Phil on Film Index

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"I really wanted to activate the audience" - An interview with Ruben Östlund

After developing his style through skiing movies and documentaries, Swedish director Ruben Östlund made his feature debut in 2004 with The Guitar Mongoloid and immediately established himself as a filmmaker who enjoys unsettling and provoking his audience. His new film Involuntary deals with the pressures of conformity and the challenges faced by those brave enough to go against the flow, with the director exploring these themes through five separate stories. His dark humour and exacting formal style might make Involuntary uncomfortable viewing, but it's also a compelling and fascinating film, and I met Ruben Östlund recently to talk about it.

Were the five stories in Involuntary inspired by things that had happened to you or incidents that you had heard about?

Almost all of them were things that I myself had experienced or someone close to me. The teacher is based on my mother, who actually did this experiment on the students at her school, and she was also a person who had trouble not saying what her beliefs were, which ended up having consequences for her.

So it was your mother's experience that inspired you to think about the difficulty of people voicing their true opinions and the pressures of crowd situations?

Yes, in a way. For me, Involuntary is a dramatic film about group behaviour, and I really wanted to highlight something that is very fundamental about being a human being. We are herd animals, so I wanted to show different situations where we act in a certain way because we are afraid of losing face in front of each other. That's why the film takes place in five different kinds of groups, one is with 13 year-old girls and one is in a 60 year-old's birthday party. I guess this is something we have to deal with our whole lives.

I did read one article that suggested you were specifically commenting on aspects of Swedish society, but do you see it as more universal than that?

I really think it's universal. I think some people don't want to be connected to this kind of behaviour, so a Frenchman might say it is very Nordic, or they might think it applies to Great Britain or Canada and so on, but I don't think so. I think it is a typical human behaviour.

It must be interesting for you to get reactions from audiences at the different festivals around the world.

Yeah, but I think a lot of the reactions are connected to the aesthetic of the film. For example, when we were screening it in LA, the audience was very confused and didn't understand it at all, but I think that had to do with the way the film is made. I really wanted to activate the audience and I really wanted to make a film where they have to think all the time to get the film. So often in cinema you know exactly what to think of the characters - this is the good one, this one is evil - and you are so secure in the audience. I really wanted people to be insecure and I wanted them to decide themselves who is doing the right thing and so on.

Did you settle very quickly on these five stories or were you thinking about other incidents that could have been a part of the movie?

There were some stories that are not in the movie now. I made a short film about a peer group on a bridge, when one of the youngsters says he is going to jump from the bridge to show he is brave. It is called Autobiographical Scene 6882 and it's on YouTube if you want to see it.

That's a catchy title.

[laughs] Yeah, I know. From the beginning that was something that was supposed to be in the movie, but it had quite a lot of success as a short movie so we decided to lift it out. In the beginning, I was also very inspired by an event that took place in Sweden during the 1800's. It was an engineer called Andreas, and he died when he tried to fly a hot air balloon to the North Pole. The whole crew died, and you can read in his diary in the days before lift-off that he didn't believe in this project at all. He was totally convinced that it was going to be a catastrophe, but he was so afraid of losing face socially he stepped into the balloon, and this highlights the theme of the movie for me. We are so afraid of losing face we are willing to risk our own lives.

Often when I see films with multiple stories they end up crossing paths and I was glad you resisted that temptation.

Mostly when it happens in movies it's just a little bit silly, I think. The structure of the film becomes so obvious, and you can see that when they were writing the film they were thinking, "OK, so how will I get this character over here?" [laughs] The reason there are five stories is to highlight a variety of behaviour, and if I could have highlighted it a better way with only one story I would have done so, but I needed five different groups to cover it.

The thing I found interesting in the schoolteacher story was the fact that this woman did have the courage to stand up against the crowd, but then she became the outcast for her actions.

I think this is something that is very important with the film. The solution is not to say, "You should stand up for your beliefs" because if you do so then of course it will have consequences. Perhaps you can't be part of that group that you belonged to in the same way as you did before. I think the film is very humorous, but my goal was to make it humorous and tragic at the same time, so one second you should laugh and the next second you should feel horrified. One example of those scenes is with the teacher, when she says, "Please look at me when we talk. There are three of us around this table, you have to look at me as well." This is something I heard my mother say when I was ten years old and we were having dinner with the neighbours. I can still remember her saying that.

You mentioned that the aesthetics of the film may be difficult for some viewers to handle, and I wanted to ask about your shooting style, with your use of fixed angles and the way you cut off parts of the characters and the images. Can you talk about how you developed that style?

One reason is to activate the audience, of course, because if something is happening off screen you have to create pictures yourself. Also, it's a way to step away from the psychological aspect. I was interested in the situation the characters were in and they way they act in certain situations, so I wanted the bodies to represent human beings not the specific characters. Maybe that's why I decided to cut the heads off.

Your use of distance is also important in that respect. Some scenes are uncomfortably close while others are shot from very far away.

I think I really wanted to take away emotions. If you are looking at something very tragic like this you don't get so emotionally involved, so you can look at it in a different way, in a more behaviouristic way.

How did you work with your actors to get very natural performances from them? A lot of them are non-actors, is that right?

A lot of them are dancers, actually. All of the main characters are on stage on one way or another, and one of them is actually a famous actor in Sweden and she plays the public view of herself. What I think is most important is that the actor should feel comfortable in front of the camera and they should have the opportunity to make errors. There will be no catastrophe if they make ten takes doing the wrong thing. The main goal is to make them feel as comfortable as possible, and that's when you can start to do the takes that are really good, I think.

The one real actress you have is Maria Lundqvist, playing a version of herself. How easy was it to persuade her to take on this role?

She really liked the script and the idea of the coach incident, and because she is seen in Sweden as a very humanistic person who stands up for her beliefs, a person with strong morals, I thought it was extra interesting to put her in a situation where she is acting in this cowardly way. There is a 12 year-old boy who gets the blame for her breaking something, and perhaps you don't see it in the movie but the boy had Down's syndrome, so I wanted the public view of her to go in a total opposite way.

The funny thing about that coach trip is that it begins with such a stupid, trivial incident, and then it turns into this epic confrontation.

Yeah, exactly, and this is actually something that happened to a friend of mine. He was in the French Alps, and when he was on the toilet in the coach he accidentally pulled the curtain so it broke. He tried to put it up but he didn't manage, so he actually left it there and went back to his seat. A little further on the bus stopped and they got something to eat, but when they got back into the bus the driver was really angry, and even though he didn't say it, he was aiming it at a group of youngsters at the back of the bus. What I was really interested in there is that you have a couple of seconds to say "Sorry, it was me" but if you miss that chance it just gets harder and harder to confess.

You began as a documentary filmmaker. Do you feel that background has helped you as you moved into fiction filmmaking?

I think so. I think just watching existence through a camera makes you very focused on how we behave and what this very naturalistic way of acting looks like. My first feature film was called The Guitar Mongoloid and I didn't want the audience to know if they were looking at a fiction or something that was just filmed on the other side of the street. So I think it just makes you more aware of how people act, and you become more aware of all of the details.

I was reading about our production company Plattform Produktion, and I'd just like to finish by asking you about the ideas behind some of the films you're developing. It seems you're focusing on first-time filmmakers and very experimental projects.

When I made my first film The Guitar Mongoloid, critics in Sweden said it was not a real film, and they were using the word 'film' in a totally wrong way. That's because we have so many expectations of what film should be, that when it doesn't look like that we suddenly think, "Whoa, what's this?" Today, when the most powerful moving images are on the internet, we really wanted to create a production company that kind of compared to those images rather than the cinema world. We want to take this way of looking at moving images and take it into cinemas, so that's one of the things we're trying to achieve.