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Speed of Life: The Worst Person in the World Director Joachim Trier Interviewed by Mike Mills

Renate Reinsve and Herbert Nordstrum in The Worst Person in the World (Photo by Caspar Tuxen, courtesy of NEON)

“With the passing of the years, each neighborhood, each street in a city evokes a memory, a meeting, a regret, a moment of happiness for those who were born there and have lived there. Often the same street is tied up with successive memories, to the extent that the topography of a city becomes your whole life,” said French novelist Patrick Modiano in his 2014 Nobel Prize speech. Modiano was speaking of Paris, the setting of most of his novels, but his words resonate with the work of Norwegian director Joachim Trier—specifically, his loose “Oslo trilogy,” which culminates with the current The Worst Person in the World. Through the three pictures, all co-written with regular collaborator Eskil Vogt, Trier has blended geography and emotion, personal journeys with the slow-motion sociocultural shifts of his own hometown. And through the specificity of his gaze on Oslo, Trier is able to produce in us our own flashes of recognition, to trigger our own memories of the first loves, first jobs, regrets and joys that live within the sitemap of our psyches.

In the trilogy’s first picture, Reprise (2006), two friends, young twentysomething novelists, entwine their relationships with professional rivalries amidst the Oslo literary scene. In Oslo, August 31 (2011) a thirtysomething recovering addict attempts, heartbreakingly, to reintegrate into Oslo society, an effort given unexpected resonance when the film was released following the Breivik attacks. Now, after an U.S.-set family drama (Louder than Bombs) and a supernatural thriller (Thelma), Trier has returned to the intimate dramas of the Oslo films, this time with the story of 23-year-old Juliet (the captivating Renate Reinsve), who we meet as she skips through potential occupations and boyfriends in an accelerated prologue sequence. She winds up with Aksel (Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie), an older graphic novelist, and their age mismatch is something to be both breezily ignored and, in other moments, obsessed over. He wants a child, she’s not sure she does; then, there’s the generational divide between someone who’s grown up in the world of analog and a digital native. A random encounter at a party introduces Juliet to the young Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), and their first evening together—in which they explicitly, hilariously do not cheat on their respective partners—is an instant classic.

To interview Trier we asked a kindred filmmaker, Mike Mills, who also makes intimate dramas in which characters are both fully realized creations as well as recognizable products of specific places and times. In the lovely and sensitive C’mon C’mon, Joaquin Phoenix plays a podcaster whose cross-country interviews, as he is accompanied by the young nephew placed in his charge, are meditations on national anxieties as well as attempts to work out his own issues around responsibility, adulthood and personal identity. In the conversation below, Mills astutely identifies Trier’s “mongrel” aesthetic, one in which various approaches to mise-en-scène produce startling scenes of emotional intimacy as well as the excitement of knowing that in a Trier film, nearly anything can happen.

The Worst Person in the World is currently in release from NEON.—Scott Macaulay

Mills: I think we should acknowledge that we’re friends and also share some really beautiful crew people, like Olivier Coutte—who edited Beginners for me, and I believe has edited all your films—and also Kasper Tuxen, your amazing DP on this. So, first I’d like to say, I really do love how you film your city. There are many shots in your films, especially this one, of someone just looking at the city. They’re very beautiful shots, but they’re also like a theme, or an action—watching your city, looking at your landscape. There’s a hill in your new film that’s the same hill that [the character] is riding the bike down in Reprise—am I wrong? 

Trier: You’re wrong, but I like that in your imaginary Oslo these hills communicate. 

Mills: And in my imaginary Oslo, there are a lot of parties that you can see through windows and can walk into at all times. You get so much cinematic story, character and information out of just people walking the streets, and often the streets are very empty. Can you tell me a little bit about your Oslo-iness? Your Os-loneliness?

Trier: Os-loneliness. You coined a phrase! Oh my god, can I use that, please?

Mills: Absolutely. We’ll finance our filmmaking habits by making a t-shirt with that.

Trier: I remember talking with you a little while ago about how we discover things through our movies—things that people expect us to know about, but we’re actually discovering them as we’re making our films. I think that goes for a lot of creative people. That’s actually why we do it: We’re exploring. When people ask us to explain our art, it’s like explaining our face. Other people see it better than we do. We’re kind of blind to ourselves in a way. So, I feel very intuitive in my approach to my city, Oslo. I grew up here, and I look at it more like a material. I realize that I’m not a plot guy, so what do I have left? I’m into character, human stuff, the mood of place, and that’s very relative to light or time or day or the context of a story, or the context of the mood of the character. I think I know, through living in the city, how certain areas or streets at certain times of year and in certain light situations have a specific feeling that I want to show. And I want to use that as an emotional piece of material in a story. So, of course, I get terribly nervous because [Trier’s regular co-writer] Eskil [Vogt] and I load the script with all these expectations of weather and sun or rain or mood, but more or less, I manage to find something of what I’m looking for in each [location] that we choose. At the beginning of The Worst Person in the World, we’re actually tweaking a restaurant on a hill where I knew I wanted “Julie versus the city.” I wanted a shot where she’s smoking a cigarette. We later reveal that she’s at a release party for a graphic novelist boyfriend, Aksel. And the fact is, no one in the graphic novel community in Oslo could ever afford to book that place for a release party. It’s too fancy. So, that’s how I sometimes tweak the reality. [Aksel] really has to be of a certain prominence to [rent that restaurant], so there’s that sociological/cultural aspect of it. Then, I get the situation of her walking into the city.

Mills: She’s elevated over the city on a patio. The city’s in the distance, and it’s lower than her. You so often have your characters floating above a landscape that’s stretching out in front of them. We’re seeing their back, they’re looking out at it, and not to get all arty, but it has a very painterly, Munch-y quality to me—the way the protagonist is literally blended in with the environment or, as you said, the mood or feeling of a place. 

Trier: When I was at the National Film School in London, I found old English translations of Cahiers du Cinéma. There was an interesting interview from 1965, around the time Antonioni did Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert), and Godard, of all people, interviewed him. Godard asked Antonioni, “What is the relationship in cinema between the psychological and the plastic—the plasticity of cinema?” Antonioni answers, “It’s the same thing.” I kept wondering about that. It’s strange—let’s imagine that cinema is a graphic art form that moves in time, and it has plasticity, so you get a sense of space. But we also know that an image blends together a character and space and light—it’s kind of messy, as if you just poured watercolor on something. So, the psychological feeling happens both to an identification with a character in a more classical sense—“Oh my god, Julie feels lost about her life. What is she going to do?”—but there’s also just Julie being a part of her surroundings in a graphic, very literal basic sense. And so [as a director], where do you put people [in a scene]? That’s mood. You know, there are people like Antonioni or David Lynch who will be very specific or exaggerated and who are great about that. It almost becomes a sculptural art form. 

Mills: I thought of Paris, Texas, the way that the space informs the character’s mood, so let’s talk about light. You’re talking about how weather and light is so much a part of how you pre-envision the mood or feeling of a place as part of the world. I think you and I both really enjoy natural light as more than just a light source. It’s sort of like a framing of naturalism to me, like it coats the performance in a naturalistic filter, or a filter-less, view. I’m thinking about light in particular as a way to get into talking about naturalism. What is this game that we both play called naturalism? One of the crazier constructs you could do as a filmmaker is to create “a naturalistic scene,” and you have so many in this film. The acting, the performances, the whole mise-en-scène is steeped in naturalism. What’s your deal with naturalism? It trips me out even though I practice it.

Trier: I escaped the sense of naturalism early on. I hated the idea when I was young, because I liked Alain Resnais and Brian De Palma, and I thought that cinema’s just a fake construct, a seduction game. I was very young and reading French post-structuralism. Then, I realized through Tarkovsky and Bresson—and I’m sorry for getting academic—that there is a sense of presence, of events, of the momentary that you see in great works of still photography, like Cartier-Bresson, that you’ll also sense in Tarkovsky. He can make a science fiction film, like Stalker or Solaris, but when he films the leaves with a certain light on them, and the wind blowing in trees, or rain, you’ll get a sense of presence that is beyond your everyday. 

Going to the National Film School in London, I realized that showing social drama in a kitchen, in a working class home, is not the only way of approaching a sense of presence. It could be more of a phenomenological approach—like, how is it to look at your friend cry and feel lost? How is it to be in that moment? Or how is it to, early in the morning, be in love and see the light come through a window in a very specific way, then to tie that to an aesthetic in your film that transports the audience to that moment, and that could be alongside a moment which is very abstract? I think this is where you and I are curious, because we’re not social realists. I mean, in your films, you do quite abstract things. You do voiceover sequences, essayistic montages. In C’mon C’mon, you are in a way making an allegory where there’s a transcendental view on America at play. Even though you’re showing seemingly small character moments, there’s some bigger idea. You’re not interested in only showing what’s there, you’re interested in the image throwing off other ideas or themes. So, naturalism to me must be debated. It’s not like, “OK, I’ll show it as it is in most of our lives, and we’ll agree on it.” That’s the opposite of what I’m interested in.

Mills: All of your films do play with the medium itself, and I feel like you’re not wholly a naturalist at all. But there are so many scenes that are very moving, very immersive because there’s a human authenticity, a verisimilitude. But verisimilitude is kind of a tricky word for me, and I think gets into the diceyness of naturalism. When you said “presence,” that was a more profound word. And I think when you say “presence,” embedded in that word for you is a certain truthfulness in the performance or emotion of your characters, a kind of authenticity— 

Trier: A sense of an event which is at play. You’re observing a phenomenon, which is lucid, something clear, yet might also be hidden. I’ll give you an example of what I’m looking for in a performance. We both come from skateboarding; you know when someone does a late half cab back foot flip down a set of eight stairs? It takes them half a day, and the moment they land, it’s mysterious to them. To use a jazz term, how did they get in the pocket? How did it happen that time and not the other 40 times they tried it? With performers, you’re sort of fishing for these moments, when they fall a little bit out of themselves or lose themselves. 

Mills: I guess we share that—I’m always hunting for that in performances too. Is there an equivalent to that in the plasticity of cinema, an equivalence? Is there a way that you’re performing like that as a director? 

Trier: There’s a scene towards the end of the film when Aksel is at the hospital, outside on a picnic bench, grappling with a sense of what his life has been. I was very inspired by Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, [the scene] when the old cowboy sits on the rock. In the Bogdanovich film, there’s a monologue, and the sun changes—it goes slightly out of exposure and then in again, and you get a feeling of what that’s like on a summer day. On the picnic bench, we had clouds going over, and the same thing happened as we were doing quite long takes [with the camera on] tracks. The light kept changing, and you get a sense that this time is locked into a sense of destiny or something. There are all these leaves around [Aksel and Juliet], all this wind, but they’re static as if they are frozen in time. There is stuff going on that you don’t control. I don’t want to shoot a film in a green screen studio, right?

You know, I like the camera to go between being light and heavy, which to me is being modern. A lot of kids are just having a light camera—you sense that it could go anywhere, and the handheld-ness is a very minuscule shaking. Well, I like a heavy camera sometimes, and then it can be light. I like dollies, I like tracking, I like the sense of the 35mm camera, then suddenly it can be fleeting. But in this scene, it’s kind of heavy. To throw it back to you for a second, one thing you do so well in C’mon C’mon is have a very controlled mise-en-scène—we are observing from a chosen point of view, like with Antonioni, but then within the frame is the chaos of the young child and Joaquin Phoenix, who’s very alive and unexpected. 

Mills: [Laughs.] Not blocked! And that leads me to my next question. I’m curious how you figure out your coverage. We both love a nice slow track in, then you’ll go handheld quite naturally, and it all blends together. The other part that’s really interesting to me is that you do shot/reverse-shot scenes a lot. You think you’d do just a big wide two-shot, you know? That’d be the cliched European [director’s choice]. So, why do you do scenes like that? I bet some of your European friends give you shit for that.

Trier: Yes, completely. Well, I plan a lot. I put ridiculous amounts of resources into pre-production. I plan, and I spend time in the location. I make a schedule early on that I present to the production that freaks them out sometimes because it’s expensive. I say, “I need three hours there, two hours there.” I have my first AD, an assistant, the DP, the production designer, and we all block out the scenes and play together. I even brought Renate to a couple of the blockings just to get her acquainted with some of the spaces. On the day, I might change my mind completely, but we know the space and, for the sake of the performance, can move really quickly.

Mills: So, you guys, you non-actors, actually block it out?

Trier: We will block out everything, do floor plans and videos.

Mills: You kind of act it out?

Trier: Yeah. And because I’ve already had a go of it, it [gives me] the authority to suggest blockings, and the irony is that over five films I’ve never had an actor oppose my blocking suggestions. I’ll have some leeway, and sometimes they bring in something for the better. Eskil and I also are concerned with spatial movements when we write. When are [the characters] close, when are they apart? When is someone sitting [while] someone else is standing? I need to have one draft of those basic notions of emotional process. The actors can redraft it, but I need to know that I have some ideas. In every scene, there’s usually a couple of core shots, then I will create stuff around that. So, I go between the mode of quite developed mise-en-scène and shot/reverse scenes. I do both. And I am given a hard time about it, sometimes, because [shot/reverse-shot] is not the European auteur way of shooting. I used to be ashamed of it because I was into Bresson, and Antonioni and thinking you should never cut back to the same shot. But I’m cautious about the mechanism of shot/reverse-shot in terms of getting you into the intimacy, and the details of shooting—the eyelines, the microdifferences of when you cut to a listener rather than a speaker, when you do your masters in a scene. And the intensity of conversation between characters getting you to that intimate space came from my fascination with Bergman. That man shot a lot of long closeups! You see it in Dreyer, too. It’s a big Scandinavian tradition. The “Renoir, La Regle due Jeu blocking-in-depth, coming around the corner, into the kitchen, out into the living room, just panning with the camera” [style]—I adore that, but there are certain things you can’t access with that type of mise-en-scène. So, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to be with [my characters] very intimately, and I’m going to combine that within the same piece of cinema with very abstract, montage-y things, or big spatial sequence where there’re no closeups. Then, I will also try to get my films distributed for big screens around the world where the closeup is a magnificent cinematic possibility.

Mills: Do you think that’s because you are more interested ultimately in inner emotional life and the psychology of the characters? The guys who do [that style] do tend to be a little emotionally removed, or a little—I’m just doing to say it—emotionally not interested. 

Trier: Or they access it differently.

Mills: I think it’s a very protective, masculine thing.

Trier: Interesting, because the part of my vanity I’m trying to shake off through my five films is the “big train set,” you know? 

Mills: What do you mean?

Trier: [Filmmaking] as having the greatest train set in the world—all the big tools, dealing with very large mechanics. When it’s fluid, like Fellini, I adore it, but there are a lot of people muscling up on their mise-en-scène. So, I take to heart what you are saying. 

Mills: There’s another part of your filmmaking that breaks expectations, which is the kind of mongrelness. You have a real talent for what you are calling presence, and I’m calling an ability to capture naturalistic scenes, where you believe in the authenticity of what’s happening between two people. But then, you do these setpieces that are very surreal and breaking form, like when [Juliet] is on mushrooms. And there are beautiful and surprising trips into animation. 

Trier: I’ve had this longing to do something musical without people breaking into song and dance. I’m a music buff, constantly listening to music, and the world sometimes becomes musical in front of you, in a strange way. Eskil and I collaborate well here, and [these types of scenes and sequences] are our little rebellion against our superegos. It’s like saying, “We want to be free!” If you look at my films, a lot of them are about people who are quite proper and polite, who want to do the right thing, who really want to find their freedom while knowing that freedom is a cliché. How do you play? How do you feel free? How do you feel at ease with yourself in a world that has a lot of expectations? And that’s something at play in me also as a guy in my forties, you know? Through the Aksel character I’m sort of killing off here, [or] turning a page in my life, or a part of myself that I know and enjoy, and trying to move forward.

Mills: I think you just nailed it. What you just said—that you have a desire to be free from your own jails, from the family/culture/soul-constructed prisons that we put ourselves in—that’s a real need, a real hunger you’re working out in cinematic language, not just through dialogue. And that’s exciting. When a filmmaker puts their innermost problem in a film, that electrifies it—the stakes go up so much, even if [that problem is just] about making your bed, you know? [laughs] So, you just said how important music is to you and that often you’re walking through the world, and the world becomes music. I was really taken, especially in your prologue and epilogue, by the wall-to-wall music thing you were doing, going from one song to another. The film did feel like it was getting up on the edge of becoming a musical at times. What’s that about? 

Trier: I want to grow, and I feel that sometimes I’ve been too scared to incorporate music that’s not score music. In Reprise, I managed to do it, then I kind of didn’t for a while. What’s the Air video you did with the skater kids?

Mills: “All I Need.” 

Trier: You know how it’s like a musical but also a documentary? I like how you didn’t have to stylize everything to make it a musical. I really admire the way music is used in High Maintenance, the HBO show—how they just drop in all different kinds of music. Arnaud Desplechin is someone who layers jazz, classical, pop or hip hop all at once. Then, there’s the importance of Martin Scorsese when it comes to use of music. He’s the master of using contemporary source music to just make it swing. I always want to be one of those people, so in the first conversations with the producers, I said, “I need a proper music budget.” And I said to Olivier, the editor, “You have to really up this and go with me on a journey.” And he got it. 

Mills: I can imagine him really loving [that direction]. But why is there so much source [music], back to back almost, in the prologue and epilogue?

Trier: It’s more about the music representing emotion. Also, in the prologue and epilogue I wanted the audience to agree not to fall into too much sense of presence. The film will race along in the prologue. I tried many things, because the film wasn’t written like this. It was supposed to be a film that started with a long present-tense scene, where [the audience] is very much in [the character’s] situation. It didn’t work, so we ended up flying through musical chaos, trying to find a way to represent the character in a slightly tongue-in-cheek [way]. She’s changing her hair, her boyfriends and her jobs, flying through her twenties. There’s that feeling at that time of your life, when you find a new favorite band every three months—[the prologue] has that feeling of fragmentation and movement that shoots us into the film. At least, that’s my idea of what I did. It’s not very “smart,” it’s more like “pure aesthetic.” And the section in the middle where time freezes and she runs around Oslo—I remember watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when I was quite young. I went to see it time and time again, and when he sings “Twist and Shout” in the middle of Chicago, and we don’t know whether it’s real or imagined, and all of Chicago is dancing around—maybe I’m just a mad narcissist, but I thought it was fantastic, how we were allowed to go on a journey with a character and just be in his world for a moment.

Mills: That’s another one of these very underdetermined things, which I find the hardest things to pull off—to be undetermined and not just have the film die out. It reminded me of [Ermmano] Olmi, like in I Fidanzati when they’re writing those letters at the end. Is this their dream, or is this in the past or the future? When a film can make you have all those questions but you’re still on enough of the railroad tracks of the film, that’s quite a good trick. 

Trier: You got me to watch Lovefilm by István Szabó.

Mills: Amazing time play there.

Trier: And the idea of the histrionic, of the imaginary being an equal part of an identity—I think it’s the aunt who keeps telling stories of the great past of historical events. I like that in cinema, you can have the imaginary and, for lack of a better term, a “real” level at the same time playing along within a story. 

Mills: I love your intermittent narration. It added energy and made me lean into what’s going on. It felt very Godard to me. It just pops up, but like, why now? I’ve tried this myself, where you hear what [characters] are saying and that’s doubled by narration. Was this in the script or was it something you discovered in the edit?

Trier: It was in the script, and we added it in the edit. During Reprise, we did a lot of this. In films like Soderbergh’s The Limey, Alain Resnais’s La Guerre est Fini or Hiroshima Mon Amour, there’s the sense of a literary level that becomes cinematic. It doesn’t feel like literature at all, rather the opposite. It plays with the present-tense performance element of the film. Nicolas Roeg, as well, is someone that I, Eskil and Olivier have been tremendously inspired by. So, we wrote some of these things and tried to make them specific. Like, in the breakup sequence, there is a moment when the voiceover is saying things ahead of Julie, as if it’s her mind fumbling and not maybe being quite present. It becomes, I hope, a psychologically identifiable feeling that we might all have gone through, almost like you’re hearing your voice outside of yourself. 

Mills: Sometimes, when you’re in a big moment in your life, you almost feel like you’re in a cliche of language, some neurological rut or cultural form you can’t get out of.

Trier: Well put!

Mills: And that was really what [the breakup scene] felt like, because a breakup is bigger than you can conceive when you’re in the middle of it, and you kind of fall back on all these tropes.

Trier: You play a role suddenly.

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