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Belongs to Joe

Interview

OFFICE – So how did you connect with Lars on Nymphomaniac?

 

CASPER SEJERSEN – Two art directors from Copenhagen showed some of my pictures to him and his production company, and they hired me to do the commercial campaign of the film. Lars’ concept was to kind of cheat people into going to see this dark, European art-house movie by doing a very light and commercial campaign. He knew that if he did a campaign that was similar to the film nobody would go and see it. But if he had a lot of Hollywood stars having orgasms, everyone would want to see that movie. I thought it was a very humoristic way to do it, and saw that it also could be very aesthetic. Then I had an idea where I wanted to do a sort of behind-the-scenes book. I asked Lars’ producer and she just said “Forget about that, he won’t allow that, he hates stuff like that. He doesn’t want any interference when he does his art.” But she sent me the manuscript—Lars wanted us to read it before we started the campaign—and I was totally blown away by the story. The producer called me and said “Oh, now Lars thinks it’s his idea to do a behind-the-scenes book, so you’re allowed to do it.” After I’d read the manuscript I knew I couldn’t do a book with stars putting makeup on in trailers, so I wanted to do my own take, not based on the movie but based on the script. The script is written like pure literature, it’s written as a novel, not a shooting script. So I asked about that, and she said “Forget about that, that will be your art project and that will interfere with the film.” But she called me the day after and said that Lars thought it was a brilliant idea. He didn’t want to see anything, I could do whatever, it was my project, and he would only see the final result when the book was in his hands. Also, the text for the book and the pictures were done simultaneously while they were doing the movie, it was not shot after. I didn’t want to see any dailies—I wanted to keep my aesthetic clean, because I had my visions about the script and how I wanted to see this stuff.

 

O – Throughout the story there is a central theme of collections, is that where the title for the book, Belongs to Joe, comes from? 

 

CS – Joe, the main character, is a collector. She collects everything. What I think is so powerful about her is that she’s an addict, but she’s also so much in control of her life. A lot of people think, “Okay, she’s a woman, she’s a nymphomaniac, it’s all about sex, it’s all about lust,” and so on. But for me, she could just as easily be an addict of drugs and alcohol, or a violinist who rehearses twelve hours a day—she’s just expecting so much from life and from her passion. Of course it’s especially photogenic that she’s a nymphomaniac, but she could be anything. All the walks she has with her father, all the dried leaves she collects with him, everything she experiences in her life is a set of collections. In the beginning we were thinking of using the word encyclopedia in the title, but it wasn’t right, that’s why we came up with this subtitle Book of Comfort for a Nymphomaniac, because it’s all the stuff she adores and loves about life. What is so beautiful about it is that it’s also all the bad sides of life that for all humans are a part of you. It sounds like a cliché, but you can't just have positive things all around, you have to have things going in every direction to be a full person. The script is so powerful, it's about everything. When you tell a story that is about everything, that is about sex, and religion, and fly fishing—you just have to have all these clichés, because all these clichés are often right.  

 

O – One clever thing about the greater project is that it uses sex as a means to explore something further, instead of as the be-all and end-all focus itself, as one might assume. Was sex as a theme limiting or empowering for the book? 

 

CS – In the aesthetic way I was very inspired by it, but I didn’t think about the sex when I took the pictures. I wanted to do this almost like pictograms, so if you see a blow job, it should be almost the way you would draw a blow job, or if you see an aborted fetus, everything should be shot from above, very dry. My intention was to take the emotions out of it, so that you just see the pictures as chapters, to understand this person. I wanted to have a very objective view on the main character, I didn’t want to do a sex scene that people should think was lustful, or awkward, or disgusting or something. It was just a registration of a blow job, of a gun, of a dried leaf. Like bricks in a puzzle, so when you see them together with the text it’s almost like an encyclopedia for this character. So the sex itself, it’s not that I was super inspired, or not inspired by it, it was just not that important. 

 
All the close-ups of the penises, it’s just a collection. It could have been butterflies.

O – The images are paired with text—excerpts from the script, anecdotes from history and mythology, quotations, lyrics etc. Some of it is closely tied to the plot of the story, some is more obscure, more tangential. How do these peripheral elements relate to the project?

 

CJ – I wanted to show that the book is a kind of tribute to Lars. Because as I see it, all the talks that Seligman and Joe have in this small bedroom are taking place in Lars’ brain, the characters are the devil and angel on his shoulders, so these talks represent all his demons. But we were also trying to go on other routes that haven’t anything to do with Nymphomaniac, but have more to do with Lars’ universe, and what he’s thinking. So there are many layers. When we started research we found so many stories that can’t be just coincidences. That’s why I thought it was so much more interesting to have it linked to the manuscript than the movie. For example the cat-o’-nine-tails, in the movie Joe names the whip Fido. In the script it’s called Pluto, but Disney has the copyright for that name, so it had to be Fido instead. But the interesting story is that Pluto was the last found of all the planets, it was found in the beginning of the nineteenth century, and all these astronomers, this bunch of old men couldn’t agree on a name. Then the grandchild of one of the guys, she named it Pluto, after the god of the underworld from Greek mythology. But there’s another layer because there’s a story that maybe she was abused as a child by these old scientists... So there’s a reason why the whip should be called Pluto, because it’s linked to some of the other layers. Maybe it’s just things that we have found out, just coincidence, but there are many interesting small stories that you don’t see or hear about in the movie.

 

O – There are a few shots of naked men in the book, particularly one full-frontal shot of Stellan Skarsgaard, who plays Seligman, and another page that is a set of close-ups on naked male bodies. In the mainstream Western world male nudity tends to be more shocking than female nudity, did it serve a different purpose than the female nudes in this work?

 

CS – All the close-ups of the penises, it’s just a collection. It could have been butterflies, she could have been a butterfly collector. Of course I was aware of what I was doing, but I didn’t look at it that way. And the first picture of Stellan— Joe’s mother in the film, she plays solitaire, and in his biography Lars describes his own mother as a cold bitch who does all this solitary stuff. But the film is also all about nature, and this Fibonacci code, and I wanted to have almost a riddle at the start, so I wanted to start the book with playing cards and the Fibonacci code. Maybe nobody gets it, but the first Fibonacci sequence ends with the number thirteen, and number thirteen in playing cards is the king, so we have the king of spades. And then of course it should be the naked Stellan after the king of spades, because he is the icon of the man in this story. The naked portrait of Stellan is one of the most important pictures in the book, because it’s the guy who’s half of Lars’ brain, and he’s the guy that Joe tells her story to, and that’s why we almost only have naked pictures of the actors in the book, or the characters. It’s not about sex, I just wanted to strip it from everything that you should think about. It should only be about the human, and the human body. It should not be about props. 

 

O – In a lot of these images you’ve taken the “heat” out of sex, so that it is kind of crystallized and sterile, but then there is the one thermal image of the woman’s body. It is unlike the others in that it shows that there is heat, a rush of blood, there is excitement in the act, even if it is beyond the visible surface.

 

CS – Precisely. That picture we wanted to show the lust, but in a scientific way. That picture is kind of a tribute to Seligman, because Seligman can explain everything with science, so it would be his way of showing lust. For me, maybe it’s just my brain, but it’s one of the only pictures where I have my own lust in the picture, because you can’t hide it. When you see those points on a woman’s body, it’s much warmer than the rest of the body. You can’t cheat about it. With the other sex pictures, the naked pictures and blowjobs and intercourse and so on, you can show them in this cold, scientific way, but this picture you can’t hide anything, you can’t fake it.

 

O – Two of the most arresting images in the book are the two fetuses, the first that is really pale and alien, and the second that’s bloody, aborted.

 

CS – The one in the beginning there’s actually life, because it’s a real, five-second-old girl. So it’s the beginning of life for her, and that is so beautiful, you have this newborn baby girl, prepared for everything— but then the beginning of life is also really, really ugly. It’s my own daughter, actually. It’s to show that everything, death, all the things we don’t want to see, and beauty, all the things we do want to see, are very close. A lot of times I’m trying to describe that my own lust for life, and passion, and the things I really adore and love, are very close to all the bad things. I always try to describe it like a watch—if one minute to twelve is the ultimate happiness, then one minute past twelve is the ultimate opposite. It’s much more fun to be up there, where everything is really fantastic and passionate, and also the opposite. Being around four, five, six on the watch—that doesn’t matter, that’s just kind of boring. So all the good and bad things are really close together, that’s why I also wanted to have them in the beginning and end of the book, connected to the ugly newborn baby, but also connected to the dead fetus. And everything in between. – END 

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