Not many people can say they’ve witnessed a bank robbery, but Ruben Ostlund has. Prior to the incident in question, the provocative Swedish helmer had seen plenty of stick-ups in the movies.
“When I suddenly saw it in the street, I couldn’t use that reference at all,” he recalls. “The reality started to look surreal because I had such an expectation of what it should look like.”
Ostlund’s entire filmography could be viewed as an attempt to dismantle — or at the very least to question — how cinema shapes our view of the world. In response, the director decided to re-create the real-time scene as an 11-minute short film, “Incident by a Bank.” “I actually wanted to start a debate in the Swedish papers to discuss the way we are affected by the images we are producing,” he explains.
For that project, Ostlund set up a 5K digital camera across the street from a bank, filling the wide-open plaza with characters, almost like a “Where’s Waldo” cartoon or a Jacques Tati gag. With the ultra-hi-res frame full of activity, Ostlund is free to zoom in on different aspects of the scene, including the inadvertent comedy of the botched robbery. (All the camera moves are added in post — a strategy that carries over to his meticulously calibrated features.)
“For me, life is trivial and horrifying at the same time,” says Ostlund, whose latest, the Oscar-shortlisted “Force Majeure,” upends the disaster-movie formula, beginning with an avalanche at a ski resort and then delving into the psychology of how it affects all involved. The film was recently shortlisted for an Oscar foreign-language nomination.
Now that he has Hollywood’s attention, Ostlund says he doesn’t want to read scripts, just synopses. “What I’m interested in is a setup of a situation and how you can use that,” he says. “The avalanche is a good example. There have been so many great ideas that have been sent to me that end with ‘and it’s also a love story,’ but I don’t think that kind of conventional filmmaking is attracting the audience.”