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Representation of Self: Discussing "Louder Than Bombs" with Joachim Trier

The Norwegian director of "Reprise" & "Oslo, August 31st" hits the Cannes Competition with an American film and an international cast.
After only two features, Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011), Norwegian director (by way of Denmark) Joachim Trier has not only reached the competition in the Festival de Cannes with his latest movie, Louder than Bombs, he has also crossed the Atlantic to make a film in American with an international cast. The story of the emotional and familial fall-out after the death a famed war photographer (Isabelle Huppert) on her husband (Gabriel Byrne), eldest son (Jesse Eisenberg) and high school-aged youngest son (Devin Druid), the film fragments its psychological melodrama across differing timelines and characters.
After the premiere of Joachim Trier's film in Cannes, I was able to participate in a roundtable conversation with the director.

QUESTION: How did you arrive on the varied style of this film?
JOACHIM TRIER: My co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt and I would talk of ideas. For example, an idea we wanted to do conceptually for a scene, we'd say,  “have you ever seen anyone read from a book in a film and you hear their voice through someone listening, and that turns into the voiceover for that person’s thoughts?” But then we say, “ah, that’s very abstract.” Then two months later, when we know we have a film about a kid who’s very in love with a girl in school, we say, “hey we can use that formal idea!” This is how it percolates. We’re not very good at creating linear clothes that are easier to sew. And that’s terrible, I wish I was.
QUESTION: Was it difficult to get financing for this film?
TRIER: Yes and no. The concept was we decided to do an American movie. I had done my first film Reprise and it was distributed by Miramax in the U.S. and I got a lot of offers, I read a lot of scripts and thought, “wow maybe I’ll do an American movie.” But none of those scripts were really my thing. A lot of them were genre things, because a lot of people said my first film has some montage sequences and things that “oh can’t you just do that thing with this script?” To me, form and content have to be connected on a fundamental level, so it’s not just a spice you put on a thriller or whatever. So I went home and thought, “damn, maybe we need to write our own American movie.” And that’s what we did. It took a while. I tried to avoid being a European falling on my ass in America, that’s such a cliché, you know? So I needed to have creative control and casting control and all that stuff, so we needed to finance it differently. It’s not a studio movie, it’s made from support from France, Denmark, Norway and also the U.S.—many different people coming together to make it.
QUESTION: Why is this a story that could only be told in America?
TRIER: Except for the cheerleaders? [laughs] As I was approaching the shoot I suddenly though, “damn I got this from John Hughes movies and I loved that kind of ‘80s teenage movie. Do cheerleaders like this really exist?” And they do! They’re beautiful and it’s great, they get thrown in the air, it’s fantastic! But why American? I thought it was interesting to do this story of an international traveler-mother-war-journalist, very much like James Nachtwey or one of these New York photography legends, I thought that the dad with his post-'80s hipster, probably wanted to be a part of the Wooster Group, listening to Talking Heads, what happened to those guys when they moved upstate and became parents? There were all these cultural specifics I wanted to try to explore. It’s a tough question. You write these characters and you imagine it in that house and suddenly you don’t know how move to back to Norway—and there you are.
QUESTION: This is a very emotionally bloody movie. Do you think that men are unable to express their emotions?
TRIER: I feel in a way it’s rather the opposite in this film. Yes they have difficulty talking to each other, but they are quite emotional characters, I think. I wanted to try to avoid the classical family drama of the stern patriarchal father that the sons have to dispose of to be free. It’s not that story. It’s more of a modern dad, vulnerable, trying to be available emotionally. Brave, maybe, in his choices of giving up some of his own ambitions to try to be a good dad. But sure, always in my films it seems like people have emotional problems.
QUESTION: The film I thought juggles with a lot of subjects and themes. What would you say is the center of this drama?
TRIER: I think it’s difficult to say just one thing, but I sense that it’s a question of memory and identity put into a multi-character plot, a family, a trans-generational story that deals a lot with separation and unity in a modern family. The need and difficulty of being an individual and at the same time not being able to release yourself from that structure that we come from, which is family. In my life, there aren’t that many structures; I’ve lived under the illusion of freedom my whole life. The idea that I can do what I want, create who I want to be; but family keeps coming back and biting me in the ass. Whether it’s conscious or not.
QUESTION: It also deals with death, as well...
TRIER: Yes, sexuality and death—that’s always at play in anything, isn’t it?
QUESTION: With each family member's separate memory of Isabelle Huppert, I thought it was about the kind of trace we leave behind when we die.
TRIER: Excellent, I think that’s very central. I’m glad you said that. I’m working half blind, you know? I don’t know what I’m doing most the time, so I need other people to hopefully make sense of it. It’s a very relevant comment. It deals with also the representation of self and how that’s evolving with the different social situations. You have the gamer kid, who probably feels that some of his closest friends are people in other countries he meets online, that’s a modern—I’m not judgmental that all—that’s in the modern reality I want to explore. Then you have the father who sacrificed a lot and maybe feels he doesn’t know how to move forward and doesn’t understand at all that boy’s reality. Clashing perceptions, representations of who we are.
QUESTION: Were you thinking of these actors specifically when you wrote the script?
TRIER: They came in later, I actually didn’t write it for anyone in particular. It was important for me to create a situation where we could choose the best actors and not just the five most famous in the world to get it financed. It’s an ensemble piece and they were all very generous coming into this and not needing to be the main character. I think they fit together as a family, but it took time to figure that out, actually. One of the biggest challenges was finding the young kid, Conrad. When we found Devon it was marvelous, I’m so happy with him, but we didn’t want to do the American thing, you know, of The Karate Kid, where you cast the 25-year-old with the squeaky voice and pretend he’s a teenager. It needs to be close to the skin and naturalistic. It’s a complicated role to play. Isabelle Huppert I met at the Stockholm Film Festival a few years ago and I’m a huge fan of hers. I realized that in this family it was quite natural that the mother could be French, I meet French people in New York all the time. Gabriel Byrne I’ve been a fan of for a long time. It was about finding the right combination of intelligence and warmth, for his character. He’s a smart guy, he perceives looks, but it’s also got a humor and warmth to him. Jesse is smart and funny. I think this is a little bit a new type of role for him, he’s more vulnerable and maybe more dramatic than what he usually plays.
QUESTION: Huppert's character voices several quandaries over her profession as a photographer, ethical questions about photographing people and their misery. Are these things you are also thinking about as a filmmaker?
TRIER: Yes, absolutely. Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag is a wonderful book which ponders upon the representation of other people’s grief and how to convey those things without being patronizing or vulgar. This is something the media needs to continue ask themselves, and we as film storytellers too. As she says in the film, under normal circumstances you wouldn’t walk into a house of someone who is grieving and take their photo. So why do we do that, and what does it mean? We had this situation in Oslo after a terrorist attack, a bombing, downtown on the 22nd of July in 2011 when the front page on one of the biggest newspapers showed two corpses outside the parliament building. You didn’t see their faces, but there was an uproar about how immoral it was to show these two dead people without asking their families for permission, you know? We see these pictures every day from other countries, other cultures. It’s a discourse. I don’t want to moralize, but I would love to be a part of a humanistic tradition where I don’t create antagonists, and where I try to question reality, question values rather than moralize. There’s a lot of drama in people who just want to do well, and fuck it up anyway, you know?
QUESTION: Your family has a background in the film industry. Can you talk about your family's history as artists?
TRIER: My grandfather Erik Løchen was in Cannes in 1960 with first film, The Hunt. He was in the resistance in Norway during the war and was very traumatized. He became a jazz musician for a while, and then read some experimental French literature and suddenly in 1960 decided [snaps fingers] to try to make a movie like that. And then he’s in competition with Fellini that year, Antonioni, Bergman, Buñuel, and it was rather a big deal, I think. He didn’t know what the New Wave was at the time, he had just read Alain Robbe-Grillet and was experimenting and came home to my grandmother and said, “they’re really doing this thing, sort of like jazz films…” [laughs]. But it was hard for him to have a career, actually, there wasn’t really an infrastructure in Norway at that time. This was my mother’s father. And my mother also worked in movies for a while. My dad is a sound guy, so I grew up in an environment of a love for cinema. I’m a bit of an inbred guy, I guess!
QUESTION: We agreed that the film deals with different issues, and at the same time you're changing perspective in quite an interesting way. I was wondering if that’s a natural process for you or if you actually script that all?
TRIER: To be honest with you, one of the most intuitive things I do in filmmaking is mise en scène. Which means I don’t intellectualize it a lot, I try to find locations that I associate with somehow, and spend time there with my cinematographer and we do the breakdown. And sometimes change it during the shooting as well. But there are certain images you yearn to express that you have with you from the beginning, perhaps, and you just try to create them. But I’m a real believer in… I have a tendency to over-intellectualize things, so I try to go with some instinct. And I know that instincts come from a long process of choices, it’s not something you just invent. I’m consciously prepared for it.
QUESTION: Some of your drama's direction indeed feels very intuitive, but there are also scenes like the imagining of the Huppert character’s death or the montages of fantasy, that seem more planned and stylized.
TRIER: The montage, the temporal elements are written. So, for example, Conrad thinks about his mother’s accident and what she could have thought of, playing hide and seek: all that is written and it changes order a bit, changed during the editing, of course, to refine it. But that’s written. The actual framing are something that happen later. A lot of the effects in the film, the car crash, are storyboarded, actually. There are exceptions, absolutely.
QUESTION: The title seems like the end of a sentence. The beginning, to me, would be when Isabelle Huppert was at home: to her family the silence of the home was “louder than bombs.”
TRIER: That’s beautiful, that’s good! Can you pretend I said that? You’re onto something. We didn’t start with the title, it came later. It asks a question, I like that both about making the story we’re doing and the title: that it asks a question. I think it related to the incomparability of the big out there and the seemingly small, the big and the small in terms of pain. Everyone asks me about The Smiths—it’s a Smiths album title, and it turns out it was their first album as Europeans in the US, which I didn’t know and is kind of ironic. But they borrowed the phrase from a beautiful poem by Elizabeth Smart, a Canadian poet, called By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, which is a prose poem. So it keeps looping.
QUESTION: I want to ask you about this lack of communication between generations that we see in your film. For example, is there a danger to this virtual world that Conrad spends so much time in?
TRIER: Again, I don’t want to judge it, but there is something going on with the idea of self-representation online which is very different. A friend of mine, a journalist, did an article a little while back about an 80-year-old woman who said that when she was 10 years old there existed only three photos of her. While her granddaughter, who is now 3 years old, has probably 6,000 images of her. How does this affect our sense of self? Our self-evaluation? And also the contact through mediation where you don’t sit in front of another face. Does it change our sense of empathy? It’s a big philosophical question. I don’t want to go about it being judgmental. Conrad can have a rich inner life, even though his social life seems rather awkward and perhaps not so functional. I’m curious about it. I hope the film asks some questions or explores it in an interesting way.
QUESTION: During the film I realized that Jesse Eisenberg is incapable of giving an uninteresting performance, or even an uninteresting line reading. Is he just a blessing for a director or is that your work in his performance?
TRIER: I think it’s very much him, and I think you’re right, he’s a blessing. They kind of all are, I’ve been very blessed to be with these actors, honestly, I’m not just saying that to be the nice director. They are very smart, interesting people.
QUESTION: Was it difficult to create chemistry between them as a family unit with actors from different countries, different ages, in a story that was fragmented?
TRIER: Yes and no. Jesse likes to be a little bit in character and take the piss out of Gabriel, who’s supposed to be so warm and caring, and I was in rehearsals laughing how well those two had a natural dynamic at play. Jesse has a kind of mean humor he exposed a bit too much towards his little brother, and we had to kind of ask him to chill out, but he was very funny.
QUESTION: Is there a place for improvisation between the actors?
TRIER: Absolutely. We do this thing usually where when we’ve done the scene and we have a good script-ish version functioning, we do freer takes where they can improvise a bit. Like the scene where Gabriel and Isabelle are talking about a dream she had, and he’s talking about smoking? That’s Gabriel just flying off, and the interesting discrepancy about Isabelle also going off in a different emotional direction creates this beautiful moment. There’s a lot of those moments in the film.
QUESTION: Did you always know you wanted to start with one scene in the hospital, between Jesse's character, his wife and newborn child?
TRIER: No, I didn’t. [laughs] I had a very different opening. It’s something we figured out later in editing. I tried out a lot of different things—it’s a crazy film to edit! There are so many possibilities. I’m very pragmatic; every stage is a new possibility to try something.
QUESTION: Was there either in the script or an assembly you had a version of this film that didn’t interweave Huppert throughout it, but rather there was a section where she was alive and then afterwards?
TRIER: Never that. That she was always woven, to play upon her absence continually, was important.
QUESTION: What path are you interested to take with your future films?
TRIER: I want to continue to do personal films. I have this wish—when I say “personal,” it’s just my taste, my style, whatever that becomes—that people will let me develop. And not force me to do the same thing over again. Or expect me to do the same thing. Because I probably will not be able to change drastically; I am who I am. But I would love to be allowed to develop.
QUESTION: If you are going to work, for example, in United States, with big studios, you know they try to put conditions…
TRIER: ...but don’t they know what they’re doing up until 2020, now? Haven’t they announced it? [laughs]
QUESTION: You could do Avengers 5!
TRIER: Exactly, I could do one of the Avengers. No, I know exactly what you are talking about. I come from a film family background, and I didn’t choose this profession to be a filmmaker. It’s a bit of a weird lifestyle choice, so I don’t want to spend six years working on something unless it’s very personal. That’s just my nature, and I respect completely people that have different professional paths. I don’t have a dream about having a big studio movie. I will say this: there’s a myth that the final cut directors or auteurs or whatever we’re called don’t care about the conversation around what we’re doing. Actually, I do tons of test screenings for my films and I have a lot of friends and people come in and talk to me. A film like this was a big challenge because—and I’m sorry for sounding a bit academic—of the difference between the denotation and the connotation. The storytelling that needed to be clear, so that people understood enough for there to be the unclarity of interpretation. That’s the real trick with this one, trying to get that balance right. So I screened it for a lot of people, and I speak to all the producers and everyone gets their input about personal interpretation, but it’s not a competition in making it most likable, you understand? You understand the difference? I work with a group, let’s call it the “Trier group,” even though it’s a film by me, they are long time collaborators that share some sort of attitude or taste.
QUESTION: The festival this year, and particularly the competition, is unusually notable for international directors working in English. Do you sense a tension coming here with an “American” film from your country? That you are a director representing your country, there’s not that many big Norwegian filmmakers and you’re one of them, and now, perhaps, you are going become an “American” or a non-Norwegian filmmaker? Is that something you sense from back home?
TRIER: We’ll see now. It’s about to happen. I haven’t felt it yet. I’m sure some people will give me a hard time about changing cultures. I will have to make the intellectual point, the difference in French between langue and parole: language as spoken and language as an expression of cinematic language. The latter is what I care about. That I’m allowed to express my film language, intuition about mise en scène, the attitude, the themes. That people can speak different languages in my movie and that it’s still a “Joachim Trier group” film. We’ll see! I hear rumors that there are Americans that have enjoyed my film, that matters a lot to me, actually. Because I would be embarrassed if I completely fucked it up. It’s nerve wracking making a movie.
QUESTION: Is there a type of film that you would like to do that would be surprising?
TRIER: I love giallo, Italian '70s horror movies. I think that would be fantastic. Should I do that?

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