Jørgen Stangebye Larsen discusses crafting Oslo, August 31st’s production design and creating a geographically realistic portrait of the city.
This essay is the second article in our week long celebration of Oslo, August 31st’s 10th anniversary. Click here to read all the articles.
Discover everything you could want to know about Joachim Trier’s films in our resource page on the filmmaker. Click here.
Ten years after its release, Oslo, August 31st (2011) has marked itself out as one of the iconic films about Oslo — and it’s not just because it includes the city in its title. The film is just as much a portrait of Oslo as it is a character study of Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a recovering heroin addict who returns to his home city on one of the last days of summer to reunite with old friends and decide if he wants to continue living. Anders takes a tour through the city, and we get to see well-known Oslo spots along with him, and witness the range of architectural styles present throughout the city.
“[Director Joachim Trier] was very concerned about having a layout of location that was a realistic walk through Oslo,” production designer Jørgen Stangebye Larsen told me. “Usually, in a movie, you would cheat a lot. You cross the street, and you are somewhere else. But here, it was all mapped out to be realistic.” Stangebye Larsen is one of many members of the production for whom this portrait of Oslo felt very personal. Although he wasn’t born in Oslo, he’s been to and lived there for parts of his life, which means he’s been to and lived in the places featured in the film.
A lot of the exterior locations in the film were such a key part of Anders’s story that they were written into the script. The largest part of Stangebye Larsen’s job, then, was to choose and dress the interior spaces: mainly, the homes of the various characters Anders meets along his journey. There’s his best friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), a husband and new father who is balancing family life with still wanting to seem cool and intellectual. There’s the home of the drug dealer whom Anders turns to in a dark moment, for which Trier and Stangebye Larsen consulted a real ex-drug dealer. Then, there’s the final location in the film, Anders’s parents’ home, where he returns when he’s decided to end his life. It conveys a lot of Anders’s history as a privileged kid growing up in a lively, intellectual household; it was also a location that needed to facilitate a nine-minute one-take dolly shot.
Oslo, August 31st was, amazingly, Stangebye Larsen’s first job as a production designer. After several years as a location manager, he went to film school to study production design, and worked on Oslo right after graduating. He’s since worked on great films like Blind (2014), directed by Oslo co-writer Eskil Vogt, and Maria Sødahl’s wonderful Hope (2019), for which he built an entire apartment set from scratch (and it looks incredible).
In this interview, Stangebye Larsen reflects on Oslo, August 31st ten years on, describing Anders’s walk through Oslo, his approach to designing the film’s interiors, and Trier’s and Vogt’s meticulous attention to detail.
Seventh Row (7R): What were your initial impressions and ideas when you read the script for Oslo, August 31st?
Jørgen Stangebye Larsen: Joachim and Eskil take a lot of care with the script. They want it to be a good reading experience. The first script I got was without scene numbers, for instance. They wanted it to be a text that you read for the story and not think about too technically.
It was very impressive to read that script, because it was beautifully written, and it was also very close to myself, as it was happening in Oslo. The script was written with familiar places from Oslo [already noted]. The existential things it’s touching on can touch everyone. I’m not a drug addict or anything like that, but I remember Joachim talking to me about this kind of double shame when you are a very privileged person. You don’t have to be rich, but you are privileged, and you have opportunities to make choices with education. When you don’t succeed in life, it can become this even bigger disappointment.
A summer in Norway is very holy, because it’s short. [We have] a lot of winter and bad weather. [The end of] August is the last days of summer before it turns to autumn. It’s a beautiful time. You felt all of that when you read the script.
7R: How many of the locations were already pinpointed in the script? You get the impression, watching the film, that it was written with a lot of the locations in mind.
Jørgen Stangebye Larsen: Definitely. For interiors, of course, it was not written. But for the portrait of Oslo exteriors, it was these places like Vigeland Park and the Blå Nightclub. Everybody knows those places when you live in Oslo.
My parents are from Oslo, but I grew up half an hour from Oslo, in the countryside. My parents divorced when I was six, so from that time, I was going to Oslo. I moved to Oslo when I was eighteen, and I was living in Bislett, St. Hanshaugen which is the area that this movie takes place in.
Even in some of the montages, the building I had been living in was there, and my mom grew up in that area; my grandfather had an apartment there since like 1935. I am very connected to that part of town, which is unique because Bislett, St. Hanshaugen is a part of Oslo that is kind of in the middle of everything. You are ten minutes to the [city] centre, ten minutes to the east side, and ten minutes to the more posh west side.
7R: It feels like the film is as much about the city as it is about the character.
Jørgen Stangebye Larsen: Yeah, definitely. It was all about location. There was an intention of creating a very realistic and close portrait of Oslo as a city at the same time as telling the story of Anders.
For Joachim, the places were extremely important. He was very concerned about having a layout of location that was a realistic walk through Oslo. Usually, in a movie, you would cheat a lot. You cross the street, and you are somewhere else. But here, it was all mapped out to be realistic, more or less. [The exterior locations] were more or less worked out [when I came on board], so it was about going into the details, like, where in the park? Or which tree?
I was looking back at some emails, and I remember, in a script update, [Joachim] was asking the question of how [the character Anders] enters Oslo [near the beginning of the film]. For me, I also connected with this movie because I lived in Oslo for three years, and then, I spent three years living in Lillehammer. In those three years [that I was away from the city], from 2007 to 2010, a lot of things happened with Oslo: a lot of construction, a lot of change. Coming back from Lillehammer, it was very impressive to see how the city, every time, was [changing and under construction] with cranes and all those things. I was thinking, it’s a little bit the same for Anders in the movie because he had a year away, so when he drives through that tunnel and sees Oslo, it’s a very different Oslo [from the one] he left.
That [image of entering through the tunnel] was something that I suggested. We did that, which meant that [Anders] is arriving from the east side of Oslo. [Joachim] had initially thought that he would be in a clinic on the other side. So then, we were thinking, should the clinic be on the other side [instead]? We were always thinking about realis[tic geography].
7R: How would you describe your overall process, from when you got the script to when the film started to shoot?
Jørgen Stangebye Larsen: Joachim is a conversationalist. He loves to talk. We had a lot of conversations. Although you’re talking about visual things, I always find that, in production design, it’s about connecting, talking, and getting to know each other.
It was a short prep. In the first two weeks, he said, “This is the two weeks that I’m available for you, whenever you need me. From that point on, I have to go 100% into the casting and the script.” He was very clear about how we would work. And then, as we were having conversations about the character, things [quickly] became very personal. We were sharing a lot from our own lives, connecting and getting confident that we could trust the [other] person to understand what [they were] trying to make.
I had this experience before the movie: in Norway, alcohol serving in nightclubs closes quite early, so you [often] end up in some kind of after party. I remember there was a guy [at an after party] that I met through other people. He was studying to be a doctor. We were talking and laughing, having a lot of fun, and he sent me a friend request on Facebook the next day. We were like, “Oh, we have to meet again!” And then suddenly, two weeks after, there were all [these posts] on his Facebook saying, “Oh my god, he killed himself!” I was [shocked]. He was this super funny medical student. I thought about that immediately when I read the script, because you don’t expect something like that to happen. We were sharing a lot of things like that, and also sharing things about growing up and our parents.
I remember a collection of photographs [Joachim] had on his phone, from him observing the city, picking up on random things he liked. All these things, I felt, had to do with wanting to give a very real, unromantic picture of a city. For instance, there is a scene in the movie where [Anders] is walking in this tracking shot through the scaffolding in a street. [Scaffolding is] the kind of thing that could be considered ugly or annoying, but it’s these imperfections in the city that also make a city beautiful. When you love a city that you live in, you also love the weird things.
7R: Could you talk a bit more about what Joachim is like as a collaborator?
Jørgen Stangebye Larsen: It was fascinating to meet someone that is so open about their ambition. In Norway, it can [feel] like you shouldn’t stand up too much. But he is not shy to have an ambition, like wanting this movie to go to Cannes, or wanting to be at a certain level. That is infectious. And the same with Eskil. They take it so seriously, but at the same time, can be very playful and very human
[Joachim] gave me a lot of freedom, or at least the impression of having freedom and being allowed to share ideas and be part of [the creative process]. He was very open and gave the feeling that he trusted me and my decisions after he gave me the brief, which was a thorough, careful, brief.
He was showing these different mobile [phone] pictures of maybe a sofa left on the pavement or an umbrella, funny things [from city life] that we can recreate. The project became a lot about details. We worked so much with every little detail, recreating the strange observations we all have walking through a city. We didn’t do this, but for example, you could find an old sofa and put it in the street where [Anders is] walking.
He gave me some kind of visual framework for what he liked. He showed me some pictures from a Woody Allen film, I think, maybe Manhattan (1979). It was these black leather chairs with dark wood and the light and the reflections in the leather. He was also showing me some paintings from art history, from the Netherlands, which had a lot of reflections in the objects. He made sure to programme us a little bit to have [things like] that in mind when we were doing things on our own later.
The cliche that I have experienced [when working with directors] is that everyone is super afraid of white walls in movies. In TV series from NRK, which is like the BBC in Norway, it’s always blue or green, police station colours, everywhere. There are a lot of things in movies that become ‘truths’ when you are told them. When someone tells me, no, you can’t have a white wall behind an actor, it’s like, why can’t you have that?
For Joachim, it was extremely important, this white canvas behind an actor, and also that it should never be broken [towards] yellow, red, magenta. It should be broken towards gray or black and be kind of clean. That is one of the cool things that he gave me that I brought with me later. He explained that it’s always nice to have a white reference in any frame, because that makes you see the other colours more clearly. It gives you contrast. We were sitting at a dark wooden table, and he took a piece of white paper, curled it, and put it on the desk. Now, it’s much more interesting, when you have this combination.
7R: What kind of collaboration did you have with the other heads of department and crew members who worked on Oslo, August 31st?
Jørgen Stangebye Larsen: A fascinating [challenge for all of us to work on together] was the end scene in the house, which is a ten-minute one shot on a dolly. It was a huge thing. Joachim is a perfectionist in a good way and concerned about every detail. The location scouting, the casting, it’s all very carefully done.
There were tons of people in the casting department, six or seven, and they saw hundreds of people for everything. In the location scout, I think we looked at 150 apartments for Thomas [Anders’s best friend] and [Anders’] parents. We tried to find something that could technically accommodate this very challenging way of shooting the [final] scene. It was on a dolly through all the rooms from when [Anders] enters the house until he takes an overdose in the bed at the end. We were looking for a house with the right layout, and we were looking for a house where you could drive [the dolly] steadily without making noise on the floor.
When we shot that scene, it was a huge choreography. We had to move the set dressing, pull the table away for the camera to go in, and then back with the table. It was this massive performance.
7R: I’ve spoken to production designers who talk about their job as inhabiting the character in a similar way to how the actor does, when you’re creating, say, a character’s home space. Does that resonate with you? And do you get to talk to the actors much when you’re doing that?
Jørgen Stangebye Larsen: It’s very different from project to project. I don’t only care about creating a space for the lens and the final shot. I also enjoy giving the actors things to play with. That is another reason to work in the details of objects. Sometimes, I have direct conversations with actors. In Hope, [directed by] Maria Sødahl, for instance, we had direct conversations with Andrea [Bræin Hovig] about her nightstand.
Joachim had this obsession with doing things accurately in order to never disturb the audience. For instance, the scene when Anders buys heroin from this dealer in [the dealer’s] apartment. That was pushed by Joachim [when he got] context from someone who used to deal and knew more about how [the dealer’s home] might look and how you sell heroin. I talked with this guy for a long time. He was saying, they have a glass table, and they have a box, and it’s usually under the sofa. They have a scale, and that might be under the pillow in the sofa. They have a PlayStation, and things like that. We were following that. He said, sometimes, they get paid with the new shoes or electric things, and they’re surrounded by that.
We added this aquarium and an ironing board in the background just to confuse the character a little bit and avoid some kind of cliche. He’s playing [the video game] Battlefield, which [Anders’s friend] Thomas [talks about] playing [with his wife] in the beginning. It’s a funny link between the dealer and the family playing the same PlayStation game. I love that place in the movie, because I think it’s very realistic.
7R: How did you design the living spaces? I like them a lot in this film. There’s Thomas’s flat, and then Anders’s family’s home. They all feel very personal to the people who live in them.
Jørgen Stangebye Larsen: I was trying to connect a lot to my own feeling of coming back to your childhood home, for instance. It’s very dramatic to go back to your childhood home and kill yourself in [your] bed, knowing that your family is going to find you there. And they are selling the house, apparently to help him pay [his] debts. I used a lot of things from my own life, thinking about details that could point to his younger, more innocent self. He is coming from a very safe, generous home with well-educated, relaxed, cool people. He ends up [killing himself] in a very lived-in home with a lot of soul. It’s a generous home where people come and go. They don’t clean everyday.
I was very interested in the traces that I could put in the set to explain that story, which is never mentioned or talked about, just by seeing it. I wanted to show that things are partly packed [up to move] now. I wanted that house to give the impression that now is a very difficult time for the parents. They have been packing up the house and going through all the pictures of [Anders] and his school books and all these things. I put cigarettes there; maybe the mom started to smoke again. And having the tea cup sitting there all night; [maybe after] looking at all the pictures, [they weren’t able to] finish the packing, and then they just kind of left this home half packed.
It was a movie that didn’t have a lot of money, so I ended up using a lot of things from my parents’ homes: a lot of art, a lot of furniture, a lot of personal things from my own childhood, even the things I made in school.
7R: It must be strange to watch the film back and see all your childhood things.
Jørgen Stangebye Larsen: Yeah, [there are] a lot of my family’s things in that movie, I have to say. It was the perfect way to create that atmosphere. And they were happy to help.
Thomas’s apartment was this representation of the other route that Anders didn’t take. It also showed the ambivalence of Thomas, who has a family and likes that but is not comfortable [with being seen as just a father].
It was important to show these intellectual, cultural, interested people in a relaxed space with the kids, being kind of overwhelmed by having a family and a kid. They are not really accepting this idea that people who have kids are boring. We worked with a mix of new, fresh, cultural things, and also some inherited furniture, more antique things.
I remember we even placed the Smiths album Louder Than Bombs behind Anders [in Thomas’s apartment], because [Joachim] told me they were going to do that movie.
7R: How has your work on the production design of Oslo, August 31st impacted the way you’ve approached projects since?
Jørgen Stangebye Larsen: For me, it will always be a very important movie, because it’s where my career started. It went all the way to the Cannes Film Festival. I went there with them. I was kind of amazed. The first time I saw the movie, I was crying the whole time. I love the movie, I have to say. I thought it was beautiful.
It was a strong experience to work with someone [Joachim Trier] who is so powerful. I felt there and then, when I read that script, and when I worked with him, this experience is something to take care of, because you’re not always going to meet people like that. The script is not always going to be so stunning.
It’s very infectious to see someone being so professional. I’m always pushing for professionalism and ambition in everything I do. It maybe has something to do with [working with Joachim], because I saw that that was possible. He said to me, you can do whatever you want, different kinds of movies, because you always go very deep into the things you do. I’m not a sci-fi nerd, for example, but as a production designer, I find it more interesting to do a sci-fi movie if I’m not a sci-fi nerd, because I’m going to do something more original and more exciting than if I’m just obsessed with other movies. For me, production design has never been about colours or finding a cool sofa; it’s been about making movies.
I have to mention, of course, the two people that I was working with. I did this movie with [art director] Solfrid Kjetså. We had been going to school together. And we had Iselin [Steiro], the wife of Anders [Danielsen Lie], who was in the art department because she wanted to be an architect [Steiro now works as an architect]. It was the three of us. We had a few others doing props and stuff. We were like a small gang during that movie, giving everything, working day and night.
I think what really distinguishes great directors from other ones is the ones who are able to excite the people around them. Joachim seems almost perfect when you meet him because he’s so nice and so intelligent and so everything. You’re almost like, who is this guy? Is it possible to be this nice and cool and talented? I feel lucky to have had that experience, and also with Eskil.
Joachim and Eskil don’t give up, and they don’t stop. The cafe [scene for example] was an incredibly difficult location to afford to close down to shoot with the street and the traffic. I think we almost lost it. But we managed, because [Joachim is] never going to let that happen. Even though the owner says no, you end up getting there.
He was pushing the producers, pushing everyone. I saw in Joachim someone who was treating everybody extremely professionally, [even if] they were not professional. He could be extremely tough. He could say, “This has always been in the script. Why hasn’t anybody thought about closing this whole street so we can go with the fire [extinguisher] in the street? Of course that costs money! You should have thought about that five weeks ago.” Pushing, pushing, pushing to get the best out of everyone and everything. That goes for absolutely every detail. That’s fascinating, because most people are lazy.