In this interview, Joachim Trier discusses his new film Louder Than Bombs: how he experimented with film form to show us the subjectivity of memory, the importance of two-shots and closeups in the film, and how he used physical spaces to convey emotional meaning.
This interview is part of our week-long celebration of Louder than Bombs. Read our Special Issue on Trier’s next film, Thelma. Read our guide to the films of Joachim Trier. Read part 2 of the interview here. Read our review of the film here. Read our interview with cinematographer Jakob Ihre here. Read our essay on exile in Oslo, August 31st and Louder Than Bombs here.
Ever since the world premiere of Louder Than Bombs at the Cannes Film Festival in May, I’ve been enthusing over Joachim Trier’s complex family drama. This dense film plays with form in exciting new ways, and it takes multiple viewings to really appreciate just how smart and innovative it is.
Set three years after the death of Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), a renowned war photographer, Louder Than Bombs finds Isabelle’s widower and two sons excavating the past to deal with their grief — or not deal with it, as the case may be. A retrospective exhibit of her work is the catalyst for a family reunion: her eldest son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), a new father terrified of this responsibility, returns home to visit his father Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and younger brother Conrad (Devin Druid). Going home forces Jonah and his family to come to terms with their grief.
Inspired by what he calls “East Coast American family dramas with Autumn leaves,” like Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People, and shooting in 35mm, Trier’s goal was to “kidnap the character drama back to the big screen.” He elaborated, “They don’t make these films often anymore. They’re often made into cutesy dramedies — not really taking problems seriously. The [whole point of] these films, for me, is character drama, trying to go into complex emotions that may be a little bit painful to deal with, but trying to convey something about it. A lot of that has emigrated to TV series now. [But] I don’t know if I’ve seen a TV series that can do what Bergman does.”
The structure of Louder Than Bombs reflects the interwoven perspectives that make up a family unit. Throughout the film, we enter into the heads of most of the characters, whether through flashbacks, dreams, or voice-overs. Ultimately, it’s about how impossible it is to know anyone completely and how people mean different things to each other.
I sat down with Trier at the Cannes Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss how he experimented with film form to show us the subjectivity of memory, the importance of two-shots and closeups in the film, and how he used physical spaces to convey emotional meaning.
These two discussions have been edited together into a two-part piece. This is the first part of the interview. The second part is available here.
Seventh Row (7R): I’m wondering about your interest in dysfunctional families. That issue was hinted at in Oslo August 31st, especially with Anders’ monologue in which he talks about his relationship with his parents.
JT: Your question is, of course, straight to the point, very relevant, and also really difficult to answer, because you’re describing a dynamic, some themes, and some narrative points that I’m doing in both of these films.
I work in the blind a little bit. I work with the co-writer Eskil Vogt, who’s a good friend of mine. We have a very free, open conversation, continually going on, where we try to just reveal intuitions about what we want to do. We have a tendency to overanalyze, and we’re constantly fighting against it.
The dysfunctional family is something — I don’t know anyone in my life, that I’ve encountered, that doesn’t have some sense of discrepancy between the childhood they believe they had, or wish they had, and the factual events that they had to reevaluate continually throughout their adult life, about what that childhood was.
There are very few structures left in the individualized culture, that at least I come from, and I think is very much a fact in America, the meritocratic — your destiny is your activity, what you’re able to do with your life. I know that feeling. How does that relate to the family structure? I think those are questions we should ask over and over with every generation. I hope we find form where we show the fractured-ness of the family through the storytelling. That’s what I wanted to explore.
It’s interesting when you do press. I just finished the film a week ago. Sometimes, people like you are smart, and you say things, and I think “Damn, I’m starting to understand what I’ve done a little bit more.” And maybe there is a possibility of a companion piece comparison with Oslo. Oslo August 31st deals with addiction and depression, and I would certainly say these are elements in the mother character in this one, but the point of view is very much more from the family.
7R: Both Reprise and Louder Than Bombs have characters who are either aspiring writers or recreational writers. How is literature important to you, and why is this literary aspect a recurring element in your films?
JT: People talk about the death of cinema, and they talk about the death of the novel. The novel has reinvented itself and changed form and been experimental and, therefore, has survived. I think movies should be inspired by that — the spirit of the possibility of the dramaturgy not being one thing. The dramaturgy or the structure of your telling is up for grabs, and it’s personal.
We should experiment and not think that experimentation and formal approach are the same as having to do slow movies or very, very difficult movies. It doesn’t have to be. It can be an involving, engaging thing.
After we wrote this, I actually read the Jonathan Franzen book Freedom. It’s a big American novel. It has a moment where there’s a diary, and it jumps in time. It’s not so complicated. And movies don’t have to be complicated because we do it either.
The other thing about this story [Louder Than Bombs], I think, is that it’s not about a writer, per se. Nobody says in the film that they want to be a novelist.
It’s dealing with grief. I’m a romantic, and I think we need to tell ourselves and others stories in order to cope with life. I think it’s an inherent human thing. Through the Conrad character, who seems so isolated and non-social, I think he’s found a way to sublimate or deal with — cope with — grief, which is quite inspiring or interesting, as opposed to his rational big brother who seems to be dealing with it differently.
7R: Conrad’s diary, which Jonah reads in the film, and is accompanied by a montage of images, is an important part of the film. How did you put that together?
JT: We had to write it, and then we had to write it again and again during editing. It was like making a feature film, that diary. We have many versions of it. I’m very, very happy with the one we have. We tried to get different elements of different cultural expressions into that diary. We tried to find the poetry in the truth of the character.
Do you know the film Kes by Ken Loach? I love that film. In a strange way, my favourite moment of that film, when I always cry, is when the kid who doesn’t know how to express himself suddenly is asked by a smart teacher to talk, for the first time, and tell us how he deals with his bird. [The teacher] knows that the boy is with this bird all day. The kid speaks for the first time, and he speaks freely about who he is, and I always cry.
That’s not exactly what we’re doing, but Conrad’s diary, I wanted it to be a revelation of the discrepancy between his social inability and his inner life, which is so rich.
TSR: The diary entry itself is quite literary, but it’s so visual. It’s completely different from if it were just written down. You also have similar montages in Oslo, August 31st — the one at the beginning and the voiceover — they’re all fantastic. How did you get interested in that particular kind of visual storytelling? And why put that in here?
JT: I went to the National Film and TV School in London, which we called the National Social Realism Film School, at the time. Stephen Frears was a teacher there and Mike Leigh — people that I now admire tremendously for their skills with drama. But at the time, I was really into Antonioni and Alain Resnais and Brian De Palma. I wanted montage, and the break of the image and the form, to be really at the essence of what I did.
I think I changed, also, through going to that school. I discovered Ken Loach — the fact that in the middle of social realism, there is poetry in truth, not only social commentary hitting you on the head. In the best of those films, there’s something more that transcends.
I still have one foot in that kind of formalist [door]. To show thought patterns in cinema through montage, I find very interesting. It’s been appropriated by commercials, but I always try to show that it can be more expressive and, ideally, more complex.
7R: How did you choose the location for the house and create that environment? One of the elements of Louder than Bombs, that is also a big part of Oslo, is the idea of spaces having meaning and memories that haunt them. In Oslo, it’s the city itself. In Louder than Bombs, it’s about this intimate family, and in their house, you really get a sense of history, memory, and damage — but also love.
JT: We had a very good production designer, Molly Hughes, who was a big help in helping me understand the specific American culture, the details of living in America, and the different types of architecture and stuff. Again, your question is very relevant. It’s very good.
Space is very emotional in cinema. I grew up enjoying films by a big variety of directors, all the way from Brian De Palma to Andrei Tarkovsky. Both of those directors are incredibly sophisticated with space, emotionally and narratively.
In Oslo, it was more about the space of the city and what different places could feel like, almost, whereas in Louder than Bombs, I think the space of the house, for example, or the darkroom where Jonah goes to clean up after his mother, three years after her passing, are more spaces, as you say, that deal with specific memories of these characters. I find location scouting to be almost equally important to casting. It’s one of the most important things you do as a director.
My early short films are very meticulously spatially thought out. Doing a feature like Reprise, I couldn’t control it all. That was a liberating thing. I had to learn to be more intuitive. Also, I was working more with actors, and that challenges the plan in a very positive way.
7R: How does your interest in the emotional resonance of space translate into how you’re blocking the actors?
JT: I always have a plan, a sense of what I want to do, and you don’t want to be too dictatorial about it towards the actors. I always try to insinuate or find a way to organically slip it in, to have the actors feel that they are discovering the things that you ideally want them to do. But it needs to be their discovery. That’s what is good directing.
On the best days, that worked. Actors, skilled actors, are open to being — I wouldn’t use the world “manipulated” but — stimulated to try to reach something that ultimately they have to bring, which is the whole interplay between directing and acting. You can never micromanage performance. You’ve got to trust. In this case, I had some amazing actors. I couldn’t be happier.
7R: Isabelle Huppert plays the conflict photographer and matriarch Isabelle. What was it like to work with her?
JT: She was able to very subtly create an iconic character, without us having to make such a big effort. Since it’s set in New York, we could have a French war photographer. It’s not unnatural.
I’m a fan of hers, and she knows that I’m particularly interested in the closeup as an element of cinema that is very pure — Bergman and the social Scandinavian tradition. We talked a lot about the intimacy. Isabelle [Huppert] can do closeups where you feel like she locks you out or she lets you in, which is incredible. I can’t put my finger on it. She’s amazing. I’ve never seen an image change so much when an actor gets in front of the camera.
7R: Everyone sees Isabelle differently. Her children really revere her, but they also see the sadder side of things. During Isabelle’s voice over, at one point, you actually cut to Jonah sitting in the house and thinking.
JT: Yes, I’m impressed that you noticed that. Because there is also a memory between parent and child in the story. Jonah reveres or admires his mother. He feels close to her. Yet there is maybe, in the process of accepting the grief that he’s avoided, also an understanding that there is a gap between them. There was something that he could not — there was a distance between them. And he himself has a difficult time being a parent. He’s not allowing himself to see that his father is a good inspiration for parenting, perhaps because he’s admiring his mother.
I think that moment you’re pointing to is very important, because it’s at that moment we let Isabelle’s experience as an absent parent reflect upon Jonah’s narrative. We go to Jonah. He’s also carried with him some of that inability of contact and presence, or maybe he is experiencing that also because of his experience of having that type of parent. It’s an important moment.
7R: What challenges did you find in writing a film set in America?
JT: I learned a lot of what I think I know about America from watching movies. And then I wrote cheerleaders into my film. Then, suddenly, as we’re approaching it, I’m like, “Do they really exist?” I went to high schools, and they do exist. They’re beautiful. They get thrown in the air. It’s poetic.
I had to go and explore it. There’s something fascinating about American culture continually dealing with their own pop sensitivity of the present, here and now. I wanted to try and grab that and deal with it through a more naturalistic point of view.
7R: Don’t you think cheerleaders are a bit of a cliché?
JT: Maybe it is, but I like some cliches. They’re [the cheerleaders] erotic in a way, yet they’re angelic and pure. Why wouldn’t that fit into a story about a dead mother? I get to throw things together in a movie.