Norwegian film director Joachim Trier communicates with his delicate voice through film. Full of life, non-judgement and optimism dwell in his films as if he embraces ourselves in struggle as we are, as things are. Where does that extraordinary force come from? His second feature film “Oslo, August 31st” based on the novel “The Fire Within” written by Pierre Eugéne Drieu La Rochelle, is about Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a young recovering drug addict who leaves his treatment center for one day to go on a job interview and meet his caring friends in Oslo, where his memories lay on. Memories and existentialism are also important essences in his story as well. Life is momentum. Every moment we travel through space and time. Mr. Trier’s language allows us be aware of how that’s divine, and his eyes capture a moment of delicacy, and question for our existence while gazing at the luminescence of it.
“I would never want to make a film where there’s not one laugh in the film. That would be awful.”
What made you pursue film?I think it came from watching movies; that was it in the beginning. I grew up in a filmmaking family. My grandfather was a film director, my father did sound and my mom did a lot of documentary film. So I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a lot of good movies. I remember my mom taking me to see “Mon Oncle” by Jacques Tati and all kinds of films, Johnny Weissmuller “Tarzan” movies when I was a kid. I loved just going to the movies. That space, that feeling of being in the cinema and watching big images. So I think it started from there actually. Then I skateboarded for a while and then, strangely enough, I started doing skateboard videos. Through that path I came back to movies, and started doing narrative films in my early twenties, and then went to film school in the UK.
Do you remember the first film you saw?I’m trying to think back and I remember early images of Chaplin. I remember my parents showing me some Chaplin movies. I remember I had mixed feelings. On some level it was funny, but it was also kind of grotesque to watch people in black-and-white that were that were a little bit jerky, you know, it wasn’t really real-time, and it both scared me and made me intrigued. There was something as a child which was sometimes very scary about going to the movies. I could be frightened but I was drawn to it. The sado-masochistic approach to watching movies.
So far you’ve done two feature films which were shot in Oslo. I think you captured these elements of the city; intimacy and nostalgia. Could you talk about what you remember about Oslo growing up?It’s the place I grew up so that’s like recounting the memories of a whole life almost, but there was a sense, at least when I was in my teens, that it was not the most happening place in the world. I sometimes jokingly described it as “the suburbs of Europe.” It’s not really the center of where things are happening, which can be inspiring; there’s time to feel lost and bored. Which can also trigger a lot of bad behavior but also good things like creativity. It wasn’t a place where you had infinite possibilities of fun, you had to, with your friends, figure it out yourself. It’s the capital of Norway, so it’s perceived as a big city, but it’s actually quite small. The nice thing about it is culturally it’s small enough so that you get to know lots of different kinds of people. I had a very varied group of friends that came from very different backgrounds and went very different places in life. I think that’s a very healthy thing. Not to be just a part of one community, of one sociological group of people.
Oslo reminds me of Kyoto in Japan somehow. What’s there is different, but Kyoto is also… you can have access to everything in a small town. Everything is so intimate. You can have access to old traditional things and new things so close to each other.Norway’s a bit like that. You have nature everywhere. I could walk out of my house and by foot I can go to the movies in ten minutes, and if I go in a different directions I can been in the middle of a wood in probably half an hour, forty minutes. It’s a very strange mixture of nature and culture.
About your first feature film “Reprise”, What inspired you to make that film?Thematically I wanted to portray friendship and ambition and how those things sometimes end up on the crash course. I wanted to create a story where you see to two characters and how their friendship develops and the bittersweetness of going from a state of mind where you dream about all the things you’re going to do and then meeting reality. It’s entering the world. That was important, but also I grew up with hip-hop and punk music and this feeling I wanted to represent the culture I had not seen anyone else talk about in movies. In Norway no one made films about young intellectual hipsters, no one cared. And I said, “Let’s do that. Let’s talk about these people; why not make stories with those characters and try to represent that?”
Sometimes I feel like I’m watching some kind of comedy but it’s not.Yeah, but couldn’t it also be? I always get happy if people laugh. I try to have a laugh, even in “Oslo, August 31st” which I know is a more melancholic piece, there are a couple of places where people usually laugh and I’m really happy when they do. We were sitting in Cannes at the premiere and we had some real laugh during the film because it’s got some humor in it, or at least we’re trying. So that means a lot to me. I would never want to make a film where there’s not one laugh in the film. That would be awful.
The character Philip gets hit by a car in the story. Then he changed. What did he see or realize by the experience? Did you have a similar experience?I had a friend who became schizo-effective. He went into a bipolar psychosis. And his experience suddenly felt stronger and stronger, and that the world around him would prove to him how strong he had become, whereas the fact was he was becoming more and more ill. And this feeling of control and that things were in sync, he was slowly going crazy but at the same time he felt that he could do anything. He suddenly felt if he didn’t decide to, the sun wouldn’t come up in the sky. That’s how far out you can get. That car crash to me was more about Philips’ feeling of sudden empowerment, then seeing things around him being shaped to such a degree that he could actually even be fine after a car crash. But his approach to it is, Kari is scared and he ends up comforting her, and he’s the one who got hit. I think there’s something about that that was interesting. I don’t think that’s the moment that something goes wrong with him, but it’s a sign that something is changing.
“I’m interested in fate existentially because I’ve always been a dreamer.”
Philip finds Kari in her office unconsciously. He believes they were fated. In the beginning and at the end of imagination scenes, it goes like “Erik and Philip would have met even if they left each other” I’m very intrigued that you put the essence of karma or fate in that film. When did you start to be interested in that kind of idea? Could you explain how you became interested in fate?I’m interested in fate existentially because I’ve always been a dreamer. I’ve always looked to the future for events that I would expect, therefore instinctively I believe that you want there to be the possibility of control over your own future. These are fundamental questions for everyone, whether it’s in religious or non-religious context. I myself not being religious, but there’s still a striving for spirituality or understanding of existence which goes beyond the science of things. In storytelling, you’re constantly asking yourself questions about these things, and when applying that to characters that you try to get people to identify with, I think it’s something interesting to explore. These young guys are dreaming of a future; and the dream they have in the beginning, in a strange way, that’s the story that happens. It just happens differently than you’d expect. I wanted to make a film that portrayed that in life somehow, yes, maybe you know something about what will happen to you, but it’s not the way you think.
Now your second feature film “Oslo, August 31st”. In that film random people talk about their memories. Why did you want to start with memories?I wanted a thematic context, so it wouldn’t be just a psychological story of one person’s destiny. I wanted people to be allowed, emotionally and intellectually, to ask questions about their own life and the people around them, how a city affects us, and how close we are to each other’s destinies yet we miss each other. Those themes need to be set up in the beginning. I’ve always been interested in that: you’re sitting next to someone in a café, you know nothing about them but you still inhabit the same space. There’s something curious about that.
This interview is going to be a memory too.Yes. And cinema can capture that better than any other art form. The idea of place and time, that’s what it is. On a very basic, almost childish, level you can try to figure out how to capture “here-and-now.” You’ll never be able, but you’ll create a new here-and-now, which is the film’s here-and-now. That’s what it’s about. As a kid I remember playing with super-8. filming something, developing it at the Kodak lab, taking it home, looking at it: it’s not the same, but it is the same. That double emotion. Fascinating.
Then why did you not go to documentary?Because I think documentary is still a part of old filmmaking. I have done some documentary stuff, and in “Oslo, August 31st” there are documentary aspects: I’m filming a city, I’m filming the people around that, the Anders character. It’s a chronicle of a summer in Oslo, at the same time it’s a narrative that we’ve written and planned. I don’t see those as opposites. They can play along.
The lead character Anders is very angry at himself, and I thought, “Take it easy. Don’t be hard on yourself. Don’t be so serious because life is not so serious”, however even though I think that way, I was intrigued by the character. I think many people were too. Do you analyze why people are attracted to that kind of character, someone who is deeply hurt?Yeah, because he is very smart and there’s something attractive about him. I think Anders the actor is something intriguing. He draws you in. It’s a talent he’s got, some sort of charisma. We’re also rooting for someone who have great ambitions and try to have integrity, but his integrity is very self destructive. I’ve seen people like in real life. People who maybe in your twenties you looked up to them and thought they were the ones who figured it out, and they’re very hardline and have clear ideas and they’re not able to live up to their own standard. And that becomes their tragedy. A clear anti-hero, that’s how I see it.
You said Anders the actor is very talented, and I am obsessed with actors who are able to extract scenes from their bodies into the space around them. Anders Danielsen Lie is definitely one of them; in every scene, he is so natural and real. Could you talk about Anders? also why was he appropriate for the lead character of “Oslo”?We wrote it for him. I wanted to work with Anders again, and we asked him to do it immediately before we wrote the script. This is a film written for Anders. We imagined a dark, alternative universe where someone with all those talents that the real Anders the actor — he’s a doctor, he’s a musician, in real life, I mean he’s really talented — and we asked, “Imagine an alternative universe where you had other problems and weren’t able to achieve any of your stuff.” That triggered a way of approaching this character where he could use of himself yet abstracted into a different character of himself.
“Very fundamental existential questions I’m very drawn to. And that in relation to human relations, and identity, and memory, and how we react to trying to construct a sense of being. That is fascinating to me.”
This film is inspired by “The Fire Within.”Yeah, the novel. That Louis Malle film is based on the same novel as we adapted.
Are you interested in existentialism? Because I find a similar aspect in “Reprise” too. Why did you want to include that theme in your films? You know like “who we are, why we are here.”Yes! Yes, I am tremendously. I think that’s what it’s all about. If I sit down to watch a film by Woody Allen, if I read a novel by Philip Roth, this is what I’m curious about. Very fundamental existential questions I’m very drawn to. And that in relation to human relations, and identity, and memory, and how we react to trying to construct a sense of being. That is fascinating to me.
Do you remember when you became interested in that?I think since I was a kid. I talked to many people who have similar experience of not stopping to ask questions even though you grow older. I sometimes tend to idealize even the childish questions, the basic questions. The stuff you want to ask your parents and you slowly understand they can’t answer. About the infinity of the universe and why everyone wants to do good and we end up hurting each other. You know, strange things. That’s where most good art derives from, that childish fascination to try to understand the world around us. Very basic.
I hope the world accepts the kind of character like Anders, that kind of lifestyle of just being and thinking about who we are and why we are here, but the world doesn’t really accept that right now. But if the world really accepted that kind of lifestyle, do you think that lifestyle loses its beauty?But in the film, Anders doesn’t accept it either. I think he’s very troubled by not having a clear direction. What you’re talking about are questions that I presume the film asks with Anders as a character in the film rather than just that’s all he’s thinking about. He’s got very specific points of pain in the story. People he’s longing to connect with or he feels disconnected. Of course he asks questions but I also think that he is very lost. Looking at Anders, as an audience, hopefully people with ask some questions because he walks around and meets many different people so you get an odyssey, a journey through a specific environment of people.
You’re working on an English language film now and you career is expanding. What is a good part and an unwelcoming part of being successful?My aim, my goal is always to be able to make the next one, the next film. I’m the most happy when I am allowed to just be in the process of making a film. I forget a lot of those nervous and terrible thoughts that one has if you have too much time to look at yourself from the outside, to think, “What sort of films should I be making now?” or trying to be too strategic. It can lead you into a crisis. I think it’s healthy to just work and to try to be a bit quick, intuitive. For me, that’s something I’m always trying to learn because I can over-think things sometimes.
Are you more logical than intuitive?I never understood the dichotomy or the separation between being emotional and being intellectual. They’re fortunately or unfortunately very closely connected, depending on a good or bad day. It’s wonderful to get attention and to know that the word gets out there and connects with people. That’s a really satisfying good thing. At the same time I’m learning that you become very vulnerable. I’m not used to that kind of big attention and I really care what people think. When you go out there with something, you’ll have wonderful meetings with people who love what you do but you’ll also meet hatred or skepticism. It’s risking being out there with other people. You will ultimately not have everyone like you and need to accept that. That’s life.
“That character of longing for some sort of absence to filled, some sort of void. Longing for connection and love. I’m not saying I’m as lost as him, but I sympathize with it. I think it’s a very human thing.”
What character in cinema do you sympathize with the most?I think Scotty from “Vertigo”, you know James Stewart’s character, he’s longing for something which is somehow lost and he never knew whether he had it. That character of longing for some sort of absence to filled, some sort of void. Longing for connection and love. I’m not saying I’m as lost as him, but I sympathize with it. I think it’s a very human thing. I think in “Vertigo” that sort of longing for an ideal that somehow is lost along the way in the woman is beautifully portrayed. Trying to make sense of a reality where beauty has taken hold of you and it draws you to something which ultimately you don’t try to understand. I like characters that explore mysteries. I think that’s intriguing.
If you see your weakness, what’s there?In my films, I see a lot of weaknesses. I’m constantly striving for a balance between control and chaos. I don’t always get it right. Sometimes I over-construct something that should have been looser. Sometimes something is too loose which should be more specific. That’s the constant struggle I’m dealing with.
What do you like to do to express yourself besides film?I’m the most happy in a good discussion with someone, like a friend. I love hanging out and just talking. People are passionate about something, and just sharing that. Getting a sense that people love something and are expressing that. To share and connect through a passion for something outside oneself, that’s joyful.
text by Taiyo Okamoto
“Oslo, August 31st” opens in limited release on Friday May 25th.
CAST: Anders Danielsen Lie Malin Crepin Aksel M. Thanke Hans Olav Brenner Ingrid Olava Oystein Roger