City Limits

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Following up his impressive debut, Reprise, Joachim Trier uses a Pierre Drieu La Rochelle novel and the Norwegian capital to create the beautifully somber Oslo, August 31st.

A friend and I were talking about Joachim Trier’s second feature, Oslo, August 31st, and he said, “The film wouldn’t work if it wasn’t perfect.” And then we both agreed — Oslo, August 31st is perfect. It is perfectly, beautifully realized, with an aching performance by Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie, elegant cinematography by Jakob Ihre and, most of all, the director’s remarkable ability to dramatize themes of loss but also hope.

As my friend notes, Oslo, August 31st needed to be so well-realized because its subject matter — a recovering heroin addict leaves a halfway house and struggles to regain a foothold in everyday society — might normally lend itself to uninviting despair or shallow miserabilism. Instead, there is something strangely uplifting about the film, a beauty lingering underneath its sad storyline. As with Tarkovsky, Resnais and, of course, Proust, time is Trier’s ultimate subject matter, and the clarity with which he charts its imprint on Lie’s character is heartbreaking but also thrilling.

Filmmaker readers will remember the Norwegian director from his first feature, Reprise, distributed in the states by Miramax in 2008. Lie costarred in that film, a dazzlingly edited tale of competition between two 20-something authors that felt like a time capsule of early aughts European youth culture. Fittingly, the rhythms of Oslo, August 31st are less kinetic. Set over the course of 48 hours, the film patiently follows the addict, Anders, as he tries to reconnect with family, friends, an estranged lover and to find a job. But this is not a happy Hollywood “second chance” film. As in real life, surviving resume gaps and the distrust of those who you’ve betrayed is not easy. Still, there are moments of grace if you know where to find them.

Many of those moments arise from Trier’s depiction of the town of Oslo itself. A elegiac opening montage, which cuts voiceover remembrances of growing up there to sparsely populated shots of the city, underscores the director’s understanding that time and memory are inextricably linked to a sense of place. Unfortunately, as Trier discusses below, the emotional history of Oslo has now been fundamentally altered by the events of July 22, 2011, when Anders Breivik killed eight people by car bomb in the city before slaughtering 69 more at a nearby island summer camp run by the youth division of the country’s Labor Party. Completed before but released commercially in Norway in the aftermath of that crime, Oslo, August 31st has been unexpectedly successful, its melancholic love for the city touching viewers trying to make sense of the violence suddenly imprinted upon their home.

A quickly conceived and realized feature, developed while he waited for a larger American debut to be greenlit, Oslo, August 31st confirms Trier as one of today’s essential directors. The film screens as part of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival before opening this spring from Strand Releasing.

Is Olso, August 31 your first film after Reprise?

TRIER: I wrote one in between that I’m doing now, but, yes, this is the first one. It’s a strange situation. I had gone on a long journey with Reprise — the festivals, and then it got distributed all around the world. I felt it was my first baby, so I had to go along and represent it. I think I was traveling 200 days out of the year — it was ridiculously much — and I yearned to sit down and write again. So I finally sat down with Eskil Vogt, who I co-write with, and we had a lot of different ideas, but we ended up writing a family drama called Louder Than Bombs, an American project. Things take time, and it got delayed due to some casting stuff. So, suddenly, it’s March 2010 and I’m in bed and I have the flu. I’m slightly depressed that I’m not making the American movie that year. Thomas Robsahm from the Norwegian Film Institute calls me and says, “Joachim, Bergman made two plays and a film a year. What’s wrong with you, man?” And I’m like, “Uh, you know, I have an American [project].” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s going to take time. You know how it is in the U.S. You should just make a movie.” I thought, “Darn, okay, yes. Thanks for that inspiring comment. Does that mean we should apply to you guys?” “Well, I’m hinting at you. Try to apply with something good.” So, I call Eskil. He’s having his first child in July. I say, “We have four months. Let’s just write something.” We started production a year later, and the film is done. So what happened is that [the delay of the U.S. project] facilitated a more spontaneous creative process. If I hadn’t been in that kind of pressure cooker of longing to go on set, I don’t think it would’ve happened.

And what were the origins of the story itself?

TRIER: We went back to an old idea, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s novel, Le feu follet. We only concentrated on the novel. Louis Malle made a wonderful version, but I haven’t dared see it since we decided to do this. The paradox is that when you adapt something, sometimes you dare to be more personal, and that’s pretty much what happened. I took a social environment I knew, a city that I’d grown up in, Oslo, and combined it with a very simple story from a 1931 French novel. Eskil and I discussed, “How can we push ourselves to try to learn something new?” It was scary — long takes, a closeness to one character, a different approach to his mind, entering it rather than going through montages — but it’s what I wanted.

So it was an early decision to be a little bit more muted than Reprise, to not be as flashy with the editing.

TRIER: Yes, I wanted clarity, lucidity, just a concentration on a character. I always felt Reprise was a polyphonic film, to use the musical term, while this is more homophonic. This is like one melody. It’s a little line. It is a strange thing because we have much better language speaking about story or the psychology of a character. It’s harder to have a better-developed language to talk about experiencing movies as images. I think a musical metaphor comes closer, sometimes, than anything.

And what were the more personal elements to this story?

TRIER: [The film] could be more instinctive. I trusted that if I closed my eyes [and thought], “Where should this scene be?” — Oh, that street. “How would it be to bicycle early in the morning down a particular road with the summer light of the northern countries?” Okay, let’s just do that — let’s not discuss it. We spent four years writing Reprise and four months doing this, so it was like, okay, let’s trust our instincts. With Reprise, we kept reinventing our ideas over and over. This one we said, “Let’s do a draft and then try to go on set and leave a door open to possibility.”

That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, when Renoir supposedly gave advice to Bertolucci and said, “Always keep the door to the studio open.”

TRIER: I’ll quote someone else I feel is inspiring. It’s almost the same thing. Samuel Fuller tells an anecdote. I can’t remember the movie, but he’s in a farm somewhere and there’s dialogue. There’s a couple arguing, and he sees out in the yard a chicken chasing a cat in a circle. He says, “Okay, everyone, let’s do a close-up on [the animals], and then we’ll pull back into the scene. Let’s go!” He captures that, and he says, “That’s what happens when you’re open to possibility.” What if you wrote that scene in a script? Your producer would look at it and say, “We have to train a cat and a chicken?” The scene would be scrapped. So the gift of this kind of openness — working quickly and being in the moment — is, I think, essential.

Some of this kind of random capturing of reality is complicated today because you can do so much with effects. I saw The Tree of Life in Cannes.

TRIER: I loved it. I think it’s really strong.

But at the press conference they talked about Malick’s way of working and finding the moments, such as the butterfly landing on Jessica Chastain’s hand. They said that their way of shooting allowed them to capture those moments, but then, on the other hand, there were CG dinosaurs. I wondered if the extravagance of some parts of the film undermined the purity of those other captured moments.

Image by Scott Macaulay

TRIER: I think the process makes a difference because it will have aesthetic implications, but it’s not one-to-one. It’s not a case where you could control exactly what happens but as a creative process, it can trigger certain things. It’s the same approach I have to acting. If it becomes too “in the zone,” too thought-out, too controlled, too virtuosic, it can die on you. It’s about somehow keeping a little leeway. I’m already a very — how should I say? — mise-en-scène-oriented director. I think the most personal thing I do on a film set is [think], how do I look at this? From where? In what way? What lens? What’s the light situation? And then, how does that work for the character? You know, I began at the National Film School making black-and-white arty movies about feeling alienated because I love Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. The [other students] were only looking at Ken Loach. I felt out of place, but when I got through that process, I took something with me. I stopped thinking in the dichotomy of “formal versus realism.” If you look at a film like [Loach’s] Kes, it’s pure realism, but it’s also poetry. By observing something specifically from a particular angle and in a particular way, beauty and poetry will come out. It doesn’t have to turn into kitchen-sink [realism] — it can be quite philosophical and beautiful. That is what interests me at the moment. I am very formally oriented in a way, but then I challenge that with a bit of chaos and hopefully something happens.

In terms of the story, what personal notes did it strike? It’s obviously a film about loneliness. And also, like Reprise, it captures the feeling of living in a particular city at a particular time.

TRIER: Yeah, but I think it’s such a classic tale that it could be told about any time in a different place and it would hopefully create a resonance within those surroundings and characters. Going back to it being personal, it’s important to me that it’s set in a specific setting. It’s about the kind of problems of middle-class life choices that I see around me, in people I know, that are seldom, at least in Norway, represented in cinema. How is it for a young guy who’s got a girlfriend and two kids, and then suddenly his kind of mundane life is challenged by his friend coming over and needing his help? What happens there? It’s not so much a film about drug use. Anders, this very vulnerable character, is more of a metaphor of almost being born again, of getting another chance to face yourself and the choices that you have delayed for so long that you’ve alienated yourself from your own life. I mean, that kind of loneliness. I think it’s more a film about life than about death, personally. But I think in tragedy, the catharsis doesn’t have to be happening in the character. It could happen in your relation to the piece. It’s like listening to a melancholic song where you’re having your heart broken. The song can help you feel less lonely even though it’s a terribly sad song. I see movies that way. I enjoy loneliness as well. We sit in a room together and certain films, if they’re well made, make us feel less lonely just because someone else represents and talks about it. But I can also see how people find that it’s quite a bleak story. What can I say? It’s maybe the saddest film I’m ever going to make. Another part of [the film being personal]: I grew up in Norway, and we used to skateboard. And when we all quit skateboarding, in our late teens, I started being obsessed with movies. I watched movies all day, I wanted to make them, and I saw my friends go in very different directions. Some of them are now lawyers and musicians or artists. Others, people who are very much like me, talented people with choices, have, for reasons that I’ve always pondered, became addicts, or just kind of disappeared, or ended up in strange places. This film is also about me personally asking some questions I think about like, why did that happen? What is that about? And, how could someone become so lonely? So it’s also just an exploration.

The actor, Anders Danielsen Lie, gives a beautiful performance.

TRIER: Thank you. I agree. I think he carries it.

He’s a doctor?

TRIER: He’s a doctor — a surgeon. His mom is a great actress, a stage actress, primarily, and his father is a doctor. But, yeah, he’s removing appendixes as we speak. He took six months off [from medicine] and devoted himself completely to this role, changed his own physical appearance through diet and workout. He both gained a lot of weight and looked skinnier because he wanted this kind of a druggy hipster look — a handsome, fit guy who at the same time has lived a tough life. He really worked sculpturally with himself, and also mentally. I mean, he took a long time coming out of that part, and I’m eternally grateful that he went into it that deeply.

What is your collaboration like in terms of the material? What does he bring to the development of your films?

TRIER: I think what makes him a good actor is his unique combination of intellect and emotion. He gets fueled and triggered by the themes of the film, but ultimately, it’s all about trying to find an emotional—how should I say it—interpretation of it. Because we got the money before the script was done, I could start being a director while I was writing — it could all kind of happen at once. So Anders, Eskil and I started doing a lot of research. We talked to old friends who had come out of rehab. Some of them became actors in the film. In the beginning of the film, there’s a rehab group therapy scene, and those are documentary moments. Anders contributed like that, but he also stayed out of commenting on dialogue or scenes until the script was done. And then, he made it come alive. We know each other well, and we could write for his speaking style, the way he talks, the way he behaves.

I’m probably not the first person to say this, but I thought of your film again, unfortunately, after the Oslo attacks.

TRIER: No, you’re not the first to mention it. After those events, I thought, oh, how can I release a film with that title? That was a terrible time, and things are coming back to more of a normalcy now. I can’t change the film, but the strange thing is, it’s a film about a city that’s changing, and suddenly something big and terrible changed the city. The opening of the film is a kind of a melancholic contemplation on the history of the city, and a lot of people are taking that to their heart now. I would never try to make it a selling point, obviously, but people have come up to me and said that [the film] means a lot to them, and that they’re seeing a renewed concern and care for the city. If I can be a part of that, then that’s okay.

What else would you like to say about the film?

TRIER: I thought the other day that some people have said, “Reprise is all about memories and this film is all about presence,” but I don’t know if I agree. I’ve been very, very interested in the theme of memory and identity in all my work. I’m a big fan of Alain Resnais, Nicolas Roeg and Andrei Tarkovsky — people who have worked with time structures, memory and how the mind moves through time. So, that’s one thing — an intellectual and cinematic interest. But, on another level, I used to make skateboard movies and other little videos all my life, and there’s the experience of being a part of a generation that filmed ourselves in a very direct way and how those images relates to memory and how we perceive ourselves. In a strange way, I think of those skateboard movies as being chronicles of summers. I was asked recently to screen those films again after Reprise at a cinema, and I was embarrassed. But as soon as I sat there with a lot of old friends, some people started crying because some of those guys are dead, and we have all changed. We’re older. It was the strangest experience, and it struck me that this is also what we do with [feature] films. Filming Anders in Reprise and now again filming him in a city that is developing — [they are] both also documentations that somehow play into the theme of identity and memory. The reason, for me, is that cinema is the art form of memory, so there’s a thematic connection there.

What format did you shoot?

TRIER: 35mm.

Maybe that’s another thing that affected me about the film. I’m here at the festival, and everything I’m seeing is digital.

TRIER: Yeah, I know.

And I’m not a purist at all.

TRIER: I’m not a purist either, but I tell you, with the little budget we had, what we really invested in was the image. We trained a young guy to become a Steadicam operator so we could have that as an option. I wanted grip equipment, I wanted lights, locations, the camera — all that stuff. I’m a cross generational guy in a way. I love to wrestle with a big machine to create the best images but do it in that me-and-my-gang way we learned to do after Dogme ’95. I don’t see a divide there. I hate when people say you have to choose [between low budget and shooting film]. It’s just how to wrestle the machine into a way of working where you can be very personal and private — or, not private, but specific about how you want to work with your team.

What size of crew do you work with?

TRIER: It varies. I scale up and down. We have days when we shoot with huge crews and have a lot of extras. But I’ll give you an example of how a small budget can help you find good solutions. Going back to the Sam Fuller thing, usually you lock off a street and you fight for 100 extras. It’s supposed to be a busy street, but you can only have 50. Okay, you gotta shoot close. But for this film, we just went out there. We had 15 young runners who did me a favor for two days. We had a Steadicam, the character, and we’d tell him, “Walk down the street.” And then we had people with walkie-talkies. We’d say, “The guy in the green shirt!” And the runner would run out to him and say, “Please sign a release form, you’re on camera.” We did that all the time. Suddenly, we have the real Oslo. That’s a big open door.