There was no sophomore slump for Joachim Trier. In the annals of second features, his Oslo, August 31st may be one of the very best. Heartbreaking from beginning to end, the tragic drama told the story of a recovering addict attempting to start anew. Few films have captured the desperation of someone trying to press the proverbial reset button.
Against all odds, the Norwegian director returns with an equally impressive third feature, Louder Than Bombs. Shot in New York City, the film chronicles the tumultuous aftermath of a mother’s death, and the grief of the family she left behind. In conversation, Trier candidly launched into a myriad of topics, from familial dysfunction to unpacking his endless ambition to just wanting to impress women in film school.
The A.V. Club: Were there any major difference in shooting in Oslo versus shooting in New York, as you did for Louder Than Bombs?
Joachim Trier: I’m living very differently, because in Oslo there are 500,000 people and New York is like 12 million or something, if you look at the surrounding boroughs.
AVC: Too many.
JT: The strange thing is that the world is becoming more and more similar. People are wearing the same cool sneakers and listening to the same cool song in those cities, which I discovered when I did Reprise, which I thought was very specifically Norwegian, and then suddenly, I meet the wonderful Lorin Stein, the editor of the Paris Review, which is based in New York. And he’s like, “Reprise is my favorite movie, let’s do an interview. It’s about the people I know,” he said. There’s also this sense that people deal with some of the same things in both our countries. And it’s also made me believe that it’s possible to make movies anywhere.
AVC: You make it sound like that hasn’t always been true.
JT: I think it must be more like that now that it was 20 years ago. I think that parent-child relationships that my American friends are going through are very similar to ones that we have in Norway. Separation and individuality.
AVC: Dysfunctional is what you’re telling me?
JT: Which family have you ever known that’s not a little bit dysfunctional?
AVC: Uninteresting ones?
JT: And you wouldn’t want to make stories about them, would you? That sense of separation between parent and child and the different perspective a sibling with the same parent has—as a Norwegian, I feel that stuff is home turf, even though I’m shooting in New York.
AVC: Do you come from a family of dysfunction?
JT: Sure, we’ve got our fair share. I wouldn’t be a filmmaker if I didn’t. It’s different than in the film, though. I don’t think I’ve made a film that’s directly relating to the individuals in my family. I co-wrote it with Eskil Vogt—he comes in with ideas. It’s not autobiographical, this film, but it’s personal. There’s a distinction there that’s important, because we’re dealing with things that we find narratively interesting, thematically interesting, and it might reveal itself later in life why we did it. It’s not like I sit down and analytically say, “I need to think about this specific problem because I have experienced it.”
AVC: So you don’t see film as therapy? Because there are people who say, “I don’t go to therapy, I make movies, and I channel whatever I’m feeling into a film.”
JT: There’s an element of that, yes, but I think what’s interesting about this process is that we use four specific formal elements, like this type of voice-over in this sequence, or this type of dynamic in that relationship, and then slowly, the humanity of it comes out. And I don’t start and go, “Oh I want to make a sentimental movie.” They’re just characters I’m curious about.
AVC: How long did it take you to write this?
JT: Several years. We actually wrote a draft that took us a couple of years before I did Oslo, August 31st, and then we did that, came back. It changed—not necessarily therapeutically, but it just changes to make a film. You aesthetically grow. And then we had to redraft Louder again, and go through other drafts. And when the cast came in, we redrafted again to make it more specific, and I was fortunate enough to have rehearsal time, and then you redraft again. So it’s an ongoing process, and then you edit. “Oh, let’s change the voice-over there.” It’s an ongoing process.
AVC: It sounds exhausting, but worth it.
JT: I think so. When I get put up in the Ritz and get a fancy-schmancy suite, I’m not complaining. I get chocolate! I must keep making movies, I think.
AVC: But are you happy with your movies?
JT: Well, asking people about their movies is like asking them about their children, you know. Which one do you like the most? That one’s got crooked teeth, that one’s got strange eyes. I see that they’re not perfect. But you know what? I love them. They’re a part of who I am.
AVC: And what if your kid is kind of messing up, and you think there could be some room for correcting?
JT: [Laughs.] Well that’s the process of making it, isn’t it? It’s wrangling that kid and putting boundaries down. Molding them, tricking them. Stimulating them, growing them. It’s all bullshit and trickery. If you’re not a bullshit artist to a certain degree, you can’t be a filmmaker. We don’t need to watch Orson Welles to learn that. I don’t watch my films when I’m done with them. I leave them behind. I think it’s healthy to move on and do the next one. By the time you’re done with a film, you have fiddled and looked at it in so many ways that you’re ready to move on to the next. And it’s hard also to see it from the outside. I recently watched Reprise for the first time in nine years. They did a retrospective with a show of all my skateboard movies and all my shit at the Norwegian Cinematheque and I ended up—
AVC: You just called your movies shit.
JT: I did some shitty shorts. They’re not my kids, I adopted them away. I gave them away.
AVC: This analogy, man…
JT: [Laughs.] Maybe we should stay away from it. I have to accept them as well.
AVC: Do you think you have to go through the shit to make…?
JT: Of course. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just an advanced expensive form of self-harm, maybe.
AVC: Where did Oslo, August 31st come from?
JT: It’s a film that deals with extreme loneliness, and I could tell you four different versions here. One of them could be about people I’m close to that have gone down really dark paths. People that I wasn’t able to bring with me further in my life.
AVC: So the film was your response to this darkness?
JT: Yeah, it’s a response. I’ve seen people go down and die down that path, and I’ve seen people come back and be strong. It’s a mystery to me, and that’s why I do these things. But I also know that in order to make something you need to recognize an emotion about yourself. So you go at it a little bit like an actor. Anders [Danielsen Lie], who played the lead in the film, he was so distraught during that shoot and it was terrible for him and his girlfriend and everyone. Not to be the cool, flex-your-muscles method actor, but it was what was needed for him to be able to represent that character, to be in that state of mind every day at work. It took him several months to recover, seriously. And I think as a filmmaker, also, you go into it and you come out thinking, “Jesus that was a tough period of making it, but I’m glad I did.” And there’s also joy in the process of creating something, making something with your hands—the physical process of shooting is when I’m the happiest. Because I don’t check my mail, I don’t have my phone around, I just fucking focus on beat by beat.
AVC: There’s nowhere else that you’re more happy?
JT: Maybe there are, but this is at least a place where I forget a lot of bullshit on my life and focus on something and do it.
AVC: What’s the bullshit?
JT: You know, life’s full of a million things. Like you have too many emails that you’ve got to answer and you don’t know how, because someone will demand you for something actually smart to say. Life is short, and all this stuff you want to get done. It’s worried me since I was a kid.
AVC: Have you always been ambitious?
JT: For some strange reason, yes.
AVC: Why strange?
JT: Without doing a seminar on Alice Miller’s The Drama Of The Gifted Child or anything—we could go very psychoanalytic on this—there must be something in my life that made me have that kind of crazy drive. When I break danced as a kid, I became one of the best in Norway—when I became a skateboarder, I won a championship several times. And then I got into National Film School, and was the youngest person to ever do that, yada yada yada. Yes, I’m ambitious, but I’m also starting to grow up and realize there’s some stuff worth running for and certain things you shouldn’t. I’m trying to grow as an artist. By changing my aesthetic and changing my storytelling, I’m hoping to grow and develop. That’s what I’m here to do. I love it when people love my work, but I hope they accept that I change and try different things. Because if not, then there’s no point.
AVC: And you’re rapidly changing.
JT: I think Louder is a new thing. I haven’t done something like this before. I took a lot more risks dramaturgically. I’ve been on the road with these films for a few years, and I thought, “You know, dramaturgy is a personal thing and you should really try to do it your way and not abide to the rules.” I’ve certainly walked the walk with this one—we try to do some set pieces that are not the same. It’s a fragmented structure.
AVC: You mentioned there are parts in Louder that are especially personal to you. What are those moments?
JT: I think it’s the need to control the people around you to feel like you’re okay with yourself. Another theme could be the need to keep secrets, yet the need to feel accepted as who you are. The need that Conrad feels to convey himself to others but doesn’t know how. The dichotomy of a parent wanting to be ambitious and yet wanting to have a safe home and have a family—that whole dichotomy I even deal with in Reprise. I’m a filmmaker and it’s a very wacky job that kind of takes you away from all the people you dig for a long time.
AVC: Did you know from the beginning how you wanted to tell this story?
JT: In this one yes, because I was dealing so much with memory and perception. It’s a cinematic party, it’s a feast. Something had happened a little bit after I did Reprise. I got a lot of scripts sent my way asking, “Can you shake it up and make it a little more Reprise-ish?”
AVC: What the hell does that mean?
JT: That means cut it in a strange structure. And I’m like, “It’s not a spice you bring.” So it’s got to be coherent in the premise that character, theme, and form relate to each other.
AVC: So coherency is important to you?
JT: Good question. I don’t abide to coherency of storytelling like a lot of people do and a lot of people demand me to.
AVC: Who demands you to?
JT: You get script consultants, critics, what have you. People talk about movies, what they should be, what’s the virtue of cinema. Some people say you’ve got to use the same lens in the whole scene. People write these book and get famous, books on dramaturgy, how to tell a story. You have to have a main character on page 30 have a big insight. Whatever, dude. I’m not about that coherency, but I think there needs to be thematic coherency, that you develop a theme throughout a film, to allow the audience to be with it, to interpret it, to know that you’re saying, “I’m being serious. I’m talking about something and coming back to it in these scenes.”
AVC: You want the audience to come along with you.
JT: Of course, that’s very important for me.
AVC: But it’s not for every director.
JT: I teach at film school and there’s distinction between denotation and connotation. Denotation—like what happens and what’s going on—you have to be clear about what you want the audience to understand. So that man walks in and he meets his wife and his wife is mad at him—don’t be opaque. Let’s be specific about that. Then connotation, the interpretation of why she’s mad or how we should perceive him as a person, that’s interpretation. I see a lot of young filmmakers in film school, and I say, “Why does that happen?” And they say, “I think it should be up to the audience, it can just be interpreted.” No, that shouldn’t be interpreted. You need to be clear when you’re being vague or when you’re being ambiguous in a productive way. That’s the art. That’s the line that we’re playing with.
AVC: And what do you want people to take away from this movie?
JT: I want people to feel that I’m speaking truthfully about family life on some level, but I also want them to be allowed to have space to think about their own life. I like the fact that filmmakers don’t talk down to me. The space and sound of a theater is quite unique—it’s almost meditative. It’s one of the last resources where people can shut the fuck up and sit together and experience something together on a big screen, and just breathe and think and bring their own life to it. And think about, “Oh, wow, what is my relationship with my parents or my children?” That space is important.
AVC: Do you find your students drifting away from emotion and just wanting to do this cool shot or this opaque thing?
JT: What I could say is that I think all artists go through phases of being a mannerist—you try to emulate a master like it’s part of your training. True art doesn’t arrive until they are able to bring some of their own stuff, their own lives, their own uniqueness.
AVC: When did that happen for you?
JT: I went to the National Film And Television School, and my first year, I was a bit frustrated. I was forced to work with some screenwriters I didn’t like, and I had to do these exercises and I felt like I wanted to do my film. So I said, “I’m gonna quit unless I get to write the script with a buddy of mine [Eskil Vogt] in Norway. We did a film called “Pietà,” which is a pretentious film about mothers and sons, with this kind of Oedipal backstory, but I’m really proud of it because it divided people. Some people at school thought I was a pretentious prick, and some people said, “Jeez, man, that’s fucking awesome.” It’s original at least—a lot of people are trying to be like the grownups, do a proper film with proper dialogue.
I said, “This is my aesthetic, this is my cinema.” I referred to Stanley Kubrick and Hitchcock and Alain Resnais, and all this shit. I was the biggest nerd at the time. I did the film I wanted to do. To feel that at least some people got it, that was a real achievement for me. I grew up with a lot of people around me being musicians, and the bands and the music that I loved, when I was younger, like hip-hop and punk, were not necessarily the most popular. There’s a real pressure on filmmakers to have to make these commercial, function-for-all types of movies at the moment. It’s just amazing. Gaspar Noé just does his thing—this weird, passionate porn in 3-D. Great, someone did that, thank you. I saw Girlhood, and that was fantastic. Paul Thomas Anderson is getting to do his stuff, and that’s great. He’s incredible—he’s a real master. What a hero. I love that guy. What a great, great director. It’s great to see Martin Scorsese working!
AVC: On set, are you receptive to actors bringing idea to the table?
JT: If they’re good ideas, they’ll stick. Devin Druid, who played Conrad, brought a lot of his knowledge of video gaming—he knows that stuff. We wanted it to be authentic. He was correcting us on some stuff.
AVC: Earlier, you were talking about going from thing to thing—that temporary obsessiveness with a singular object. Do you think that’s a healthy approach?
JT: I don’t know—it’s not an approach. It just is what it is. The reasons that you do what you do might be changing. I’ll give you an example: I was much more interested in impressing girls when I did my short films then I am when I make my movies now.
AVC: Of course.
JT: Getting into film school and being over-worked because you’re working 16 hours a day, you kind of want to impress people in this specific way. And maybe now I want to impress people differently. And maybe now it’s more about what I can do with a movie on a genuine level.