Spud Speaks
Talking with Julien Donkey-Boy star Ewen Bremner

Dogma (no, not the adolescent Kevin Smith film but the loopy back-to-basics Danish film movement headed by Lars von Trier) has finally found a Yankee convert in Harmony Korine, the enfant terrible behind Kids and Gummo. In accordance with Dogma code, Korine shot his latest largely-improvised feature, Julien Donkey-Boy, entirely on digital video and then blew it up to super-grainy 35mm.

See also...
... by Chris Campion
... in the Dirt section
... from November 19, 1999

Ewen Bremner, the Scottish star of The Acid House best known for playing Spud in Trainspotting, plays the eponymous Donkey-boy as a beleagured schizophrenic Brooklynite with a mouth crammed full of gold caps. He spends his days hanging out at a school for blind athletes and struggling to maintain in a claustrophobic family home dominated by his sadistic father (played all-too-convincingly by equally barking-mad director Werner Herzog).

GettingIt caught up with a visibly twitchy Spud and Korine's regular producer and diplomatic spokesperson, Cary Woods, while they were promoting the film at the London Film Festival. The notoriously erratic Korine was presumed missing in action.

GETTINGIT: What exactly were you told about your character?

EWEN BREMNER: Well, I had a script. Harmony had been putting together the script over the last couple of years. I'd been hearing how it was going along. When I started working on it, the script was very much an impressionistic poem of scenes that didn't have dialogue but were very evocative of the work and what might happen. But that meant that my character came through very clearly, so it was a good picture for me to start with.

It was also based on Harmony's uncle, about whom he told me many stories, fantastic stories, which weren't entirely, y'know, true. But I spent time with his uncle, who's a psychiatric patient in a state hospital. Harmony also threw me a lot of left-field references, like, "Watch this Buster Keaton film. Watch that Buster Keaton film. Watch that other Buster Keaton film." That's how it began.

GI: How different a process was that from other films that you've worked on?

EB: As different as it could be because I really didn't know what to do to accomplish the character. The fundamental thing was to be an American, which for me was a big deal and very hard.

CARY WOODS: Ewen lived in New York for four months during production. I only knew him as that character after he'd adopted his American accent. When we met again for the film's screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival, it was the first time I had heard him talk. I was really taken aback. It was like I had met a completely different person.

EB: Another thing is that Harmony is spontaneous and unpredictable and you have to be ready for that at all times. He keeps you on your toes.

GI: If you spent all that time preparing and getting into character, what was it like coming out of that the other side?

EB: It was a huge relief. I was so pleased because I hated being an American and talking like that the whole time. It was an intense involvement, but we were only filming for something like 24 days. Most of the intensity was in the preparation, because it was so different from my life in the UK and I had to invest so much into that character. I must admit that between the end of production and seeing the finished film, not a day went by when I didn't think, "I wonder what it will be like?"

GI: What was it like working with Werner Herzog?

CW: Harmony envisioned Werner for the part from the very beginning because Werner told him that if he ever wrote a part that was maniacal then please call him.

EB: You'd imagine that working with two directors at the same time would be problematic and contradictory. But Werner was working as an actor and he was very insightful. He would come up with these stories from his own experiences. They were outlandish stories, but I'm sure they were true. Harmony loved them and encouraged him to incorporate them into the dialogue.

CW: I actually came to the set one day and Werner had hurt his ankle, it was all bandaged and swollen. They'd been rehearsing the scene where Werner performs the trick of balancing on an upturned glass while bending down to get a cigarette off the floor with his mouth. And apparently he had done it successfully a number of times but he wanted to do it again. Harmony shrugged it off as, "Werner doesn't really feel like he's doing a movie unless he gets injured."

GI: How did you arrive at the look of the film?

CW: Harmony's notion was that he wanted it to look like a film that could have been found and could have been shot anywhere in the last 30 or 40 years. He used a lab in Switzerland to help bring that about.

GI: What kind of cameras did you use?

CW: Harmony used over 20 different cameras. We used spy cameras. There were scenes shot where Ewen was outfitted with glasses with cameras on them, baseball caps with cameras, watches with cameras... It was a digital cameracopia.

GI: So how did that work when you filmed the sequence when Ewen is carrying the dead baby on the bus?

CW: Harmony would prefer to not talk about the specifics. There was some nervousness on behalf of the line producer once we had decided to shoot that scene with spy cameras on the bus. I was asked, "Is that legal? What will he be holding?" I said, we've got this doll that will be covered with blankets. I was thinking to myself, I'm not aware of a law that says you can't travel on a bus with a doll, so unless someone could explain to me otherwise I figured we were within our rights. The issue became one of getting releases from people who don't know they're being filmed. So what happened is that the bus stops, a herd of PA's get on and ask people if they want to be in a movie, and the answer of course is, "Yes."

GI: How did people react to Julian in public?

EB: I'm not really sure. I think they either ignored me or avoided me.

GI: What was the most difficult scene to film?

EB: The first scene -- where Julian is playing with turtles at a pond with another boy who he ends up killing -- was the most practically demanding. We only had one shot, we were losing the light and it was quite an important scene. On top of that we had the police there, as well as animal rights welfare people, a child equity rep and all the local residents who were up in arms that we were using that location. Then the turtles started running away or dying and had to be resuscitated. We kept running back up to Harmony's grandmother's house to nurse the turtles in the bathroom sink. Because we were working with all these spy cameras, we only had one shot and didn't know what we got until afterwards. It was a high-pressure scene but I think we captured something with a great cinematic depth.

Chris Campion lives and writes in London, contributing to (among others) The Daily Telegraph and Dazed & Confused. He also produces his own degenerate art for his T-shirt company, Cloak & Dagger.