Interview: Joachim Trier, director of Oslo, August 31st
With Oslo, August 31st (opening Friday), the Norwegian director of lit-set chronicle Reprise turns to a more solitary portrait of a sharp-witted, depressed addict looking up old friends. FILM COMMENT spoke with Trier shortly after Oslo screened in March as part of New Directors / New Films.
What led you to adapt Le Feu Follet for the 21st century? And how did you go about translating the Paris of its main character, Alain, to Anders’ Oslo?
I saw the Louis Malle film at a point in my life where it really touched me and I thought it was one of the best portrayals of loneliness I’d ever seen in cinema. There’s something interesting about sitting in a movie theater and sharing a sense of loneliness with everyone around you, you know? I saw that there was something about this character of Alain, which I sort of felt I’d seen before in my life around me—a kind of strong, intelligent character with a very self-destructive integrity. Someone who has such high ideals and clear ideas about what could be achieved in life, and then is completely unable to achieve it, and the tragedy of that. So that drew me to it, more than the aspect of him also being an addict.
But another fact is that I grew up skateboarding in Oslo. That was my life for many years, and my friends went into all different directions after we quit skateboarding. Some are musicians or lawyers, some people got heavily into drugs, so I’d seen a lot of destinies of people which have been mysteries to me. Why did people with such similar backgrounds to myself end up in such bad places? This story allowed me to explore that.
The film is about both a person and a city. To what extent is this about Oslo and Norwegian national identity as opposed to Anders personally?
In a way I think that it’s not just about Norway. I think you would find a lot of these resourceful smart people that get very lost in many places in the world. I had a very strange experience with my previous film, Reprise, which we made in Norway, and we tried to be local and specific. But suddenly I’m sitting in New York talking to people from Williamsburg who say, “Well, I have friends who are exactly like that.” Or I talk to someone in Paris and they say the same thing. I’m hoping that for Oslo as well, that people can identify with some sort of human problem of being lost in your existence and the melancholy of that. The film is also very much about friendships and people that try to help this guy, the lead character, and to what extent we can help each other when we’re in a crisis.
Oslo is changing tremendously at the moment as a city and we’re having an explosion of inhabitants in Norway, particularly in Oslo. Which is great but there’s also always something melancholic about the city changing. I’m interested in the character’s inability to change and accept the new. I think the film shows that that’s an ability that you must have. I feel for that sort of nostalgia but I also know about the dangers of it.
You use a lot of structures in the mise en scène to frame the characters in Oslo. Do you see the characters as “boxed in”?
I think mise en scène is the most personal you get as a director. And a lot of it is much more intuitive than to say “Oh I’m putting him up against the wall, he’s trapped.” That to me is a more literal idea than something filmic. Film has to move—a good film image to me is more allegorical, and at its best possible could carry multiple meanings. I’m interested in the movements of things and how to treat space, and how space can somehow carry emotion. Light carries emotion, images are sensuous—you look at an image and you just want to be there or you get drawn to it or it can be mysterious.
This might be a good point to ask you about a technique for portraying conversation that you use in both Reprise and Oslo. Characters are carrying on a conversation, and we hear their voices continue but at a certain point their lips are no longer moving. It reminds me a little of Breathless.
I think there’s something that can become terribly literal sometimes when you just cut between faces talking in real time. And that’s not how I experience reality. You know, in reality your mind is associating all the time, and you talk to someone and that person reminds you of something else that you thought about earlier or you loop back into a theme in a conversation. And I’m interested in portraying that. How minds are jumpy and scattered and you’re not always just thinking at that one particular theme or that turning point of the scene that sometimes drama forces us to express. In reality things can be more chaotic.
You use the device in two very intimate scenes—between Kari and Phillip in Reprise, and between Thomas and Anders in Oslo.
Those are two good examples. Kari and Phillip: it’s very specific in Reprise because in a meeting between people who’ve been together and haven’t seen each other in a long time, there are all these expectations about what should I say or what did I just say. You’re so nervous and it’s full of tension and hope, and they’re also really pondering the past in that scene and looking for a way to talk in a very awkward situation. With Anders and Thomas in Oslo, August 31st, a part of the project with this film was portraying a type of conversation that I haven’t seen in films so much, which is that really complicated, heavy talk that you can have with friends when they’re in a bad place. And you’re feeling that you’re really at a loss as to how you’re going to help them. They’re both incredibly intelligent characters, but it doesn’t make it easier for them. The more intelligent people are, sometimes the more avoiding they can get, the more language traps them and meaning is fleeting. You’re trying to say the right thing but it comes out differently. So we were trying to find a way of doing that, that would be intriguing and involving to people. I’m very happy we did that even though I was very nervous doing it, I must admit.
Speaking of language, could you talk about the relationship between film and literature since both your films deal with this?
I think literature has conquered vast territories of possibilities within the last hundred years, hundred and fifty years. Films have as well but sometimes it’s hard to tell and very often happens in the margins, in more experimental films or films that are not so much seen. The paradox is, I find, that if you look at the narrative experiments in literature, if you look at Faulkner, if you look at the new novel in French literature in the Forties and Fifties, there’s actually inspiration to be found for how film as a narrative form can develop. So the paradox with Reprise for example, was that we were kind of humorously, mockingly, making literal references with voiceover and stuff like that. But actually we found that it liberated us to do something with the images and the storytelling, which we found to be actually quite filmic and quite particular for how you can use montage and show trains of thought with images.
The character Anders and the actor Anders [Danielsen Lie] share a first name. Was there any intention to blur the line between character and actor in the audience’s perception?
I think it was about the process of making the film. This film was done very quickly and we wanted there to be spontaneity and we wanted people to be able to bring up from themselves into it and to see what kind of energy that created. Anders—except for my co-writer Eskil and I—was the first person that we went to when making this film. And in a way we wanted to use himself. Anders, the actor, has never had any addiction issues like the character, at all, but he’s a multitalented person, he’s a doctor, he’s a musician, he’s written a book. He’s what I would call a modern renaissance man, so we challenged him to imagine a dark alternative fictional universe where someone with those kind of talents wasn’t able to achieve anything, and the tragedy of that. So it was kind of, almost, to provoke him a bit that we stayed with the name.
Oslo and Reprise present very strong male bonds and male friendships. But the women don’t seem to provide the intellectual stimulation that their male counterparts do, and marriage puts an end to creativity…
You feel that way about both films or mostly Reprise?
It’s an interesting question you’re asking. I would say Reprise is very particularly about young men and their difficulties dealing with girls. They’re all very different. Anders, who plays Phillip in that film, that character is longing for love and relations and feeling unable to connect. Erik, his friend, is very immature and actually ends up hurting himself through hurting someone else. Porno Lars, who’s talking very misogynistically about girls because he’s insecure, he ends up in a very classic middle-class relationship at the end of the film, so that film is very much about that as a theme. In Oslo, August 31st I’m also dealing with a male character who has difficulties connecting with relationships because he himself has sabotaged them and destroyed them, and that’s the very clear point of view of that story.
But I wouldn’t say that I find the women… There are several female characters in Oslo and I find that they are strong and smart on an equal basis. For example, his ex-girlfriend at the party is someone that he’s looked up to because she’s cool and just not applying to the petit-bourgeois values of a lot of their surroundings, but actually she also feels trapped in that role as a lot of us do. You know, you end up having a life and it sometimes comes out more conventionally than you hoped for. And I also think that there’s a sense of clarity in his best friend Thomas’s girlfriend, the way that she approaches the need to talk about things more directly rather than to intellectualize and through that avoid things.
Music is a big part of both movies. I completely related to the scene with Anders at the piano in Oslo—when you’re practicing and it’s not going so well but you power through, and then, just, something minor happens and you give up, and it’s the worst feeling. Do you come from a music background?
I don’t play any instrument myself which I think is really sad, but I grew up with a lot of musicians around me and most of my friends were in bands. This is my way of compensating: making movies with a group of people is me trying to put together a band. Anders the character is so talented, and he hasn’t really felt that he’s achieved anything. And he has an inability to laugh at himself and accept his failures, which we must—we can’t survive without accepting that we’re clowns and idiots. So the whole issue of music in the film is somehow symbolic of that.
Are you working on a new film?
Yeah! I’ve finished a new script, it’s called Louder Than Bombs, and we’re hoping to shoot it this fall. It’s a U.S. project so if things work out as we’re hoping, we’ll be shooting somewhere north of New York, upstate or something, this fall. It’s a family drama and we’re trying to do something funny and as always a bit melancholic, bittersweet, dealing with the very subjective perception we all have of the same events in a family, as siblings and as parents. You know, how incredibly different we remember things. It’s telling the story of a family that’s going through a tough time, but it’s also a journey of how they learn to connect with each other.
Is Anders going to be in it?
Anders is not going to be in it because he’s a doctor now, you know. He’s doing his internship and so he’s removing appendixes as we speak.