Haugesund: Joachim Trier on ‘Louder Than Bombs,’ American actors

Joachim Trier hit home with his English-language debut, the Cannes’ competition player ”Louder Than Bombs,” which closed the Norwegian Film Festival at Haugesund and played Mexico’s Morelia Fest in October. Once again moving between the Nouveau Roman and a pop modern patchwork of story-telling, Joachim Trier’s New-York-set family drama received a warm reception at Haugesund. Playing in competition at the Norwegian fest, “Louder Than Bombs” won a special mention from a jury made up of critics. The film has already sold to around 100 territories and has also been invited to Toronto, thus following his previous two films ”Reprise” and ”Oslo, August 31st”. Variety sat down with Trier to talk about the experiment of premiering his film in Cannes, the American acting tradition, the Scandinavian film industry and his next project.

It’s yet another ambitious film you’ve made. It’s not just a character study but an entire family study. Was the story all there in your mind since the beginning of the process?

Rather the opposite. Eskil [Vogt, the co-writer] and I sometimes work with scenes, moments and visual ideas, and the plot emerges later.  In the case of “Louder Than Bombs,” we wanted do a type of film that deals with family,  with some kind of character study in the veins of  ’70s and ’80s movies, such as Woody Allen’s, or films like ”Kramer vs. Kramer”, or even John Hughes’. I know these are strange references, and people probably think that I should be talking about Antonioni and Tarkovsky, but actually I grew up on a more humanistic tradition. I’ve always admired a guy like Paul Mazursky, and the humanity in the comedy and tragedy of life as it plays out.

The literary elements, from writer characters, diaries to advanced recollecting montage scenes is part of your filmmaking process. Do you think of yourself as a literary filmmaker?

I use literary because the novel is, as we know it still today, one of the freest forms of storytelling. I never want my films  to feel or look like a novel. I grew up listening to punk and hip hop, so music to me is incredibly important, to have a mixture of the freedom of form that arrived from jazz to hiphop, and on the other hand the punk attitude of doing it yourself, not to obey all the rules you’re given. So when I talk about literature, it’s just that I think that in cinema we are taught so many rules-for example, that we should focus on one character, certain turning points, and so on. I rather think it’s interesting to explore, to experiment with these elements.

Does the title initially stem from the classic The Smiths’ song or as a metaphor of the war photographer’s daily life (in the film played by Isabelle Huppert)?

I think we were looking for a title that illustrates the “incomparability” the small incidents and the bigger problems of the world, and somehow that struck us as an interesting title. But of course I’m aware of The Smiths’ title, and the fact that Morrissey got it from an Elisabeth Smart poem, called ”By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept”.

How much of the dysfunctional family relations can you personally relate to?

I believe that if a character sticks, there has to be something that resonates for both Eskil and me when we write. And we try not to over-analyze it, but of course in an indirect way it relates to themes that we are concerned with or feel strongly about. But it’s not necessarily biographical, even if the themes in our films also draw from personal experiences.

Did it feel more apt to depict this kind of grief and lack of communication within a family in an American setting. Or could you have done it anywhere?

No, I feel it’s a particular setting that I started exploring, for example high school life in America is very different from Scandinavia’s. Yet we all share the sense of not belonging, because that’s a universal feeling. We tried to find a specific framework to create a more universal experience, that’s always the point. But it was fun to do it in the U.S., the scent of autumn leaves, the noise of New York is almost a trope of American cinema itself, going back to ”Kramer vs. Kramer” or ”Ordinary People” or Woody Allen. It was fun to try do my version of that. There’s always this feeling when one of those American family stories come out, for example when ”Ice Storm” came and impressed all of us tremendously. It’s almost a genre that I feel has now emigrated to TV series and that I am still very curious to explore this tradition in a feature film form.  Is it possible to make a multi-character, more fragmented type of story on the big screen? That’s the question I’m asking with “Louder Than Bombs.” And I believe it is possible. I hope so.

Tell us about the casting process.

It’s hard to cast a family and to make it feel coherent and believable. I knew Isabelle Huppert from before, Gabriel Byrne I always been a fan of. Jesse is remarkably talented, I wanted to offer him a part that did something unique for this movie, where he does something very different, and he’s one of the great actors of his generation. And then we found Devin Druid, who’d done some great work with Louis CK, and that was perhaps the part I was most nervous to cast. Which 15-year-old could match this stellar cast? That’s what kept me up at night, trying to find that kid. When Devin Druid was brought to my attention by Laura Rosenthal, a great New York casting agent, we found our guy. That was the biggest relief of the whole process. And I’m so pleased with him. I’m sure he will get great parts in the future.

Was it ever hard to direct these actors from different countries and cultures?

No, that’s what is fun about filmmaking. That’s the craft of being a filmmaker, trying to create one story out of an ensemble cast coming from different acting traditions, and with personalities that you want to see interact. You want to express their perceptions. This was my dream, going to America, and go there for the actors, because that’s what American cinema is all about when it’s at its best: It’s character-driven storytelling.

The outsiders are always at the centre of your films, why is that?

Yes, in all my work I’m drawn to outsiders, someone like Conrad (Druid) feels like an outsider in high school, yet there’s a sense that he is quite magnificent. I was never an outsider in high school, I was a skateboarder, champion twice, and I always had lots of friends. But as I grew older lots of people that I’m close to for some reason have been outsiders. And maybe they have inspired me.

Could Jesse Eisenberg’s character, and the authoritarian role he takes, represent the filmmaker’s alter ego?

Yeah, when he does his speech to the little brother and describes the impossibility of winning at high school if you’re an outsider kid. I think he also reveals that he knows something about it. I’m not sure he was as cool as he pretended to be either. But it’s also the birth-of-an-artist theme that always comes up in my films, and for some reason I never seen able to shake it. And I guess with Conrad we follow someone who tries to express who he is through something other than social behavior.

How do you come with ideas?

I like working intuitively, in what I call dirty formalism, or pop formalism. I jokingly say that our films should be like great albums with different songs. I am a big fan of Nicolas Roeg, ”Don’t Look Now,” which could be very specific conceptual things, but it was a warm formalism, it didn’t alienate you. I’m also a very big fan of Brian de Palma. I believe in the idea of doing a cinematic set piece, like Conrad’s diary, it’s like film in itself, or the car crash sequence with Isabelle, and the association of the son thinking of his mother and the last moments of her death, are whole set pieces, a film within the film. So it’s like an album. You have different songs, hopefully most of them are hits.

Your film was warmly received at Cannes but also had some harsh reviews. How do you handle critique?

All films in Cannes get mixed reviews.

But does it affect you?

Sure. But I try to move on to the next thing, something else. You feel it, you try to digest and move on, what can you say?! You can’t please everyone, that’s the part of the game, and it’s painful. As an artist there’s an instinct that you want to be loved by everyone, but I think you have to be cautious, it’s not a popularity contest.

The film has sold to some 100 territories. Does this success create an extra pressure?

It’s always a struggle, I’m a slightly neurotic guy so there’s nothing new here. I’m always a bit worried, but creating is a way of letting go of worries.

But are you afraid that people will stop loving your films?

Of course! There was a wonderful, comforting interview with Philip Roth, one of the greatest modern writers in my opinion. He said that between every book he just felt that the next one was like a little bird in his hand, and how will this ever grow up to be a full bird and fly? It will never work. Every time he lost faith he had to regain it, that’s the struggle of creating something. I hear stories of people who says everything is easy. I wish I was like that, I’m not. It’s a struggle every time. So yes, you are vulnerable, but, that’s how it is.

What’s your expectations in Toronto?

I’m very much looking forward to it. This is the third time I’m invited, and it’s a good place to meet an audience, I always had nice screenings there.

You’ve said you will continue collaborating with your faithful co-writer Eskil Vogt – on a Norwegian or an international project?

Yes, I want to do different things. I’m half Danish, and have interesting contacts there. I went to Film School in London, lived there for seven years, and when shooting in the States I met lots of interesting people. So yeah, ideally wherever the stories take me. But I think the Scandinavian support system is quite unique at the moment, for example allowing you to choose actors from a broader spectrum, not necessarily A list actors, but selected for the quality of their work, which is a little bit old school. I think that creates more personal and more daring films. But it’s a very vulnerable thing, a political thing as well in Scandinavia, how cultural politics will develop in the next ten years. It demands that the politicians understand what has been created, otherwisestructured financing for arts can easily be lost. We shouldn’t take it for granted.

Any Nordic directors you’d like to highlight?

Ruben Ostlund is doing his complete own thing, and in Norway we have a guy like Ole Giaver, he’s one of several new talents. I believe we still have strong auteurs. And Lars von Trier is still very important, he’s one of the few directors in the world that has never done anything uninteresting. Whatever he does I always want to see it.

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