In this interview, cinematographer Jakob Ihre discusses Louder Than Bombs, collaborating with Joachim Trier, his aesthetic influences from Tarkovsky to Lichtenstein, and capturing performances. This is the fourth feature in our week-long (April 18–22) celebration of Louder Than Bombs, with a new feature each day.
Read our two-part interview with director Joachim Trier starting here. Read our review of the film here. Read our essay on exile in Oslo, August 31st and Louder Than Bombs here.
The first image in Joachim Trier’s new film Louder than Bombs is of a baby’s hand clasped around her father’s finger, softly lit. It’s one of a panoply of stunning images shot by Swedish cinematographer Jakob Ihre on 35mm, which are so essential to the film’s appeal. In addition to collaborating with Trier on Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, Ihre has worked in the U.S., on Lola Versus and The End of the Tour, and elsewhere in Scandinavia on films like Trust Me and A Family. Because of his background in documentaries and live TV, “where you really have to find the shots”, Ihre operates the camera himself. “That’s really the key to my lighting. It goes hand in hand. I light with my framing, as well. You find the light in your framing.”
For his work on Louder Than Bombs, Ihre won the Norwegian KANON Award last month. He has a knack for creating beautiful images and intimately capturing great performances. Because he operates the camera himself, “I am on set, and I’m very close to the actors, especially in the way Joachim likes to shoot — to be very close to the actors. It’s very physical. My responsibility is the lighting and the framing. But my responsibility is also to be part of the film and to be a co-storyteller. The projects that we choose are very personal. We have friends or ourselves who have experienced similar situations. We put many years into this. Hopefully, the actors, by chance, they feel that, I think, especially on Louder Than Bombs”.
Ihre and Trier have been collaborating for over fifteen years, first on short films and then on all of Trier’s features. “He’s very unique, Joachim”, said Ihre. “He’s very talented with a very clear vision. He’s very knowledgable and very hands on. He is the textbook definition of a film director: he directs everyone – not only the actors but all the department heads. But he still remains a wonderful team player and collaborator who makes everyone feel like it’s their film, too. I find that the crews on his sets really, really care about the film! The films become very personal, not only because of the scripts, but also because of the making of it. Everyone is really putting so much into them because we really feel we are part of the making of the film”.
They’ve always shot Trier’s films on 35mm, which Ihre explained is crucial for creating the films’ poetry: “The format is alive and living as much as the characters are. If you want to capture someone’s soul — in theory, emulsion has got that. There’s a big closeup of Isabelle in [Louder Than Bombs] that lasts for 30 seconds or more. There’s some wind in her hair and her expressions are changing within the shot. You can see some changes in her eyes. The same goes for the grain. The grain is changing, the emulsion. They’re both working together and in sync. If we had shot that digitally, it would have looked different, but it also would have been a more flat shot. It would not have worked in tandem. It would have been an imprint rather than merging together. So much in Joachim’s films is about different directions in the same time, to juxtapose different ideas on top of each other. If we had shot Oslo, August 31st digitally, the film would have been much more one-dimensional, I think”.
One of Trier’s preoccupations, which requires close collaboration with Ihre, is visualizing thought processes on film. Ihre elaborated, “In the script itself, there are many scenes of people alone, thinking. Often, there are beats in the script going from a very fast-paced scene to often abruptly ending on something static or where the person is static, but they are racing in their minds. Those moments of contemplation are often visualized with a very subjective, close camera. So we are often very close to them in order to be able to cut to a wider shot. In order to have the wide shots, we also need the really tight shots. We are very physical with the camera. Often, we are handheld. The handheld is meant to mimic their own physicality. The camera is breathing with them.”
Ihre first read the script for Louder Than Bombs in 2008 so they had seven years to think about it — even making Oslo, August 31st in the interim. “I felt close to it then [in 2008], the story itself, but it felt even more personal when I read it in 2013. It resonated even more with me. Years had passed; I had kids of my own, been traveling even more. Finally, reading it then, it became extremely close to my heart.”
Their first step for collaborating on the film was to spend a lot of time discussing the story. “We talk about the stories and the parallels to our own lives and our friends’ lives. Joachim plays a lot of music and uses far off references”. Next, they did a lot of research on the characters’ situations in the film, educating themselves on everything from war photographers to East Coast architecture to video games to American high schools. “You almost don’t get into the more practical, visual references until much later”.
When they made their first feature together, Reprise, they had “folders upon folders of reference images on cinematography and on how this film should look. Those images were things that we had collected in film school. When we did Louder Than Bombs, which is also set in a contemporary world in America, that folder was much smaller. It was less about how should we tackle this, which lenses, or which look it should have.” Because they’d made other contemporary films together, they were able to tackle most of the scenes in Louder Than Bombs “with our own taste and intuition”. But for the more stylised dream sequences, they were inspired by the work of photographers Martina Hoagland Ivanov, Bill Henson, and Gregory Crewdson. Their approach here was to “mimic or to take strong inspiration from Conrad’s world of imagination: computer games, fantasy literature, and manga. This is his world, so let’s make these fantasies and dreams his.”
Aesthetically, Ihre and Trier wanted “to avoid mannerisms. It’s about not drawing attention to itself”. They chose a 1:1.85 aspect ratio for Louder than Bombs because, “compared to cinemascope or 1:2.35, which feels more stylized or cinematic, [1:1.85] feels more neutral. It’s more of an empty canvas”. Similarly, they shot about 80% of the film using a 40mm lens with a 40mm focal length to “give the feeling of uniformity and to feel that everyone is belonging together. A wider lens can be more cinematic and more grand. It has more expression.” With the exception of the more stylized dream sequences, they shot every scene with 500ASA (Kodak Vision 3 5219) to “give everything the same identity, the same texture, the same grain, and the same treatment. Everyone is equally treated.”
“We didn’t want to have a different texture or a different look for the past,” Ihre recalled. “We decided to try to do everything in real life in the present and the past — to treat it all with one brush. When we are in the present with the boys and the father, their texture or their atmosphere in their house feels the same as when we look at Isabelle three years earlier. When we shoot the present, you should feel her presence more, so it doesn’t become divided: the shots of her and the scenes of the present in the house.”
Although Trier and Ihre didn’t want the cinematography to be ostentatious, they did aim to be visually playful and expressionistic. “Even though the film is still very real, honest, and humane, we still have great dynamic cinema in our minds. We are highly influenced by the work of Tarkovsky and his very soulful images. We love the Dardennes and what they’re doing, but at the same time we want to bring a grander cinema to it, also. We have a strong foot in mainstream American cinema, the films of Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, and Michael Mann. We grew up on those films at the same time as we grew up on Bergman and Antonioni.”
Part of how Trier creates dynamic visuals is by playing with “different beats and different rhythms in a scene. It could be like a static handheld shot cut to a tracking shot. Those beats can be shown in different lens sizes, as well.” For example, in the scene where Jonah and Conrad are talking on the bleachers at Conrad’s high school, they used many different lenses. “We are on 40mm when we are with the actors. Finally, we cut to a much wider shot, which is maybe a 28mm lens. And on top of that, it also zooms in, and it goes from 28mm to maybe 200mm in the same shot. It varies a lot. That’s part of being an enormous cinephile to have so many different ways to make them real and at the same time poetic and cinematic. You need different tools to do that otherwise it becomes very one-dimensional.”
Because the film’s script was inspired by American cinema of the ‘80s, “we wanted to use some the same techniques almost as an homage to that era”. There’s a scene where Conrad and his classmate and crush Melanie are “walking back home from the party at night, and she pees by the car. That scene has a bluish moonlight. There’s a bluish tint in the sky. Films like E.T, with its many suburban scenes, often had a strong, bluish moonlight. That’s something we would never have done normally if it were set in Norway. We would have used moonlight in a more subtle, less colourful way.”
Ihre and Trier’s styles have evolved as they’ve shot more films, which changed how they shot Louder than Bombs. One of the film’s most iconic scenes, which was used for its original poster at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, is a “slow motion of cheerleaders flying in the air” against a blue sky. It’s very stylized, and Ihre believes that “it became even more stylized than if we had shot that scene the time it was written in 2008. I think we would have shot it more naturalistically with flares, the cheerleaders facing towards the sun, and the sun glaring towards the lens. In Reprise, we shot a lot towards the windows, and things are being burned out and glarey. In Oslo, August 31st, we went away from that a bit and shot more in a flat light and softer light, and that’s expressionistic in some way.”
“We were rushed to pull this shot off quickly”, Ihre recalled. “Then we looked at each other, and I said, ‘Let’s shoot this with the sun behind the camera?’ It was frontal lit. It was a beautiful sunny day.” Because they shot the scene on the heels of the “heavy dialogue scene on the bleachers” between Jonah and Conrad, “it became even more iconic and even more graphic and more stylized towards American pop art, to look a bit like a Roy Lichtenstein painting. It was almost by intuition to shoot it that way in that lighting set up. But I think it was intuitively informed by having shot two features together before.”
Read our review of the film here.