Never mind the rumors about clashes between Björk and Danish director Lars von Trier on the set of her debut film, ”Dancer in the Dark.” This much is true: They had nothing to do with acting. Although Björk won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival and may be an Oscar front runner, she insists she wasn’t seeking big screen fame, but a chance to perfect ”Selmasongs,” the film’s soundtrack, when she accepted the leading role in ”Dancer in the Dark.”
She’d already been working on the music for a year, and it was her desire for control over the finished product that put her at loggerheads with Von Trier. ”My challenge was not the acting,” says Björk, whose only previous dramatic experience had come in her own music videos. ”The problems arose later when I’d been filming every day for months, 12 hours at a time, four nervous breakdowns a day. Then I’d go home in the evening and find that the crew had chopped my tunes!”
Those tunes express the inner life of the movie’s tragic heroine, Selma, an immigrant factory worker whose bleak existence (she’s going blind and struggling to care for her young son) is enlivened by her love of Hollywood musicals. Björk nearly quit the movie altogether when she learned that some of Selma’s songs were being altered by Von Trier in order to make them fit the action on screen. ”These people who have never done music would take five bars out of something that took me a month to do,” says Björk of the film’s sound editors. ”These people who’ve just recorded footsteps all their lives!”
So midway through filming, Björk bolted from the set for four days — a move that didn’t please her costar Catherine Deneuve, who had just arrived from France specifically to rehearse scenes with the frustrated musician. But the power play did help Björk win control over the final mix of ”Selmasongs.” During the hiatus she wrote what she calls a ”manifesto” for Von Trier. ”It said, ‘I want the final mix on all music things. I’m to be there when it’s edited and the editors have to ask me what I think. I want to decide what songs go on the soundtrack,”’ she says. ”I came back with the manifesto and said, ‘I won’t do anything unless you agree.’ And he agreed.”
By then, Von Trier had little choice. The Danish director, who is best known for his critically acclaimed 1996 film ”Breaking the Waves,” has said that the ”Dancer” screenplay was partly inspired by its leading lady. He was intrigued by Björk’s Spike Jonze directed video for ”It’s oh so Quiet,” in which the singer portrays an everyday person who is entranced by musicals, much like Selma is in the film.
Moreover, he based several key parts of the screenplay on press coverage of Björk’s life — particularly the singer’s now famous fracas with a TV reporter who tried to interview her 14 year old son without permission. ”I lost my temper and beat this woman up,” Björk recalls. ”Lars talked quite a lot about that, because I’m normally a very peaceful person. When someone is driven that far beyond all lines and then explodes, it’s a different kind of explosion.” In ”Dancer,” Selma is driven to a similarly brutal act while trying to protect her son.
In the end, Björk says she’s satisfied with the results, though she doesn’t anticipate any future cinematic endeavors. ”The movie was an expansion of my songs,” she says. ”I wanted to finish something I’d started, to tie a big ribbon on it so I can move on to the next thing.”
The next thing is her forthcoming album, ”Domestika” (due in March or April). After devoting three years to ”Dancer,” Björk says it’s a relief to be back in the studio alone — and be her own boss. ”I think people who want to create are too idiosyncratic to become other people’s tools,” she says. ”It’s important to be responsible and know yourself well enough to know where you function best.”
For Björk those places include New York City (where she’s doing some recording), and her homes in Iceland and London, where she’s often drawn inspiration for past solo albums — ”Debut,” ”Post,” and her most recent ”Homogenic” — from the vibrant local music scenes. These days, the British underground is dominated by garage (a hybrid of R&B, pop, jungle, and house), so it wouldn’t be surprising if some of those sounds turned up on the new record. But don’t expect to see a coproducing credit for Von Trier.