Invited by Danish art flick contemporaries Lars Von Trier ("Breaking The Waves") and Thomas Vinterberg ("The Celebration") to be a part of their experimental filmmaking collective called Dogme 95, director Soren Kragh-Jacobsen jumped at the chance.
This directorial doctrine, called the Vow of Chastity, is characterized by ten creative restrictions (filming only on location with handheld cameras, natural sound, no imported props or sets) -- and it began simply as a way for this friendly group of directors to challenge themselves.
"It started out as a very local phenomenon," Kragh-Jacobsen said when I met with him in San Francisco to talk about "Mifune," his contribution to the Dogme movement. "We were going to do four films, for Denmark, for fun, and for the challenge of doing it with these rules."
Then the concept caught the attention of film festival audiences and soon a handful of filmmakers outside the Dogme Collective (the four directors who originated the pared-down philosophy) applied the rules to their latest projects, hoping to receive the Dogme seal of approval (authentic Dogme pictures have to receive a certificate that is posted on-screen in the movie's opening credits).
American fringe director Harmony Korine, who wrote the controversial "Kids" and directed the loved-it-or-hated-it "Gummo," filmed his family dysfunction-and-schizophrenia drama "julien donkey-boy" under the Vow of Chastity guidelines. Actor Jean-Marc Barr, star of Von Trier's "Zentropa," followed suit with his first film -- a French production called "Lovers."
Now Dogme 95 has become so well-known on the art house circuit that the Vow has become a marketing tool, and may well be the primary reason many people outside Kragh-Jacobsen's native Denmark see his new movie at all.
The exposure is thrilling, admitted Kragh-Jacobsen, an expressive 55-ish fellow with the look of a hip coffee house elder and a sincerely enthusiastic smile. But, he said, "it was actually about liberating film through the process, not about a gimmick."
Life-affirming and less bizarre than it's Collective brethren, "Mifune" is a bittersweet dramedy about a crisis of priorities faced by a newlywed Copenhagen yuppie (Anders W. Berthelsen), who is forced to admit he lied about being an orphan when his father dies and he must abandon his bride and return to the dilapidated farm of his youth to arrange for the funeral.
Because of the Dogme restrictions, he had to find exactly the right abandon farm house at which to shoot his story. Rule No. 1 of the Vow of Chastity states in part that "props and sets must not be brought in," so Kragh-Jacobsen has to scout for a location with furniture and other amenities. Part of rule No. 4 reads, "special lighting is not acceptable," so he had to find a place with ample natural light.
"I saw 21 empty farms," the director said of the location scouting process. "(The one we chose) was extremely run-down. There was no roof on one side, it was raining down through the ceiling. But (the owner) was still renting it out to hunters. I fell very much in love when I looked through the window with the light. The house had a lovely atmosphere. And the furniture from the '60s was great."
The movie's title is an homage to Toshiro Mifune, the Japanese master thespian whose role in Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" was the inspiration for this picture's story arc.
The writer-director heard of Mifune's December, 1997 death when he was three pages into the script. "I was very inspired. I wanted to give him a last tribute."
"Mifune" parallels "Samurai's" story of a warrior who tries to hide his impoverished roots but must admit his heritage in the end and return to save his village.
"I said, this is great, it fits very well with (my main) character."
Though finished with Dogme 95 for now -- especially since it was only meant to be a series of four movies from four directors bored with conventional filmmaking -- Kragh-Jacobsen said the experience has nonetheless revitalized his adoration of his trade.
"If it comes to a point where I need to rediscover my spontaneity, I would do it again."