With the release of Louder Than Bombs marking the English language debut for the esteemed Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier, we discussed the notion of national identity, in regards to cinema, when privileged enough to sit down with him in central London to discuss the release of his latest endeavour.
He talks about what the term ‘Norwegian cinema’ means to him, while also explaining why he felt compelled to examine the life of teenage gamers in his latest endeavour, and the benefits of tackling the ensemble feature. He also discusses with us his favourite 80s movies, a conversation inspired by the very mention of the words, ‘Hey U Guys’…
Where does this name come from?
It’s a line from The Goonies, please don’t make me say it…
[Laughs] Some of my favourite films when I grew up were The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Risky Business – films about adolescence that were so complex and truthful and even though I was sitting in Norway watching these American stories of high school life I could identify with them, I felt them. I was a little bit younger than those characters at that time, but I remember watching The Breakfast Club and thinking, I hope I get problems like that, because they were so interesting. So when you come into the room and mention your website is based on a quote from The Goonies, I just had to geek out and give my respect to 80s American cinema.
It’s interesting because you have a teenager at the heart of your story, and a lot of filmmakers do like to explore the notion of youngsters coming of age, is this you projecting your own nostalgia through the medium of cinema? Why are these type of characters so absorbing?
It’s several things. There’s a purity in the way they perceive the world, and as a filmmaker you’re looking for a pure eye. Movies make us watch the world closer than we do in our everyday life. The wind in the trees, you know, who has time to stop to look at that? But suddenly in a movie that becomes the most beautiful thing in the world.
The plastic bag dancing in the breeze…
Exactly. I’m also interested because I am curious to explore what is going on right now. Conrad is an introverted gamer kid, and a lot of people who watch the film worry about how he may end up because there’s this brooding sense of something almost violent at play, before we realise more and more about who he is. I was interested in taking a non-judgemental approach to the present day teenager. Everybody says movies are threatened by games these days, because there are millions and millions of kids around the world that at the same time of night meet up online and play each other, and become friends. Why be so judgemental? That’s an interesting world. His pure idealism and innocence I admire, and it makes for an interesting dramatic concept.
I found Conrad to be quite relatable, in spite of his oddities.
I’m glad – I wanted him to be a human.
But maybe it’s because I’m an older brother, I connected more so with Jesse Eisenberg’s character and adopted his perspective. But I imagine a parent would look at this through Gabriel Byrne’s eyes – have you had many people telling you which character meant most to them and who they saw this story through? And was that the point for you – did you want this to be a film you could enter in to from so many different angles?
You’ve said. This is it. Every film has its strengths and weaknesses and I think the strength of this film, in my opinion, is that I’ve never made a film where so many come and tell me different passionate perspectives on it. Some identify with the teenager, some with Jesse Eisenberg and becoming a parent for the first time and how devastatingly scary that is. Or being a grown man and losing the person you love and trying to move on, and grappling with children who want to leave home – there are so many perspectives in this film and that is the fun thing about it.
But whose story do you think this is, primarily?
The family’s. I had someone talk to me about the impossibility of doing an ensemble film, that there should be a main protagonist, that’s the rule. What the hell, why? One of my favourite films is The Godfather and that’s a film about a father, a big brother, and you know who runs away with the story? The little brother, Michael Corleone. It’s been done before, I’m not that original let’s be honest [laughs].
There’s a successful writing partnership at the moment between Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, and what’s interesting about that is that they are both directors. Which is exactly the same dynamic between you and Eskil Vogt – do you think having two directors writing a screenplay breeds a certain understanding into the process that benefits the finished product?
I think you’re on to something. I’ve never thought about the Danish collaboration, that’s very interesting. But Eskil and me, it’s definitely to do with that. Like when we do a dialogue scene we both understand the spacial ideas of movements, we both care about the situations and the actions, equally as the words that are spoken, and that’s because he is a director too. Our screenplays are thought up visually more so than many other screenplays, and have more detail in them. That’s something that I like, to think of concepts and visuals as much as the dialogue.
Can you see yourself doing what Eskil has done, and write for other directors?
No. I feel very lucky to have Eskil who does both and feels satisfied by that, but I can’t wait to get on set, that’s where I enjoy my life the most.
This is your first English language film of course – was there a sense of inevitability this would happen? In that there’s this idea in cinema that you progress once you make an English language film, which I find odd.
Yeah that is odd. But what’s important to mention I that I went to film school in England. For me, because I come from a country with a language spoken only by 5 million, it felt like I needed to study abroad and I was interested in working in English. Also, there are so many great actors. But I’m happy in the future to also do Norwegian films, I want to do both. So yeah you’re right, but every time I do a movie it’s equally as important, be it in Norwegian or English. But to work with Isabelle Huppert and Gabriel Byrne and Jesse Eisenberg, that’s great. That’s fun.
Every film is a challenge for a filmmaker, but it must be one that is made just that little bit easier when dealing with such a talented cast?
Absolutely. They’re very smart, they’re very experienced. I’m sitting there with the DP and thought, lets change to a 50mm lens, and Isabelle goes, ‘oh, the 50. Chabrol always used the 50.’ and I’m like, wow! We learnt to much from her and she has so many great anecdotes. She’s remarkable. It was a real blessing.
The film played in Cannes almost a year ago – it’s an incredible journey a film goes on, and you go on, that lasts such a long time. You’ve been promoting it for a year now – it must be an odd, exhausting side to this job, when dealing with the longevity a film has beyond it’s initial release?
That’s true, that’s true, it’s a good question. But this is the end, I’m starting on my next film so I wont’ be promoting this any more. These are the final days. I enjoy it though, I don’t go back to my movies, I don’t watch them again, I move on, try something new. But it’s true, it’s a long journey, particularly with the very personal films I do, I have a band of people I work with and we try to develop our own style and do our own thing, so I owe it to the team to talk about it properly and take it seriously. Not just for promotion, but this our legacy, what we do with this perhaps short career you get as a filmmaker. You never know. I dream of working forever, but you never know. So these things matter. They’re important.
Do you ever go back and watch your previous films?
I close the door, like an iron gate, and I throw away the key. You’ve got to. When I stop the editing I’ve never wanted to go back. But I did watch Reprise again on its 10th year anniversary, this year, and it was screening in Norway and all the actors were there, and I was like wow, it actually wasn’t that bad. It was much funnier than I remember, a real comedy. I remember being given a hard time for making very serious movies, but the first half of that movie people were cracking up and laughing out loud. Why wasn’t I ever given credit for that? I was labelled an intellectual filmmaker, yeah, yeah, yeah. Fuck it – I wanna be funny too! [Laughs]
I find that blending of humour and pathos a staple of Scandinavian cinema, there’s this ability to inject comedy no matter what the themes being explored are. Do you think that might be why films and TV series from this region are so popular and accessible in the UK? Because we share the same sense of humour?
Since I’ve lived in both countries, I’m half Danish and half Norwegian and I lived in London for seven years, I think first of all your television culture influenced our life a lot. I watched a lot of British drama and comedies, as it was all shown on Norwegian TV. I grew up on Monty Python. But there’s also a sense of being part of a post-Protestant, guilt-ridden culture. I sometimes feel that Brits are a little like Norwegians just with more self-confidence.
Do you find that given you’re half Danish and Norwegian, and you lived in London, that you’re making Norwegian cinema? Is that how you’d define it?
No, and I have a big problem with the idea of national cinema, I believe it’s the individuals that create art. We are affected by the society and environment we grew up in, but I always get provoked when I am perceived as just this part of a wave of Scandinavian expression. That’s up to other people to answer almost. Did you grow up thinking, ‘oh this is the Brit in me…’ and all that stuff?
Exactly, you don’t – because you perceive yourself as an individual with your friends and your family. Maybe you’re even a little alienated sometimes, and don’t feel that you belong, which is a general human experience too, and suddenly you’re taken as a sample of a national identity that you never really felt at ease with. I grew up as a skateboarder, into punk and hip-hop, and suddenly I’m a Norwegian filmmaker, and they serve me salmon at embassy’s around the world and I’m like, Jesus, what happened? It’s ultimately more complicated, but I am intrigued by other people’s interpretation of what could be defined as being Norwegian, that I might not even be able to see myself, and that’s probably right too. It’s complex.
So finally, you mentioned earlier you’re working on your next project – can you tell us anything about that?
It hasn’t been announced yet, so I don’t say too much because I’m not really allowed to! But I’m hoping we can announce it at Cannes this year and then we can talk more about it.
Is it English language or another of your nationalistic Norwegian films?
[Laughs] It’s a Norwegian film. I hope to do English language after that. I would love to move between the two in my career, that would make me very happy.
Louder Than Bombs is out in UK cinemas today.