Still unknown to many American moviegoers, Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier has nonetheless had a successful career provoking and entertaining art-house audiences worldwide. From the depressing musical Dancer in the Dark (2000) to the sex-obsessed Nymphomaniac (2013), von Trier knows what pushes people's buttons. And it all started, really, with 1996's Breaking the Waves, his fourth feature but the first to gain international attention. The strangely touching drama about religion, love, and sex was released 20 years ago. Let's dive in and examine its secrets. 

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A CHILDREN'S BOOK.

As a child, Lars von Trier loved a picture book called Guldhjerte (Goldheart), about a little girl who goes into a forest and ends up giving away everything she has to others, leaving her with nothing. "It seemed to express the ultimate extremity of the martyr's role," von Trier said. "Goldheart is Bess in the film."

2. A COMPUTER PROGRAM HELPED IT GET FINANCED.

Unsurprisingly, von Trier was having trouble finding financial backers for his 158-minute movie about a slightly dim woman who talks to God and has sex with strangers in order to heal her paralyzed husband. His luck changed when an organization called the European Script Fund built a computer program to analyze submissions for their "artistic and commercial relevance." To von Trier's surprise, his Breaking the Waves screenplay "got top marks" and was funded. "It must have had all the right ingredients: a sailor, a mermaid, a romantic landscape—all the stuff the computer loved," the director said.

3. HELENA BONHAM CARTER DROPPED OUT AT THE LAST MINUTE.

Von Trier said the well-known actors who were approached to play Bess "didn't want to lay their careers on the line" with a movie that's "a strange mix of religion and sex and obsession." He didn't name any others, but he did say that Helena Bonham Carter—then best known for her roles in A Room with a View (1985), Hamlet (1990) and Howards End (1992)—was going to play Bess but quit just as production was beginning because of the physical and emotional demands of the role. 

4. EMILY WATSON HAD NEVER BEEN IN A MOVIE BEFORE.

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The London-born actress had ample stage experience with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but she'd never acted on film. She described it in a Criterion DVD bonus feature interview as being "like falling off a cliff, but falling off a cliff backwards." Her performance earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. 

5. THE MOVIE GOT WATSON KICKED OUT OF THE QUASI-CULT SHE BELONGED TO.

Watson grew up in what she described as "a kind of quasi-religious cult," and was technically still a member of it when she was cast in this film. "When I accepted the job, I was ostensibly cast out," she said. "I was told, 'Go your undignified way.'"

6. IT CONDEMNED A TALENTED CINEMATOGRAPHER TO HELL.

"Anthony Dod Mantle, you are a sinner and you deserve your place in hell." So says the stern minister at the funeral scene glimpsed in the first half of the film. If the name Anthony Dod Mantle sounds familiar, that's because he's now a well-known cinematographer who won an Oscar in 2009 for his work on Slumdog Millionaire. He was a location scout for Breaking the Waves.

7. STELLAN SKARSGÅRD TOOK A NEW APPROACH TO PLAYING JAN.

The Swedish actor, then 45 years old, told an interviewer that he wanted to play Jan in a way that was different from other characters in love that he'd played. "Normally when I play a person in love, I mix the love with a little narcissism, a little selfishness—all those things we all have in us that are the reason that nothing is ever pure. But this love had to be absolutely pure. That is the key, his longing for pure emotions."

8. EVERYONE WAS A LITTLE NERVOUS ABOUT WORKING WITH LARS VON TRIER.

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The Danish provocateur had a well-earned reputation for being too controlling with actors. "He really made his film at home at his desk," said Skarsgård, "and then he just executed what he had already decided, which meant there was no room for the actors to expand in their roles." (After seeing von Trier's Element of Crime (1984), Skarsgård famously said, "I'd like to work with this director when he gets interested in people.")  Watson, who had never made a film, had to trust a man she didn't know, but she said it was a positive experience. "He's very odd," she said. "But then—you know, he's an artist. We're all odd. He's just really quite odd. But so what?"

9. THE ACTORS WERE ALLOWED TO IMPROVISE, BUT MOSTLY DIDN'T.

By the time he made Breaking the Waves, von Trier was comfortable enough with the process to stop moving the actors around like chess pieces and let them make their own acting choices. "If there was anything we wanted to change, we were allowed to change it," Skarsgård said. "But most of the lines were so well written that they stayed." (That's especially impressive considering von Trier, a Dane, was writing dialogue for English-speaking characters from rural Scotland.) The speech that Bess's sister-in-law gives at the wedding was written by the actress, Katrin Cartlidge, but von Trier's script otherwise remained pretty much intact. 

10. IT WAS TURNED INTO AN OPERA.

The trend over the last couple of decades has been to turn popular movies into Broadway musicals, but of course von Trier fans would have different ideas. Royce Vavrek, a Canadian writer who has loved Breaking the Waves since he saw it as a teenager, collaborated with composer Missy Mazzoli to produce an opera adaptation that premiered at Opera Philadelphia in September 2016. (It got good reviews.) Von Trier, an opera buff himself, gave his enthusiastic blessing to the project, but wanted no part in its creation: "My work was finished when the film was finished," he said

11. THE FIRST DVD VERSIONS WERE BOWIE-LESS.

Each of the film's chapter breaks features a song from the early 1970s (when the film is apparently set), with David Bowie's "Life on Mars" attached to the epilogue. But licensing issues forced a change for the first home video releases, with Elton John's "Your Song" substituted for the more expensive Bowie. It wasn't until Criterion's new edition in 2014 that "Life on Mars" was restored

12. IT'S STILL VON TRIER'S MOST SUCCESSFUL FILM IN AMERICA.

Breaking the Waves made $3.8 million at the U.S. box office, a solid showing for an independent film in 1996. In terms of tickets sold, none of von Trier's subsequent efforts—including Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist, or Melancholia—have surpassed it. (Not in America, anyway. Dancer in the Dark made $35 million overseas.) Bonus fact: von Trier, who has a fear of flying, has never been to the United States.

Additional sources:
Criterion DVD bonus features