Interview: Ruben Östlund
With sparing (but incisive) dialogue, long takes, and majestic wide shots, Force Majeure depicts the crisis of faith surrounding a Swedish father, Tomas, who runs away from a life-or-death situation instead of protecting his wife and children. They survive; his ego does not. This clash between base instincts and societal expectations puts Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund on familiar dangerous ground. His last feature, Play (11), dramatizes a series of real-life, racially charged thefts committed by children, while Incident by a Bank (09) re-creates a bungled robbery using solely a wide shot of a city block (garnering the Golden Bear for Best Short Film at the Berlinale).
FILM COMMENT digital editor Violet Lucca spoke with Östlund on an unseasonably warm October day about social—and filmic—conventions, the week before Force Majeure showed at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (which will host a retrospective of his work in January 2015).
Your mother was a schoolteacher, and I think when you grow up in a house where someone is a schoolteacher, you grow up with a different understanding of human behavior. How would you say it’s affected your work?
It’s interesting that it could be discussed in this way. I guess you’re right, in some way. If you look at Involuntary , my second feature, the character of the teacher in that film is totally based on my mother. She had those behavioral experiments with her fourth-grade students.
How much psychological/sociological research did you do for this film?
I spent a lot of time trying to find studies that I could use to motivate the actions that take place in the film. There were two studies in particular that were very important to me. One showed how much more likely divorces are after an airplane hijacking, and the other was about surviving maritime catastrophes. From the Titanic to Estonia, you could see that men of a certain age are the ones who survive. I thought that was very interesting when you compare it to, for example, film history, where the main character or hero is always [a man]. This is so commonly reproduced, but when it comes to reality and a crisis situation, the ones that die are women and children. When people say, “I wonder what you would have done,” I can say for certain that a man is more likely to run than a woman.
Like your previous work, Force Majeure is intended to foster a philosophical debate about what human behavior means or implies. Do you envision that being more of an internal process, or do you want people to talk it out?
Yeah, in a group. We have to be aware of the roles that we play as men and women, and that we are adapting to those roles—very often, not being aware of it. Those expectations make us unhappy and very confused. It’s so interesting to look at, for example, the history of the nuclear family. The “nuclear family” was a word that was invented in the Forties. Before that, a large family was the norm. We are walking from the large family to the nuclear family and now to the single household. Stockholm has the most single households in the world. This development, this progress, is very connected to the consumer society, because if you are one person living in one apartment, you want to buy one TV, one phone, blah, blah, blah. We’re becoming more and more efficient as consumers, so I think it’s hard for us to separate our wants in life from what we are doing to maintain this kind of lifestyle and this kind of society. So we need to question the strong, fundamental beliefs that we have in the nuclear family, and where we’re heading.
The film’s trajectory reminded me of Hollywood films in which a career woman is struggling to be a good mom, but here it’s the opposite: all the impulses that have allowed Tomas to provide for his family as a breadwinner—ruthless self-interest and opportunistic focus—estranges him from them and destroys their trust.
I was definitely aware of that. If you look at the most conventional way of telling a Hollywood story, it goes like this. There is a family living in peace. Suddenly, there’s an outside threat. The man has to use violence—he doesn’t want to, but he has to, he’s forced to. And when he’s used violence, killed the bad guys, the family can go back and live in peace. This story arc is an ideological way of looking at existence and society. And I am very interested in a situation where we can identify that we are doing the wrong thing. A dilemma. For Tomas, running away and then trying to face what he had done is a dilemma. Because it’s hard to say, “I’m sorry I did it,” and hard to lie also.
What I also wanted to do is, if you look at the structure of a conventional film, the character that loses his or her dignity in the beginning will redeem themselves before the film ends. In a way, in my films, everyone loses their dignity, and they don't get it back.
At the end, when they’re on the slope and there’s the bad weather, is that real, or is that something that it’s almost like the parents are undertaking in order to repair the family?
I see, a group therapy thing. It’s a group therapy ski run.
Is the film making fun of Tomas, or do you have empathy for his behavior?
I definitely have empathy for him. At the same time, I think he’s extraordinarily silly. But this kind of lifestyle—I mean, just look at the electronic toothbrush. We’ve reached a level of comfort, and we’re allowing ourselves to let relationship problems be the main focus of our lives. I think that that kind of lifestyle is silly, and we have to look at those problems from a realistic perspective—this isn’t something that we should put all our strength into. Shouldn’t being at that socioeconomic level make us think: “How do we change other people’s situations? How do we fight for other people’s rights? How do we deal with extreme poverty in other parts of the world?” But Western society, and the whole culture that we are basing our society on, is telling us that we are allowed to put all our effort into relationship problems. I mean, I feel totally connected to this kind of behavior. Of course, they’re silly. [Laughs] But I still have sympathy for people who are silly.
Where did you find the accordion rendition of Vivaldi’s “Summer” that pops up throughout the movie?
It’s a 12-year-old boy that plays it. If you YouTube “kid shreds the accordion,” you will find him playing the accordion like a maniac. When I found that YouTube clip, I really loved it, and I wanted to have it like the score of the film. It raises the intensity, and made the film more dynamic.
Do you spend a lot of time on YouTube?
Yeah, I do.
What do you look for?
The latest clip that I’m in love with is “BBC mistakes cab driver for IT expert.” Have you seen that?
It’s about a taxi driver who accidentally ends up in a BBC studio. They think he’s an expert on Internet rights. The interviewer says: “Welcome to Guy Kewney!” And in the moment that he’s introduced as Guy Kewney and realizes that there’s been a mix-up, he suddenly starts to play Guy Kewney. He’s like: “Yes, hello…” Then they have this conversation that is total nonsense, and the journalist doesn’t stop the interview because both of them are so obsessed with getting through the interview without any awkwardness. They are not detecting that it’s completely wrong. I think that humans are like that; we’re playing roles of ourselves, and we can be very stuck in a role. [Note: Guy Goma, the interview subject, turned out not to be a taxi driver: he was applying for a job at the BBC and got called into the wrong room.]
You shot Force Majeure in three different geographical spaces: the interiors in a resort in Sweden, the exterior shots in British Columbia and the French Alps. How did you join them together, in filmmaking and narrative terms?
I wanted the interiors—they are almost a bit red-colored, warm, it’s as if they’re taking place on the inside [bodily]. When you are on the mountain, you are totally dependent on the mountain. You’re on the outside. With the ski resort, there’s a constant struggle in the ski resort between the civilized and the uncivilized—humans are trying to control the force of nature by blowing snow, grooming tracks, and building fences to stabilize the snow. There’s something very interesting about that environment as a metaphor. And of course, I mean, the inside: if you’re on a holiday and have relationship problems and argue, but don’t want to do it in front of the kids, you have to step outside the room and be in the hallway.
Why do you prefer to shoot from such a long distance?
When I was filming skiing—as I did when I was around 20 and 25—you always wanted to see the skier in the environment and see how the skier is planning the run, doing the turns, avoiding certain dangers or objects or whatever. I think that when you are filming people in a room, and we see the difference between our bodies, that kind of setup is very important in what we are doing or not. Before, I haven’t been interested in the face of a character. I didn’t think we could get a lot of information from the face. But in this film, it was very important what was happening on the inside of the characters. If you look at Ebba when she’s losing control of herself or in touch with her emotions, there’s real drama taking place in her face. For me, this was a step to getting a little closer to the actors than I have been before.
The film’s Swedish title is Turist, and internationally it’s Force Majeure. Did you decide to make that change?
I think Force Majeure is a much better title. It was called Turist when we first got funding. Originally the film was a multi-plot story told in three episodes about well-to-do Swedes encountering human behavior that they had only thought people in war zones or natural disasters had to deal with, and then having to face those sides of themselves. But then when the idea of the avalanche came up, I immediately understood that I only wanted it to take place in a ski resort. The title Turist was so established in Sweden that I couldn’t change it to Force Majeure. But for the international title I wanted to go for Force Majeure.
When you’re directing actors, how much room do they have to improvise with their body?
We did a lot of improvisation during the casting, during the rehearsal, and the night before we’d shoot a scene. Even when we are on set and shooting, I re-consider, re-write, and use things that actors are adding. In some senses everything goes according to the script, and in others there’s a lot of improvisation. It’s different in different scenes.
How do you make that decision?
Every day on shooting it’s a struggle. You have a vision of what you want to do, but when you see, you see, oh, no, it’s not like this. You have to fight, fight, fight, and try to get it the way you want it to be. If you’re really lucky during a shooting day, you get a little bit above your expectations. You’re reaching something that’s even better than you thought. But it’s a big part of the shooting. I think one of the big errors people make when they are shooting film is that they’re using the script and following the script like this… [Taps on table] But to put something from paper to a practical, working scene is a huge step. You immediately detect what’s wrong with a script when you try it—what you need to reconsider.
There are a lot of ways you could interpret the ending, where Ebba [Tomas’s wife] demands to be let off the bus that’s driving them to the airport, and everyone else follows her. Why did you choose to close on that note?
I wanted to raise questions for the audience to deal with. There are three things with the ending. One of them is that everyone is doing the same thing as Tomas in the avalanche. The other thing is that Charlotte [a woman Ebba meets at the resort] is the character that is supposed to be punished, if you look at conventional films. Anyone who’s promiscuous or unfaithful gets punished at the end of the film. And I almost wanted the audience to hope for Charlotte to go over the cliff and crash down as punishment for her sinful way of life. But instead, she’s the one who makes it to the airport. [Laughs] The third thing that happens is, in the beginning, all the people that leave the bus are ashamed of exaggerating their emotions. But after a while, they feel a connection as they’re walking together on the road. This is what it’s like to be a human. I mean, it’s an emotional roller-coaster upside-down, and we are trying to disguise ourselves. We are trying to put on a face—we are so afraid of showing who we are in front of other people.
Charlotte’s character was interesting, because so much of what this film and Play deal with is primal reactions—things we do that we just don’t understand or can’t rationalize. But her actions are the antithesis of biological psychology, which attributes so much behavior to ideas like “Women have only so many eggs, so they’re not promiscuous like men, and they put their children above everything.” But Charlotte’s like: “Fuck that.”
Her behavior casts some doubt on the tendency to explain such things biologically. Why did you choose to have a character like this?
For me, Charlotte’s a person who talks about herself in a hypothetical way. She says things like: “Why should I be jealous if my man has sex with another woman and it’s a good time for him? Shouldn’t I be happy for him?” She’s a person who puts herself above the constructed idea of faithfulness, and based on a person that I know. He’s a man, and he’s around 70, and loves to talk about himself like that. Even though he can’t live by those hypothetical ideals, he’s still interested in questioning the kind of view that we have on life.
It’s interesting to look at the idea of being faithful when it comes to sexuality. That was something that started in the human history when we started to own land. Before that, humans were having sex in the same way that animals did. We were walking in the woods, and suddenly we saw someone and had sex. But when we wanted to control who would get our property when we die, and the values that we have in life, suddenly we had to control sexuality. That’s when we decided that we had to be faithful. And now we have emotions connected to a structure. And so she’s a person who’s above the structure, or at least she wants to be—above this economic structure of creating those emotions.
Speaking of animals, what’s happening with your next project, about a bunch of actors pretending to be monkeys?
Actually, I haven't found a way of doing that film yet, so I’m doing another project. It’s called The Square. It’s about how our attitude towards society, public, and our common responsibility have changed. If you look at my father, when he was brought up in Sweden, when he was 6 years old, his parents put an address tag around his neck and left him out on the street to play. At that time, that was very common. In that time, you thought of other adult people as ones who could help your kids. Today, we see other adult people as ones who are a threat to your kids.
It’s a radical change of attitude. If you look at Sweden now, they’re starting to build gated communities. A gated community says: “We’re taking responsibility for what’s happening on the inside. We don't take responsibility for what happens on the outside.” So The Square is about a city where they have created a symbolic place that will remind us of our common responsibility. The symbolic place is a square, marked in white, and set up in a strategic place in the city. If you need help, you can go stand in that square. If you are tired and you don’t want to carry luggage, you can put it in the square, because in the square you’re not allowed to steal. It’s like a crosswalk; there are rules that are connected to it, and in the same way.
So of course this square has a philosophical meaning too. If these are the rules inside the square, what are the rules on the outside? Are you allowed to steal outside the square? Certainly not. Shouldn’t you help your fellow citizens outside the square? Of course you should. This square is like an invention that exists in this city, and will be like a red thread through the film. And we will see different situations, when different individuals are trying to deal with how hard it is to take responsibility, how afraid we are to lose face in front of each other, how afraid we are of violence—and also that we are getting to be passive spectators when it comes to public spaces.