“I Have One Camera Position Each Day”: Force Majeure Director Ruben Östlund
Structurally, tonally and formally indebted to Roy Andersson — not least in opening and closing to the sardonically mournful strains of Benny Andersson’s “Briggens blåögda blonda kapten,” along the lines of the other Andersson’s ever-present ambient musical commentary — Ruben Östlund’s second feature Involuntary lays out five situations in which people behave contrary to how they should. The entire thrust of Östlund’s multi-film project is summed up early, with an elementary school classroom recreation of Solomon Asch’s conformity experiment. A subject is asked to identify which line of several on a cardboard display is the longest. Everyone in the room says the shortest line is the longest, and the subject — pressed by group consensus, despite its nonsensical nature — agrees. We’re all products of external social pressures that conflate and conflict with our genetically conditioned urges (to belong, to save face); if we understand both factors, maybe we can confront them head-on.
Östlund traffics in grim, Haneke-esque determinism, but he’s got a much better sense of humor (i.e., he has one) and a more adventurous sense of craft pushing beyond the presumably automatic rigors that come with the master shot style. (It’s also a mode he’s disrupted with conspicuous use of digital panning and zooming within the frame, as discussed below: more so in Play, very little in Force Majeure. He’s nothing if not a purely digital era filmmaker.) Involuntary is five case studies of human frailty; sloughing off Andersson’s spirit, Play and Force Majeure home in on specific situations. It’s here that the idea of honestly confronting things difficult to discuss unheatedly treads into legitimately troubling territory, in the way that the rhetorical position “Don’t be mad, I’m just being honest” can often serve as a cover for something more nefarious.
A nervousness-inducing movie about black teens robbing white ones and getting off the hook because society is too politically correct to name them as the culprits, Play is, to my mind, pretty much quasi-racist, but it’s immaculately made, which makes it troubling and compelling enough to merit serious consideration; when this kind of argument is presented so formally adeptly, it’s harder to dismiss than yet another Media Matters-highlighted example of clueless grotesquerie. Force Majeure, Östlund’s first feature to receive US distribution, observes the fallout after family man Tomas flees from an avalanche fast approaching a ski lodge’s balcony, leaving his family to fend for themselves. When the avalanche stops well short of the ledge, he returns sheepishly, and the film follows the psychic fallout from his dereliction of responsibility.
This is the kind of prescriptive filmmaking that can make people nervous or simply upset. If Play is questionable racial representation-wise, then Force Majeure traffics in what could look like gender essentialism. I struggle with Östlund’s conclusions, but there’s no denying his stellar sense of craft and perfectly timed, never overegged black humor; craftwise, he’s one of the most regularly pleasurable filmmakers working right now. The subject of a currently touring 15-city retro, Östlund talked with me about his near-Fincherian working methods, the politics and business of Swedish filmmaking and why he hates American standard script format.
Filmmaker: Did you begin your training on digital?
Östlund: I started as a ski filmmaker before I went to film school. I started almost when the small DV camera came, so for five years I filmed skiing on the Sony VX1000. I’m brought up almost only with VHS cameras or DV cameras or digital cameras. I filmed a little, little bit on 16mm, but not much, when I was shooting skiing.
Filmmaker: How did you get into making ski films in the first place?
Östlund: I was interested in skiing and watching a lot of ski movies. The films that I have seen the most are probably ski movies. My dedication for skiing was the start of filmmaking, but then the skiing got less interesting, I thought, and that’s when I tried to be accepted to film school.
Filmmaker: In an interview I read with you, you said there’s two camps in Sweden: people who admire Roy Andersson and people who admire Bergman. Is that just because there’s not enough of a broader Swedish canon to draw on?
Östlund: That conflict actually started with another director, Bo Widerberg, who was always trying to make a standpoint by saying things against Ingmar Bergman, saying “Look at things in another way.” He loved to have conflict with Bergman. That is maybe more of a mental thing that divides the Swedish film industry, but it’s still there. People really admire and work with Bergman’s films even today. They are not very happy about my work and Roy Andersson’s work, because we are on the same side of the film industry, and that’s funny.
From the beginning, it was about politics. A group of young directors were so provoked that Bergman was only doing those bourgeois films taking place in bourgeois environments and didn’t deal with the conflict going on in the world in the ‘60s. He didn’t do anything about the Vietnam War, he didn’t do anything about the ’68 movement in Paris and so on. The White Match is exactly where that started. Bo Widerburg, Roy Andersson, a producer called Kalle Boman I work a lot with that I think is the most important person in Swedish film today — he’s like a mentor for everybody doing interesting things in Sweden now — they were doing this movie about Rhodesia. Their team was supposed to play a tennis game in Sweden. [The film was] covering the protest against that game. It was this young generation revolting towards Bergman, and Bergman was very upset that they did that film.
Filmmaker: When you got out of film school, you and your longtime producer Erik Hemmendorff started a production company. How did you go about setting up that company, and did you see that as necessary to making the films you wanted to make within the constraints of the Swedish film industry?
Östlund: Erik was also in film school and was studying to be a director. We got to know each other after film school, because he was one year under me. I think we had the same kind of view of what we wanted to do. A lot of the other students that went to film school were trying to go to a producer and ask them if they could do a movie, and the producer just used their project as something to get developing money. They were using the project to finance their production company, and these directors put three, four or five years into a project that just didn’t happen. We didn’t want to end up in that situation.
We also started this production company to have control. If we are saying that we are going to make a film, that is our decision. When we are trying to get the money, we are not asking for it. We say, “We are going to do this film, do you want to be in it or not? You will miss the train if you don’t jump on the train.” We really wanted to take control over not ending up putting so much energy into something and then the film never happens.
Also, we were young and we wanted to make new films. We wanted to find a new way of expression that we thought other films were lacking. We also decided that if we have a film we are interested in, the production [schedule] should be made out of the content and not vice-versa. So often you have content, but then you just put it into the same production machinery as everything else, and what’s coming out of that production machinery in the end is quite similar to all the other films. We wanted to have the ability to change how we produce the films because of what we were interested in when we started.
Filmmaker: On Involuntary you filmed two completed segment and took them to market to get financing for the rest, and you had an outline rather than a completed script. How do you work on developing and expanding the script throughout production?
Östlund: On The Guitar Mongoloid, I had one page, like a treatment, and then I had Post-It notes where I said what I wanted to film. When it came to Involuntary, I had a storyline for all five different stories. When I wrote Play, I wrote the whole script, but more like a novel almost. When I wrote Force Majeure, it was the same thing. That’s actually been published as a book in Sweden in December. [You can take a look at a few pages of the book here, complete with Östlund’s illustrations.]
I think one of the most boring things I know is to read scripts in American standard format. I can’t stand reading them. I can’t get what they want to do with the scenes, it’s so boring. I’d rather write in a more literary way, I guess, and really try to find out exactly what is interesting about the scene and try to highlight that. If there’s something that the characters are thinking about, I can write one page about what they are thinking just to try to get to know, what am I aiming for when I am shooting this scene? Afterwards, you can make a storyboard with pictures and things like that, but I have a hard time working with American standard scripts.
Filmmaker: Do you develop dialogue in rehearsal?
Östlund: Yes and no. Sometimes there’s dialogue I know from the beginning that they’re going to say, because the dialogue in itself is what I’m interested in. I fall in love with some sentences, like “Isn’t there any Parmesan cheese?” and then puff – the avalanche! When you put that sentence next to the avalanche, then it makes it really humorous in a great way. A lot of the time, I have a situation that is quite clear. When we are doing casting, I ask the actors, “How would you deal with this situation? How would you behave? What would be possible for you if you were put in this situation?” When someone says something that’s brilliant, I steal it and put it into the script. But even when we are shooting, I reconsider the script and rewrite. It’s a process that goes on during the whole period of production.
Filmmaker: So how long does production take? I assume that it could take a while and is built into your budget.
Östlund: Three years for the whole production. One year of shooting, maybe, but it’s staggered throughout the year. 60 shooting days have been the average for me.
Filmmaker: That’s a lot of time. Do you do reshoots of entire sequences?
Östlund: I reshoot sometimes, but mostly I do it like this: I don’t want to put all my time when it comes to moviemaking to moving the camera around. Most productions are like, “Oh, we have to move the camera, we have to go to another angle,” and you don’t even have time to concentrate on the image and what’s happening in front of the camera. What I do is, I have one camera position each day, maybe two, just focusing on what’s in front of the camera, working with the image. The set designer can work with it, and the lighting designer can work with it, and the actor can take risks in the beginning. They can try out things they wouldn’t have done if they had a short shooting time on that scene. Then we rehearse and we do it over and over and over again. Maybe I have an average of around 40 takes on the scenes. When we are at the end of the day, I say, “Now we have five takes left. Everybody ready? Now we have to concentrate.” I’m trying to build up the intense feeling of, this is an important football game. We have to win it! Everybody has to do their best now. OK, four takes left! Three takes left! Very often, the best takes is one of those five last takes.
Filmmaker: Did you do still photography before you were a filmmaker?
Östlund: A little bit, but I wasn’t good at it. I think I would be a better still photographer today. For me, it’s definitely trying to find the right image and trying to compose it in a way that it says something, almost like still photography. The image in itself should communicate something to me that’s more than the plotline and dialogue. For me, it’s trial and error. If you know you’re going to shoot an avalanche, OK, how will we shoot it in the most dramatic way? Will it be interesting from this angle? No? Well, maybe here is more interesting. Then I think of what in the scene is important. Can those moments, those things fit into that scene? Will it be visualized? It’s a very practical way of working. We spend a lot of time location scouting, a lot of time on each scene trying to find the best angle and best camera position.
Filmmaker: Do you decide what the camera position is before starting to work with actors for the day?
Östlund: Yes, but sometimes you have to reconsider when you are on the set. There are many aspects that change when you get on set.
Filmmaker: In both Involuntary and Play, you have a shot/scene where you put the camera on the fixed middle segment of a moving vehicle — a tram in Play, a bus in Involuntary — while the rest of the vehicle is moving around it. The movement of the actors and their visibility on these moving parts in relation to the camera is very precisely timed. Is that a lot more work for you?
Östlund: It happened by accident in Involuntary. It happened in one of the takes, and it happened to be the best take. We were so lucky. When we started to work on Play, I wanted to use one of those digital pans in that scene, but the d.p. really didn’t want to do that in that scene, so he came up with that suggestion. We knew we had a certain route we would go with the tram, round and round and round, and we could time it. Here it’s going to turn, and it will make the camera movement by itself, so he made the suggestion that we solve the scene in the same way as we did in Involuntary.
Filmmaker: How do you plan the use of this digital pan? Do you map it out before shooting?
Östlund: It started with Incident by a Bank. I made a reconstruction of a failed robbery attempt that I was an eyewitness to. It was shot with one fixed camera angle, and it was a choreographed scene. When we started to use zooming and panning digitally afterwards, then we could control the real-time aspect of it. If I zoomed into that part of the picture and then panned over, then I could go to another take. That was scarily precise when it comes to movement. If a cameraman had done that, it would be like, “How many days have you spent to make this work?” So it was a fantastic possibility for controlling the real-time aspect.
I was inspired by a YouTube clip, Battle at Kruger, for the opening scene of Play. The buffalos are coming here, and the camera is panning over, and the lions are here. Then it’s panning back, and we’re so aware of the lions even though we’re not focusing on them anymore. I wanted the same focus on the robbers and the victims in the opening scene of Play. OK, here we have the victims — panning over — here we have the lions — panning back, almost like a nature film perspective on what’s happening. It felt like the right way of dealing with the content of Play, a distant, voyeuristic way of looking at events that take place in the film.
For Force Majeure, I had to step closer to the characters. I had to get into their heads, because so much of the drama is taking place inside the characters, this emotional conflict all of them have to deal with. For me, it was a big challenge because suddenly I had to focus on a face, and I always thought that the face was not very interesting. I always thought that bodies related to other bodies are the interesting things in an image. But I’m happy about Force Majeure, because now I also think that faces can be a little bit interesting, sometimes.
Filmmaker: Was the digital panning enabled by higher resolution cameras becoming available?
Östlund: It was when the 4K came in, so the higher resolution helped. Also I did everything in Final Cut, both on Incident by a Bank and Play. Someone in a post-production company said to me, “Hey, you should try out this technique. Maybe it will be useful for your style of filmmaking.”
Filmmaker: Can you tell me a little bit about the Benny Andersson song that opens Involuntary?
Östlund: I think I wanted something ironical that highlights…yeah, I don’t know what to say about it. Life is hard and we have to deal with it, and still it’s not that tragic. It’s OK.
Filmmaker: The reason I ask is because of course Andersson is known as part of ABBA, and it’s funny that you’re almost giving us an ABBA song, but actually more a by-product.
Östlund: Maybe you’re right. What I really like about Force Majeure is that I have put the kind of content in in an environment that we only think of very commercial movies dealing with. I think that is maybe the mixture between me and ABBA rather than Involuntary.
Filmmaker: Your movies are very explicitly concerned with social conditioning, gender roles, and other topics that are difficult to discuss politely. When you started making movies, were these preexisting interests you were thinking about that you wanted to develop onscreen, or did you discover that this is what you were interested in when you started making films?
Östlund: I think I discovered this is something I’m interested in. Of course, it has to do with my upbringing and film school. Both of my parents are teachers. My mother was really into questions about politics and society. Also, you know the Solomon Asch experiment with the lines in Involuntary: that character is based on my mother. She did those experiments with her pupils in third grade. So it’s about my background, but also about contemporary cinema, because I think contemporary cinema in so many ways is just reproducing something that only exists in a cinema universe. There are so many films that deal with topics and themes we have seen so many times before. I think if we look at systems more from a sociological perspective, then we also create understanding for those who do bad things, as well as those who have the possibility to act in a better way. A lot of Anglo-Saxon cinema, you have a character who’s standing for good beliefs and the right thing to do, and then they meet an anti-protagonist, and in the end the good things win. I rather try to highlight the mechanisms of being a human being.
Filmmaker: Do you believe that under the correct or incorrect circumstances, anyone could be found to be guilty of some kind of failings within themselves which they can’t articulate?
Östlund: Sure. One of the things we are most afraid of as human beings is to lose our identity and lose face in front of each other. For example, when Tomas starts to lie and say “I didn’t run away from the avalanche,” it’s because he’s afraid of losing his identity as a man and someone who protects his family. I think if we have a reference of someone else dealing with the same mechanism, it makes it a little easier for us to say, “Hey, I’m sorry. I ran. I freaked out. I wish I did it in another way, but I didn’t,” and it will be easier for us to handle that situation if we have some experience of it. But if you look at cinema, you can say that 99% of all male characters in film are the man as a hero, as someone standing up and protecting his family as an outside threat. So we don’t have references for other kind of behavior. Then we become ashamed of our own reactions, but when it comes to reality — when the survival instinct comes in — we are not acting in a rational way anymore. We are not in control of our actions.
Information about the traveling retrospective can be found here.