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Interview: Joachim Trier Talks Louder Than Bombs

The filmmaker discusses his writing process, what skateboarding taught him about filmmaking, and why he loves revenge movies.

Interview: Joachim Trier Talks Louder Than Bombs
Photo: Nicole Rivelli Motlys

A third-generation filmmaker (his grandfather, Erik Løchen, was a well-known avant-garde director, and his parents both worked in film), Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier makes intelligently constructed movies, like Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, about the sometimes agonizing inner turmoil of characters whose lives seem deceptively calm on the surface. The plots of these films may sound uneventful, even banal, but Trier and his screenwriting partner Eskil Vogt’s empathic understanding of their characters’ emotions infuses his films with deep feeling. His latest, Louder Than Bombs, centers around a renowned war photographer, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who died before the film opens. Still recovering from the shock and grief of losing Isabelle, her husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), and sons, Conrad (Devin Druid) and Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), are intermittently trying, and mostly failing, to help one another as they stumble separately toward emotional equilibrium. Trier met with me in New York this week to talk about the film, what skateboarding taught him about filmmaking, and why he loves revenge movies.

The two main characters in Reprise were novelists. In Louder Than Bombs, Isabella is a photographer. And Conrad is a socially awkward, sullen kid whose private writing is the only thing that reveals what he’s thinking. Is there something about telling stories about storytellers that appeals to you?

I’m kind of interested in playing with “an open deck of cards” with the audience. I want to look into the process. In Reprise, it was the ambition and identity of a friendship. The two guys both have a shared dream, which they believe will make them who they want to become, yet life takes different turns for each of them, and it becomes a difficult thing to sustain that relationship. In this case, I think there’s something about family and how we perceive and how we present ourselves in a family.

There’s a lot about the consequences of lying, or keeping secrets.

Exactly. What you show and what you don’t show. Even in the closest of relationships there might be that element of loneliness or separation, those gaps that we’re not quit filling in, in terms of meeting each other and communication. And therefore, I thought it was interesting to have this idea of representation at play, like the little brother representing himself in his secret diary that he wants to show to a girl so she gets to know him properly, which is a very naïve but very sweet and innocent way of thinking about how we convey ourselves. In another way, the mother is completely on the other side of the spectrum. She’s trying to convey stories of a humanist nature from conflict areas, yet she’s also such a hidden person, and maybe idealized by the sons, particularly the older one. So I don’t think it’s that I’m so damn curious to tell stories about creative people. I think it’s more that it gives me aspects for reflecting upon how we show ourselves or how we see others.

You come from a family of filmmakers. Was there a lot of talk about filmmaking when you were a kid? Did you grow up watching your grandfather work, or hearing him talk about his work?

Unfortunately, he passed away when I was only nine. But he taught me how to jump on skis, which is very Norwegian. [laughs] And that’s a kind of ballsy, gutsy thing. When you set out, you can’t pull out, you’ve got to continue. So it’s sort of like when you set out to do a movie, which is risky business. You can’t pull out halfway. You’ve got to just stay the course. But I do think a lot about how his attitudes about cinema rippled through my parents. And I remember his notion of questioning, about whether filmmaking is purely cinematic. He was part of a generation of filmmakers that felt that film was an art form that arrived late compared to others. So he had a sense of cinema as being an autonomous art form, and was always asking: “What is cinematic, as opposed to something else?” If it could be done on stage, then let’s not do it. That kind of attitude.

And also an awareness that cinema is still evolving, right?

Yeah, evolving, right. That film had yet to discover its pure essence, which is very progressant, which I’m sure he was very interested in as well. So just to have that in the back of my mind when I venture out into the world, where I’m also affected by dirty formalism, the high and low mixing together, which I love. I have a sort of sugary beautification going on in my movies, yet I’m really interested also in cinema becoming a place where we can have a freer form than just the transparent mainstream dramaturgy we’re being presented with at the moment. So I have this kind of ambivalence in me, I think. And part of that deals, sure, with my grandfather and his generation’s more pure arthouse cinema.

Maybe reacting against that a little?

Maybe, a little, but more ambivalently. Ambivalence is always good when you’re creating. It’s not the same as being vague. It’s feeling strongly about different things and trying to cope with combining them together. In this case, on the one hand I’m very concerned with character-driven storytelling in cinema. Because I think America’s great, and I went to school in London. I remember having workshops with Mike Leigh and Robert Altman.

What school was this?

The National Film and TV School. It’s sort of the elite national film school in England. I was lucky enough to get in. They take six directors every year, and six sound recorders, six producers, and so on. I found that I got very concerned with performance- and character-driven cinema at that time. Yet at the same time, I also came from loving Brian De Palma and Antonioni, filmmakers that were much more about the form and the gaze and so on.

And I read somewhere you saying that you loved Andrei Tarkovsky, who was certainly about those things.

Yes, yes. I adore Tarkovsky.

It’s funny you mentioned skiing with your grandfather because I wanted to ask you about skateboarding, which you did when you were a kid. You have that in common with Spike Jonze, another very creative and humanistic director. Do you think there’s any connection between skateboarding and filmmaking—something about creative freedom or exploring space, maybe? Or about the way both things involve learning from and collaborating with a group of like-minded people?

That’s a good question, and I think you’re on to two important things. One is the gang, the collaboration. Even though you’re skating alone, you’re always with someone, pushing each other, friendships blending with the passion of something that you do with each other. It’s like a gang, you know? And it was great. It was about subcultures [coming together], so I met people not only from my social sphere, but people from everywhere.

I know some of Spike Jonze’s friends were also musicians, and he started out shooting videos of skateboarding and then shot music videos, and I read somewhere that you had a lot of friends in bands. Did you shoot any music videos before you started making narrative films?

No, I didn’t do any, but I did skate videos. Lots of them. And I learned some basics of holding a camera and cutting and how image and sound works—that this was more interesting than that. It was very basic stuff, but it was great. But, then, the other thing [about the connection between skateboarding and filmmaking] is the idea of free-form, as you say, the idea of doing your own thing. When we’d skate in the spring, we couldn’t even imagine the tricks that we’d do in the autumn. It was an incredibly progressive time in skateboarding—the early ‘90s—and we came up with new tricks, and Americans came up with new tricks, and you couldn’t even imagine what would happen. I didn’t grow up among painters who discovered [Georges] Braque, you know? My pop version of that was to discover that you can set your mind to something, come up with your own thing, and not have to abide by the rules. No one in skateboarding would say, “This is how you do it.” You’d better just figure out a better way to do it yourself, or you wouldn’t be a good skater. So there was this sense of not giving a shit, like punk rock, and doing your own thing. That stuff is just healthy.

Isabelle Huppert is the heart of the film even though her character is dead, partly because she’s who everyone is concerned about and partly because she’s so strong when she’s on screen. That wonderful long close-up of her face after she talks about how alienated she feels, never quite belonging either when she’s working abroad or when she’s back home with her family—was that in the script from the start or did it just grow out of working with her?

There was such a moment in the script, but originally it appeared somewhere else. I think the close-up is purely cinematic. When people say the close-up is made for television, I think, no, no, you can’t have a cinematic close-up on TV. You can’t watch Persona by Bergman on TV and get the same effect as on the big screen, because you see into the eye of Liv Ullman differently. That way to perceive a close, intimate, sometimes brutally intimate view of humans is very cinematic. I think in film history there are very few faces as interesting as Isabelle Huppert’s. Personally, I adore her. She can do stuff that’s quite remarkable, sort of open yet secretive, very mysterious. She’s a very kind, generous, smart person in real life, yet in front of the camera she retains some kind of secrecy, and I think that’s part of the seductive quality about her as an actor. I want to say something about her, and I haven’t said this other than in a Q&A where there was almost no one present. I was asked about her absence and I said she’s a pivotal ghost. [laughs] I think it’s true. She’s kind of there and not there, but she’s like the essence.

And even when her character was still alive, you felt like she was there, but not quite there. Which was a problem for her too.

Exactly.

You’ve co-written all your films with Eskil Vogt, and you’re working with him on more scripts. Can you talk a little about how you two work together, and on this film in particular? And why do you think that relationship works so well for you?

We’re old friends. Our biggest challenge these days in our work relationship is that we end up procrastinating and talking about movies rather than doing the work, because we love movies. It’s almost therapeutic. We can talk very freely about our lives. Yet we can also talk about our movies: “It’d be more filmic if we…” to sort of trump the other’s idea. “Nah! What are you talking about?” [laughs] Yeah, we’re movie nerds.

So once you’ve decided what you want to write about, how do you do the actual writing?

We sit in the room and we come up with the structure, a lot of the content and themes. In the past we both wrote, but Eskil writes much better than I do. So what we do now is that I leave him alone for a few days and then I come back and I read and I edit. We do a color system where we do corrections with a new color every time, and finally it looks like, I don’t know, a strange chaos, and then we make it all black text again when we agree.

What films have you seen and liked lately?

Tangerine. It was shot on a cellphone and it’s beautiful, precise. Did you see Girlhood? I thought it was beautiful too. I think Youth by Paolo Sorrentino was great, very generous. Dheepan, the Palme d’Or winner, is poignant [for how it depicts the] feeling of certain suburban areas of European cities at the moment.

And it mixes different modes of filmmaking together in an interesting way, which you like to do. It even turns into a revenge film at the end.

Yeah, I responded [to that]. I went through a period where I was watching a lot of revenge movies: Rolling Thunder and Man on Fire, you know, films I really adore [because of] my sort of left-wing Scandinavian upbringing, a very politicized childhood where I was always hearing about doing the right moral thing. It’s kind of beautiful to watch revenge movies, because they deal with human emotions that I’m not allowing myself, to a big degree, to ascribe to or accept. So it’s kind of great that Dheepan took some of that and put it into a moral context.

Is it just a coincidence that Isabelle Huppert’s character is named Isabelle?

It’s not, really. It kind of happened that we’d written her with an English name. When we were redrafting, we knew Isabelle was going to do it. It just sort of felt right, so we asked her and she agreed to it.

Did you change anything else about the character after she was cast?

Yeah, I did. I was fortunate enough to have rehearsal time, which isn’t really rehearsal in the classic sense. I don’t read through the script, for example. We do bits and pieces [with the actors] and get to know each other. We do maybe some scenes that we find challenging, and I film it all, and then I go back with Eskil and do a final redraft. I do this with all my movies. I want the actors to wear the dialogue personally. And it gets better and better. The actors are smart, and they can reveal bad things we’ve done.

So all the actors shape their parts to some degree?

A little bit. The text isn’t that different in the end. But maybe we drop a line that we don’t need, because they find a way of insinuating it so it gets sifted down, which is good, you know? More focused. That kind of thing.

This is your first film set in the States and performed in English. What led to that decision? Was it partly wanting to reach a broader audience?

Wanting these actors was part of the motivation. I wanted to work with a great international cast. I see a lot of handheld indie films being made in Norway and in America, a lot character-driven stuff shot in one room. I wanted to do something broader, with F/X, something that takes place in different parts of the world, with interior-world dreamscapes. I wanted to do something with a larger canvas, a grand story with great performances, kind of what I imagine cinema can do. We put together the finances in such a way that we could get good actors and not have to fish for the biggest star of the day in order to do the movie, so we could have David Straitharn and Amy Ryan. And find the wonderful Devin Druid to play Conrad, instead of thinking you have to find a 25-year-old actor with a squeaky voice. The real deal, all the way. Another part of the motivation was that only five million people speak my native language. My previous films, even though they’ve been fairly well distributed, are foreign-language. An English-language film can go further.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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