You may know Rie Rasmussen from her modeling - she was the face of Gucci, and modeled for DKNY and Victoria's Secret, among others. She got into modeling after Brian De Palma discovered her for his film Femme Fatale, and she also starred in Luc Besson's Angel-A as an angel on Earth.
Rasmussen also paints, takes beautiful photographs, writes and directs. She directed some shorts, one of which ended up at Cannes, and her feature debut, The Human Zoo, opened the Berlin Film Festival in 2009. The film is a hard-hitting story about a woman who escapes from the ethnic cleansing of Serbia only to end up enmeshed in a life of crime before attempting to leave it all behind and find happiness. Rasmussen wrote it, directed it and stars in it.
The Human Zoo is playing for a week at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, starting tonight.
You’ve worked with some great directors, like Brian De Palma and Luc Besson. What have you learned from them?
They’re some of the best, that’s for sure. Brian De Palma - like any film lover from 16 to 23 he was the one be-all, end-all director out there. In my formative years as a theoretical filmmaker, a dream filmmaker, Brian De Palma was as badass as it gets. Luc Besson obviously I’m a huge fan. Them - as well as Sam Peckinpah, Orson Welles, Carol Reed, John Huston, Billy Wilder, Sergio Leone, they all were my film school. Especially because I grew up in Denmark, which is a motherfucking dark country without much to do!
This script wasn’t supposed to be your first film. You had something else you were working on. What happened?
Thinning the Herd was a short film I made, I shot it on 35mm in 2.35. I did it in one scene that worked like a Twilight Zone episode to show I could build a story cinema style. That was nominated at Cannes for the Palm d’Or. That obviously changed everything in my life! Quentin Tarantino was the head of the jury that year, and Oldboy was in Cannes also.
Going from Cannes I really wanted to do sort of a spin-off of Romancing the Stone. It would have been an action chick film I wanted to see - not with little skinny girls who look like they’re going to break, but women doing their own stunts and shooting their own guns and shit like this. This was what I really wanted to do, which is why it seemed great to continue with Europacorp, which is more commercial than the prior career I had.
But then I got shanghaied into Angel-A - which anybody would have jumped at the chance to star in a Luc Besson film! - but I got distracted, I had to learn French. So after Angel-A I kind of put Romance the Dark on the back burner a little bit because in my real life a drama was unfolding. Linh, who is now my adopted sister with my family in Denmark, her mother had been sold into prostitution when she was four years old and she was held captive her entire life, and she had finally escaped with the help of her mother, but without her mother. She ended up in Denmark. That was her immigrant story, and that’s when I started looking at life as the human zoo. I started looking at life as the ovarian lottery - you win if you’re born in America or Denmark, but you definitely lose if you’re born in Vietnam and your mother is sold into prostitution in Moscow. And you definitely lose if you’re Serbian, or you’re Croatian or if you’re a Kosovar. That region in the Balkans have warred their entire life because their need to show their differences from the other local people.
It’s this tribal human zoo, where we make imaginary lines in the borders around us with blood. That is the core subject of the film.
In The Human Zoo, especially at the beginning, some of the atrocities we see feel so real. Are they based on real stories you heard about the conflict?
I went and lived for three months in Kosovo. I wanted to shoot in Kosovo but we couldn’t, because UN troops are all over the place. And the insurance would have been five times the budget of the film. I went to live in Kosovo with my partner, who goes by the name Corey in the movie, and we went to live there for a while. Then we went to Belgrade and we got all those true stories. I did immense historical research on the area as well - it’s so operatic, but bloody operatic.
There are so many horrible atrocities that happened in ex-Yugoslavia and the ex-Yugoslavian region. Some of the things I heard you couldn’t put in a film because... it’s like that movie A Serbian Film, it’s so atrocious what happened there. I didn’t know this, but actually ethnic cleansing is a term invented in the ex-Yugoslavian region. There are things that I would never want to mention them again, I don’t even want to think about the stories I heard.
As an artist does putting these stories on film help get them out of your psyche?
Yes, 100%. If I had gone there, learned about these things and not put them on film, I would be a mess. There are other stories I want to tell where I’ve done deep research and now I feel a mess; I feel guilty every day that I haven’t finished a script, I feel guilty every day that I haven’t told the story.
While we were in pre-production on the film I went to Afghanistan. We flew in during Ramadan, which I didn’t know - which is crazy, because people go nuts when they don’t have enough to eat and drink - but Iraq was getting under control and we didn’t know how bad it was in Afghanistan at the time. I land and 75 people get blown up on a bus. There was no real military presence there yet. It was wild world. I went with the Revolutionary Women of Afghanistan, this group that goes around to orphanages and stuff - because some of the characters in Human Zoo are immigrants from Afghanistan. But now there are these stories from Afghanistan that are burning a hole in my stomach.
Can you talk about the structure of Human Zoo, the dual chronology? All of those kinds of structures get boiled down to the genius of Quentin Tarantino. When you think about your favorite films you come to Pulp Fiction, and the way it’s told. In this you’re just following one character, the path of one character. The reason I tried to tell it this way is that it makes a more interesting story of following the arc of the raising of this young girl into a woman. I tried to give all the answers first and then you have to figure out, just before the end, why. It’s keeping a thriller/suspense feel to it. You have to give a tip of the hat to Tarantino!
You’re going to be doing a week at the New Beverly. Will you be doing Q&As?
Definitely Friday and Saturday night. Elvis Mitchell is going to host one night and perhaps Eli Roth another, if his schedule works. There will be some bantering back and forth and the audience can trash on me!
What reactions do you get after screenings?
I get all sorts. I get boys who are like ‘This is really badass!’ And I get a lot of bitchy people. At film festivals, especially. We opened Berlin Film Festival and you have to love people who want to show how big their dick is in the audience. That’s fun. I love those guys. But there are also great moments, because it’s about being a girl in a man’s world, and there are a lot of autobiographical elements in there. Violence against women, the way I left home being surrounded by really violent alpha males. But at the same time there’s this story of a woman trying to come to terms with her sexuality, and women really respond to that. So I am psyched I made something badass for boys and touching for girls.