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The Good Life: An Interview with Eva Mulvad

“The newly rich are doing well but we old rich are the new poor.”  So sayeth the fifty-something Anne Mette, in just one of her many Oscar Wilde-like bon mots.  The younger half of the female Danish duo at the center of Eva Mulvad’s The Good Life, Anne Mette and her elderly mum have downsized from their vast villa and now reside in a tiny apartment in Portugal on income from a single pension.  And while the parallels of Mulvad’s film to the Maysles’ classic Grey Gardens are obvious in its portrait of a somewhat dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship and the fact that these once wealthy women are now living in poverty (if not exactly squalor), what struck me most was the biggest difference between the two docs.  Unlike with Little Edie and Big Edie, no one can accuse either the unabashedly eccentric Anne Mette or her stoic mother of one ounce of insanity.  Which is what makes The Good Life all the more heartbreaking.  These strong-willed dames whose banter plays like a vaudeville act not only aren’t in denial, they are painfully aware of all that they’ve lost.

Fortunately, Lady Luck shined on me when I got to chat with the driven and down-to-earth Eva Mulvad – who I’ve been wanting to interview ever since her intoxicating doc caught me by surprise at last November’s International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam – at the decidedly chichi Trump Soho Hotel when she was in NYC for the flick’s North American premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Lauren Wissot: So in last month’s interview for Global Comment I spoke with Project Nim director James Marsh, who coincidentally happens to be a consultant on The Good Life.  He noted there’s a lot happening with the documentary scene in Denmark.  So how did you get hooked up with James and what’s the filmmaking climate like there?  Do you all know and work with one other?

Eva Mulvad: Of course I knew James’s work – especially Man On Wire – but also his previous stuff.  Also, it happens to be that he’s married to a Danish woman so he’s based in Copenhagen.  And at the beginning of the production I thought I would have more stuff from the past – reenactments and such.  I’d seen what James had done in regards to that with Man On Wire and I thought maybe he could help me, give me some advice.  And also I was in doubt whether the film could reach an international audience.  Since it’s just a mother and daughter speaking Danish I thought, how universal could that be?  I thought it would be nice to have somebody who’s not Danish to give me an international viewpoint on the film.  So, yes, I wanted to work with him.  We set up a meeting and he looked through my film, the rushes, and he agreed to be a consultant.  We actually started working together before I stopped shooting so he was able to give me different development ideas for the film, how it should unfold.  He was also there for some of the final screenings.  And that was very nice because he had been following the project for so long.

LW: He spoke very highly about – what was his comment?  I think he was impressed that you asked a lot of questions, that you were really and truly exploring the different options you had in front of you.

EM: That’s also what I like about him – that as a filmmaker you don’t have to be cool or knowing it all when you’re working with him.  It’s hard when you’re working with someone that you feel you have to be perfect around.

LW: I doubt much creative work comes out of that type of process anyhow.  So could you talk a little bit about the Danish scene?

EM: Yeah, we actually have a small community.  We all know each other.

LW: So you know Michael Madsen?  (Note: see my “Into Eternity: An Interview with Michael Madsen”)

EM: Yes, I know Michael, yeah.  A lot of the other Danish films that have been successful over the past few years like The Monastery

LW: I haven’t seen that.

EM: It’s a great film.

LW: I’ll watch anything out of Denmark at this point. (laughs)

EM: We also had Burma VJ that won IDFA the other year.  And Mechanical Love about this guy who makes androids that look like himself.  And then there’s Family, another prizewinning film.  I have a company with all these directors.  So yes, we all know each other.  A lot of us went to film school together – we have a documentary program that allows us to work with all these other students in the photography and editing departments.  And I think the business here in the U.S. is bigger and there’s more money involved – whereas in Denmark it’s still kind of small.  And everybody’s kind of helping each other out.  And the best editors seem to want to work with documentary.  I think here [in the U.S.] the best editors are probably too expensive for documentary budgets.  In Denmark it’s a very creative scene right now – a lot of different directors with different styles.  The common thing with us is that we try to do documentaries that are
cinematic.  We try to tell stories that are entertaining.

LW: The artistry is certainly there.

EM: Yeah, we want to give people a good time when they go into the cinema to see a documentary.  That’s done in different ways but that’s kind of the common goal for all of us.  The film’s are all very character driven – well, maybe Michael’s is not.  Though I guess you could say he is a character.

LW: He is a character in his film! (laughs)

EM: Yes, but his film is still a bit different in a way – which is also different from the American way, which has more interviews.  Or the British way, which is more theme-oriented.

LW: You’re absolutely right.  I think you hit the nail on the head.  I do see that with a lot of the Danish nonfiction films.  They are documentaries but they play like fiction films – and James’s films do that as well.  Speaking of, I know James’s films look like that because he goes back and forth between fiction and documentary.  I don’t think he makes a visual distinction between the two.  Do you make fiction films as well?  Or are you planning on doing so?

EM: No, no.  A lot of the documentary filmmakers want to try fiction but I don’t think I want to.  I like to do documentary films that feel like fiction – that borrow tools from the fiction world.  But I really like working with real people – and I’m not so interested in the big machine that is around fiction filmmaking.

LW: Even in Denmark?  Is there a big machine?

EM: You can do smaller versions, but when I shot The Good Life it was just me and a camera.  You can’t get any smaller than that.  It’s difficult to do fiction that way.

LW: Let’s talk a little bit about The Good Life then.  It was fascinating to me because your choice of subject matter is so odd.  So how did this documentary come about?  You seem to get quite intimate access to both Anne Mette and her mom.

EM: I did a film called Enemies of Happiness that was at Sundance in 2007.  It won the World Cinema Jury Prize there.  I’m very proud of that film as well.  It’s about a woman running for the first free parliamentary election in Afghanistan.  She’s 28-years old.  It was 2005 and I wanted to do something that was about how life was in Afghanistan for the local people.  Denmark had just entered the war and we kept hearing so much about the Danish troops and all the military stuff.  I wanted to do something that was about a person who was from there – to show how it was to live there.  So this film follows her.  She had death threats four times, people wanting to kill her, she was living undercover – a very brave woman.  That film was good at what it did – to open up an understanding of Afghan society.  But after that I wanted to do something that didn’t have a theme or a journalistic approach.  I wanted to do something that felt more like a novel.  I was looking for something with characters that had that kind of complexity.  And one day I was driving my car and I was listening to the radio and there was a documentary program about these two women.  And at that time the father was still alive so he was also part of the radio documentary –

LW: A radio documentary?  Is that like NPR that we have here in the States?

EM: Yeah, yeah.  And it was just such a great piece.  I mean the reporter who did that – she was such a great journalist.  And if you understand Danish you’ll understand that the language has a lot of history in itself.  The way these women on the program used it, the way they pronounced – very royal, old-fashioned Danish.  The way they spoke just opened up a whole universe.  And I thought I have to go there and see if I can make a film from that.

LW: So it was the family’s use of language that sparked your interest.

EM: Yeah.  And of course I’d seen Grey Gardens by the Maysles brothers and I always loved the poetry in that film.  So I contacted the journalist who did the radio piece and we went to Portugal together and met with the ladies.  It was a bit different than I thought it would be because when you hear them speak they still have a lot of the class and the greatness of the old times.  It’s still there in the language.  But when you meet them in person the decay is very much more visible.  So I had to find out how to work with the past and the present – to make that happen in the film.  Because it wasn’t like Grey Gardens – where they have the big mansion.  These women have nothing.

LW: So they just trusted you immediately or did you have to get to know them?

EM: Yeah, it took like five minutes to convince them.

LW: Really?  Wow.

EM: And we’ve been working together for a long time now.  They were very open people – and I think they were very open people when they had money.  There are different kinds of upper class people.  Some of them are very occupied with the surface and keeping up appearances.  And these women are not like that.  They are more like flamboyant or bourgeoisie –

LW: I think that’s what makes Anne Mette especially so charming.  So had they seen Grey Gardens?  Did they know people were comparing them to that?

EM: Actually, by chance it was screening on Portuguese television so they saw half of it there.  And then Anne Mette said to me, “I saw this wonderful documentary and the characters reminded me of us.”

LW laughs.

EM: So I thought great and then I brought them the DVD and we watched the whole thing together.  And I think it was an important tool that allowed me to talk to them – tell them that I wanted them to be as fragile and as open as the women are in Grey Gardens. And that it’s O.K. to have arguments in front of the camera because that’s what they do.  I think they kind of understood.

LW: It’s interesting because the parallels are definitely there.  But what stood out for me was the biggest difference between the two films.  The Edies weren’t quite aware of what they’d lost.

EM: The Edies still have their kingdom left.  They can still protect themselves within this falling apart kingdom.  But these women cannot.  They lost everything.  The fact that they’re not crazy gives you the idea that they could act – they could do something to solve the situation.  Which is a kind of painful thing – that they are kind of stuck in the past.

LW: It’s almost a cultural difference, too.  I mean, we have the notion of the American dream for a reason.  It’s kind of part of our culture to be in denial so the Edies are very American in that sense, whereas Anne Mette and her mom seem very rational, very Danish.

EM: The funny thing is I was introducing the film the other night at a screening here.  And I’ve been screening it in Denmark a lot, also in Amsterdam – for very international audiences.  And everybody laughs there.  And I introduced the film by saying that I tried to make a funny documentary film because I think it’s rare that you’re allowed to laugh when you go to see a documentary.  So I’ll see if I succeeded if you laugh.  And people in the cinema here they didn’t laugh at all.

LW: They didn’t?

EM: No, and I thought it was really weird because I’ve been screening it and people are just laughing so much for the first hour and then it gets more sad.  But I think it has to do with what you just said.  Because mentally maybe here you’re agreeing with Anne Mette that money is everything, whereas we in Denmark maybe have a little more of a distance from the dream that money makes you happy.  Because we don’t think it’s the most important thing.

LW: Maybe we’re more aware of the heartbreak of their situation.  Because at least in Grey Gardens – I mean, we’re a country that enjoys being in denial so we get why the Edies wouldn’t be willing to face their circumstances with clear eyes.  Did it make it any easier on your conscience – I mean, to know that you’re not exploiting crazy people? (laughs)

EM: Well, I was talking a lot with the women about what it means to go on film with the kind of fragility that they have – because they are fragile.  And they are kind of lost somehow, not able to solve their problems.  They’re not crazy but they still have to deal with other people seeing them, say, arguing with each other.  And not all people like to get that close as you do in this film.  I mean, it’s a very different thing from person to person, how close you want to get to other people – and if you can stand somebody like Anne Mette who’s not solving her problems, or if that’s annoying to you.  So we were talking about that – that they should be prepared to get different reactions.  Some people find it very generous that they allow us to see this.  For my part I think if you want to do a film about something like this – about people who are not doing a lot of good for the world, or running in politics, or being famous – you have to have something else.  And in this case you have a mother-daughter relationship, the tragedy, the drama between the past and the present.  So you need to get close to the characters.  It doesn’t work if they’re too distanced.  So we talked a lot about that they should be prepared to do that – and also for people reacting badly to that.  We’re not going to make a film that everybody’s going to like if we go that close.  Of course they’re not crazy but they are still fragile.  They don’t want to be hated.  I think the reactions in Denmark to the film in general has been good, and people understand that we are dealing with complex characters.  Maybe you don’t agree with all of what they do and how the daughter handles her problems, but I hope, and that’s my intention as a filmmaker, that you get enough information that you can understand her logic.

LW: Well, that’s what makes the film such a nuanced portrait.  It’s not black-and-white.  Everyone is to blame and no one is to blame.

EM: That’s also what I like about this film.  I had a vision from the beginning that it should be a complex study.  Because film tends to be something of a stupid medium.  We have to make things very simple – to tell people a clear story we have to simplify a lot.  It’s not like a novel where you can just tell small side stories all the time.

LW: Because with film you only have an hour-and-a-half or so.

EM: Yeah, but maybe also because it’s a younger medium.  We haven’t really developed it yet.  I sometimes feel that what we can tell is very strong when we do it right, but still we have to cut out so much.  So what I wanted to do with this film was to see if I could work with a character that was very difficult to put into a box, to say if she’s good or bad.  I’m really happy about that.

LW: Definitely.  And Anne Mette is very exhilarating to watch.  It’s almost like watching a kid.  On the one hand she’s always falling down, but then she picks herself right up and keeps on going.  And I think that was what was so joyful about Little Edie in Grey Gardens as well – the whole idea of refusing to be beaten down.

EM: Sure, and now we’re seeing all this crises – economic crisis.  You hear about people losing their wealth and committing suicide.  I mean, you see these women and yes, they have problems.  But they are still enjoying themselves.  Having fun.  And that’s the same thing with Grey Gardens.

LW: Yeah, it’s very uplifting when you realize what’s important in life.  Also, while we’re on the subject of Grey Gardens, that film here was made into a Broadway musical – and I heard that The Good Life will also be adapted into a play.  Are you involved in the theater production as well?

EM: No, no I don’t know how much I will be involved.  We licensed it to a company –

LW: It’s Lars Von Trier’s company, isn’t it?

EM: Yes, it’s called Nordiska.  And they are hiring a woman – and I know I’m going to work a bit with her.  But it’s up to her actually – how much she wants to use us.  I’m not so interested in going into theater.  It’s like when I took over the story from the woman who did the radio piece and I thought maybe we can work together.  But I mean, I’m good at making documentary films, she’s good at making radio.  And I don’t have any experience in theater, so unless I really wanted to do that, to get that experience, it’s better just to leave it to the professionals.