Director Ruben Ostlund, who won the 2017 Palme d’Or and was Oscar-nominated for “The Square,” finished filming his followup, dark comedy “Triangle of Sadness,” on Saturday after a 73-day shoot. Shooting started on Feb. 19, but repeated delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic turned an already lengthy schedule into a marathon. He speaks to Variety about the experience.
Filming took place on the stages of Film i Vast in Trollhättan, Sweden, and on location in Greece, and on a yacht sailing in the Mediterranean – not just any old yacht, mind you, Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy’s yacht, The Christina O, whose passengers have included Winston Churchill, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. The elegant yacht is, sadly, going to be seen being blown to smithereens in the film.
The film, Ostlund’s first in the English language, finished the first 25-day leg of the shoot just as lockdowns were being implemented across Europe. Woody Harrelson, one of the film’s stars, flew to Sweden three months later in late June to shoot his role, and the production restarted in Greece in late September and shot for its concluding nine weeks.
The film’s lead producers, Erik Hemmendorff and Philippe Bober, tell Variety that finishing the film safely as the pandemic raged across Europe was the most challenging experience of their careers. “Financially we had to confront risks, but there was a sense of urgency and momentum. Waiting was not an option so we had to make it work,” they say in a statement.
Ostlund considers himself to have been “lucky” as the production was unaffected by Greece’s latest lockdown, which came into force on Nov. 7, and the cast and crew stayed free of the virus, although some of the older team members were understandably nervous. “But we stayed negative,” the Swedish director tells Variety. “That was the line of the production: ‘Everybody stay negative.’ ”
During the shoot, the pandemic had an effect on the atmosphere on set. “In the first lockdown we were really scared,” Ostlund says. At the time, they were shooting the yacht interiors in the studio, and the set was on a gimbal so they could rock it, to simulate a storm. “Outside the studio the feeling was the whole world was rocking and inside the studio you have this dining room that was rocking back and forth,” he says. “There were times when you could feel that there was this danger that was present. Hopefully it affected the film in a good way.”
The sense of danger almost became a reality when the gimbal broke during the shooting of the dinner scene, but luckily no one was hurt.
Ostlund adds: “I must say the second lockdown created a very calm and familial atmosphere on the production. People were less stressed. There were less fights. I don’t know whether it was that things were very well arranged or if it was the pandemic that made people collaborate and work very well together.”
Ostlund says it is important to him that his film is seen by an audience in a movie theater, something that has not been possible for a lot of films this year, but should be possible by the time he presents the finished film at Cannes in May. “When you deal with satire and comedy, you want to share [the film] with a large audience, because the audience creates so much of the atmosphere. I would definitely miss being able to share it with an audience that can watch it together and discuss it. When I spoke about the project in Cannes last year I said I wanted to create an adult rollercoaster. A film that is entertaining and intelligent, and makes people talk about it afterwards. So I think it is definitely something we should experience together.”
That said, he wants the audience to feel uncomfortable watching the film. “I like that it always has a kind of dilemma in it, almost from a sociological point of view. I am trying to set a situation that people can easily identify with but find hard to handle.” He hopes the audience will put themselves in the shoes of the characters, seeing the situation from their perspective. “They might not identify with the character, but at least identify with the situation.”
The film, which lampoons the worlds of fashion and the super-rich, centers on a fashion model celebrity couple who go on a cruise for the super-rich. After the yacht – whose captain is a rabid Marxist (played by Harrelson) – sinks, the survivors find themselves marooned on an island. Here, the dynamics of the group changes: the cleaning lady rises to the top of the food chain as she is the only one who knows how to cook.
“The billionaires start to talk like dedicated socialists: ‘It’s important that we share equally,’ ” Ostlund says, adding that his focus was on showing how “the materialistic setup changes our behavior, and how our behavior comes from the position we have in a hierarchy.” One of the characters quotes Bertolt Brecht: “Food comes first and then morality.” The male model sleeps with the cleaning lady in order to get bags of pretzel sticks, which have become the currency of the group.
Ostlund says that the film “says a lot about the economy, about money, about beauty as a currency […] a lot of the topics in the film are inspired by Marxist theories.”
Other members of the multinational cast include Harris Dickinson (“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”), Charlbi Dean, Vicki Berlin, Dolly De Leon, Zlatko Buric, Iris Berben, Amanda Walker, Oliver Ford Davies, Henrik Dorsin, Jean-Christophe Folly and Sunnyi Melles.
To find the cast, Ostlund traveled to several countries. As part of the casting process, he did a lot of improvisations with the actors, he says. As part of these sessions he would play the other parts, which fed into the writing process. “Then you get to know much more about the script and how it works, and what you want to change,” he says. Once casting was complete he adjusted the script so that a character would have “a temperament that fitted the specific actor.”
The film is produced by Plattform and co-produced by Essential Films, Coproduction Office, SVT, and Arte France Cinéma, with the support of BBC Film, Swedish Film Institute, Eurimages, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Danish Film Institute and the BFI, awarding funds from the National Lottery, with the participation of ZDF/Arte, Nordic Film & TV Fund, Canal Plus/Cine Plus, and Hamburg Film Fund. The film is co-funded by the Creative Europe MEDIA Programme of the European Union.
Imperative Entertainment is presenting the film with Dan Friedkin, Bradley Thomas and Ryan Friedkin as executive producers in association with 30WEST, whose Micah Green and Daniel Steinman will also serve as executive producers. 30WEST and Endeavor Content will co-represent the sales rights in North America.
The film is produced in association with Film I Väst, BBC, Bord Cadre Films, Sovereign Films, Heretic and Piano Films.
Among the co-producers are Marina Perales Marhuenda, Giorgos Karnavas, Konstantinos Kontovrakis, Per Damgaard, Julio Chavezmontes and Mike Goodridge.
International sales are being handled by Bober’s Coproduction Office. SF Studios has Nordic rights to the film, BAC has rights in France, and Alamode in Germany.