Swedish helmer Ruben Ostlund, whose latest film, the black comedy “Force Majeure” (pictured above) won the jury prize at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard and earned a Golden Globe nomination, privately unveiled a clip of “The Square,” his upcoming provocative satire, ahead of the movie’s pitching at Goteborg Film Festival’s work-in-progress showcase.
Ostlund talked about the making of “The Square” which, like his previous films “Play” and “Force Majeure,” pokes fun at human behavior. A satire on the art world, “The Square” takes place at a prestigious museum where a famous American contemporary artist, played by Dominic West (“The Affair,” “The Wire”), is exhibiting his latest work, an installation meant to promote altruism. West plays opposite Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang.
Philippe Bober’s The Coproduction Office is handling sales on the film and has already scored a flurry of pre-sales, notably to Magnolia Pictures for U.S. rights. “The Square” is expected to be ready for Cannes and could well make it in the official selection.
Ostlund spoke to Variety about his new work-in-progress. His comments have edited for concision and clarity.
In the clip you just showed me, a famous American artist (Dominic West) is on stage being interviewed by a journalist about his work promoting altruism when a man who has Tourette’s starts having a crisis in the audience and shouts insults towards the journalist, who remains calm and understanding. Who are you making fun of in this scene, the politically correct journalist or the man who has Tourette’s?
I’m making fun of everyone. I’m very thorough in that way. No one escapes from this satiric approach.
The audience is put to a challenge. What should we do? The scene is actually inspired [by a real event]. I was in a theater play with a friend of mine. We were sitting in the audience. And suddenly there’s a man who started clapping in the audience, and then the attention towards the scene completely shifted over to the audience. The actors really had to fight to keep their concentration and get the attention of the audience. The actors were walking on eggshells, like “we’re getting to this next stage and I’m going to have to speak out loud and I know he’s going to react.”
How is “The Square” different from your previous films?
The movies are quite different from each other. But when you see the scenes, it’s so obvious that I’m always working with comedic situations: situational comedy that brings out topics of human behavior, how we react as “herd animals,” things like this. I have a behavioristic approach to this. This scene also has a very simple setup. It’s about “The Square,” that art piece that this artist is trying to bring out to the audience. They hire a PR agency to try and market it and they say, “Well, everybody agrees on these topics, why should we care?” so they create a nasty PR stunt that is completely opposite to “The Square” and its humanistic message. So the film takes place in two very simple layers. The film is looking at how we look to individual versus [societal] responsibility and how we take care of each other, and topics like trust and responsibility.
Why did you choose to set the film in the art world?
The film is inspired by an installation that I did called “The Square,” and it was the first time I did an exhibition in an art museum. The idea of “The Square” is very simple. It’s like a pedestrian crossing – very simple rules. Here we should be reminded of our role in the public spaces, like breaking the bystander effect and helping each other. It’s like a pedestrian crossing: The car drivers know they should be careful with pedestrians. To try and create a similar thing that is just as simple but to remind us of those humanistic values – I think that this is not very common in the art world. In the art world, you bring everything you do into a theory level, where it loses its contact with the outside world in many ways.
In your previous movie, “Force Majeure,” you addressed the flaws of the nuclear family model.
Yes. And “Play” was about racial topics and how we deal with that. I try to bring out those things that I don’t agree on in contemporary times. And what questions we have to ask ourselves about those topics in contemporary times. Because I think the idea of art is getting lost on this theoretical level. Of course, I’m attacking that.
How was it directing Dominic West and Elisabeth Moss? It was the first time you directed British and American actors.
One thing that was very important for me was to treat them as in any other actor on the set. When foreign actors come to a small country like Sweden, they don’t know what they’re getting into, and if you give them too much attention, then I think that maybe it is hard to follow your mission with everything. It was key for me to not give them more attention than any other actor. I must say that both Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West were quite lost in the beginning of shooting, but then they found a way to do it. They were not used to this way of working.
What’s your filming method?
For example, this scene that I just showed you, we shot for two days. And Dominic had to repeat this monologue over and over again until he got down to the core so that it would ring true. I think both him and Elisabeth are more used to doing four or five takes and then move on, but my production is always like this: The setup is we should have maximum time on what’s happening in front of the camera. Like we have a lot of time for each scene, on set.
Is the remake of “Force Majeure” still happening?
Fox bought the rights to do a remake. And I don’t know the progress on it.
Are you signed with an agent in the US?
Yes, with WME.
Do they send you a lot of scripts? What do you read?
WME is doing a really great job and I like them. But I must say, most of what I read from the U.S. is either a thriller or a love story. And I say I won’t kill anyone in my films. I really don’t want to be a part of that in the industry. I think it’s completely over-represented with the crime stories, the murders, that we make entertainment out of horrifying things, and I don’t want to be a part of that. So a lot of the scripts have these ingredients, or things or ideas that have viewpoints on love and relationships that I don’t agree on. So when I’ll do something in English or in that context, it will have to be something I feel I can be true to.
But why won’t you kill someone in a film?
I think it’s quite childish the way violence is portrayed in cinema. I don’t want to participate in that way. I have almost no violence in my life. Why should I create violence all the time?
It’s interesting that you’re getting offers to direct crimes and thrillers in the U.S., considering you’ve never done any in Sweden.
There was one film I really wanted to do that has been made now. That was “Passengers.” But I wanted to change the setup of “Passengers.” The main character is a guy who wakes up in one of those pods on a spaceship. I wanted to put his family in the other pods, his wife and kids. Then there’s this dilemma: He’s going to die on the ship because the travel takes 300 years. If he wakes up his kids, they will die on the spaceship and not on the planet they’re heading for; if he wakes up his wife, then the kids will not have a mother when they arrive. So of course, you have to wake up another woman, because you don’t want to be alone. Then you can swipe on pictures to see the women, like Tinder. You have to decide on the pictures and pick someone. To bring things [like] that would be relevant in contemporary times. But when I pitched this to the producers, I think they got scared.
It’s good you haven’t deserted Sweden, because as soon as a Scandinavian director has one hit, he goes to Hollywood. You’re one of the few sticking here.
The directors I admire, they’ve had a certain artistic approach that they keep on going with. I think if you go to the U.S. and adapt to that production system, then you have to really create a setup where you are in control of your film. I’m probably more interested [in] making an English-speaking film here that we can produce.