This is the second part of our two-part interview with Joachim Trier. Read the first part of our interview with Joachim Trier here. Read our review of the film here. Read our essay on exile in Oslo, August 31st and Louder Than Bombs here.
The Seventh Row (7R): Throughout the film, we often shift from an outside perspective to one of the character’s subjective perspectives. How did you think about getting us into the heads of each of the different characters?
Joachim Trier (JT): Your question hits the nail on the head because this is what I’m interested in: to play between the more objective and then go into the subjective with the different characters. In the past, particularly with Oslo [his previous film, Oslo August 31st], I found I had time to go very intimately, almost tactile, close to the skin of the main character.
In this one, the whole challenge is to do those shifts between the characters so it all fills out a whole, the family, as almost a main character in itself. I grew up with a dad that was a sound designer. He still is. I’m interested in sound in cinema, but it’s also very much about mise en scène. It’s about how you subjectively, slowly change perspective to get closer to them, and then also enter into their [heads]. I do a lot of these stream of consciousness sequences, like with Conrad’s diary, who really sees this [montage]? Is that Jesse’s character reading, or is that Conrad telling us? And you know it’s in between; it’s like a shared subjectivity. I’m interested in this.
For example, Conrad sitting in the classroom listening to the voice of Melanie, and slowly, the sound treatment of her voice goes through 50 stages of subtle changes, and we changed the perspectives of the whole classroom atmosphere. He looks out the window, and he sees the tree. The visual comes in. We’re close to his eyes. He thinks about the tree at night when his mother was driving the car. We’re back in the classroom now. It’s silent. Her voice is very close to the mic. It’s a completely different voice than earlier when it had much more reverberation. And then we go into the memory of the mother, and an imagined moment, and we go with the mother for a while. When we come back to Conrad, we see none of the classroom, we just see an eye or skin. It’s almost like he’s alone…
This is how we try to beat-by-beat, with sound and image, just systematically, get closer, closer into a sense of — thought. How to show thinking in cinema, it’s something I’m really interested in. I get so pissed when people say, “Oh, thinking, that’s for the novel. Cinema is about the exterior”. I disagree. Film can be incredibly subjective.
Speaking of literature, Ian McEwan has a really beautiful passage in Saturday. He says that the modern tragedy is that we know so much more, yet we are not more able to do anything about it. We know that fish now feel pain. That knowledge doesn’t help us. It just makes us feel more guilty that we eat fish. We have the immediacy of the media telling us about five minutes ago, someone died somewhere, and it feels even seemingly more relevant, but does it help us more to help the world? I don’t know. I’m not saying that the film is all about that. I’m sure you could make a film that’s just about that. But it’s an element of the story.
7R: There are a lot of two-shots in the film where you shift the focus from one character to another. It creates these very intimate scenes, where the characters are physically very close to each other, but you feel like there’s this huge distance between them.
JT: Very often, you save your close-ups in a movie. In this film, there’s a lot of close-ups, and I wanted there to be. I didn’t save my close-ups; I saved my two-shots! Like when they’re two or three of them in the same image, it’s a very valuable, important moment. So I chose them very carefully. Sometimes, two-shots are great, because the actors can play around a bit more and improvise a bit.
There’s a wonderful moment when Isabelle Huppert is on the couch talking about a dream, which is quite traumatic and complicated for her. Gabriel Byrne is sitting there, and he starts joking around because he doesn’t — like when a couple is discussing something — want to go into the dark area, so he’s trying to avoid it through some really fun humour.
Some parts of that were not scripted, and I just let the actors play around a bit after the scene had run out. Some great moments came out of that. That’s a good two-shot, I think, with Isabelle looking toward the camera and Gabriel in profile. That’s a moment I enjoyed shooting. And I think the actors really contributed to it.
7R: In that scene, there’s this great moment when Isabelle isn’t looking, and Gabriel Byrne has this expression of anger — it’s a very private moment, but it happens when they’re both on camera together.
JT: You see this a lot in [Yasujirō] Ozu movies — the Japanese director. He’s amazing at doing subjective shots of bigger groups of people, very often, the sense of the individual not being a part of the social.
The classical Ozu shot, something in Tokyo Story, for example, is I guess the daughter-in-law, the widow of the boy who’s not around anymore, is sitting with the remaining family. They’re all having dinner and laughing, but we stay in the big shot with the focus on her, and she’s not part of the joyful conversation.
That sense of isolation in the group, in many Ozu films, inspired me. I haven’t talked about Ozu in relation to this film. It just jumped out at me when you asked, because he’s great at that.
7R: Let’s talk about the voice-overs in the film. How did you decide who gets a voice-over and who doesn’t? Jonah doesn’t have one, but then Conrad has some voice-over — there’s Conrad’s diary that Jonah’s reading and then there’s also the one where Melanie’s narrating it from Conrad’s perspective. The first time I saw the film, I thought, “Oh, Isabelle has this long voice-over sequence,” and then I saw it again, and I realized actually it’s being broken up by David Strathairn’s character — her coworker — narrating, and it’s not clear whether it’s her speaking or him speaking as her.
JT: I love that ambiguity. Put it like this: it’s chaos! I don’t want to use it lightly. I don’t want to take voice-over as an easy cop-out just to tell something that I’m not representing visually. It always has to stand in contrast, to show something other than the visual, to be creatively interesting. So we were doing all kinds of weird voice-over tricks here and there.
It ultimately derives from an idea of wanting to work in free form. I want cinema to be a free form, just to tell human stories, and not try and get stuck in the dramaturgical expectations that we are all confronted with all the time.
Conceptual voice-over scenes are fun. Now I’ve done a lot of it, and maybe I’ll leave it for a little while. But in Louder, I really tried some different things. In film, you can do so many funny things, and I hate the idea of consistency, that the film has to do only one thing, and then you do something else in the next one. I mean — dirty formalism, you know, try stuff out.
7R: It’s interesting that Jonah doesn’t have a voice-over at all, but on the other hand, we get to see him outside the context of his family.
JT: Jonah is the one that’s maybe the most [of a] mystery towards himself. He feels that he is sorted out. Then slowly, we observe him — almost more objectively — without getting into his head completely, deteriorating, because there’s so much in his life he hasn’t dealt with, whereas Conrad is a slow discovery.
Conrad’s diary was very inspired by the film Kes, by Ken Loach, where a young boy with a disability — he’s not very articulate — finally speaks about how he raises a bird, that is all that he really cares about in his life. It’s a very moving thing to see this person, [who is] socially not skilled, finally speak his mind.
In a way, I was very inspired by that for Conrad: we’re so worried about introverted young people, about they’re [being] online… maybe we should just respect that and understand that they have different styles of communication. Social behaviour of people isn’t always representative of their inner life. That’s just how it is. People are different. Some people are great at expressing themselves; others are not.
I had a lot of nice feedback from a girl that came up to me after a screening recently, and she said, “I was that introverted kid in high school. Thank you for showing someone like that in a cool way, without making fun of them.”
I’m interested in the outsider perspective – I think Conrad is like that. So to have him reveal himself through the voice-over is very important in the film, whereas Jonah has a completely different dynamic. And the big enigma of the movie is Isabelle. I think you can only access her idea of how she thinks through her friendship with Richard, through Richard, and through Gene remembering something. So that gave us the conclusion of how that voice-over should be.
7R: You’ve said your films depict thought patterns. What do you mean by that?
JT: The train of thought, how people think, the structuring of thought, which I think is the temporal experience of images on screen. We always talk about stories, because it’s a literary term, and it’s very easy to say, again, reducing it to a pitch, that this is the plot, and this is the story. But the fact is that we are watching images in time, and they correlate or not with our sensomotorical thought patterns. It sounds very technical, but I feel it’s a fact.
You’re actually dealing with theme and image, when you make a movie, all the time: quick, slow, how do you pace the information? I think that trying to show thinking, literally, the association of [the] chains of [thought of] a young boy thinking randomly about his life: is it possible to express? Let’s try.
7R: There are also a lot of memories and dreams in the film.
JT: That’s what we constitute our identity on, these frail things that we believe are truths about ourselves. That’s very scary and also liberating, and the film is very much about that, I feel: the re-questioning of their own personal narratives and the mother, of course.
7R: Have you seen Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell?
JT: Yeah, it’s a great film. I love that film.
7R: In some ways, I felt like Louder than Bombs was a fictional Stories We Tell.
JT: Another Cannes moment! I hadn’t thought about that. You’re probably right. I have seen it. I love it.