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Actor David Morse - Dancer in The Dark

It's hard to think of a film that impacted me in the past year as much as Dancer in The Dark. It's a frighteningly real look at hearts and souls of people and the lengths they'll go to do what they feel they MUST do. From script to screen Dancer seemed like an impassability, and the role set for David Morse seemed even harder. We sat down with David and talked about his role in Dancer in The Dark, working with Lars Von Trier, life on the set with Bjork and working with film luminaries Frank Darabont and Sean Penn. David Morse is soft spoken but his words carry an intensity and weight like few people we've spoken to. GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: …Oh, Hi. How you doing?

DAVID MORSE: Good. I'm sorry I'm calling late.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: Oh that's okay. I know how when you back up to interviews, sometimes they can run over. How you doing today?

DAVID MORSE: I'm not too bad.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: Okay. Well, great. Thank you for taking your time today out to talk to us about Dancer in the Dark.


GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: Couple of questions. First of all, God, your bio is just impressive. You've done so many amazing films. This one was your first digital film, right?

DAVID MORSE: It was. Yeah.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: What was it like shooting in a film that was shot digitally verses a conventional film? What was it like as an actor? Were there dramatic differences?

DAVID MORSE: Well, I think one of the things is that somebody like Lars can really take advantage of digital. Just in the way he works with the actors. He'll get the camera, he shoots it himself, and he can just let the thing go for two hours if he wants to, without having to reload or anything. You know, we'll be in a…there was a scene that Bjork and I did where we kind of have a confession to each other. And it was just Lars with the camera and Bjork and I in the room. He had gotten rid of everyone else. We basically didn't stop for two and a half hours.


DAVID MORSE: You know, at some point, somebody ran in with a little cassette and popped it in and they were gone and we just kept going and improvising and trying things different ways. You know, so that kind of experience is very different from film, obviously where you're reloading, you get to the middle of a take that's going really well and the camera will run out of film. They have to stop you, apologize and then you've got to get things going all over again.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: So is it strange to go…did you have to reorient yourself when you went to next production after having worked in such an intimate setting?

DAVID MORSE: Well if anything, and I don't think it has to do with the digital as much as it has to do with Lars. Lars has a great sense of humor about how he makes his films. And he really likes to mess with them and make them messy. Just in terms of things like matching, whether you're standing in one place or doing something with your hands or where a coffeepot is in the scene, or any of that. He just wants it all to be mixed up. So you're constantly having a sense of disorientation. I guess it's a very break-at-the-end sort of thing. So it just keeps you more alert, more aware of how you're feeling about the film. You don't just kind of go into a numb state.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: So, when you had the opportunity to star in Dancer in the Dark, had you been familiar with Lars' work? You know how did this come together for you?

DAVID MORSE: I'd say that the first film I had seen was…I was at Cannes or something and happened to see one of his films that was there. I think it was called Europa at that time, or Zentrope. I can't remember which one it is because they had to change the name. It was an amazing film just to watch, technically. It was kind of cold, humanly, but it was just kind of a masterpiece of, you know, kind of a technical genius about it. I then saw Breaking the Waves, which was so different from that; painfully human, and maybe even beyond what some people would think is human. So the idea of getting to work with him was pretty exciting.

And then I got the script and saw the role that he wanted me to do and I thought, "there's no way I want to do this. I hate this guy, and I don't even like the script. And how are they going to do a musical of something as grim as this?" I said no, I didn't want to do it. I hated to say no, but my manager kept thinking and saying to me "You know, there is something really amazing about this man. Look at what he's trying to pull off. Just think about it some more." I thought about it more and said no, no, no, I can't do this. I know I've played lots of bad guys, but this guy is so weak and it's just impossible to have any empathy or sympathy for what he does to this poor woman. I don't know how to do that. Finally she convinced me to call Lars and talk to him. And after talking to Lars, he convinced me. I talked to him one day and I actually wound up turning on the television that night and Breaking the Waves was on HBO I guess. I thought, "Oh man, this is just an amazing fellow. I gotta talk to him again." So I agreed to do it. I just had the sense that he would able to help me through whatever I was struggling with. I'm so glad I did it.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: Well, I have to say, it's an amazing film.


GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: I mean, there's no other way to say it. It is amazing.

DAVID MORSE: Whether you like it or not, it's an amazing film.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: Yeah. It's one of the few films this last year that actually I came out of the theater feeling affected by.

DAVID MORSE: Mm hmm. Yep.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: But, um…what was it like working with Bjork? I mean, here's a woman who is very creatively accomplished as a singer and you know, is thrust into almost every frame of a major motion picture.


GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: What was that experience like, to work with her?

DAVID MORSE: Well, and again, this is kind of the thing and it's something I've said before, but you know, as an actor, what we hope for is someone who is across from us an alive. You know, kind of really not in their heads, not thinking about "Oh, what's this shot?" and "How is my make-up? How is my hair?" You know all that junk. You want somebody who is just in the moment and completely alive, because that just makes you all the more alive. You know stuff that happens between people is what's so exciting. And Bjork is about as alive as people come. Her experience of it was, you know, everybody's heard all kinds of stories, but working together, you had no…or I had no sense of that kind of struggle on the outside. The struggles that she had were almost purely in terms of the character and what she had to do. You know, when we had that scene where…I don't know how much you want to give away in this thing…but when she has to have a gun in her hand and pull the trigger, she had never had a gun in her hand in her life. It was so upsetting for her to have to go through that. I think she's very glad she did it, as painful as it was. It makes for kind of extraordinary moments that you take part in in that film, so I thought it was great.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: Yeah. Do you think you would do another Lars Von Trier film, or was it too intense?

DAVID MORSE: Oh, no, no, no. I would love to. He's actually doing another one and asked me to do it and we're trying to see if we can work it out.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: Oh that's fantastic. Now, how, in terms of the shooting…how integrated were the musical scenes? How were things shot? Was it shot sequentially, with all this music stuff done at the same time? How did that fit in?

DAVID MORSE: Well, because of the way he was shooting those scenes you know, with a hundred cameras, just setting those cameras up took three days for each one of those musical numbers. So before the film began shooting, we rehearsed…those were the only scenes in the whole film that we rehearsed and choreographed because it was just a monster, technically, to work out all the details of that. We would go probably two weeks before we actually would do the musical numbers and figure it out with a choreographer. Lars wasn't even necessarily there for some of that stuff. He would kind of come in and shape it at the end after the choreographer had worked it through. So those numbers were spaced out over the course of the film. Because once we rehearsed it, then we would go start shooting other stuff. There was a crew that would go ahead and rig all that stuff for three days and then we would shoot that. Probably over the course of three days, shoot each one of those numbers. Two or three days.


DAVID MORSE: And go back to the regular filming, which was all improvised and completely different from the musical numbers.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: Now, when you got the script, was it more of an outline or how much of the scenes were the dialogues scripted out and how much of it was just off-the-cuff and improvised?

DAVID MORSE: It's so hard to say. There was an actual script, but when you would get in the room and start shooting, there was no rehearsal in the room or wherever you were. He would just essentially say "Go ahead, do something" and then shape it as we went along, while the camera was running. He would always start shooting right away so that whatever happened, you would have it. I kind of lost track of your question.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: No, the question was about how much of it was improvised.

DAVID MORSE: Oh yeah. And we would start off with saying the words in the script and then as we would go along, he would say, "No, no, those words are crap. Throw those out. Just speak whatever your subtext is, whatever is coming to you in the scene." So we would do that and he would pick up on lines there, and maybe ask us to repeat lines that came out of the improvising. It's amazing how much of the script I think is in there because he plants all these little things all through it and they all turn up in the film. But it doesn't feel like what we did was a script, at the end. It all feels like it has been improvised.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: Hmm. Wow. So, as an actor, one of the things that DVD's provide are obviously the commentaries and deleted scenes. How is your perspective on seeing some of the work that didn't make it into the film, make it onto, you know, distribution through home vide on DVD? What's your perception of that extra content?

DAVID MORSE: I haven't actually seen that for myself so I don't have a strong feeling one way or another. You know, I think there's a lot of time…I'm not sure they're going to put stuff on a DVD that they aren't happy with. If anything, for an actor, it might make him rather pleased because there's so much that gets cut out of films and there are moments…I know I've done scenes in other films that I felt like the performance was better in certain takes, but they couldn't use them because it didn't match what the person was doing when they came around and the camera was on them. And if some of the stuff that you feel very attached to finds its way in there, you know, great. I think it can only add to someone's understanding or appreciation of what goes into a film and people's performances.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: Do you yourself view DVD's? Do you have DVD player and watch DVD's?

DAVID MORSE: Well, I have a DVD player and I have DVD's and I have no time to watch any of them.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: I pulled your bio up on IMDb and it seems like it grows by leaps and bounds every time I check it. It's amazing the number of films that you're involved in. Speaking of which, what projects are on the horizon for you? What's coming up?

DAVID MORSE: I just did a couple of them. A great independent film called The Slaughter Rule. The guys that produced it produced Tumbleweeds and it's a couple of twin brothers, Alex and Andrew Smith, who wrote and directed it. It's their first film and a young guy named Ryan Gosling also stars in it. It's just…I just loved it. They've been trying to get it done for a long time. It should be out probably next fall. And I did something that Anthony Hopkins is staring in called Hearts in Atlantis. Now I'm about to go up to China and do a film in Taiwan with a Chinese filmmaker who did a film last year called The Personals. It's a really very sweet and beautiful film.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: So do you see yourself spending more time in the independent world than some of the, you know…it's like in the same time period, you've got Dancer in the Dark on the video shelves and Bait. It's like two different universes.

DAVID MORSE: I know, but you know it's great to be able to kind of have your feet in both worlds. I wouldn't want to be just stuck in one or the other. You know everything is interesting to me. I did a series for six years and I may wind up doing one again someday, you never know. But at that time, it was hard to be kind of in the same mold year after year. I'm enjoying much more this variety of things.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: So, I mean, you've worked with two directors who are considered masters…at least two, obviously among many more, but two that are really considered by many as Master of the Arts, both Frank Darabont and Lars Von Trier. How do you compare the experience of working with those two directors?

DAVID MORSE: Well you know who I would include in there? I would include Sean Penn, who has kind of a future…his films have had…

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: The Crossing Guard?

DAVID MORSE: The Crossing Guard and The Indian Runner. It had a lot of meaning. I've had so many people come to me, even though nobody saw them when they came out, everybody's seen them on video or DVD. There have been so many people who have come to me about those two films. So I'd have to include Sean with Frank and Lars.

You know, Sean and Lars are much more similar in the way they work and what gets them excited in terms of the kind of danger and the unexpected in film making. And Frank, he is so meticulous in his work. His vision of what should be on that film is so clear to him that what you're really trying to do is help him fulfill what he has seen while he has written it. So the experience is very different there. I like Frank a lot and I hope I get another chance to work with him.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: Yeah, it must have been…I mean it's really amazing when you consider that, you know, within a number of years you worked for one director who, you know, can see every detail and another wants to mix up every detail so that's so obscure that whatever comes out of that crazyness is the result.


GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: It must be really good as an actor to be exposed to so many different styles.

DAVID MORSE: It's great. You know, sometimes the way Frank works, it's not always so satisfying as an actor because what your impulse is may not be what he has felt and so what you really have to do is bend yourself to what…and that's ultimately what we're doing for anybody, any director, is kind of serving them in their vision. But some people's vision is, you know, like Lars and Sean. It's more about the unexpected. That's exciting when those things happen. There's a different kind of satisfaction in helping a director achieve, you know, something like The Green Mile, which I thought was pretty terrific.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: Mmm hmm. Definitely. Is there one particular film that you've done that you would hold as, you know, if you could do one film in your career…go back, which one would that one be?

DAVID MORSE: Well, not that I'd ever go back to any of them, for me, The Crossing Guard is probably the one. I felt, even though the film may not be as successful a story telling as some other ones, just my whole experience with that film was about as rich as any film I've ever been on or more than any film I've been on.

GEOFFREY KLEINMAN: Well, hopefully, and one of the things that's really great about DVD and one of the things that we really love to be able to do is to help point people to films that for one reason or another they may have missed. So we'll definitely have to point people to The Crossing Guard to make sure they check it out on DVD.

DAVID MORSE: Thank you. Buy Dancer In The Dark Now

- Geoffrey Kleinman


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