This week, the Film Society of Lincoln Center kicks off Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund's first complete New York City retrospective, “In Case of No Emergency.” In the wake of films like Involuntary and Play, the filmmaker has been equally dinged and lauded for his formally rigorous, unsparing birds-eye views on crucial moments of human weakness. Last year's Force Majeure represents a substantial leap forward, scrutinizing the myriad fallacies of modern masculinity without fostering an comfortable perch for the audience. The film centers on a workaholic, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), who takes his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and children on a much-needed skiing vacation. When an avalanche embroils their posh mountainside resort, Tomas grabs his iPhone and runs, headlong, for the exit—a moment of adrenalized solipsism that quickly overshadows the rest of their vacation (to say nothing of their life together).
Alongside the aforementioned features, the retro includes encore screenings of Force Majeure, Östlund's ensemble drama The Guitar Mongoloid, and the formally quixotic shorts Incident By a Bank (digitally repurposing individual fields of vision within a 10-minute single take) and Autobiographical Scene Number 6882, in which a man boastfully prepares to jump off a bridge, only to get cold feet once people begin to gawk at him. For me, the fun of our discussion was in trying to figure out just how Östlund's eye became so jaundiced; like the late Miklós Jancsó, this is a filmmaker who draws strength from affixing viewers to one rigid perspective, and then refusing to let them blink.
Tell me about the early days shooting ski videos.
I was very interested in skiing—a fanatic, you know, so I was watching a lot of movies about skiing. And the filmmaking started because the lighter VHS camera suddenly was affordable. You could buy it and begin to shoot for yourself.
So you weren't one of these people who saw five movies a day, devoured books about film theory, and so on?
Not at all. I was more interested in the video camera. There was this period in the 1980s when you'd have a friend with a video camera at home. I was just fascinated with the possibility of recording something and then playing it back [in the moment]. So the interest started with technique in and of itself. When I started film school, the other students knew their film history, they had their favorite directors, and so on. I didn't have that approach to filmmaking at all. It was there that I got to know a lot about that history.
Now, having mountain locations, being able to go on ski lifts, and do these kinds of pseudo-crane shots—were you spoiled by that, in some way?
[Laughs.] No, but one thing I really learned from making ski films was, when we were shooting we'd be out one hundred days one winter. We were filming every day, and it didn't matter how bad the conditions were. We were so dedicated in what we were doing. When I got to film school, I got to know the [reality] of a normal film production, and I was fascinated to learn there were only, like, 30 shooting days on average. I think that's standard for a feature film in Sweden. I was, like, “Thirty days? For a film that's one-and-a-half hours long? We're making films that are 30 minutes long, and we used a hundred shooting days!” So I actually think, no, we weren't very spoiled by shooting skiing. The kind of stamina that you learn in that kind of production is something that's been very important for me now, making the feature films. In the beginning, I would always say, “I want 60 shooting days.” So I've doubled the average amount of shooting, because I can't understand how you manage to make everything happen in only 30 days.
And this is par for the course, even when you're making a film like Play, where the locations aren't nearly as extreme as they are in Force Majeure, or even Involuntary? What does the extra time give you, specifically?
When you're starting to shoot and you put up the camera, immediately you'll detect that you've been thinking all wrong. What you've written in the script isn't exactly what should be in the film, because when you visualize it, you'll see you have to deal with it in a different way. So, the shooting period is a lot about reconsidering, really thinking and trying to solve the problems that I couldn't see before we started filming. In Play, there was a quiet choreography to many of those scenes, so on maybe five or six scenes we would have three shooting days each, with the same camera position, just repeating it over and over again. And in Play we had eight boys who were between eight and 14 years old [on set], so it was like being a teacher or something. It was hard to get them focused on the exact same goal. What I do when I shoot is, I mostly only have one camera setup each day. And then I start to repeat, over and over and over again, what we're doing. And we have the time, also, to try out things that you can't try if all you can do is cover up and then move on [to the next thing]. We try out things, but at the end of the day, when we're reaching take 50 or something, I'll say to everybody, “Okay, we only have five takes left. We really, really have to concentrate now.” And then I go into a countdown: “Four takes left!” “Three takes left!” So it's almost like a method of making an intense feeling, where people are present, and just doing their best, and everybody is focusing together.
So when an actor is considering working with you, do you warn them that they'll be workshopping these takes over and over again?
Actually, yes, and I think most actors like that, because they can actually be grounded in what they're doing. [They feel] secure, [because] they don't have to be afraid of making an error, because we have time to redo it. And they can do things they wouldn't do if they only had three takes. Because if they do that, then they have to play it very safely. If we say, “By the end of the day, we're gonna pull this off,” then they can take risks at the beginning of the day, trying things they never would have tried in other situations.
With this process in mind, can you think of an example where the performance was so different from the text that it startled you?
I always get very surprised that I haven't been thinking in the right way. I always have to realize, “How did I think this could be pulled off easily?” Every day when you're on set, you think you know what you're doing, but when you start seeing it in front of you, you realize immediately: “It doesn't look the way I want it to look.” And that's the hard part of being a director, I think, because you have an instrument you have to follow. And if I take something—“This isn't right”—when I'm feeling the pressure of money, this is going to be expensive. Then I find myself saying, “Oh, well, it's quite okay anyway.” [Laughs.] It's a very, very dangerous point when you reach the moment of feeling insecure and suddenly you're thinking, “Well, it's good enough!”
Do you allow for ad-libbing, or are the surprises strictly in terms of performances?
Sometimes we follow the text very strictly. There are definitely cases where the text is very, very important as it was written. Most of the time, however, I think the situation is the most important thing. We ask, “How do we highlight that situation in the best way?” That's where there's an opening for improvisation from the actors. At the beginning of the day, we're often trying things out. By the end of the day, the takes look very, very similar. We take away all of the things we didn't want and we keep what we want. We're trying to create a very strict script by the end of the day.
Does it ever turn out that the first take was the best one, and all the rehearsals took it in another direction?
It's happened once, when I was shooting Involuntary. There's a scene of these young men, this group of friends…
Are you referring to the scene where the drunk guy stands on his hands and plants a Swedish flag up his own butt?
Yes, the flag scene. So, I had a stupid idea to let them drink real alcohol during the shooting of this scene. And that was a very, very bad idea. They pulled off the first take, and it was a good one. I mean, I liked that one. But it was very hard to say, because I had nothing to compare it with. I was waiting for the takes to start from that point, and go up, up, up. I was shooting that scene for the entire night, and they had to repeat it over and over and over again. [Laughs.] We ended up using the first take.
Your style tends to let the on-screen event just speak for itself, and the camera hangs back, capturing it. But Force Majeure has moments where the frame will kind of creep, steadily zooming in on one character. At first it's just Ebba, but eventually it happens to the whole family. Can you tell me about those zooms?
I think sometimes the moments were made in the editing. They're digital zooms. And sometimes they're made on set. A couple of them were. Either way, we're creating the rhythm of the movie with more tension—to try to build up to something, a feeling of power that could burst out. I think I used the zooms that way. But you can make them digitally too. I do that quite a bit. For Incident By a Bank, we were shooting the whole film with a fixed camera angle, and afterward we added all the movement, the panning, the zooming, and so on, in the editing. So we used a 5K RED camera, and if we're only projecting what amounts to 2K, what do we do with the rest of the K's? We can throw it away, or we can start to reframe the shot afterward. That film is a reconstruction of a failed robbery attempt that I was an eyewitness to. When you see it, it feels like it's real time, single-shot. But actually it's a combination of four different shots..
I've encountered more writing about the reception of the film here and in the U.K., as a “relationship film.” What about the response in Sweden? It can't be as controversial as Play.
In Norway, some articles didn't believe me when I spoke about the statistics of how men reacted to a set of ferry catastrophes. They said, “No, this can't be true.” They pulled out statistics from other catastrophes. But it was more about how I was talking about the film in media. One of the reasons I got very interested in this topic is, if you look at statistics, men of a certain age are the ones who survive ferry catastrophes. I don't know the exact age, but the whole myth about women and children first—it's just not true. At all. When it comes to a crisis situation, even though we have a culture that teaches men to stand up and be loyal, when it comes to survival instincts, men are the ones who have the actual ability to survive. I thought that was ironic, a horrifying fact to confront if you're a man, of course, but interesting at the same time.