There was only one film playing at various festivals this year for which audiences were provided with a promotional sick bag. Having already put a roomful of art scene dignitaries off their dinner in his Palme d’Or winner The Square (2017), director Ruben Östlund has been turning stomachs again onscreen and off with his latest examination of the absurdities of human behavior.
A satirical adventure on the high seas, Triangle of Sadness (2022) casts its net wide. What begins with some broad swipes at high fashion and influencer culture soon hurls itself into farce, before setting its ambitious sights on the dismantling of capitalist hierarchies. While much of The Square was shot in English, this latest burlesque on the lives of the super-rich goes further still, marking Östlund’s most concerted targeting of international, multiplex appeal. It’s also riotously funny, the outrageously-staged set pieces of its middle section at once bringing the house down and leaving audience members wondering where they put their sick bags.
Back in the summer, Östlund took to the Cannes stage to claim his second Palme d’Or, a rarefied honor that saw the Swedish provocateur join an exclusive top table of double-Palme winners that includes Francis Ford Coppola, Emir Kusturica, and the Dardenne brothers. With Östlund currently on his post-Cannes victory lap and in vivacious form, we sat down with him in London to talk about his move into English-language filmmaking, his very particular working methods, and why he can’t catch a break from the critics at Sweden’s leading film quarterly.
NOTEBOOK: Did you see FLM magazine’s new list of the greatest Swedish films of all time that dropped yesterday?
RUBEN ÖSTLUND: No, you have it?
NOTEBOOK: Yeah, here [hands him phone]. Victor Sjöström is still up top with The Phantom Carriage (1921). I’m not sure that’s even Sjöström’s best film, let alone better than Persona (1966), which is in third place.
ÖSTLUND: [Scrolls intently.] No, no, no, exactly.
NOTEBOOK: Are you checking where you are?
ÖSTLUND: Of course I am.
NOTEBOOK: Involuntary (2008) is in there.
ÖSTLUND: Yeah, Involuntary. FLM has always been against me as a director.
NOTEBOOK: What do you mean?
ÖSTLUND: [Laughs.] The film critics that run it have never given me better than a three.
NOTEBOOK: Why do you think Involuntary is the one they went for?
ÖSTLUND: I don’t know. Play (2011) was usually up there too. Maybe it was a film where people didn’t know about my moviemaking. I guess that’s one part of it. I think there’s something in the fact that people couldn’t see how the film was constructed, but slowly, slowly it makes more sense. Then at the end you get a sense of it coming together, pushing it up to a different experience.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think it’s the most Swedish of your films?
ÖSTLUND: Definitely. It is, because it’s dealing with the fear of losing face. It’s dealing with five different groups, five specific ages in Swedish culture, characters dealing with different group pressures. There’s a lot of Swedish culture in that film.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think that with your recent move into English-language filmmaking you gain a certain universality, but lose the cultural specificity that defines those earlier films?
ÖSTLUND: That is probably true, but there are certain kinds of set-ups in the world that I’m dealing with that are international. So people are speaking English to each other, and they bring in their cultural background even if they’re limited by language. I was getting closer to this a little bit already with The Square, where the art scene is an international scene. If you look at the fashion world, and the world of luxury yachts, people are speaking English to each other.
Of course there are nuances in Swedish that I could play around with much more when I was working in that language. But then, my wife is German, so English has become a language that I use more than I did before. I think we’re also living in a much more international world than we were in 2008 when I did Involuntary. Back then, if I had an English character, I’d have to explain why he was there, but now we just accept that the world is more mixed up. I also like that, with the English language, you can use actors from a wider variety of countries, you can play around more with different characters.
Sweden is a small country, but shooting in English isn’t about getting broader distribution. Of course, you can get more Cineplex cinemas to show your film, but I had a pretty broad audience already with Force Majeure (2014) and The Square. So it wasn’t a commercial decision, it was more about wanting to build a Real Madrid with actors, to create a great ensemble piece.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve spoken previously about being wary of what you called the “arthouse niche.”
ÖSTLUND: I had a friend flying recently from the Venice Film Festival to the Toronto Film Festival, which were basically back-to-back. All the people on the plane were from the film industry, and they were all glued to their screens. He told me he wanted to see what they were all watching. They weren’t watching each others’ films, they were watching Adam Sandler movies. There’s nothing wrong with Adam Sandler movies, but it’s almost like arthouse cinema has become a genre unto itself. Definitely in Europe, because you apply for money and have to say, “I’m doing something really important about society blah blah blah,” and then you don’t have to punch all the way to reach an audience because you’re already economically safe. If you’re making movies in the US, you have to reach the audience, otherwise you’ll lose your job.
If you look back at the kind of movies being made in Europe in the ‘70s, where the state-funded system hadn’t entirely begun to influence the movies they were making, there was a great combination of wild, entertaining movies that at the same time were dealing with society and the European tradition. So after making Play, I decided I wanted to make movies that took the best parts of American film history and combined them with the best parts of European filmmaking, taking into account that these films will be shown in front of an audience.
When Godard died recently, someone asked me if I could say something specific about him, and I was always inspired by his Rolling Stones film Sympathy for the Devil (1968). I thought it was a great, speculative way of allowing political content to reach a broad audience. You take the second-most famous rock band in the world and film them when they are recording a song, and in-between you have to look at this political message.
NOTEBOOK: With everything that’s happened to global economies in the months since Triangle’s Cannes premiere, it seems audiences might be even more receptive to an allegory about the dismantling of capitalism.
ÖSTLUND: People are so used to looking at sentimental cinema. We’re used to looking at a structure of cinema whereby we identify with the hero, and then there is a bad guy. We’re used to identifying morality and ethics through the hero. I’m not so interested in when we succeed as human beings, I’m interested in when we fail. I’m interested in the circumstances that can make us fail. I prefer a sociological approach. So much moviemaking is about moralizing, about teaching us a lesson that we already know.
NOTEBOOK: Production on Triangle was shut down during the pandemic. Given your interest in sociology, I’m curious about your observations of human behavior during the various lockdowns. I know Sweden handled things a little differently, but that period really put humanity under the microscope, for better or worse.
ÖSTLUND: Sweden really did handle things so differently. I think it’s because in our law you’re not allowed to limit the personal freedom of individuals. That’s why they didn’t want to go into the kind of lockdowns you saw in other countries. But I was so involved in the shoot at that time, dealing with an absurd vomiting scene when people were afraid of people coughing. The film is dealing with a kind of unregulated capitalism, so I was most surprised by a market economy that didn’t appear to have much influence over society. When people went into lockdown, I was like, “come on capitalism, do you really want people to stay at home and not be able to shop?” Then I heard that DHL, for example, were sending 60 million packages a week, so it looked like our consumption had just been moved into a different space.
NOTEBOOK: It was interesting to read that you initially wanted to be a documentary filmmaker, as your films have always made me think of those David Attenborough films, which are at once observational and, of course, rigorously constructed. Your films have a looseness within the frame that suggests improvisation, but also a sharply structured formalism. Can you talk a little about how you shoot, and the tension between those two outcomes?
ÖSTLUND: You have an idea that might be possible for the characters in a scene, like you want them to do something specific. For example, I want Harris Dickinson’s character to be so angry that he takes the €50 note and pushes it in-between the elevator and the elevator shaft. Now how do we get there so we believe in it? When I meet actors, I improvise around the set-ups of a situation. I take inspiration from that and I write it down, maybe include it in the script if something good comes up. When we’re on set, I’m setting up the camera and asking myself if we believe what we’re looking at. Very often, the set-up in the script is going to change when you start to look at the images, because people might stand too close to one another, in which case they wouldn’t say the same thing as they would when they’re standing further apart. A lot of parameters change when you’re looking at the acting in front of you.
Then we start investigating the scene again. I have a lot of time on set. I had like 65 shooting days on Triangle. So I use the first part of the day to ask, “How do we get a unique angle on this? How do we believe what is happening?” I love it when an actor says, “I would never do this.” Great, so let’s change the set-up so it becomes possible for you to do this. Then we refine the scene, we start sculpting it and reducing its length. We do take after take. By the time we get to take twenty, we’ve found the skeleton of the scene and we can follow it quite precisely, but also the energy is starting to vanish, which we don’t want to lose because it’ll be worse. I try to push the energy up for a couple of takes until it’s better than it was before, but then I tell everyone to take a 30-minute break. Once they’re rested, with the scene in their backbone, I tell them, “Five takes left!” I do a countdown—“Four takes left! Three takes left!”—and these last takes are often very similar to each other. Now there’s no room for improvisation. I can use it as a writing process, but I don’t like to see when people are improvising. You can see them thinking about what they should do, and there’s nothing precise in that.
I gather the whole crew around to look at the actors when I do the last three takes, so they are given the maximum attention. I also bring a gong to set, so that on the last take I can sound this massive “BONG!” I want maximum presence and attention for this last take. For me, it comes from ski filming. When a skier was going down the mountainside, there was always a danger involved, and the focus you had to have was so intense and enjoyable. I want to feel the same thing when we’re doing the last take, like it’s an important football game we’re trying to win together.
NOTEBOOK: So you’re doing this on every set-up?
ÖSTLUND: I mean, sometimes you do a shorter pick-up, and then you don’t do it. But for example, the bill scene with the couple at the beginning, I want that scene to be about life and death for them. For that one I definitely did it for every set-up.
NOTEBOOK: Am I right in thinking you use a lot of digital compositing to fine tune your scenes in the editing process?
ÖSTLUND: Yeah. Sometimes I’ll make a pause longer by slowing down the image. Other times, if the characters are standing apart, you can combine performances from different takes. In Incident by a Bank (2010), I really started using the possibility of zooming into an image, and creating camera movements afterwards. I could combine four different takes but make it feel like it’s a real-time shot. Since I know a little bit about Photoshop and Premiere, it’s easy enough to do cut-outs and so on. I like to rebuild the image, or take away unnecessary objects.
NOTEBOOK: What do you think it is about the static frame that makes it inherently good for comedy?
ÖSTLUND: It’s not evaluating. Small details can become just as important as the bigger picture. That’s my opinion. You have a very restricted camera looking at human beings from the outside in a voyeuristic way. It’s not emotional. It’s not saying how horrible this must be for this character. It’s more, as you say, like an Attenborough film, looking at the lion and the buffalo on the savannah. For me, the static camera is also connected to the longer sequence shot. It’s just standing there looking at something in a very neutral way.
NOTEBOOK: This is a massive generalization, of course, but it’s an approach that often comes to mind when thinking of Nordic filmmakers, from Roy Andersson to Aki Kaurismäki. Why do you think that is?
ÖSTLUND: You’re right. I mean, I was brought up with Roy Andersson’s cinema. I have Roy Andersson in my backbone. I saw all of his commercial advertising as a kid without knowing who he was. You get that kind of humor just by being brought up in Sweden in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We were also brought up on a lot of British humor, from Monty Python to Fawlty Towers. I guess it’s a certain kind of situational comedy in which people are overly concerned with trivialities. I think it also matters that we’ve not had that many wars. Sweden has been neutral for 150 years or more, so our lives are not preoccupied with these super-dramatic events.
NOTEBOOK: Where are you at with your next film?
ÖSTLUND: I’m pitching it now. It’s called The Entertainment System Is Down, and it takes place on a long-haul flight. Quite soon after take-off, the passengers get the horrible news that there will be no entertainment. The screens on the seats aren’t working, so when the iPhones and iPads start running out of juice, people get left with their own thoughts and they can’t distract themselves. I’d heard an interesting sociological study about people who were asked to be left alone in a room and do nothing. They felt it was horrible. Then an element was added to the test whereby the subject could press a button and give themselves an electric shock. The shock was very painful but it wasn’t harmful. So there’s an amazing absurdity to these people left to their own devices, and through their own free will, push this button to shock themselves. I think it’s going to be very interesting to look at modern human beings when we take away this addiction and constant distraction.
NOTEBOOK: Most filmmakers don’t like to discuss upcoming projects. Is talking about it part of your process of working it out, or is it easier to garner interest and funding when the idea is out in the world?
ÖSTLUND: It’s a win-win! I definitely see it as a method for me to work out how I’m going to shoot the film. By telling it over and over again, you start to work out the order in which things need to happen. Very often, someone is telling me, “You have to listen to this story about my flight,” and if it’s good, that can go in the script. When I know how to tell the film from beginning to end, that’s when I start to write it down. It’s a big part of the process for me.
NOTEBOOK: You like to test screen your films too. It sounds like bouncing a film off of an audience is very important to you.
ÖSTLUND: A film works very differently if you’re watching it on an individual screen or if you’re watching it together. It changes the rhythm of the film. It always feels strange to me when a film critic sits alone in a cinema to watch a film. If it’s playing in a cinema, there needs to be at least thirty people to create the rhythm to which I’ve cut the film. I’ve done five or six test screenings where I’m sitting together with the audience. It’s not about asking them any questions, it’s only about finding the film’s rhythm. I was inspired by John Cleese. When they did A Fish Called Wanda (1988), I heard he did twelve test screenings very late in the process, when they were fine-tuning the humor. It feels very strange to make movies for a cinema, but not take into account that we’re watching things together when we’re in that room.