in the camerawork and in the editing and also the physical spaces are just as narrative in terms of character –
LW: Well, they are a character. The settings are a character.
MM: And that is going back to what we started talking about. When you’re making a documentary it’s not just about pointing the camera somewhere. For example, I knew that with “Into Eternity” we had a sort of hole in the ground that is very archaic, almost like a mythological hole in the ground. But then we have a very high-tech environment with the interim facilities for the waste. We have a very controlled space, a scientific space, and we have a lot of central perspectives we can use – which in this film is a reference to the Renaissance. We also have the landscape – the wild animals that are unaware of what we’re doing and in a way are eternal because they don’t have any interest in our world. There is also the mansion, the headquarters of the Finnish company, which is a sort of empire. We have different eras but also different ways of understanding the world. When we go to one of the apartments where one of the workers lives it’s this very functional space but it’s also very lifeless. It almost shows this need for rationalism that we have inside.
What’s so interesting in my mind about documentary as opposed to fiction is that you have a real starting point. It’s not made up. In my mind that should be an even bigger impetus to think about – what do these spaces look like? What do they mean? Why are they like this? When the Finnish company wants a headquarters that’s one of the finest empire buildings in Finland that’s 200 years old – why do they want that? They want a sense of history because, unconsciously or not, they want that to give some gravity to their project – a scientific foundation.
LW: And they talk about that in politics as well – you have to create a narrative for your policies. That’s how people connect and understand. I think your film touches upon that. You even say in the film that it might be useful to have some sort of oral storytelling tradition passed down from generation to generation about Onkalo rather than just leaving physical markers on the site where it’s buried. Which brings up the necessity of fiction in our lives as well. To me fiction filmmaking is of equal importance to documentaries for its own reasons. Do you ever see yourself working on fiction features?
MM: This is something I’ve thought about and one of the things that’s sort of common between fiction and documentaries is – well, one of the producers I’ve been working with in Denmark on another film, he used to talk about the core being trying to find the poetic truth. And I think that’s the same thing that happens in fiction. There can be great truth in fiction films even though it’s all made up. That’s also the quality of myths – that they seem to hold something that tells you something about reality. So in that sense there is no difference between documentary and fiction. And I think the goal of both of these, you can say narrative forms, is to venture into reality and to tell you something about it.
LW: So do you see yourself working on fiction films? You haven’t yet, right?
MM: I haven’t, no. But it is something that I’m thinking about.
LW: Because I could definitely see you going back and forth between nonfiction and fiction, especially since your aesthetic influences – just the fact that you brought up Antonioni – are derived from fiction. But let’s talk about another aspect that’s usually more thought out in the fiction arena – the use of music. Getting back to Danish filmmaking, I saw a great similarity between “Into Eternity” and “Valhalla Rising” in terms of the use of electronic, post-industrial German bands along with opera and classical. You have Kraftwerk – which is probably my favorite use of music in the film – while Einstürzende Neubauten influenced “Valhalla.”
MM: Well, my background is sound art. Therefore the sound design for any of the films I do is very, very important.
LW: That makes sense. I can always tell when a filmmaker comes from an artist’s background. Like with Steven McQueen. The sound design in “Hunger” was every bit as powerful as the images. Sound is such a crucial element.
MM: True. But originally it was only supposed to be Renaissance music in “Into Eternity.” We were going to record it ourselves in a way that it would only be voices – in a sort of layering – because I think the Renaissance was a real tipping point. Before that it was a different way of looking at reality, a religious way, and after the Renaissance it was the idea that man is the creator. The idea of looking into the universe, the idea of eternal progress – that we can always find a new solution – but it’s also an approach that only sees what is tangible. Feelings and emotions and so on have a different value than in those earlier times. But we later realized in making the film that it would be more interesting to have sound from different eras because that could point to the time aspect in the film. And I was very hesitant about using the Kraftwerk piece because I thought it was going to be a bit cliché, a bit too much. But I think
what I learned – since this is my first feature length film – is that you just have to be very simple. (laughs)
LW: But I think it worked exactly because Kraftwerk is so fun to listen to – like putting sugar on the medicine. It relaxes the viewer, coaxes us to put down our defenses, so we’re more open to the heavier elements. One of my pet peeves is when filmmakers start preaching at you. That’s the wrong way to try to get any idea across. It just shuts an audience down.
MM: It was only in the last few weeks that we really got the film to work. My editor probably saved the film. He was very much into the rhythm of the film – and having sequences in which you wouldn’t have to understand anything but just to see and feel things.
LW: When I watched “Into Eterrnity” the second time it struck me how much your approach resembles a dogged journalist’s or a philosopher’s as much as a filmmaker’s. You really push your interview subjects, scientists and bureaucrats, to dig into eternity on an existential level.
MM: Yes, because I don’t think Onkalo has ever been about nuclear waste. It’s much more a phenomenon that I think signifies something new. For the first time in human history we’ve produced something that has consequences for 100,000 years. What does that mean? That has been my approach all the way through. What does it mean to be on this earth? What does it mean to be human? Otherwise there is no point for me in making any of my films.