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Ruben Ostlund Talks About His New Film, ‘The Square’ (EXCLUSIVE)

North American retrospective tour an inspiration for the ‘Force Majeure’ director

GOTEBORG  Merely 40 years old, Swedish director Ruben Ostlund has already been honored with a touring retrospective in the U.S., taking place January to April and taking in 15 American cities, from New York’s Lincoln Center to the Cinefamily in Los Angeles.

“In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Ostlund” includes short films and all of Ostlund’s prior features, from his first feature, 2004’s “The Guitar Mongoloid,” 2008’s Cannes debut “Involuntary” (2008), and 2011’s “Play,” which won the Cannes Coup de Coeur award. His most recent feature, “Force Majeure” took the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2014.

Comeback Company produces the retrospective in partnership with the Swedish Film Institute and Plattform Produktion. Milos Forman received a similar retrospective with same organizer, Ostlund said in when an exclusive interview with the director back in Goteborg, his hometown.

After attending four of the American retrospective venues – and after a promotional stopover in France where “Force Majeure” opens on more 90 copies this week – Ostlund has just returned to Sweden in time for the Golden Bug Film Award at Stockholm. “Force Majeure” is nominated in ten categories.

Ostlund’s reaction to seeing he was not nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar has also been the subject of a new short, showing how Ostlund and his producer Erik Hemmendorff handled the disappointment. The film, posted online as a video blog, meshes perfectly into the anthropological, self-reflexive universe of Ostlund. It opened his retrospective in Minneapolis.

Overall, what has the response from your U.S. touring been like?

It’s been great, very joyful screenings, lots of interesting meetings and above all a great audience. Sometimes when you travel half the world with a film you end up in three quarters empty theaters. But this time it’s been sold out. Since the American audience is more dynamic, I also feel a bigger responsibility for the screenings to go well. I was a bit worried beforehand, but I really enjoyed it. The journey has given me lots of energy, and time to talk about my next project. By discussing it, you also develop your project, like a constantly ongoing process – for me it’s very effective. Also, I make films to create something to talk about. I know it could mean spoiler alerts to some people. But I just can’t stop going on about it, that’s my way of doing it.

Have the discussions triggered anything new regarding your next project ‘The Square’, how the film will develop?

The opening sequence will stem from an experience I had some years ago. Like many other people I’m very afraid to lose face, which this event shows. I was in Haga Nygata, Goteborg’s central street, when all of a sudden I heard a woman screaming. Desperately she runs into the arms of a man standing right next to me. She’s screaming: “You’ll have to help me, he’s going to kill me.” A few seconds later,we hear a man screaming from the same direction as the woman’s come from. The man with the woman in his arms grabs my shoulder and says: “You have to back me up!” We both were scared to death, but the screaming man wasn’t aggressive towards us.

Shortly after, I’m having lunch at a restaurant nearby, when the same woman comes screams for help and runs into another stranger, and I have this feeling of déjà-vu – this is a way to manipulate and then rob people, because I’d lost my cell phone at the previous incident. So I run out from the restaurant to stop the next action. But then the woman points at me, saying: “There he is!,” and the couple get away once again.

What I find interesting in these situations is that, when you expect some kind of bravery, we always blame people who don’t live up to our expectations. In public spaces, we tend to be passive spectators and afraid of violence.

So the spectator will recognize Ruben Ostlund from his previous film, 2011’s “Play” not the least?

I always try to find a way that is as disturbing as possible, to reach for dilemmas and diversities. What I find intriguing with ‘The Square’ is that it will have the individual perspective and the societal – these two often so hard to combine in daily life. Lots of people have an ideal view, but when you’re about to put it into practice it always stirs conflicts.

The idea of the square came at the time of ‘Play.’ My father told me about when he was six years old, brought up in central Stockholm, and his parents used to put an address tag around his neck and leave him out on the street to play. At that time, that was common, you thought of other adult people as caretakers of our kids if necessary. Today, it’s the opposite, we see other adult people as a threat to our kids – it’s been a radical change. In my film, the square will be a place where you could go for help. 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 is symbolic place, like the free room of the church, even if not connected to religion. And after a while beggars take over the square.

I’ve worked a long time to find the right environment, not too similar with the one in “Play”. And I’ve now decided that the main character will be an artist occupied with an exhibition about a square.

What’s the biggest challenge?

I foresee a great challenge in taking one step further in combining the big perspective with a smaller one. I want to give a picture of poverty in an unsentimental way, which is always controversial, because it reminds us of the imbalance in society. Bunuel did it with “Viridiana”, and it’s always threatening.

When can we expect delivery on “The Square”?

Spring 2017.

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