With only three feature films under his belt, Norwegian helmer Joachim Trier is quickly establishing himself as a world class filmmaker with his thoughtful, mature and emotionally resonating cinema. With his English language debut, Louder than Bombs, about a family dealing with the death of a matriach, releasing state side this weekend, I had a chance to catch up with him. Fiercely intelligent and extremely generous, Trier talked at great length about working with his amazing ensemble cast.
ScreenAnarchy: This is your first English language film. What were some of the challenges you faced?
Joachim Trier: I went to film school in London (National Film and TV School) and because we grew up in Norway watching American movies with subtitles and with American voices, rather than overdubbed dialog in a country like Germany, we had a real advantage to listen to the language and learn it that way. I spent 7 years in England and I have a lot of friends in America, spent a lot of time in New York, so has Eskil [Vogt, co-writer].
But I would say it was different because Eskil and I were a little more insecure. We were worried that we weren’t getting the right wording or phrasing. So we stayed open with people, like consultants and actors - we asked them to help us to correct things and they helped us change little things. At the end of the day, most of the people found that the dialog was good. The thing is dialog is more dynamic than it is just about words, and because I’m not precious about dialog, if the actors wanted to change words here and there, like they do even in Norway, it's was fine with me.
But what was more challenging almost was the idea of getting the attitudes and culture right since we fitted this story into present day America. We ended up doing a High School life movie. I know that life from John Hughes movies. But we went to High Schools for real and did some anthropological research so we get authenticity. I really hope we nailed it. We really spent time on it.
I think it was great.
The thing is, whenever I watch your films, I feel like I’m reading a really good book. And I mean it as a compliment. I’m definitely not saying that your films aren’t cinematic, but it’s so well written and characters are so beautifully drawn. I know that you don’t want your films to be pigeonholed but I’d say you make the most literary films even more so than Woody Allen does.
For me, the word literary has two sides to it. I am a film fan. And because film history is so young, one could strive to think ‘what is purely cinematic?’ ‘what’s so unique about this art form?’ These are the essences of how we start out the process. It sounds maybe weird but Eskil and I often say, 'it would be more filmic, if…' and then we try to find a way to do something that has to do with form, or visuality or what we call gestalt - you know, something is shown not told.
But the interesting thing about the inspiration in literature is not the story for us, it’s the freedom of the novel as a form. So the novel as a literary form as I’m sure you are aware, is not that old either. If you look back to the French naturalists in the 1860s, the idea that there have been so many stages since then, of the novel being interpreted- the poetic, the formalist, the naturalist… there are so many. So the idea of form at the essence of storytelling is what I’m often intrigued by. For example there are a lot of those chapters that is more like a diary and you see a scene from two perspectives. To me that is filmic, but it’s going off of just straight storytelling, like the best novels often do. It’s the potential of storytelling in novels I am interested in.
Another example is the visual potential in films of Terrence Malick or…Barry Lindon or in Good Fellas for instance, where a lot of narration is done, so you get a lot of the plot out of the way so images can be more filmic. you know what I mean? You can actually say that often times plot enslaves the image to tell a plot, which is not necessarily always so filmic. That’s actually something that literature also struggles with. The idea of plot is that it has to function.
My films are not plot driven. They are character, emotionally, thematically driven. So I’m having the same challenge as a lot of people in literature to find ways to let more tactile and philosophical moments mean something and emotionally engaging. This is quite complex and I don’t know If my answers are even clear. I hope it makes sense.
It does make sense.
It’s something that I ponder upon. But when you say literary cinema, I choose to take it as a compliment because the same was said about filmmakers like Alain Renais or Truffaut, the people that I have been inspired by.
The film has an amazing cast. I know that we don’t have too much time but can you tell me a little about working with these actors? You have Isabelle Huppert, one of the greatest actress of our time, Gabriel Byrne whom I always thought a great actor who never gets a good role, then of course, Jesse Eisenberg and young newcomer Devin Druid…
Oh please! I’d love to talk about each of them if the time allows!
Isabelle got in touch with me after Oslo, August 31st. She liked it and she wanted to meet me and we started talking and…I think she is one of the greatest actors of all cinematic history. I think she’s one of the top people…she IS cinema history: working with her I feel one step closer to understanding why. She is a big risk taker. She is one of the bravest actress I’ve ever met. And she never goes safe. She always tries new things - you will get variations on a scene continually, which is… yeah she never goes for the safe choice or sloppy choice. She’s incredibly bold and brave.
As a side bar, I love shooting with a 50mm lens and I was talking to my cinematographer Jakob Ihre one day and she goes, “Oh, you guys, Chabrol always loved shooting with 50mm…” And it dawned on us that she’s worked with some of the cinema’s greatest directors. She knows modern film history and that she really IS film history!
Then we have, Gabriel Byrne. I agree with you who is a great actor. He is so humble, yet so precise. He always said to me, “You know I’m not really an actor. I never went to school in that way and I just do it and, I don’t know…” He is very very humble, but if you get him in front of the camera he’s always interesting. And he is a thinking man. He could be silent and observing and you go, what’s he thinking? That’s a great gift for an actor. He also takes a carer's responsibility. He is a very natural father in this family because he is a very kind and gentle in real life.
One thing I loved about his character is that he is not a typical patriarchal father you see. You don’t see that in American films often.
You see, men can also be carers. It is very important and I’m glad you bring it up because for this film, I think many men would stay away from this role. I think there is a slight prejudice. Yes, we can discuss the very important issue of letting women play many different roles. In real life women play many more roles in society. I am a feminist and I believe in that absolutely. Very important. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight, at the same time, for men to be allowed to play different roles as well. We are all struggling existentially with being restricted, continually, in having to live up to expectations which don’t make us feel that we are allowing ourselves to be more than we could, you know, or be what we can be.
Gene’s story is not about patriarchy, playing the role of the authoritarian father. It’s about playing the role many mothers have played, as the carer, the one that ultimately is the pivot of the family. And he is the only one for the children to be present at the same time being pushed away, because this idealized mother is no longer around. So that’s very much Gabriel.
Let’s touch on some of the other actors as well.
Jesse (Eisenberg) is remarkable. He comes from comedic tradition and he is very very funny. But he’s great with structure. He understands every beat of the scene and he is so well prepared. I don’t give notes between takes. I might try to insinuate emotions or directions or try to make this discovery in the actors. But with him, you can actually be very specific. You can say, “with that line, you can do this.” Like 5 or 6 points in a long take and he’s go, “got it.” He’s the only actor that I worked with whom you can give instructions like that. He's like a waiter taking an order around the table of twelve. (laughs)
He has a great capacity to remember these things and he likes to show off a little bit. He is a virtuoso in his way of doing things. But what I’m also happy about, is that regardless of his incredible skills, he is also allowing in this film to be emotional and…
That’s the word. I knew that that was very important for the role. It took a little bit of work for us to find the tone but I’m ultimately so happy that he opened up to doing more vulnerable work and I really appreciated working with him. He is a great guy.
Then there is this last role. We were nervous about finding a young kid who has to work with these great actors. Where are we going to find this 15 year old kid? And I was so happy that Laura Rosenthal, a great casting director brought Devin Druid to our attention. He is really really good. I can recommend him highly enough to other directors. I’m not just saying this as a director being nice. I’d love to work with him again. I’m so intrigued by how emotionally available he is. Because he is so young, I imagine people will think that it’s just luck. “Oh, he’s just spontaneous but he can’t be a great crafty actor because he's so young." His instincts for preparing and knowing how to use the knowledge that he’s given to make it playable is remarkable.
I’ll tell you, sometimes he’d be in an emotional zone and he discovered already in that young age what actors take years to discover- how to sustain that emotional state. You can shoot a scene with him like that all day. It can very hard and painful if it’s an emotional scene. People run dry quick. He was able to reengage with his own technique that I don’t really know how, in an emotional state that is sustainable for a long time. And at the end of the day he goes, "Oh I need to sleep now," (laughs) and comes back in and does something else. Devin is a very intuitive guy but there is more preparation in what he does.
If you allow me, I’d love to mention a few other people as well, because this is an ensemble.
By all means.
I never get enough time to talk about Amy Ryan, David Strathairn and Rachel Brosnahan. I wanted to make an ensemble film. Like Lumet or Coppola, all these great American directors did so many of these great ensemble films. But I never imagined I’d get people like this in smaller roles.
Amy Ryan is amazing. She’s one of the best actresses in the world. My editor [Olivier Bugge Coutté], whenever the rushes came in with the scene with her, he was like, "Who is she? Everything with her is good!"
David Strathairn is remarkable. I mean he is one of the greats.
He is almost too cool. He is such a smart and generous guy. and there seems to be so much interesting and exciting stuff going on in his life so I don’t think he is chasing around all the available parts. He is very picky in choosing roles which I completely respect. So I felt honored that he actually came on set. I dig him. He’s like, oh I’ll drive to the set myself. He is very unpretentious. I love him.
Rachel Brosnahan, you know her from House of Cards. She is this new talent and what’s so great about her is she has natural grace in the way she appears in front of the camera. But there is no vanity with her. She came in and she does a couple of scenes where she is exposing emotions where a lot of actresses would perhaps try to beautify it. But she creates beauty through just being real. She has a great instinct and knack for naturalism and I really respect that in her. In her generation of actresses, there are so many who is just choosing to be a pretty girl. She has that natural grace, she doesn’t need to, you know.
So Devin Druid and Rachel Brosnahan are the two young actors we will see more of in the near future?
Yeah I’d love that. It makes me happy to see that there are real great actors coming up in the next generation. It just makes me feel excited. That’s something that led me in the first place to make films in America, the actors.
There is a certain melancholy in your films. Even though there are many funny moments in LOUDER THAN BOMBS, There is certain sadness. I want to talk about the theme of death in your films.
Yeah. Louder than Bombs deals with, I guess, eroticism in death, a lot. We are also dealing with a young mind, a 15-year old, who is going through adolescence and he is being infatuated with a girl for the first time, at the same time he is grieving his mother. So there is this sex and death thing going on. (laughs)
Also those eternal themes,I care about those things. To be personal for a second, I think I was quite concerned while I was very young. I was obsessed with memory and mortality. I was very worried about the short time we have on earth. I am an atheist, so I believe this is it. This time is all I got. I don’t believe in afterlife, at least not with this conscience. So that's a pretty tough premise. Much of our culture is in denial of that. At the same time, it gives us a purpose for action and to do things and can also be a trigger for creation even.
So my film reflects my existential curiosity. I don't want to be perceived as pretentious, I think it’s unanimous human quandary and I care about stories that deal with how we construct or accept ourselves through perception of memory and how we know that it’s not infinite and how that affects out relationships. In this film specifically - 3 years ago, a husband and two sons the mother of the family. That affects how each of them engage, with the women - the new women, new partners in their lives. What aftereffects does that have in the erotic and the ability to build a relationships. That's what we are asking in this film. And that has melancholic implications.
So what’s next for you?
I haven’t announced my next film yet because we are not one hundred percent sure yet. So I’m not talking about it so much at the moment. But what I can say on the record is that I am writing and hope to shoot it this fall in Norway. A quick one we’re working on- am working on with Eskil at the moment: back in the room with my old friend. And we are coming up with some new things and we hope to get to make it and I think we will. So hopefully we will be talking soon again with something else. It’s in Norwegian this time but hopefully it will be in English again after that.
Louder than Bombs opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, April 8. National roll outs will follow.
Dustin Chang is a freelance wrtier. His musings and opinions on cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com