By Mikael Colville-Andersen:
History of Hollywood Dramaturgy -
The long road to the modern screenplay
Screenwriting by Numbers
A Screenwriter's Checklist.
European Film & American Movies
The evolution of two distinct worlds.
Writing a Logline
A short guide to that all important log line.
The Dogma Doctor from Denmark.
The Disneynisation of classic works.
A guideline to creating excellent characters.
Lack of What?
Where does European film go from here?
The German New Wave
Check Out Our Screenwriter Interviews:
Suso Cecchi d'Amico
The Dogma Doctor
You can't make films about something the audience knows nothing about. The trick is getting the audience to tell their own stories in the story so that they know what will happen. And then, just before they get bored, you must surprise them and move the story in a new direction.
The words of Mogens Rukov, the Dogma Doctor, who has been an important player in the development stages of the Dogma 95 films. He was script doctor for Lars von Trier s The Idiots, co-screenwriter with Thomas Vinterburg on The Celebration (Festen) and co-screenwriter on Søren Kragh Jacobsen s Mifune, which took the Berlin Film Festival by storm. But not many people know about him.
For Mogens Rukov tends to hide himself away in the dark in his office at the National Film School of Denmark, in Copenhagen. Here he sits, behind a beard and a cigarette and a glass of coffee, filled to the brim. But those who need him, know where to find him. And that includes several generations of directors and screenwriters.
Mogens Rukov is in his mid-fifties and educated in film and Danish at the University. He was employed at the National film school 25 years ago and, in all that time, he has fought to improve the recipe a director uses to make his film also known as a screenplay. This has led to the development of an independent screenwriting department at the school. Because screenplays, according to Rukov, are unlike anything else. A screenplay isn t a literary work it is a list of ingredients that give the story, actors and the director the possibility to make it through the whole filmmaking process without losing their hide.
A thorough preparation before the crew and the technical elements are in place and the taxi meter is ticking away. Therefore, it is a place where you can dig in and do some good work for a minimal expense.
Cynical and disciplined , Rukov calls that which he does so well. In short, making the story in a film work. Because film is like classical composition music there is a lot of technique, a lot of rules and a lot of knowledge of how people respond to that which they experience. A good filmmaker must know all of that. If you don t know the rules, you can t challenge them and break them.
Mogens Rukov believes that film is built up with completely banal stories, which everyone knows. Those he calls natural stories. Two people go into an elevator will they fall in love or hate each other? To people meet at a café ¡nd he has something important to say to her. She says she just wants a cup of tea. The spectator knows that the man has a hard slog ahead of him. Will he manage to turn the situation and get her attention?
As an example, Mogens Rukov tells me about his work with Thomas Vinterburg on The Celebration (Festen). The whole structure of the plot revolved around the elements we are all familiar with, surrounding a family party where everyone stays overnight. There are some specific steps: arrival, showing people to their rooms, taking a shower, getting dressed for dinner. Then dinner is served and the first speech takes place, and it is usually a toast to the guest of honour. In The Celebration, the film takes it s first violent turn when the son, during his speech, reveals that his father raped him when he was little.
After the speech, something wonderful happened, which wasn t in the script: one person claps. Why does he clap? Because he was well brought up. Hello, hello, let s have a bloody fantastic party! Clapping is a wonderful example of the natural story we all know so well. Afterwards, we ll drink cognac and dance, regardless of the incest, because that is just what you DO , says Mogens Rukov and he continues: That is one of the reasons that people love that film. It tells the story we all know: attending a family party at the same time as you wrapped up in your own problems.
NO TWO DOGMA FILMS ARE ALIKE
Mogens Rukov s methods as co-writer or consultant are very different because no two films, even two Dogma films, are alike. Rukov s work with Vinterburg was a running dialogue that lasted one and half months, with daily contact from the initial idea to the final draft.
With The Idiots, however, the work was limited to some meetings where Lars von Trier pitched his conceptual ideas to Mogens Rukov.
We discussed, among other things, what the reason was that these people wanted to play idiots. We couldn t figure it out, but we discovered that it was okay not to know. Then we talked about the interviews and we agreed that they shouldn t be too clever. The characters shouldn t start becoming psychologically clever about themselves , explains Rukov.
The fantastic thing about working with Lars von Trier is that he has such a wonderful conceptual grip on his work. It is very easy to be a consultant for him. You can just say things and he will figure out for himself if he will use them or not , says Mogens Rukov, who also reveals that von Trier, at one point, threatened to kill him because Rukov wanted to walk out of a heated discussion.
I didn't come here to be insulted, I said to Lars. He said that if I left now, he would kill me .
Working with Så® Kragh Jacobsen was less dramatic and more systematic. He came to Mogens Rukov with a finished work. The problem was that he came with stories for three independent films.
It took a long time to get him to point out which story was most important. You can t have three equally important stories. One of them must win , says Rukov.
Working on Mifune, which has already harvested prizes at Berlinale 99, took place over exactly 10 days 3 hours each day. Every day, Kragh Jacobsen wrote a few pages and then met with Rukov for three hours in the afternoon.
It is a cynical and disciplined thing to develop a story , says Mogens Rukov.
THE FREEDOM OF THE RULES
The idea behind the Dogma films a series of clearly defined rules, which limit the director s possibility to lose himself in technique and fancy fine-tuning are an extension of the work methods Mogens Rukov has built up at the film school. The rules of the game are the key, because if you make rules, the ideas come storming out.
When the fantasy becomes frameless, it becomes homeless , says Rukov.
While we speak, Thomas Vinterburg comes into the office to get his jacket. Then he looks for his car keys. And then he looks for his cigarettes. When his possessions are collected and Vinterburg has left, Rukov points to a whiteboard at the end of the room. It is here that Rukov and Vinterburg work on their next film each day. The working title is Pillen (The Pill). They have drawn a timeline on which various actions take place. Otherwise, they pace around and figure out what else should happen.
But Rukov doesn t want to go into more detail, because the idea is so simple and so genius in it s dynamics that it could easily be stolen. Therefore a legal researcher has been set to work to determine that Rukov and Vinterburg came up with the idea first. The same process will soon take place in the U.S., so that the film is also secure over there. These days, says Rukov, it is the ideas that are precious.
One could wonder if it is a little strange that several former students continue to come shuffling into his office. Rukov doesn t think so. There are no lessons. They are playmates. They develop ideas together through old-fashioned brainstorming where the only rule is that you mustn t shoot the others ideas down. Rukov also used this method with his students at the film school. This level of equality, however, comes to an end when Rukov holds seminars for his students. There are certain things he just knows. Period. And they just have to sit there quietly and learn. Afterwards, the story is free for discussion.
It would seem obvious that Rukov has some favourite students, teacher s pets, who receive extra lessons. But that is not the way it is. On the contrary, there are a whole lot of directors and screenwriters who have, over the years, managed to get their stories filtered through his artistic temperment. Even people who haven t attended the school. He receives many treatments and comments on them, rounding off with two hours with the director.
The most important thing is that I like the person. It s not necessary because we may sit down and work together, but I would just rather help make a decent person s film good, than I would help make some idiot s film good.
Politiken 1999 - Per