Interview: Lukas Moodysson
Almost as habitually misapplied as “genius,” “Surreal,” or “hilarious,” punk—the music, the style, the attitude—has lost nearly all of its original menace and meaning. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show “PUNK: From Chaos to Couture” neatly sums up this wussification, with its title and existence.) But despite punk’s steady corporate colonization, there have always been plenty of true believers. Based on wife Coco Moodysson’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel, Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! tells the tale of Bobo and Klara, two prepubescent Stockholm punks in 1982. Discouraged from self-expression (or ignored) by their families, teachers, and classmates, and harassed for their DIY, androgynous haircuts, the pair pick up instruments and bang out their lone song, “Hate the Sport,” after school at a rec center. They become a proper band after recruiting Hedvig, an ostracized Christian girl who’s a classical guitar virtuoso, and their first show results in a full-blown riot. Uplifting, energetic, and very true to life, We Are the Best! marks Moodysson’s return to previous work like Show Me Love (98) and Together (00). FILM COMMENT spoke with the charmingly diffident Swedish director, whose new film opens Friday, in New York.
You took a few years off to teach and write two novels. Why did you choose to “return” to filmmaking with this adaptation?
Maybe because it was simpler to do it that way. I think many writers have that fear of the white page, and it’s nicer to start with something than with nothing. But that wasn’t the main reason. I don’t really remember, but I had a lot of ideas at the time and I was wondering: “Should I write this or should I write that, should I write a novel or should I make a film, what should I do?” And one day I just felt that I knew exactly what to do, and I think it had more to do with not the story, not the details, but just the energy. I wanted to do something that had exactly that kind of energy level. When I picture films or projects, I see them very much in terms of energy, or in terms of tone, or something like that. So that in a way was a response to spending too much thinking and writing about how fragile life is, and wanting to talk about how fantastic life is.
This was your first adaptation. How much was your wife Coco, who created the original graphic novel, involved in the production process?
Not at all. She said yes, and then she said “Okay [gestures with hands pushing away].” I showed her the script in different versions, I would re-write a lot, and she has this expression—I’m not sure if it’s her expression or if it’s a Swedish expression—but when there’s something that she doesn’t like, she says it’s light brown. The color that’s not really something: dark brown is good, but [this is] light brown, beige, sort of average. And she said that a lot, especially when I tried to be funny. She doesn’t really share my sense of humor, so there were a lot of funny scenes that she felt were sort of beige, light brown. But apart from that, she said yes to everything.
Aside from having direct input from the person who originally wrote the story, how was the writing process different from other things that you’ve worked on? Here you have a very full page to draw from—you have images, you have a story…
Images not so much, because I didn’t care about the images, really. Maybe partly—because I was trying to describe people, the way they were dressed, and the hairstyles and the furniture in someone’s apartment. But I saw the book very much like a text, I think.
How did you compose shots around this incredible chaotic energy and maintain it?
Well, first of all in parentheses, I have to say the book is actually less energetic than the film. I remember when Coco was making the book, she was really struggling with how to portray sound without music. How do you make people look like they’re jumping up and down? It was easy for me to have people screaming in microphones and jumping in a film. The book is called Never Goodnight, so there was a theme of not really wanting to say good night, and not really wanting to sleep, and not really wanting to die. So there was a poetic thing, and the book ends—if I remember correctly—in a dream. So I made it sort of a condensed, more jumpy version of it.
But it was a very, very nice and quite simple writing process, because when I’m writing, I always try to find something to hold onto. It’s scary to make up everything yourself, so when I’m writing about anything, I always try to do a lot of research. Sometimes the research doesn’t really make sense because I can spend so much time researching what knife someone should have in the kitchen, or what kind of TV, and then it turns into an obsession. I can spend days and days and days on things like that and not writing.
It’s a nice distraction from getting things done.
It is a distraction, but at the time it feels like the most important thing. I do think that those kinds of details are important. And I’m really happy when someone sees those things that I spent so much time researching. For example, with this film, I spent a lot of time trying to get the right instruments for the bands that were at the rehearsal place in the youth center. What kind of instruments would they have the money to get for the kids? I asked a friend who played in a lot of bands—I never had a talent to do that, I tried to play drums but I was really bad at it—and we talked a lot about different brands, and about this and that. I was really happy when this one person talked about how the instruments in the film were picked perfectly, and remembered that those were exactly the brands that you would have. That makes me so, so happy!
When you’re composing things visually, do you have an idea of the image before you go to the set? Some of the scenes have a documentary feel.
It’s very much based on instinct. I take a different approach with different scenes, but in general my approach is to put the camera in the corner with the zoom on it, and not discuss very much with the cinematographer, but give a lot of room to him, and to the actors to improvise. And so we don’t discuss a lot before. Between takes I’m like: “Let’s stay a little lighter there, let’s go over to her, we never saw her reaction” or something like that. I have two motivations with this approach: firstly, I want to liberate the actors, letting them just be free in a room and just walk around and do what they want to do, not be restricted. Secondly, this very much corresponds to the way I look at the world, meaning that I feel that I’m normally someone who likes to sit in the corner and look at things, and I’m not always someone who wants to be in the middle of the action. And I really like to zoom in on, for example, TV sets or those small details, but I still want to do it from a perspective, from a little bit of a distance.
I think that if you’re a good director, if you’re the kind of director who’s capable of putting your heart in your films, then your visual style has to correspond a little with how you are as a human being. So if you’re a really energetic action kind of person, I think your style would be like that, like running around. I’m also real bad at planning so I never really do storyboards or anything like that. And I never discuss the serious things with my cinematographer—I have an assistant director that I discuss the serious things with. She and I are always in conversation and we always talk about things. But my cinematographer, I see him more like an actor who’s free to do what he wants.
You have a really great talent for writing female characters, and this is something that even sometimes even women can’t do very well—which is sort of strange. When you are in that process of writing dialogue, or shaping a character arc, how do you do that? What advice would you give to someone to write a great female character?
I don’t really see any big difference between male and female characters. I think it has a little bit to do with attraction, but it has more to do with identification for me. I’ve always been more interested in women than in men. There are a lot of interesting men, and I have two sons and they’re both very nice people, so it’s not like I’m saying that all women are better than men. But I’ve always been more curious about women. When I was young, I thought it was an attraction thing because I’m heterosexual. But I think it goes deeper than that. I always found my grandmother to be a very intriguing and interesting person, and my grandfather I also found very interesting, but I couldn’t really relate to him because he was a farmer and he could fix things. I’ve been happily married for almost 20 years, but I feel very much like we sometimes have the opposite gender stereotypes in some way. My wife can drive a car and I can’t, she can fix things if they’re broken and I can’t do that. And I buy her jewelry, like this one [gestures to a small garnet and diamond bracelet] I bought for her, and she doesn’t want to wear it, so I get to wear it. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I haven’t started wearing dresses and skirts, but…
There’s still time.
Yeah, there’s still time for that.
This story comes from you and your wife’s respective experiences growing up in a punk scene, or at least listening to the music. How do you think youth today can rebel, or is that type of rebellion over because so much of our daily life is mediated through devices?
That’s a very big and complicated matter. For example, my son struggled to find something where he could [find his own way]. I’m quite interested in music, my wife is quite interested in music, and he’s very interested in music, but he of course wanted to find some music that we didn’t listen to. All the subversive music that he could find, we had already been there. He found this experimental, progressive, heavy metal kind of thing that we didn’t really care about very much. He listened to a lot of Dream Theater, things like that, guitar-solo kind of things. As a parallel to that, I met a journalist who said that he wanted his children to play punk rock, and he was really concerned that they were only into fashion. That’s just the stupidest thing. If your dad wants you to play punk, then it’s probably a good idea to start caring about fashion instead. There are always different ways to be a rebel, and you shouldn’t just do the same things as your parents did.
It’s not like there is one big message in this film, but if there’s something I want to say it’s that there’s something really refreshing about being not liked, and having people boo at you and spit at you and think that you’re ugly. And that you don’t always have to fight for acceptance and so on. I mean, it’s really good to be accepted, and I think society in general should accept minorities. It’s not like I’m saying gay people should be stoned on the streets or anything like that—I’m just saying that there’s also something quite uplifting sometimes. I mean, not if you go to jail, or are punished. But there is something that can define you as a person when you feel: “People don’t understand me, people don’t like me, people don’t listen to the same music as I do, they don’t understand my opinions.” That can be important for you.
Yeah, definitely. But a lot of what you’re describing has been co-opted by corporate interests. You’re saying that there is still hope, but how do you feel that can manifest itself in today’s world? You’re very active on Tumblr…
Tumblr is the part of the Internet that is a little bit underground, because I feel that if I had an Instagram or Twitter or something like that, I would have a lot more followers. It’s just really nice to have a small group of people, it’s really small. You can also start reading poetry, because reading poetry’s always gonna be a minority thing. That’s a really good way to be a rebel, actually, to read and write poetry.
How did you choose the music for the film?
I had more complicated choices in the beginning, because I wanted music that was, in terms of lyrics, saying something about what was happening in different scenes and so on. But then after a while, I felt that some of those songs that I’d chosen weren’t really songs that I loved deeply, and in the end I just took the songs that I loved at that age. I really felt that “Two Six Zero” by KSMB was the best song ever made when I was 12½. Those songs also happened to function very well in the film, like “Hang God,” which turns into a discussion about whether God exists and everything. It was a childhood dream to make a film with this music. And I was scared that those bands would say no, because they had split up a long time ago, so I just felt that they would be in internal fights, and someone in the band would say: “No, I don’t want to be…” But everything worked out. And they hadn’t turned too greedy.
So, you’re a big fan of Robert Smith and The Cure, both you and your wife. What are your five favorite Cure songs?
Five? Well, I have to say “One Hundred Years” has to come first, and then I would say “A Night Like This.” And then in third place I would put “Fight,” because it’s also one of the few songs where they’re really saying something in a fight kind of way. And then in fourth place I would say “This Twilight Garden,” and in fifth place I would take “Charlotte Sometimes.”
Right on. I’m also a huge fan, so I’m always excited to meet other people who are like actually into The Cure.
My wife is the biggest Cure fan. She’s the one who travels to Australia to see them. She saw that show in Sydney Opera House. Actually before her latest book [Onda krafter i Sollentuna] she actually made a book, really small, almost like a magazine, it’s really weird, called I’ll Be Your Fan Until Death.
Yes! She draws Robert Smith really cute.
Yeah! It’s like a dream where she goes to England to find his house and they meet. It’s really weird.