Ruben Östlund Interview: In Case Of No Emergency
The afternoon was full of laughs and genuine collective enthusiasm for the films celebrated by the awards. One could certainly gauge the real winners in the theater's public eye. During the presentation for Best Foreign Film category, when the nominees were listed, no film was met with as many cheers as Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund's Force Majeure. Similarly, when the accolades were instead given to Leviathan, no award in the entire ceremony was met with such violent booing and hissing as the Force Majeure upset, which felt like the unforgivable snub of the evening.
It would only be fair to add the context that the Cinefamily was, at the time of the Globes, in the midst of screening the first triumphant stop on Östlund's retrospective tour, "In Case of No Emergency." The tour offers North Americans the opportunity to see his shockingly excellent work leading up to this year's celebrated Force Majeure. For Ruben, the tour offers a chance to experience alternate responses to his work from different sensibilities than the ones he's used to across the globe. Though his previous two features, Involuntary and Play, screened at some American festivals, neither film received a theatrical run. But as the few but growing number of North Americans exposed to his previous work can attest, Östlund's talent is anything but out of nowhere.
For years, through shorts and features, Östlund has been playing with audience discomfort in many ways. Whether he's making you laugh, cringe, or both, Östlund's intricate behavior studies achieve a tension that demand viewer engagement. That I can't think of any other director more capable of making a mounted down camera more dynamic and awe-striking, other than perhaps the godfather himself, Kubrick, is enough to vindicate those who've lately been lauding Östlund as Kubrickian. Now, thanks to "In Case of No Emergency," cinephiles around North America have a unique opportunity to be treated to Östlund in person, presenting his unforgettably brain-burning films.
The tour currently finds itself wrapping up its second stop in New York City, where I had the pleasure of speaking with Östlund by phone. From there it will move on to cities like Austin, Boston, Portland, Vancouver, and Toronto, to name a random handful. I like to imagine our phone conversation took place in the Trump hotel room that served as the setting for Östlund's brilliant Oscar-snub reaction video, a piece as priceless, if not more, than certain films that will actually land Oscars. It's nice to see Östlund contributing to the viral landscape he himself consumes and from which he even takes some inspiration. The day before the Force Majeure Oscar-snub, typical of the reasons these ceremonies mean nothing, Ruben spoke to me, hopefully in the location of that impish shoot, about his "In Case of No Emergency" tour, American awards, and some little known fun facts about Force Majeure.
At first I just want to ask a little bit about your recent trip to Los Angeles. Did you enjoy attending the Golden Globes?
Yes, it was great. You didn't have to sit around a table all the time. You could go out, go away, go to the bar for awhile and then come back. It was not like the other award ceremonies I have been to.
Sounds like fun. Was it sort of a surreal experience?
No, it was not surreal but I think it was very, very ... They really know how to create the feeling of 'this is where you are successful and this is where successful people are.' Of course, it was interesting to sit, and the table next to us was Prince and everything like that. That was a huge thing, definitely.
What's your relationship with the Academy Awards? Did you watch it at all growing up?
Yes, of course. In fact, it was something that is very, very strong living in Sweden, I would say. In fact, it's the image of Hollywood or the top level of Hollywood, I guess, for everybody living in Scandinavia. It's the biggest thing for a lot of people in Scandinavia, too, when you're dealing with movies, of course.
What are your feelings on the eve of a potential nomination?
It's going to be nerve-racking. I'm going to be nervous tomorrow morning. In other words, if there is no nomination, I don't know what to do for a couple of hours other than being disappointed for awhile.
If I'm not mistaken, the "In Case of No Emergency" retrospective is the first opportunity you've had to screen a lot of your films in North America.
That's true, that's true. No, Play was at the New York Film Festival and a couple of other places all around North America. Involuntary was the Swedish Oscar contribution, but it didn't have any release here. This is definitely my first time of screening those films in a different way.
I know you've only done Los Angeles so far in your "In Case of No Emergency" tour, but thus far, how has it been playing to North American audiences compared to your usual screenings?
I think that the way that Force Majeure has been received here is better than anywhere else, I would say. We went to a place called Cinefamily, which I really want to recommend. It was a beautiful atmosphere. There were a lot of questions afterwards, but the response was really, really good. I think it's a little bit dependent on the content of the films.
I understand that FORCE MAJEURE isn't necessarily your first ski production. You made a sort of ski film, FREE RADICALS, I believe?
You know about that?
I can't say that I've seen it... although I'd love to. So, being a former skier yourself, and having had an investment in skiing, were you excited to take your experiences with the slopes into an aesthetic realm?
Yes, sure. It was when I was between 20 and 25, I was traveling around in North America, Alaska, and Canada, and in Europe skiing. I left the ski world quite fast because I was accepted to film school. From one season to another season I got started in film school and left the ski world completely.
I was always looking for a way to get back into that environment and use my knowledge about that environment and try to highlight the absurdity of all of that environment. I did when the Avalanche came up. I think it was the first time I thought it was possible to let a feature film take place on a ski resort because the ski resort is so kitschy. It's like all those neon colors and people that are in control of that. It was hard to find a situation that raised extensive questions. But with an avalanche, then suddenly it was possible. Of course I have tried to use all my knowledge of those skiers when I was spending a lot of time there to portray the ski resort in a better way.
How would you say it informed the way that you physically shot skiing? For example, how were those downhill skiing shots achieved?
One thing was that we had a quite small team. It was me and the camera and I was having to manage skiers. The main actor, Johannes Bah Kuhnke, he lied and said that he was a really good skier. The first day of the shooting when he's fumbling, I can see the way that he's carrying the skis that he hadn't skied much at all. I had to put him into private lessons, and soon he was off shooting. It created constant problems. It was quite a shock.
Not to make you divulge your secrets, but how did you shoot the avalanche? How did that go down?
That is a quite funny story because when we were starting the project I told everybody that my number one goal with this film is to create the most spectacular avalanche scene in film history. We were starting to try if we could make an avalanche in CGI to make a 3D avalanche, but it turned out quite fast that it will never be possible to do it in a way that we believe in it. Since I have been skiing a lot, I have seen quite many avalanches in film.
We ended up, to shoot the avalanche, the actual avalanche, in British Columbia in Canada. We built up the restaurant in a studio in Gothenburg and we have that in huge green screen. Then we had artificial smoke that was blowing up with cannons on set. Also we were having CGI in the post-production, so it's like a combination of different things. It creates a kind of interesting plot line. It's the Canadian avalanche that messes things up for a Swedish family in the French Alps.
That's so funny. At the Cinefamily screening, you were encouraging or daring the audience, that if they had seen a better avalanche in a film to approach you. I'm wondering if you were ever approached by couples thanking you for their post-screening argument?
I have seen people during screenings, you can see that the girl is hitting the man on his arm and saying, "That's exactly how you are." And there was someone telling me that there was a couple walking in different directions after the screening. Quite many have said to me that they have had at least a bit of awkward feeling afterwards and then a problem to deal with that.
I've heard that one of your inspirations for this film was a friend of yours who was sort of face to face with a robbery and acted less than heroically? When you heard that story, did you find yourself thinking about how you would react in that situation?
Yeah, I think that's the first thing that I think of and that a lot of people think of, but after awhile I always wonder why we think this is important. The practical setup -- where is the exit, where are you standing, how far is your wife from you or whatever -- is also changing the way that we are behaving. After awhile I didn't put that guilt in myself if I would behave in a certain way.
What's interesting was when me and my girlfriend were talking about it, she said, "Well, I don't think that you would have stayed." Then suddenly I have a hard time to look at it from a pure hypothetical perspective, but I want you to think that I would stay. That's highlighting the actual problem of dealing with a situation like this. We don't have any problem to forgive other people doing that, but inside a couple's relationship, there's certain rules and certain expectations that puts it in a total different situation.
Well, it's offensive! Like 'why would you say that I would behave this way?'... So, how did your friend feel about you fleshing out his moment of weakness into an award-winning feature?
I think he has forgiven me. His wife is actually the set designer on the film, so they have been living with this for three years. In the film, you know, there's one character that is called Phillip, the one that the young girl is referring to when she says who she think would have stayed, so that's my way of giving Phillip, my friend, something back. His name is also Phillip.
That's great. Lately I've been hearing a lot of people describe the film as Kubrickian. Do you enjoy the comparison?
Yeah, sure. I do because I think that he was very, very precise when he made his movies. I like that approach. I want to be in very seriously with all the aspects of filmmaking, why I do decisions I do. I like that. I think it's also a lot about The Shining and films like that - the reason why they are bringing him up. I think I'm more connected to a mixture of [Michael] Haneke and Roy Anderson.
I wanted the feeling of the scene almost to be like a chamber play - where you only have a couple of characters that you put into this breathtaking scenery of the mountains. I was attracted to the need to have a chamber play take place in an environment that you don't think of as an environment for a chamber play at all.
Did you have a favorite scene to shoot or one that when you called, "Cut," you were just beaming with joy?
I think maybe it the scene where the girl approaches Tomas and she says, "I think you're the most attractive man in the whole restaurant." That's a scene that I really like. I also was laughing a lot and enjoying myself when I was shooting it. I almost laugh at all my scenes. That's maybe one.
When Kristofer Hivju, the one that is in Game of Thrones and also the one that plays Mats. When he is trying to defend Tomas and he has his monologue, then the sound man was really, really annoyed with me because I was laughing so loud. I really, really tried as much as I could to not sound too much, but I couldn't hold it back. I was just laughing all the time that scene because I think he had such a comical timing. The expression that he had in his face when he is trying to defend someone was so beautiful, so maybe that scene.
People who attend the "In Case of No Emergency" retrospective might find some common threads throughout your work. Given the title, perhaps the most striking would be an infatuation with urgent situations or the threat of emergencies and the behavior that surrounds causes for alarm.
What I think is that all the things that are happening in my films are imagining the worst case scenario. You think that the robbers will kill the victims. I don't know if you saw Involuntary, but we think that the man that carries the girl into the car will be a pedophile. Will he rape her? We think the avalanche will run over us. We think that the bus will go over the cliff edge. I think I like to play with the imagination of the worst case scenario. But actually I have never killed any of my characters in my films. I'm quite proud of that because I don't know if there's a lot of directors that actually can brag about that, that they have never killed any of their characters.
In my films I really want to relate to life and death in the same way as I have experienced it in my own life. I have never been close to anyone that has died in a spectacular way. Of course, when someone gets old or by a disease or something like that, but I really don't want to imitate other things and other spectacular events in the films just to create something dramatic by killing a character. I think that the emergency is more on a psychological level in my films. It's more about social pressure that creates that feeling of emergency and our fantasy.
Speaking of INVOLUNTARY, I can't say for certain why you chose to call your film, INVOLUNTARY. I think it, perhaps, has to do with the instincts of your characters and the ways they can't help but behave.
But I was thinking that could be an applicable title for FORCE MAJEURE as well. Not necessarily as good of one, but do you think you're developing themes that you established in INVOLUNTARY?
Yeah, in many away I think so. I think I got very interested in sociological experiments when I was dealing with Involuntary, and behavioristic thematics and behavioristic aspects of why we behave as we behave. I agree with you on the fact of Involuntary. I thought also it could be like Force Majeure, but Involuntary is like, are they involuntary or are they not? That's almost what you said, actually.
Yeah I agree because first film, The Guitar Mongoloid was more of, I was interested in creating a film that the film critics have never seen before in Sweden, and they have to grade it. They have to sit down and write about that film, and I would make them so insecure. Is it a fiction? Is it a documentary? What are the characters doing? Is it morally wrong or right and so on? I want to raise questions that made the audience and film critics very insecure. When I was dealing with that film, really I said I am interested in doing a thematic film next time and the group behavior and the behavioristic perspective was something that I found out during Involuntary that I was interested in.
To my knowledge, only your own films are playing in your retrospective, but if a theater on the tour had asked you to curate a night of films that might be complimentary to your work, what films might you include?
I would say that YouTube has been a very strong inspiration for me. And Taxi Driver Interview is a taxi driver that by accident ends up in a live BBC news program. To try to avoid losing face, he starts to try to play an Internet expert and trying to answer questions journalists have. It's beautiful. That would be the first one.
The second one would be Battle at Kruger. That is about lions and buffaloes in a national park in South Africa. It has the turning points of a Hollywood movie, but it's just an amateur film that has lions and buffaloes.
Interesting. And if I'm not mistaken, the bus scene that concludes Force Majeure sort of exists on YouTube?
Yeah, exactly. That has to be the third one. It's Idiot Spanish Bus Driver Almost Kills Students.
There's already a lot of bus play in your filmography. Do you have some sort of attraction to buses or the public space of a bus?
Yes, buses are even more interesting than trams and subways because, in a bus, the driver can make it kill everybody. Let's say that we have a president of the US that we don't 100% trust and that has gone mad. When should we react? When should we revolt? When should we create the military so we are taking back the power? That's why it's very interesting to compare a bus ride, and all the passengers on the bus, with society.