Oscar nominee Eskil Vogt discusses co-writing The Worst Person in the World, writing naturalistic dialogue, and more. The Worst Person in the World is now on VOD in Canada and the US.
This is an excerpt of a longer interview with Eskil Vogt on writing The Worst Person in the World, and how it builds on his previous work with Joachim Trier, which will be published in full in the forthcoming ebook Existential detours: Joachim Trier’s cinema of indecisions and revisions. The book is due out in Summer 2022, but if you pre-order now, you can immediately read our interview with the film’s cinematographer, Kasper Tuxen.
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For many years, one of the most important, and perhaps unsung, collaborators on Joachim Trier’s films has been his co-writer Eskil Vogt, who has written all of Trier’s films with him. They’re also best friends. They spend months — sometimes years — hanging out and talking deeply about their lives to devise psychologically complex characters that really resonate with them. As Vogt says, “We start with the character moments, and then we flesh out a plot, which is maybe the opposite of how most people work.”
After they were both inducted into the writing branch of the Academy in 2018, they are now both nominated for Best Original Screenplay for The Worst Person in the World, which has also been nominated for Best International Film. It’s a little known fact that Vogt also served as script consultant on the triple-Oscar-nominated animated documentary, Flee. So that makes his writing skills partially responsible for a total of five Oscar nominations this year.
Vogt is also a solo writer and director in his own right, which gives some insight into what parts of his work with Trier come from him and what comes from Trier. Vogt’s debut feature, Blind (which we discussed on the podcast last year), had the same kind of montages and representations of thought patterns that have been the trademark of his work with Trier. His new feature, The Innocents, due out this spring, feels like an expansion of some of the ideas in Thelma, about children’s ability to unknowingly do evil — in The Innocents, because they have yet to learn empathy.
Every time I talk to Eskil Vogt — and this excerpt is from one of three interviews with Vogt featured in our forthcoming ebook Existential detours: Joachim Trier’s cinema of indecisions and revisions — I feel like Vogt has taken his characters to therapy and understands their psychology on a deep level. I always learn something new about why his characters resonate with me, because Vogt is so articulate about this. But he’s also just as thoughtful and articulate about how to write realistic dialogue, which can provide the scaffolding for improvisation or be banal enough that it only comes to life with a great actor’s performance. Having written stylised dialogue on Trier’s short film Procter, which they both hated, learning how to write realistic dialogue became a major ambition.
In this excerpt from a wide-ranging interview about The Worst Person in the World and its connections to Vogt’s previous work — both with Trier and without — Vogt discusses the origin story of The Worst Person in the World, inspirations from film and theatre, how they approached the voiceover, and why nothing makes dialogue feel realistic quite like being filled with small grammatical errors.
7R: How did you come up with the idea for The Worst Person in the World?
Eskil Vogt: That’s always a difficult question to answer just by the nature of how Joachim and I work. This was the same kind of, let’s just sit down together and talk about stuff and see what happens. One of the things that Joachim brought to the room this time was that he wanted to make a movie with the actress Renate [Reinsve]. But when we started working, we weren’t sure that that would happen immediately. It might be some other idea that took hold.
After working for a few months, we had some ideas. There was this idea of having been in a relationship where one of the parties wanted a child and the other didn’t. That [relationship] ends, and then [they meet] again, while [one of them is] pregnant, and [the other is] dying. Our first impulse was that that’s a pretty good story. Our second impulse was, isn’t that a bit too melodramatic? To have both life and death, cancer and birth? Is it too much? We just decided that no, we will probably make it the way we make movies, and we don’t really [portray things in a melodramatic way].
In the beginning of the script, the title card was not a movie in twelve chapters, but a melodrama in, I think, thirteen chapters. That was the opening text instead of what it ended up being. We wanted [the film to be] a romantic comedy, but with this dramatic sudden illness of the other important character, so it became clear that we were going to steer right into the territory of melodrama.
7R: Did you have particular romantic comedies in mind? Obviously, there’s Annie Hall references in the film, among a lot of other things.
Eskil Vogt: Yeah, of course, Annie Hall is a big reference for Joachim and I. He surprised me by saying you should really watch Eat Pray Love, which I must admit, I put it off for so long that I still haven’t [seen it]. But he explained the thematics of it really well, which is just the basic urge you have at one point to examine what constructs the meaning of your life. Why do I make the decisions I do? I guess that also reminded us that most romantic comedies have existential themes.
We rewatched some, especially all the screwball romantic comedies, like George Cukor’s movies, The Philadelphia Story and Holiday. He always has a little bit more character psychology. George Cukor really loves his characters more than some of the other screwball directors who are maybe even funnier, maybe more slapstick funny. He is more profound, sometimes.
We rewatched some Éric Rohmer movies because he has such original idiosyncratic characters. No one really writes the female characters that he does. They’re so different from one movie to another. They are so unexpected and real.
In the beginning, we wanted to have musical numbers, almost. We thought about it as a musical in the sense that it wouldn’t be entirely realist. We weren’t planning on people bursting into song, but you know, the scene where time is frozen was one of the early ideas we had before we had a story. We wanted to do something about that. That’s almost like a set piece, kind of a musical thing, which we had more of in the beginning, I think.
We also wanted to write a long movie. It became a little bit shorter in the edit than we had planned. We wanted it to be two and a half hours long. We wanted to have time to just let time pass in the movie. A big theme was that it’s about time passing. You need to feel that you lived with these characters. And that pays off at the end.
7R: How did the chapter structure come about?
Eskil Vogt: I can’t remember exactly when, but I can remember the feeling of liberation [when we settled on the idea]. It could give us so many chances to start again. Each time you have that chapter, you could start wherever you wanted. You were free of that chain of events that usually guide a movie: where one thing leads to another that leads to another. You could go like, oh, chapter two: you jump two years, or [start to follow] another character, or whatever you want.
I think it was before we really started drafting the first version, but I’m not sure. It quickly became integral to the whole structure. Joachim and I have this problem of starting a movie too many times and then ending it too many times. With chapters, it’s easier.
It was a way of structuring the material we already had. It made us more radical in not making transitions. Instead of taking the spectator by the hand and filling in all the blanks, you could just go straight to the next thing.
You could also do stuff that you wouldn’t be allowed to do normally. For instance, the chapter that sticks out the most is when we suddenly go back and follow Eivind’s relationship with Suniva. If we didn’t have the chapter structure, we could never do that. We would have cut her out of the entire story. And she was very important at the beginning. We had a lot more stuff about her and her story. She even came back into the narrative at one point. We really loved that character, and having that chapter [structure] made it possible to keep [her segment].
It fits the theme of how your old relationships shape you. It’s not like you break up with someone, and they’re completely gone. You carry them with you. They shaped you because you’ve been together. You have their opinions or their musical tastes. It’s part of who you are. We tend to ignore that when we tell these kinds of stories. I think it’s important to think about how we carry the past with us, like Julie does with Aksel.
7R: The Eivind chapter is a break from Julie’s perspective. But it feels to me not unlike the multiple perspectives you have in Louder Than Bombs and Reprise, except this is the only time we leave Julie in the film. It seems important to me for a lot of reasons, but I’m wondering how you thought about that.
Eskil Vogt: We like that change of perspective. Louder Than Bombs is, of course, a good example, because it’s so integral to the structure there: the way that you follow one character and then, suddenly, you follow another one, and then you get a completely different perspective on maybe the same events. The movie just keeps turning around like that between the main characters.
In [The Worst Person in the World], you could perfectly well just go from the breakup scene with Aksel and Julie, and then cut to a new chapter with Eivind and Julie and leave out Suniva. Those changes of perspective are not as integral to the structure [of Worst Person] as in Louder Than Bombs. But we like them. One of the things we wanted to do with this movie was to create an even looser structure. That was also partly a reaction to creating Thelma. We wanted to do something that’s more sprawling and less well-structured.
What we like is that feeling of freedom in a movie, that when we cut from that breakup scene to two characters we don’t really know that well yet, especially Suniva, in the northernmost part of Norway, it just feels so remote to the main story. Hopefully, you get a bit curious. At the same time, you get a bit of air.
7R: It’s almost like an intermission.
Eskil Vogt: Yes.
7R: How did you approach the voiceover in the film? It’s a third person narrator, which is a bit more like Reprise. But then, at one point, there’s the shift to first person narration with the chapter called “First Person Singular.” I know that voiceover is something that you and Joachim have explored a lot.
Eskil Vogt: The main voiceover is always third person. It’s just when she writes that Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo [short story], it’s a voiceover of what she’s written in first person.
The narration, we were thinking of quite early [in the writing process]. In Thelma, it was like, we can’t have any voiceover here: this is something else; we’ll try something new. And [with Worst Person], we said to each other, we can do voiceover here, right, if we want? Yes, yes, we can. We wanted to go back to that freedom, like oral storytelling or a novel.
We knew that it’s a female protagonist; we should have a voiceover that’s read by a woman. That would change it a bit from Reprise, but it still would be in that register. Also, it wouldn’t be her voice. There’s still a distance. It’s not Renate who reads the voiceover. The voiceover in Reprise is a little bit more ironic and a little bit more off in what the voiceover chooses to tell.
A lot of people who had seen Reprise said, “Oh, this must be the book that Erik, one of the main characters, writes in the future.” We never thought that would be the case. But with The Worst Person in the World, we discussed it. We never made the decision that it would be her book. But it’s definitely closer to her than the voiceover in Reprise is to the characters. It’s more of her state of mind or her needs for expression.
7R: That’s interesting, too, because Julie is a character who doesn’t speak a lot. So the voiceover can sort of serve some of that purpose. And then also, sometimes, Aksel speaks for her. We understand things because he says things, and then she echoes them later.
Eskil Vogt: He likes to tell her what she’s thinking and feeling. That’s one of his traits that makes her suffocate a bit sometimes. That’s one of the challenges of writing a character like Julie, or many of our other characters, is that they don’t act all the time. Sometimes, they are unable to do that. We need to understand them. So we need dream sequences or voiceover or other ways of expressing thoughts and emotions.
Voiceover can be too easy. We always hold back. The same in Reprise: when the going gets really tough, the voiceover kind of shuts up and never really explains the ambiguities or what people are feeling. In The Worst Person in the World, it’s a little bit the same that, in the last half of the movie, there’s almost no voiceover. The same was the case in the script, except for maybe there was one line of voiceover at the very end, which was, I think, when she was in her apartment at the end. The voiceover said something like, “For the first time in a while, she thought about Aksel.” We just decided [to remove it], or Joachim and the editor removed it first, and I agreed, that we [already] felt that [without the voiceover]. But it was still an important thing to write because it made it clear that she wasn’t Aksel’s widow. It wasn’t like she had chosen to be alone because she wants to live with his memory. It’s because she needed to figure herself out and find her own footing and find out what she wants.
We try to keep a distance from the voiceover, so as not to make it too easy for ourselves. It would not be very interesting to have voiceover just plainly say what people are thinking all the time. But even when we do that, like the breakup scene, where the voiceover comments a lot on [what’s happening], and describes what they’re saying, and sometimes, what Julie is thinking… it still does something else than just explain. It kind of creates a feeling that she’s distancing herself a bit. She’s disassociating from what’s happening. It creates an extra layer. It’s not just exposition or explanation.
7R: Sort of like that scene in Annie Hall, where Annie is completely out of her body and commenting on what’s going on.
Eskil Vogt: Yes. That’s a very concrete, physical version.
7R: Julie is quite witty, and her wit reminds me a lot of Ingrid in your directorial debut, Blind, which you wrote alone. There’s a similar kind of unforgiving, dark humour. I was kind of surprised when I was reading reviews out of Cannes, where people were surprised that the film was funny, because all of your films are funny! With Joachim but also Blind. That made me think that probably came from you. How did you think about how to play with Julie’s wit in the film?
Eskil Vogt: Well, it’s nice to hear you speculate about that. Right now, as a [solo writer and] director, I just made [The Innocents], maybe the least funny movie that I have ever made. And now, people are speculating if maybe I’m [the dark] part of Joachim’s films. Maybe I’m more responsible for Thelma. That’s what people are talking about right now.
Blind, for me, is almost a comedy. I feel a lot of the humour in Joachim’s movies also comes from me, of course. But it’s very hard for us to separate what we have contributed. What I know is that I usually write the first draft of the dialogue. So a lot of that comes from me: the way people express themselves and jokes they make. But Joachim, also, as a director, is working with the actors. So it’s hard to know.
It was very fun to work with Julie. We wanted the movie to be funny. We wanted to have comic aspects. A character that doesn’t translate so well to some people is the father of Julie, who in one way, is a very insensitive person. He’s horrible. But he was very fun to write. The way that he was insensitive was something that a lot of people can relate to in Norway. I think we have a lot of those fathers, and some people don’t really see that. They’re like, no, he’s too much. But we have both met versions of him, so we could have a lot of fun with that.
7R: It seems like you’ve taken all of your characters to therapy. You understand them so well. How do you approach the characters and think about those dynamics? It feels like you have such a strong understanding of how they work.
Eskil Vogt: In The Worst Person in the World, it’s a lot of Joachim’s interests, as well. He’s so interested in psychology and the way people work, how people’s inner processes work. One of the reasons why Anders [as Aksel] — [in an] improvised [scene] — talks about Freud at the dinner party with their friends, is that Joachim has that tendency to bring up Freud, because he’s so interested in that kind of psychoanalysis, and how our relationships to our parents inform who we are. We talk a lot about that stuff when we’re together. When we create character situations, at one point, it goes through that filter of discussing those things, because Joachim is so interested in it. So that’s part of it.
I like to digest all that while I’m writing dialogue. I know where a scene is set. I know what they’re feeling. And then I like them to react and maybe even surprise me at some point. Character dynamics and character psychology is so important to us when we’re discussing [our scripts].
If you like what we do, one of the advantages of our way of working is that we don’t start with a plot, and then you need to flesh out the characters, because you just created some sort of construction of a plot that you needed to work, and the characters do whatever you need for the plot to work. We start with the character moments, and then we flesh out a plot, which is maybe the opposite of how most people work.
7R: When we talked about Oslo, August 31st, you talked about leaving room in the script for improvisation. Is that something you do for particular scenes or throughout? How did that work for The Worst Person in the World?
Eskil Vogt: We’re not precious about the written word. I’m glad if dialogue is cut because it’s not needed. I’m glad if actors come up with something great that I can take credit for. Joachim likes to work that way: they do the text, and when they feel they have it, they do some looser takes that can give really good stuff.
In the breakup scene, the voiceover was written. The scene as written is very close to the way it’s edited: where the voiceover is, and what it says, and what they say around it, and everything. But the voiceover also talked over them. So what they exactly said when the voiceover was going, we never wrote that down. We were considering writing it out, but we felt it’s better if they just take the key words from what the voiceover is saying and improvise around it. It gave them a lot of freedom. Renate added some of the stuff about Aksel mixing up being able to articulate emotions with being strong. This was always a part of the character, but she found a moment to nail that, in words that weren’t written, and it was great.
7R: When we talked about Oslo, August 31st, you mentioned that sometimes characters say mundane things, and it’s important to have scenes like that because the way they say mundane things can be very profound. It will say more than the words themselves. How did you think about that on The Worst Person in the World?
Eskil Vogt: It’s important that they not only say mundane things, but that they can also say important things in very mundane ways. It doesn’t really have to be that well articulated to be interesting dialogue. That also gives a lot of freedom for character [work from the actor]: you write dialogue that only comes alive when people actually say it with the right intention. The basic example would be saying, “I’m okay.” People can say that, and you feel that they’re definitely not okay. They can say that, and [you get] the feeling that they want to hide that they’re not okay, but you still feel they’re not okay. Or they can say “I’m okay” in a more passive aggressive way, and you feel that they want the other characters to ask them about not being okay.
When you’re in a breakup situation, you might say something very basic. But it’s the emotion, the way of saying it, or the fact that you don’t find a better way of saying it, that’s interesting. Of course, Aksel will sometimes be a more articulate person, but even he can say very banal things in that situation. When he’s talking at the hospital, he’s talking about stuff that he’s been thinking a lot about, so he’ll be more articulate. But it’s still on the verge of being a monologue, like theatre dialogue. You need to stay real. Real, for me, is about making small mistakes while you’re talking, hesitating, and starting sentences again. You keep all that stuff in. I think it’s important.
7R: When you say small mistakes, what does that mean?
Eskil Vogt: Usually, we make small mistakes when we continue speaking. You can use “it”, or “he” or “she”, and you don’t know which person or what it refers to. Grammatically, from the sentence before, it would be something that didn’t make sense, but everyone understands what it refers to because you understand the deeper meaning of what’s being said. You have those kinds of imperfections that theatre dialogue almost never has. [Theatre dialogue is] always perfect in its form. But here, you have to think a little bit to understand. People will make a lot of mistakes, because they don’t explain what they’re saying. They follow a train of thought, and they forget to explain how they skipped from A to B. And then, you, as a spectator, have to fill that out. When that works, when you actually fill that out, and you understand how they leapt from A to B, you really believe what they’re saying. Also, you’re more involved because you’re not being spoon-fed.
Want to read the rest of the interview with Oscar nominee Eskil Vogt?
The full interview with Eskil Vogt on The Worst Person in the World, as well as interviews with him on Oslo, August 31st and Thelma will be featured in the forthcoming ebook Existential detours.
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