GFF20 · Interviews

Gutterbee Interview: Ulrich Thomsen – ‘We want to tell stories that will touch people. You learn, you grow, you become better, and then you die.’

Best known for his work in front of the camera, acclaimed Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen has moved behind the scenes to write and direct his second feature Gutterbee. The offbeat indie plot follows ex-con Mike (Antony Starr) and ex-pat Edward (Ewen Bremner) on their mission to open a German sausage restaurant in small-town America. They encounter conflict from narrow-minded businessman Jimmy (W. Earl Brown) who is very much against the gentrification of what he sees as his land.

I had the chance to chat with Ulrich Thomsen about this very unusual project…

First of all, how did the idea for Gutterbee first come about?

The idea is from quite some time ago when I stumbled upon the history of the sausage. Some years ago, there was a 50th anniversary for these little hotdog stalls that we have on every corner in Copenhagen, and a journalist had been writing about the history of the sausage. What’s interesting about the film is that it’s all based on fact, and all the sausage trivia in it is actually true. I thought would be interesting to tell a story about bigotry, homophobia, and religious stupidity but around the history of the sausage where nothing has changed in 2,000 years. The movie is essentially about identity. Every country has its sausage.

And you decided that America was the right setting for this story…

Originally, I set it in Israel whereby a German guy would have an idea about bringing peace to the nation and setting up a sausage stand next to the Wailing Wall…but this side-tracked into a type of humour I didn’t like. I was in America filming Banshee for HBO and thought the story would work better there. We’re in volatile times right now in the Western world. Our political system survives as long as someone else is paying the price. We’re always looking for someone to blame in our society, so I think it’s important to look at this fearmongering and I’ve tried to do this through the German sausage. So aside from the quirkiness and the satire, the film comes from a sincere place. I think this burlesque comedy fits well with the political agenda of America right now. It’s like a Saturday Night Live show almost, and I wanted to reflect that through the narrative and the storytelling.

The film ridicules and brings down a racist, homophobic power figure in America, and this feels very timely given the current climate.

Yes, there are many bigotries that are getting in the way of having a sane conversation, so I wanted to put this into the story.

You mentioned working on Banshee for HBO. You starred alongside Antony Starr who is, of course, the lead in Gutterbee. How did you pitch this premise to him?

I talked to him about this a long time ago and said, ‘I have this sausage script’ and he laughed. The character he plays in Banshee is very different, but I know he is a very funny guy. This is only my second film, so I wanted to work with people I already knew. I think I’ve been very lucky with this cast. I worked with Chance Kelly, who plays the sheriff, on Banshee as well. He was a mean Neo-Nazi in Banshee, so I thought ‘why not let him be my gay sheriff?’. It all came together quite late in the process, but it worked out well.

Antony Starr (left) & Ulrich Thomsen (right) in HBO’s Banshee

A key character in the film is Ken the racist rooster, and he reminded me a little of the seagull from Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. Can you expand a little on what he symbolises?

Ken feels a storm coming in and feels the presence of the natives. This is too much for a little rooster to deal with, so he dies of a heart attack. These scenes were fun to write and fun to shoot but when it came to the edit, maybe I was trying one storyline too many with Ken. Nobody else in the crew really understood the rooster when I explained it to them but for some unexplainable reason, I liked it! I thought about getting rid of it because maybe the whole sausage plot was quirky enough, but I’m glad it’s in the film because journalists like yourself always ask about Ken. To me, art is never about the end product. It’s about you and I talking about it or how audiences engage with it. The rooster sparks conversation so for that reason alone, I like it!

Being from Edinburgh, Ewen Bremner’s work in the Trainspotting films has been very important to me. How did he become involved with this project and what was he like to work with?

Well my DOP (Director of Photography) Anthony Dod Mantle lives in Denmark and has been my good friend for many years. He’s also very good friends with Ewen and they worked on the second Trainspotting film together. Anthony suggested Ewen for the part and I thought it was a brilliant idea. We had a really good time and, as you know, Ewen is like his own trademark in a way. He has an interesting way of looking at things and he’s special in the best sense of the word. He has a good artistic mind and he cares about the characters and the story. Even though the story is offbeat, he’s accessible. His character Edward wants to replace religion with a sausage and for some people that could be too nuts, but he makes the audience care for him. It’s a tricky role to pull off because it’s quite a superficial film, so it’s all on the actor to make a human being out of the character, and to create someone in that realm of craziness.

I know that you’ve spent most of your career in front of the camera as an actor rather than behind it as a filmmaker. Have any particular filmmakers you’ve worked with influenced your style or given you memorable advice?

I’ve worked on probably a hundred productions at this point and have worked with many great directors. I’ve been so busy as an actor learning my lines and everything else, but I will have picked things up without thinking about it I’m sure. Before I made my first film, I remember chatting to Lars Von Trier and asking him for advice. He said ‘Yes! Don’t listen to anyone!’ and then he left! Having made that film and now this one, I know what he was getting at and he never says anything just for fun. You have to stay true to your vision and your premise, and not be misled by opinions because your opinion as a filmmaker or an artist is just as good as anyone else’s. There can be differences in taste but that doesn’t matter. Art should clash with society and opinions. You don’t set out in art to please people. You want to make a change and tell stories that will touch people. Out of that you learn, you grow, you become better, and then you die.

What’s next for Gutterbee on the festival circuit?

The next one is Prague, and then Moscow, Washington DC, Munich, South Korea, and then Iran! It’s interesting to take it around and talk to people like yourself about the film. Usually when you make a movie, it can take four years or so and by the time you get it released, we’re in a completely different time. Due to the four-year period of the President of America, I have some leeway on that, but it could be four more, you never know! Let’s hope not!

The sausage debate is rife in Gutterbee. Jimmy likes the classic American hotdog while Edward favours the gourmet frankfurter. What’s your favourite sausage and will you be indulging in any deep-fried sausages while the film has its UK premiere in Glasgow?

Haha I’m actually vegan…so I do eat sausages but only vegan sausages.

I’m surprised! You’ll be hard pushed to find a chippy in Glasgow offering a vegan option!

Check out the trailer for Gutterbee!

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