Film Society of Lincoln Center

Interview: Ruben Östlund Talks Force Majeure

Your parents were both teachers. Were you raised to take a slightly skeptical look at the pillars and institutions of Swedish life? As far as I can tell, one common theme in your work is what people will or won’t do in tight situations—the ones which maybe society hasn’t prepared them for.

I think you’re right. My mother was interested in sociological experiments—like the peer-pressure test from Involuntary. So, yeah, maybe it was my upbringing, but also the film school I went to in Gothenburg—having been very, very interested in which way moving images are changing behavior. In which way they are changing the way we look at the world. We’re considering how reproduced cinema stereotypes actually [inform] behavior in reality. In Play, it’s about five black boys robbing three black boys. In my research, it became a necessity to have them create the character, the stereotype of the threatening black man, to make themselves threatening. The school that I’m from, it’s that kind of tradition in some ways, I would say.

When a movie gets released, politicians, commentators, whoever—there’s always a worry about copycat-ism in the real world. You think that’s valid?

Well, the thing is, we’re looking at the human being as if he’s a rational creature. I think we’re imitating creatures, and all we know is imitating what we’re seeing. If we have an image abused and spread all over the world, there’s a risk zone for certain types of people to imitate certain behaviors. I don’t remember what the guy was called, someone who filmed himself sitting in a car, talking about the revenge he was going to have on all the girls who turned him down?

I think you’re talking about Elliot Rodger’s “manifesto,” before he went on the killing spree in California.

Yes. The way that he performed it, you could see he was imitating a kind of bad guy from the movies in the way he was talking. Roberto Saviano, who wrote Gomorrah, he said that half a year after the release of a Tarantino movie, the young gangsters began shooting their guns from the side. And the consequence becomes, it’s hard to hit the enemy, so the shootouts became very, very bloody, and the police had a mess cleaning up afterward. And it’s, like, those are the horrifying examples, the very explicit, visual ones. The films that probably influence us more are going to be romantic comedies, expectations on relationships, and so on. I actually read an investigation that people who watch romantic comedies are divorcing more than other people do.

Really. I’m actually studying romantic comedies right now…

You must be in the same business as me, then, because I want to drive up the divorce rate with Force Majeure. [Laughs.]

It seems like your work might stand to suffer the same criticisms sometimes leveled at, say, the Coen brothers, or Alexander Payne: a lack of sympathy for the characters. Has that happened? The thing about Force Majeure is, you’re laughing at human weakness, but it’s not from a position of superiority.

People haven’t really made that criticism of my films. Let me tell you what I do: I talk a lot about the films when I’m writing them. Immediately, when I have a situation I’m interested in, I’ll start to discuss it with other people. And when I’m talking about it, then I can identify what they’re connected to, what they’re thinking, or excited by, and then I get so much back. They tell me ideas I can use immediately. One of the ideas of this process is: constantly talking about them, from the starting point to the beginning of the shooting. I really need to do this, too, because otherwise you’ll just sit by yourself, writing, and then you’re creating something that’s not connected to reality all the time in the same way. I’m always asking of my characters, “Would it be possible for me to act in the same way?” Very often you realize, no, it’s not possible, but at least then I can change the setup. So I can push the character more into the corner, so he can act the way I want him to act, but I always use myself as an instrument to tell if something is or isn’t possible.

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