No Auteur, No Artifice

It has been argued that Dogme95 was the first serious challenge to cinematic orthodoxy since the French New Wave
Richie Duque, above left, a cinematographer, discussed a scene with David Rysdahl and Shaun Licata, the actors, and Jill Campbell, right, the director of one of the Dogme film projects. Below, Magdalene Brandeis and Lenny Crooks posed in front of a mural-sized matrix outlining the production details of the seven Dogme films. Mark Segal Photos

It has been almost 20 years since the Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg issued the “vow of chastity” that launched Dogme95 into the cinematic firmament. That vow took the form of 10 rules intended to “counter the film of illusion.” Among the prohibitions: no special effects, no artificial lighting or props, no constructed sets, no superficial action, and no credit for the director. The camera had to be hand-held — tripods, dollies, and cranes were forbidden — and “the sound must never be produced apart from the image or vice versa.”

It has been argued that Dogme95 was the first serious challenge to cinematic orthodoxy since the French New Wave. While Dogme appeared as a new movement, and a website,, certifies 35 films (though it’s not the official Dogme95 website, which closed in 2008), von Trier and Vinterberg have long since moved on, and the movement itself survives as an attitude rather than a strict set of rules.

That attitude is alive and well in the graduate program in digital filmmaking at Stony Brook Southampton in the form of the Dogme project. A recent conversation with Magdalene Brandeis, the film program’s associate director, and Lenny Crooks, a film consultant who worked with Mr. von Trier and Mr. Vinterberg, elucidated the connection.

Regarding the “vow of chastity,” Mr. Crooks noted that changes in the technology since 1995 have rendered certain elements unnecessary. The most important thing, he insists, is to “focus on the story you’re trying to tell and the way the actors are interpreting it.”

Ms. Brandeis supplied some of the background for the class. In April 2012, Christine Vachon, founding partner of Killer Films, whose more than 75 productions include “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Far From Heaven,” “Happiness,” and “I’m Not There,” joined the Stony Brook Southampton faculty, with the goal of helping to develop a new approach to academic instruction in filmmaking. Annette Handley-Chandler and Mitchell Kriegman of Wainscott Studios had previously hosted the college’s summer screenwriting program and practicums in digital filmmaking.

The first step toward a full-blown graduate program was 20/20/20, launched in the summer of 2013 and funded by a gift from Dorothy Lichtenstein, which brought together 20 filmmakers for 20 days to make 20 films. That program inspired Mr. Crooks, who had joined the department as a guest consultant. “The challenge of creating a film in just 20 days reminded me of a time when I worked with great people in Denmark who used to apply incredible demands on themselves to avoid the bells and whistles and tricks of modern filmmaking.”

Thinking about how to follow up 20/20/20, which had a second successful iteration last summer, Mr. Crooks decided to draw on his experience, which included not only working with the original Dogme filmmakers but also with Advance Party, a Scottish offshoot of Dogme95 that he helped found some 10 years later. “In wanting to teach how to work without all the lavish equipment used today, we decided that rather than just do it ‘low budget,’ which anybody can do, we would work within the context of the rules devised over a cup of tea by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in 1995.”

The fundamental rule would be that everything put on film — sound and image — had to be recorded synchronously. Every scene had to be shot live, and the only editing allowed would be the cutting together of complete scenes. There could be no fade-outs, no dissolves, no layering on of music.

“Remarkably,” said Mr. Crooks, “these restrictions seem to have released the students from whatever limitations they felt they had. They’re rising to it, shooting fast, capturing the drama of the scenes to a much greater degree than my previous experience with early filmmakers.”

Ms. Brandeis noted that traditional cinematic “coverage,” in which a scene is constructed not only from a master shot but also with an assortment of long shots, close-ups, and reaction shots, was not an option. “You have to work with story chunks rather than coverage chunks, because image and sound must never be produced apart from each other.”

For the Dogme course, the students are producing seven webisodes with interlocking characters. “The participants had all created characters for their 20/20/20 films,” said Mr. Crooks, “so we decided to draw characters from their old films, work on them, and learn more about them. The students stayed with their characters and didn’t try to be consistent with what happened in episode 1. A narrative evolved out of all these, which is exactly the way it works with graduates of the National Film School of Denmark.”

For example, Melissa Bank, a writer and Stony Brook professor, wrote episode 1 using a character from her 20/20/20 film as well as a character to be shared with the writer of episode 2. Each episode will include at least one character from a previous episode. Several episodes have only two characters, but the final one, written by Patricia Marx, a New Yorker columnist and faculty member, uses all seven. Each segment is six to eight minutes long.

The actors, most of whom are members of the Screen Actors Guild, were all auditioned in New York City. According to Ms. Brandeis, “When we had our first read-through with the actors, Lenny said to them, ‘Now, we’re following you. You determine the story now and you absorb the characters. There is a script, but the camera has to follow you wherever you go.’ ” The actors wear their own clothes and make-up.

On a recent afternoon at the Stony Brook Southampton campus, Jill Campbell was directing a scene for her episode in a large greenhouse-storage shed filled with landscaping equipment and machinery, empty plant containers, tables cobbled together from wooden pallets, and other random objects, all of which constituted the “set.”

Mr. Crooks observed that the head of the scriptwriting program at the National Film School of Denmark, Mogens Rudov, “believes in the natural story and nothing else. A person walks into a room, meets someone, and you go from there.” That is a good description of what was taking place in the storage shed.

The last day of shooting was Saturday. Editing will begin in January, and the project should be finished by April. Conversations are under way with the Tribeca Film Festival and with Vimeo about screening all the episodes together, either in festivals or on the web. Each filmmaker owns his own film. “I’m hoping that the first time, it will be seen in its entirety,” said Mr. Crooks. “Once they’re online, the episodes can be seen in whatever order you want to.”

Ms. Brandeis is a producer and novelist who joined the Stony Brook faculty in 2009 and helped the program develop its Manhattan wing. She teaches writing and filmmaking and curates the Manhattan Writers Speak series with Daniel Menaker, a film editor. She first met Ms. Vachon at an event in the city, and the partnership grew from there.

Mr. Crooks was for four years head of the U.K. Film Council’s New Cinema Fund, where he backed the Cannes Special Jury Prize winner, “Fish Tank,” among many others. He also ran the Glasgow Film Fund and the Glasgow Film Office.

“What I did in Glasgow, what you can do in Denmark, what you can do in the U.K., and what you can never, ever do in the United States is to take public money and hand it out to artists without having any committee to refer to or get approvals from.” It’s clear that Ms. Brandeis and Mr. Crooks hope that will change.

Richie Duque filmed Shaun Licata while Toni Sideco took sound and Jill Campbell, the director, looked on. Mark Segal