In this interview celebrating the tenth anniversary of Oslo, August 31st, director and co-writer Joachim Trier reflects back on his career-changing film.
This is the final article in our week-long celebration of Oslo, August 31st’s 10th anniversary. Click here to read all the articles.
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“Oslo, August 31st is a risky film,” Joachim Trier told me. “Every film you make, you have this anxiety version in the back of your mind: what if we fail, and it’ll turn into this.” Trier, co-writer Eskil Vogt, and lead actor Anders Danielsen Lie all echoed this sentiment, this fear that the film would be ninety boring minutes following a self-centred, depressed person. It’s a very internal film, yet every frame is full of life and you feel like you’re going on this existential journey with the character of Anders played by Anders Danielsen Lie. Trier elaborated, “What I’m most proud about with Oslo is that it’s pretty hard core in spending time close to this person in this extreme sense of loss of self. That’s something I keep exploring. I think that’s interesting. In cinema, there aren’t that many people who [do this].”
Ten years ago, I saw Oslo, August 31st for the first time at the Toronto International Film Festival. Like so many others, it was the way I discovered Trier’s work. The film hit me hard; it felt incredibly personal to me, and perhaps, that’s partly because it’s a film that’s clearly so personal to him and to everyone who worked on the film. It also felt unlike anything I’d seen before, with this very internal journey through the psyche of a very smart but depressed person amidst an existential crisis. Nothing much happens in the film — he goes to a job interview, meets some friends, goes to a party — and yet you feel like you’ve learned so much about Anders and gone through the emotional wringer with him. At this point, I’ve seen the film more times than I can count, and yet I still have to gear up emotionally to watch it. I can certainly understand why Anders Danielsen Lie has not rewatched it since.
Oslo, August 31st was Trier’s second feature, but he actually wrote his third feature, Louder Than Bombs (2015), well before work on any part of Oslo, August 31st began. Both his first feature, Reprise (2006), and Louder Than Bombs feel stylistically paired, exploring multiple characters’ perspectives, multiple timelines, and using a myriad of techniques to illuminate thought patterns, from montage to voiceover. But because of the time pressures inherent in the making of Oslo, August 31st, and perhaps because Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt had already experimented so much in the scripts for both Reprise and Louder Than Bombs, Oslo feels stripped down. It focuses on one character in real time on one day, but it’s no less complex or internal. It doesn’t feel like a second feature.
On the occasion of the film’s tenth anniversary, I sat down with director and co-writer Joachim Trier for an in-depth, wide-ranging conversation about the making of the film and its legacy. We talked about his ambitions for his films, how Oslo, August 31st shaped his work going forward, his approach to directing actors — using both rehearsal and improvisation — and much more. Below is an excerpt of our conversation that will appear in full in our forthcoming ebook on Trier’s work.
Seventh Row (7R): I understand Oslo, August 31st came together very quickly, while Reprise had been years in the making. How did that quickness alter your process?
Joachim Trier: To do Oslo, August 31st quickly gave us confidence that, when we trusted our collaboration and our instincts, we could actually produce something that was as personal and as important to us as anything. [We had already] written Reprise and Louder Than Bombs, which were both very, very meticulous, complex, ambitious, multi-character stories, with many concept scenes: montage, stream-of-consciousness, different points of view in Louder Than Bombs. All that stuff had already been explored.
[With Oslo] the strength of the project was the simplicity of this one-day journey. There was a kind of panic [after the] success of Reprise, then having almost five years without doing anything, and that personal sense of failure that I felt. [I felt that] I was on my way, and I’d fumbled it — lost the ball. Coming back with [Oslo, I had] a strong notion of a film which I felt an urgency to make. [We managed] to actually decide in March that we wanted to do it, had a draft done by early July, and shot [it starting in] late August. [We had] it finished [in time] for Cannes, [and] submitted it there the following March . It was this crazy year of just doing it. That gave us confidence.
I’ve always stayed pure to the fact that I want to do a sense of free cinema, personal cinema with final cut, just the story I wanted to make without any sort of commercial concerns. I said no to a ton of international projects. From a creative point of view, to believe in character and the simplicity of a storyline because it was urgent, [without] time for doubts and second guessing, was really important to us.
7R: Both Anders and Eskil suggested that when you were working on Oslo together, you guys figured out the best way of working together, and that carried through to other projects. What do you feel you learned from making the film?
Joachim Trier: We wanted it, almost from a point of vanity, to be very different from Reprise. I can see, in retrospect, that there are some shared themes. But I wanted to go deeper. I wanted to stay in real time with the characters. In Reprise, it was a more fleeting structure of jumping between memory and the present and imagination. Whereas in Oslo, we wanted there to be a sense of being trapped in time almost, and being close to this character of Anders.
In Reprise, we almost had to keep it tight because there were so many scenes. When we were doing Reprise, I remember Eskil quoting [Francois] Truffaut, who talked about The Magnificent Ambersons. We were big fans of this flawed masterpiece from Orson Welles. [Truffaut] said, it’s like taking a ten-gallon bucket into a pint glass; it spills over. Reprise was like that. But with Oslo, it was more about the purity of aesthetics. All the moments had to matter, and they were given time. [We let] the scenes be longer because there weren’t as many scenes.
I developed this idea of the ‘jazz take’. We have a set text that [I write] with Eskil, but on set, Anders and I would make loose, improvisational versions of that text, to discover what we really needed.
For the first time almost — he started on Reprise — Anders was a bit of a method actor, in the sense that he just stayed in the zone. In that now famous bench scene, [the character of Anders] talks to his old friend Thomas, played by Hans Olav Brenner. When Hans Olav watched Anders come out of the RV, he was so shocked at how depressed and miserable [Anders] seemed and looked. It really affected him. They are friends in real life. It became the domino effect of Anders really going deep. In cinema, people have different methods. I’m not saying that that’s the only way to do good acting. But I think we learned that that brought us into a zone of concentration that was quite particular.
With Eskil, two things happened differently. On Reprise, Eskil politely let me write much more. I’m a much worse writer than him in the actual writing process of punching it in and writing out scenes. Because of the time limitations, Eskil started writing more stuff alone. We talked about everything and went through the detailed structure of each scene. But then, he did a draft quickly. I could give feedback and [we] went back and forth. We accepted that he’s a better writer than me and that he will do the wording of the script, but I will be a part of the whole [process] up until that, and then I’ll also restructure dialogue and come up with dialogue suggestions. This also lets me have time with the actors to play around with the text more. By accepting everyone’s natural talents, I think that our writing collaboration became freer and more on point.
7R: Did you develop other collaborations or ways of working that were new or different on that film?
Joachim Trier: I realised that, between the time of 2005 and 2010, the time between [when] I shot Reprise and Oslo, was the same time that the world had started shooting more digitally. It was standard, when I did Reprise, that everyone shot on 35 mm. I’d grown up shooting 16 [mm] at [The] National Film School [in England]. I was used to shooting [on] film, and I love that. Still do. Except for Thelma, everything, including The Worst Person in the World, is 35 [mm]. I really, really adore the process and the image quality of 35 mm: the skin tones, the faces, the spaces, the colours, the blacks.
The world had gotten rougher in its visual approach to cinema. I mean, Dogme [’95] had happened ten years before Reprise. [In Oslo, August 31st, there are] situations with wonderful light and nature and the morning sun coming up and all that stuff that you can’t manipulate. People who make those kinds of films — going to a nightclub or watching the sun come up in the morning — had kind of started [doing it] on video a lot. It was like a breaking point. We took the energy of the light camera and forced the big machine and the old type of camera to do the same thing. I think that created an energy in that film. [It was] perhaps inspired by people like Claire Denis and Beau Travail (1999), a film that I adored when I was in film school in the late ’90s, and still love: the sense that you can use natural light situations on film, and it can be a rather unique look.
I think spherical lenses really grab humans in their movement through reality. And the ARRI LT, which I again used on The Worst Person in the World (2021), is my favourite camera in the world. lt sits good on the shoulder. It works perfectly on the track. You have the whole range in that camera somehow.
I think Gisle [Tveito], the sound designer, more than on any other film, really wanted to capture the specificity of the Oslo sound. He had to figure out, what are the particular sounds of Oslo? He created a special subjective sound recording helmet. He’s kind of funny and experimental in his approach to sound. He realized that you have stereo: you have two ears and the skull in the middle. So he created this kind of double microphone [coming out of each side of a] hat, with a shark fin on top to isolate the two sound spaces from left to right channel. He walked around town [in this helmet] in different areas to try to figure out how to create [this Oslo sound]. I thought that was very creative.
It’s not the sound we use all the time. Sometimes, you’re objective; sometimes, you’re subjective. You mix between all these different layers of sound. But he wanted that one subjective layer as an option for all the scenes. He was trying to get into Anders’s head ‘literally’.
7R: How does the film develop for you between the writing process with Eskil and then actually filming on set?
Joachim Trier: When we were writing Oslo, we came up with a lot of ideas that were visual, directorial ideas already. I would say, “I want the street at night. I imagine they’re bicycling.” And Eskil’s like, “OK got it. We can write that. We can put that in here.” We discussed a lot of locations. We even went to some locations. The cafe where [Anders is] listening to conversations was a cafe at the time; we would go there and write a couple of times to just get inspired.
[As we were] approaching the shoot with so little time after the script was done, there was just an ongoing creative process that went straight [from writing] into rehearsal and shoot and mise en scene. Of course, we changed some of the locations. There was a park that was written in, and I changed it to a different park. The spaces in this film really mattered. I could, on the fly, reinterpret our intentions, and I think Eskil, when seeing it, would say [if] that makes sense.
As an example, Anders goes to a party, and at the end [of the scene], he decides he doesn’t belong. He just wants to get some money for drugs. He goes into a bedroom where there’s coats and purses, and he steals from some of his best friends. I can’t remember — I presume I always knew, when we wrote this, that I wanted it as a oner. And I wanted the reflection of the woman coming into the room to be up against a window, I imagined how that whole thing was going to be shot without even knowing the room. We hadn’t found a location yet. I think we wrote something about that reflection into the script. And then, I shot it like that.
We went to tons of apartments to find a location with the possibility of having a camera there and the angle towards the door. So all of this becomes kind of one. That’s the luxury of why I keep working with these people in the way I do. I don’t have to go and get second guessed or check in. Everyone just collaborates and are friends. I can always change things around.
7R: What is that rehearsal process like?
Joachim Trier: I do the same for all the films. I spend time with the actors only in the pairings or the relationships that they are in in the film. For Oslo, I did a lot of work alone with Anders for a few days. We went through physical exercises, conversations, thematic things in scenes. I always invite actors [to discuss]: What scenes are you worried about? What are you nervous about? I say, “These are the scenes that I think we should work on.” We try to do it chronologically so that we get to really talk through that journey. Sometimes, one day, we get on the floor and we try things. Another day, we end up just spending three hours talking and sharing ideas of things we’ve experienced. They get to go home, and then they come back a few days later, and they can ask questions.
With Oslo for example, I would probably have a couple of days with Hans Olav Brenner, who plays Thomas, and Anders together. We will explore those scenes. I see that the scene is going somewhere interesting, and I might say, “Let’s do a version now where those things that you’re holding back on, say them explicitly.” I remember, at one point, Anders exploded, because he was feeling so much. He yelled at Hans Olav during rehearsal: “I don’t want you to just tell me that things are going to be okay. I didn’t come here for that kind of comfort!” And then he said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I got aggressive.” And he pulls back. We then wrote a version of that, and he did it again on set. That wasn’t in the original writing. That comes through in the rehearsal.
The take on the bench, when he says, “It’s going to be alright, except it won’t,” and he cries and laughs, that comes out of a sense of almost athleticism that Anders and I adore in actors where you combine different emotions, and him wanting to show off a little bit. It got so chaotic, and I asked him to do an impro take. He had the text, and then suddenly, that happened, in only one unique take from one particular angle.
Sometimes, on set, I think my job is to be aware when the mood gets right to strike and to push it to go to certain places. You get unique takes. Something new happens. Some event occurs. It could come from the strangest things and misunderstandings, or an actor being exhausted, but in the moment, they are present; they know what the scene is about, and they let something go that wasn’t quite planned. My job is to push it.
I’m sitting next to the camera, and I’ve looked at [the actors], and I see that they’re there. And I’ve just said, “Say it!” And then, they’d say the first thing that’s on their mind and an interesting idea will come up. I want there to be this zone where there’s risk in the fact that we’re on set. We have this notion that this is the only time in our lives when we will do this scene. It matters, and we’re all nervous. We’re all this bunch of like overachieving neurotics who really want to do well. I know that I have that energy going already. So my job is to try to create the sense of risk and get rid of the super ego and just go for it, because so many things are so planned anyway.
I realised, when working with Isabelle Huppert on the next film [Louder Than Bombs], that she loved doing that, as well. She said, “I have an idea. Let me try this.” Anders, for example, didn’t have the confidence, perhaps, or the experience [to ask] for that. But I discovered that we needed to go there.
And also, [it’s important to] trigger the other actor to do unexpected things, to make them stumble a bit. That can be very creatively interesting. In The Worst Person in the World, for example, I knew that Renate [Reinsve] blushes, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. She’s shy about that, because she feels it’s kind of a mistake, sometimes. It’s something she can’t control. But I know that it’s a good thing, because it will show the authenticity of the moment and show her emotion to the audience.
I had, for example, another actor ask her a profound question in the scene, “Are you happy?” And I had the actor, on the third take, I said to him, “Look at her and say her name, and ask her, not as the character but as Renate.” That caught her off guard so much that she started giggling and blushing and then got very emotional, because she suddenly felt the line differently. It’s directing the other actor to help the actor in the closeup, for example, to experience something particular.
In Oslo, August 31st, I realised that the character Anders felt a lot of shame. Anders [Danielsen Lie] got in touch with that sense of shame and guilt, of being that troubled person that everyone gives their love and friendship to but that doesn’t manage to figure himself out and feeling like a miserable failure.
I realised, sometimes [when shooting Oslo, August 31st], that Anders would get very emotional in the character when people were kind to him. I remember saying to Hans Olav, as Thomas, right before a take, “This take, I want you to really forget your lines. Just comfort him. Be kind. Show him love. Feel sorry for him and emote with him.” And then, suddenly something happened where Anders got very wobbly. In some of the takes, they’re kind of in opposition; they’re friends talking earnestly, and Thomas tries to put him in his place. But when we did some takes when the camera was turned on Anders, and he was being comforted and loved, he became very strange and emotional and drew back. I think those kinds of things are very important in experimenting with the actors: the possibilities of the scene, rather than aiming for the perfect scene.
7R: All your collaborators that I’ve spoken to talk about working with you as working with a great friend. They feel like they have so much ownership over their creativity and that it’s a real collaboration.
Joachim Trier: That really means a lot to me. Seriously, this is so wonderful to hear, I feel exactly the same with all of them. I feel that, if you choose a life in movies, it’s a lifestyle choice. It’s where you end up, sometimes, spending time away from other people that are important in life. You need to feel that it’s a mutual sense of it being valuable and worthwhile. And it’s a lovely life.
My grandfather was a filmmaker, and my parents were in movies. My other grandfather was a painter. For that generation of my grandparents, to choose the artist’s life was to be perhaps poor, perhaps an outsider, perhaps not being a part of the established, middle class safety.
It’s hard to talk about these days, because you meet someone, like a hipster, who pretends that they are [poor with] shabby clothes; it’s just a posture. But I’m talking about the authentic choice of not doing the safe thing. Sometimes, it takes years before you actually make a living. If you’re fortunate and continue, then you can make a lot of money or you can have a good life. But it’s starting out with that sense of risk.
I know that it’s a sacrifice for those people that come to [work on] these movies. I really want them to walk home with something more than just a salary. I don’t think anyone takes out the most money from our projects. Everyone’s like, “Let’s make sure it gets on the screen.” Everyone’s quite idealistic. Again, you shouldn’t complain. We are making money here. But it has a sense of idealism to it. It’s very, very nice to hear that people feel that true sense that I do that they can contribute to a big extent.
Anders has quite a particular way of doing his thing. Jakob, Eskil, Gisle, and all these people are really coming in with their all. The biggest privilege I have, as a director, is that I do feel that a lot of my collaborators push themselves the farthest and make some of their best work [with me]. And they work with other great filmmakers, too. Of course, it’s not a competition. But I do feel that they’ve come to me and said, I feel that I did some of my best work here. Before [we made] The Worst Person in the World, Anders said, “This is going to be personal best!” And watch the movie. It’s hard to top other work that he’s done, but I think he’s doing something, at least for him, unique. And the same in Oslo. I felt that Anders really went for something where he did something quite unique. And that’s my joy. That’s the kick.
7R: Looking back at Oslo ten years later, how has your relationship with the film changed?
Joachim Trier: I haven’t watched it again since I premiered it. I never watch my movies again. So all we talked about is from memory. The film was a huge critical success. As it opened in one country after another, it got great reviews — in Germany, Mexico, the US, the UK. I remember thinking, this can perhaps not happen again. Particularly in America, Reprise had been a big film [but it was still relatively unknown]. A lot of people discovered me through Oslo, and I’m very grateful. It was my first film at Cannes.
The flip side is that I also felt that people have wanted me, since that film, to make that film again. It almost became a little bit of a burden. In a weird way, it feels like I’m being liberated a little bit through The Worst Person in the World, which is a very different film.
Louder Than Bombs is as personal as anything I’ve made. I’m very, very proud about it, but it came after Oslo. It was not made in Oslo. And for some people, it was, therefore, a disappointment. It’s as if people wanted me to do Oslo again. I know that Louder Than Bombs, also thanks to people like you and other people, has had a life. I see that Criterion Channel is screening it at the moment. It keeps being there, and people are coming to me, over the years — it’s been a few years now — and being like, “Actually Louder Than Bombs was really good.” And I’m like, “Thank you.”
It got a bad reputation out of Cannes. That year, a lot of us making an English language film for the first time — like [Paolo] Sorrentino’s Youth and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster — were given a hard time for making English-language film.
Oslo, then, became a little bit of a burden. But it’s a film I’m very, very proud of. It’s kind of a simpler format. Maybe it’s something to go back to at some point, like make a new story of the night. I love films like Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962). La Notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961), I think, is one of Antonioni’s absolute best films; it’s only a day and a night in the life of a couple. 25th Hour (2002) by Spike Lee though that has a flashback structure. I like the form a lot.
Now that it’s the ten-year anniversary of the film, I’m very, very happy about it. I’d rather have it be slightly like a burden of success than to not have it, obviously. I’m very grateful that people keep talking about this film. It seems like, if you look on social media, that it’s perhaps, out of all my films, the one that seems to keep coming back the most of the old ones.