“I Had No Fear of Making it Too Much”: Ruben Östlund on His Cannes Palme d’Or-Winning Triangle of Sadness
Critics at Cannes were divided over Triangle of Sadness, some happily going along with its soak-the-rich ride on a yacht, others unmoved by a comic setpiece with wealthy passengers throwing up their oysters. The Competition jury, however, was crystal clear on the matter: director Ruben Östlund joined a select group of two-time Palme d’Or winners, adding this laurel to his previous one for The Square. As he did at the 2017 Cannes closing ceremony, after receiving his award, Östlund lead the audience in a primal scream. This time for the 48-year-old Swede it must felt like a relief as much of anything else, after a five-year production period that entailed a funding switch, casting across the globe, two pandemic pauses, and 22 months of editing.
Triangle of Sadness divides neatly into three parts. First, a fashion industry satire that resolves into a relationship face-off between model Carl (Harris Dickinson, one of Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats) and influencer Yaya (newcomer Charlbi Dean). Then, the notorious yacht trip, with a drunken skipper (Woody Harrelson) and casually tyrannical rich passengers (such as affable Russian manure billionaire, played by Zlatko Buric). And finally, following a pirate attack, the conundrum of survival on a tropical isle, where the pyramid of power is flipped to elevate a skilled yacht underling, Abigail (Dolly De Leon), to island capo, because she knows how to fish.
Beauty and power, realpolitik and good intentions, envy and exploitation—Östlund aims for another symphony of mortification and slapstick in three movements. At Cannes before he won his award, I spoke with the goofily engaging filmmaker about maintaining the film’s spark in each of its sections, casting Woody Harrelson, Marxism versus capitalism, and how extreme comedy fits into his films’ ambitions.
Filmmaker: I wondered whether you thought about disaster movies when writing this. We’re used to what’s going to happen in those stories—somebody’s brave, people band together. Was there anything you were trying to avoid?
Östlund: Yes, I was very scared of creating just like a “Survivor” movie on an island, because people trying to get water, fighting to make fire—we have seen this so many times. And it’s not really dealing with the setup of the island in the way that I wanted, to highlight the themes of the film. It turned out in some strange way like a Tintin setup, if you look at the colors and the characters and how they’re dressed. It becomes almost like a chess game with the cleaning lady and the rich oligarch.
Filmmaker: Tintin, because every character has their thing?
Östlund: Exactly. A very particular position.
Filmmaker: At the same time, as the real world gets worse from climate change and unrest, actual disasters and out-of-control scenarios like this could be a way of life. So with this story, are you also talking about how we might act in the future?
Östlund: That’s part of the captain’s speech, which brings in the aspect of uncontrolled, unregulated capitalism—what kind of world you have created, where the environmental toll and the extreme results affects things. It’s all part of the forces that produced the yacht and the storm and the vomiting and the shitting. It’s basically the end of Western civilization.
Filmmaker: Going out with a bang not a whimper.
Östlund: Yeah, exactly.
Filmmaker: And a lot of vomit.
Filmmaker: The captain and the Russian oligarch (Buric) have this terrific duel of quotations from Marxism and capitalism. I loved it because you don’t hear that language as prominently anymore in movies.
Östlund: That had been very present for me throughout my life. My mother became a communist in the ’60s, and she still considers herself a communist. So in my upbringing, a political discussion has been very present. The older my brother got, the more he had his own political standpoint, and he became a right-wing conservative. So during dinners at home, there was a loud discussion about politics, from an Eastern and a Western bloc perspective. I thought it was interesting to go back and look at what Reagan and Thatcher and Lenin and Marx actually said. There are some really funny quotes. The rightwing quotes are much funnier than the leftwing. The left wing is too… [grimaces] But Reagan is great: “Socialism exists only in heaven where they don’t need it, and in hell where they already have it.”
Filmmaker: Remember when he joked about launching a missile attack on the Russians?
Östlund: No, please tell me!
Filmmaker: He said it as a gag during a sound check for a radio address: “We begin bombing in five minutes.”
Östlund: But it didn’t go out?
Filmmaker: It’s on a tape somewhere.
Östlund: He had humor. I share Reagan and Zizek’s humor.
Filmmaker: So, what would be the Marxist description of your own movie?
Östlund: Our behavior is changing because of the position we have in the economical structure.
Filmmaker: What would be the capitalist description?
Östlund: [pauses] The thing with the capitalists is that that ideology doesn’t really manage to describe the world. Because with materialism, Marx was also the founder of sociology, and he goes off of the materialistic setup to describe the world. A capitalist knows about Marx because he knows how to exploit our behavior in order to make us consume. But capitalism is not really telling us something. No, it’s not explaining the world for me.
But it’s important that both Marx and Lenin thought we needed capitalism so that we can create a society where we can then add communism. So they understood the qualities of capitalism. The left-wing [today] looks at it more like a football game: “I’m cheering for the left, you’re cheering for the right.” For me, the captain and the oligarch throwing those quotes at each other is a little bit childish. We have to get to a new level where we can stop having this polarization and actually see what is good, to create equality and use the best parts of these two different ideologies. Or not “ideologies” but two different ways of discussing and thinking about the world.
Filmmaker: So you are not a cynic.
Östlund: No. Thank you.
Filmmaker: Woody Harrelson was a smart choice for the captain because he’s able to say lines that another person couldn’t pull off. How did you cast him?
Östlund: When I wrote the part and sent him the script, we had a political discussion, the two of us. I told him that this Marxist captain will say these ranting, communistic ideas through the [public address] speaker system, and passengers will be throwing up on a luxury yacht. And at the same time the captain will be superduper drunk. He was like, “Yes, I want to do this part.” And who wouldn’t!
But at the same time, it’s fiction, it’s me that’s responsible for the content of the film. Even if we agree on some political viewpoints, in the film it’s me that has written the script and takes responsibility for it.
Filmmaker: I was thinking more about his ability to casually deliver lines that might sound a bit aggressive coming from another actor.
Östlund: Yeah. Of course, it takes a person that’s very interested in these things, and he has to understand what he’s saying.
Filmmaker: Talking about the script, Charlbi Dean said things changed and grew until the end of the shoot. What was the balance in terms of scripted and unscripted—for example, the who’s-gonna-pay dinner date between Yaya (Dean) and Carl (Dickinson)?
Östlund: The dinner date scene is completely scripted, and there are other scenes—for example, the rock paintings—where part of it is scripted but their reactions are not scripted. I use a lot of the improvisation in order to understand how the script should be. And also the parts of the shoot when we’re trying out the scene in the beginning, it’s “Okay, how do you relate to the situation now that I’m looking through the camera.” I’m looking in order to say, “Do I believe in this?” So we can go through the flags [i.e., hit the marks] of where we’re going in the scene, and you’re able to add things if you want to do that. But I do so many takes, so in the end, the five last takes are very similar to each other. I hate when you see improvisation in the end result, but I use improvisation in order to get to the point where we get the sharp takes. So improvisation is part of the writing process for me. And I write as late as the day of the shooting.
Filmmaker: So you might shoot a couple takes of a scene and then use that as material and rewrite it or something like that?
Filmmaker: That flexibility reminds me of another part of your toolbox: digital compositing, which you’ve used extensively. How much did you use these techniques in this film, and where?
Östlund: In a couple of places. I think as soon as you know the technique—and also since I’m editing big parts of the film myself—you can understand how you can improve the material. So sometimes it’s possible when you have two actors there sitting on the screen, you can exchange one of the actors from another take and can glue it in, and you don’t see it. There are more scenes than you expect where the digital stitches are putting it together.
Filmmaker: Any examples?
Östlund: The one that I was thinking about now is when Carl and Nelson are accused of stealing the pretzel sticks, and Jean-Christophe and Harris are standing there [side by side]. There’s a little gap in between them.
Filmmaker: So you can do whatever you want?
Östlund: I can do pretty much what I want. But it’s a lot of work to make the timing work.
Filmmaker: You gotta synch it up. Like the old days.
Östlund: Yeah, yeah.
Filmmaker: Was the third act, on the tropical island, always that length or is there a longer version?
Östlund: There’s a longer version of everything. There was a version of the film that was basically more than one hour longer. The problem, when you have edited for one-and-half years, that everything becomes darlings. So it’s much harder to cut down.
But I did a lot of test screenings with an audience. I wanted to sit together with an audience. Since I know that it’s an unconventional structure, I knew also that if the dynamics are not working, you are going to lose energy. You are going to ask yourself at one point, where is this film taking me? So I did like five test screenings where I was participating myself, and re-cut the film, lengthened some parts, decreased a lot of the parts of the island.
I actually asked Michael Haneke for help (who I admire). He watched the film, and he said the sooner that Abigail is introduced, the better. So that part when they are in the darkness—listening to [the paralyzed woman shouting] “in die Wolken” and the animals screaming—was much longer. They started to pray together and stuff like that. Also the first shot of the film where Jorma [Henrik Dorsin] is sitting next to Yaya—all of a sudden, no competition, with a beautiful woman on a deserted island—that was much longer than before.
Filmmaker: It feels like a miniature history of humans starting over.
Östlund: Yeah, exactly. But did you see that they are praying in this version? When they’re shooting the flares, and the darkness comes in, I managed to add [praying through] the ADR.
Filmmaker: How did you select that particular location for the island?
Östlund: We were looking in Thailand at first to maybe shoot it on a more classical, stereotypical deserted island. But for budget reasons, we had to shoot the film in Europe. We got European financing for everything instead of the American financing that we thought from the beginning. We talked to a Greek producer, [a company] called Heretic who turned out to be co-producers. A friend of mine told me, I think I have the beach that you are talking about. We went to Hilladou Beach on an island called Evia in Greece. And we thought, this is working really well.
Filmmaker: I like that people seem apathetic at first. Nothing seems to happen until Abigail takes charge. How did you cast Dolly De Leon as Abigail?
Östlund: My casting director, Pauline Hansson, was in Manila. What we do when we do casting is that I often participate, and we do improvisations around specific scenes. So for example, Carl and Yaya were cast through improvisation with me, where I played Carl or Yaya against Charlbi [Dean] or Harris [Dickinson], in the bill scene. I think Dolly tried out with the situation of taking command of the group. That was the scene that she did improvisation on. Dolly is really good at playing a high-status character. She’s a high-status person herself. She has integrity, and you respect her immediately when you see her. It was interesting to see her just turn that on.
Filmmaker: Was there any challenges filming on a boat? You shot partly in interiors in New York, and partly on a very special yacht.
Östlund: We were shooting on Christina O, which is Onassis’s yacht. It’s an interesting symbol because in the film we are blowing up Christina O, which is the yacht of the Western elite of the ’60s and the ’70s. Marilyn Monroe, Churchill, Kennedy, Maria Callas, all have been there. The rich, powerful, culturally respected. The old world order. So it was basically trying to find the right angles to shoot the scenes that were planned.
Filmmaker: The vomit setpiece: how do you know when it is too much?
Östlund: I had no fear of making it too much. No fear. If it’s going to be done, it’s much better if I push it further than the audience expects me to, because then it becomes something, than if I stop before they believe. I think in the script it says an instruction: “This scene will go on so long that the audience will start to think: please save these passengers from this suffering.”
Filmmaker: I had a little pity, but…
Östlund: But you also wanted to see more!
Filmmaker: Your movies have been called satires, but with this and other sequences, it’s also a farce in a way. It seems like this movie is moves between different categories like that.
Östlund: I think that I want to become free as a filmmaker and not be too much in the art-house niche. But I don’t want to become Monty Python. I want to raise interesting questions and create a thought-provoking film, and at the same time I want to create an adult roller coaster that is entertaining to go in. And when you’re going out, you’re like, “What the fuck did I experience? Now I have to sit down and talk to someone about the movie.” I was inspired by Bunuel films in the ’70s and ’60s and Lina Wertmüller. Swept Away, for example, is a brilliant film. They were funny, witty, wild, and very unexpected when they did those films. And there was not a connection to any genre.
Filmmaker: Are you writing something now?
Östlund: Yes, and the pitch is easy. It’s called The Entertainment System Is Down, and it takes place on a long-haul flight. Quite soon after takeoff, the passengers get the announcement, “Unfortunately the entertainment system is down, “so they are doomed to hours and hours of non-digital entertainment and distraction. So they are back in this analog world where they have to deal with their own thoughts and analog socializing. And I was thinking that at the beginning they accept it, but the crew is nervous that they will be angry, so they offer them in compensation a cheese sandwich and mineral water. And that’s when they get angry!
Filmmaker: It sounds like a funny hell.
Östlund: Yeah, exactly! “Funny hell” is a good way to describe what I’m aiming with the yacht as well.