A New Sound, a New Feeling: Writer/Director Joachim Trier on Louder than Bombs
In Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs, Isabelle Huppert plays Isabelle Reed, a celebrated war photographer who, three years before the movie begins, has died, not while on assignment but in a car crash just miles from her home in upstate New York. Her absence in the family is very much a presence in the film. She’s seen repeatedly in flashback, and her death — a suicide, the fact of which has kept from her youngest son, Conrad, a withdrawn player of online roleplaying games essayed with compelling sullenness by Devin Druid — is the fulcrum by which the other actors revolve around each other. They include Gabriel Byrne’s Gene — hesitant in all matters, from understanding what’s wrong with Conrad to navigating an affair with his pretty high school teacher, played by Amy Ryan. And there’s Jesse Eisenberg’s Jonah, the oldest son and a new father in emotional flight from the maturity childrearing is about to impose upon him. The film takes place in the days leading up to a gallery retrospective and New York Times appreciation of Reed’s work, an event that will coax the secret of her suicide from the shadows as well as expose other faultlines in a family history that is very much still, for each of its members, a work in progress.
Like Trier’s previous films — Reprise and Oslo, August 31st — Louder than Bombs is a film about time, its passing, and about thought. There is no other director alive who so thrillingly and inventively captures on screen the mental processes by which we define and continually redefine ourselves. If such processes led to, for its recovering addict protagonist, heartbreaking failure in Oslo, August 31st, here, Trier captures characters at a liminal moment as they try to open a new chapter. Exploding (sorry!) the formal confines of the staid American family drama prestige picture, Louder than Bombs also contains several astonishing montages, each from the point of a view of a different character, in which photography, YouTube clips, RPG gaming, fantasy are used by characters as they attempt to understand and to narrativize themselves.
It was several years ago that I last spoke with Trier, when Oslo, August 31st played the Toronto Film Festival. Sitting with him earlier this week in a quiet Soho backyard on a rather beautiful day, we talked about this film’s difficult production history, why this film had to be set in America, and the imperatives facing directors today.
Filmmaker: How are you doing?
Trier: I’m fine, actually. It’s weird. This film was shot in New York one-and-a-half years ago and here we are, back premiering, and it’s kind of beautiful. I miss New York. It’s almost melancholic, being back here. I got to know this city. The film was prepped, and then went away because of some financial issues, and then, again, the next year, was prepped again, so I spent, actually, a lot of time in New York. I think it was good that I came twice, in a strange way. It was painful as hell at the time, but I got to do proper research and really engulf myself and feel like I had a life here for a while.
Filmmaker: How do you think that affected the final film, the fact that the film went up, you prepped, and then you had to shut down?
Trier: We got to refine it, actually. I don’t want that to happen again, because it’s painful for other reasons. It feels like you almost lose a year of your life. But, still, all the actors got very invested. We didn’t know if it would come [together] again. Isabelle called me a lot and said, “This is an amazing script. Let me help.” The French came together. The Americans put in more, and the Norwegians. Everyone came in with more cash. And the actors clung on. It was a little bit dramatic because Jesse then was doing Batman vs. Superman, so there was a moment when we were like, “Shit, he’s not going to be able to do it.” But then, he kindly spoke to the people at Warner, who were very nice and said, “We’ll help you figure this out. It means a lot to Jesse.” And he pushed, and they gave us four or five weeks, and then we consolidated his part of the shoot. It’s making movies, man. I’ve done three films in ten years, but I’ve never written a script that didn’t happen. That’s quite unique. When I say I want to do a film, it happens. That’s my thing, and I don’t want to break that. I’m terribly superstitious. So I thought there for a while that I would lose this film, and it’s so full of what I think are good formal ideas to express damn personal stuff. There’s this illusion that because I shoot in Oslo, [the Norwegian films are] more personal, but when you create characters for story [like this], it gets personal.
Filmmaker: When you say there’s certain formal elements that express personal ideas, how would you articulate those?
Trier: For example, there’s a diary scene that’s like a ranting teenage mind going off on a representation of who [Devin Druid’s character] sees himself as, and that he wants to show to a girl so she will love him. If you look at it closely, it’s a lot of teenage stuff. But if you take a step back, a lot of it deals with eroticism and death, which are big themes in this film and, let’s be honest, the big things in life. And it deals a lot with the dead mother, and a way forward for these three men, with Isabelle Huppert’s character looming in the background. How will they create new relationships? What existential implications will [her death] have on their view on themselves?
I remember as a kid, I once recorded my parents arguing on a tape recorder I had. They went through some [difficulties], and I recorded them without their knowing. I was seven, and I recorded it because I wanted to [play] it when I was older and had a girlfriend so she would know the pain I felt. [The tape] was very one-to-one [with my emotions.] Then the tape was lost, and my parents became friends again. Life moves on, you know?
But that notion that [I had] as a young person — that to be honest, on some deeper level, is why I think a lot of us keep telling stories. But I like the way that stories transfer, and how they are not one-to-one. This is also why I don’t like to talk about my private life in interviews. I’m doing the meta thing, now, I just realized — I’m actually talking about this with you because I know you! But in Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost, the last Zuckerman book, [Roth] makes a really beautiful point about the infinite complexity between the creative mind, the life lived and the art created, and how there’s an urging. In our society right now, everyone wants things to be authenticated by a one-to-one relation, as if we’re worried that we’re wasting our time if someone has imagined something. I think, ultimately, the way we express ourselves through what we create as groups — we are also group creating [films] — can be incredibly personal without being biographical or private.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you about that diary sequence. In all of your films, going back to Reprise, you have these montage sequences that are very much about memory and that express a character’s attempts at self-definition, or articulating themselves, through different cultural signs or references. In this film, you have YouTube and online roleplaying games.
Trier: And documentary and war photos. I’m trying to express characters in different generations in their family, to show their stream of consciousness, almost. What you’re looking at, what you’re searching for [online] reveals a lot about who you are, particularly with the little brother in the family, I think. But also, there are a couple of essayistic moments with Isabelle Huppert that ponder about how to represent people in conflict, how to convey their stories, which is, of course, analog with the film itself, to a certain extent. So [these sequences] gave me an opportunity to talk. Again, I want to play with open cards with my audience.
Filmmaker: With open cards?
Trier: You know, like an open deck of cards. I want [the audience] to be included in my thinking when I create a story, and I hope [by doing that I] draw them into themselves, paradoxically. With this film, more than any others I’ve done, people in Berlin, in Paris, in L.A. are experiencing it very subjectively, very differently. One person talks about how it is to be a mother and working a lot and feeling guilty about that. Someone else talks about having just become a parent like Jesse, and the panic of all that stuff. Someone talks about their adolescence and how complicated it was. Or being a parent when his 15-year-old doesn’t want to talk to him anymore. I mean, all those things are at play, and that’s what’s fun about this one. It’s a prism, hopefully.
Filmmaker: It’s almost a fractured point of view.
Trier: Yeah, it’s fractured. It’s like the mosaic kind of, yeah.
Filmmaker: I supposed you could say that the point of view is the family’s, but not really because it’s a broken family.
Trier: It’s a broken family, to some extent.
Filmmaker: What’s that famous Chekhov quote, “All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in a different way”?
Trier: Yeah, that’s marvelous. But are there any really happy families? Yes and no — all families are happy at some point, usually.
Filmmaker: How do you make a family on screen?
Trier: Yeah, well, it’s different things that are difficult. I mean, first of all, the first draft [of the screenplay], you put them up against each other. You need to see that there is a relay of emotions and transferred things that go from one generation to another, and that becomes really interesting. What are the children taking from the parents? And in what way are they dealing with [those things]? There’s something very analog between Jesse and his mother, [played by Isabelle Huppert], in the film. Then you’ve got to cast them so they look the same. That’s really tricky. To reveal the logic, it’s that the two brothers look very similar, and the younger brother is dealing, in terms of conflict, with the father. So we see them look alike. And Jesse and Isabelle have the same coloring. So that works.
Filmmaker: I interviewed Isabelle a few weeks ago, and we talked about rehearsal. She said that on a lot of films, she has zero rehearsal. She just walks on. She told me that you liked to do rehearsal and that she thought it was because your actors were coming from all these different places.
Trier: That’s true. But I do that in Norway, too. I don’t use rehearsals to nail the scenes, you know? [The actors and I] get to know each other, and we explore stuff. I film it all the time, and we then then rewrite little bits and pieces. It’s inspiring. It’s fun to get to know the actors and see their takes. And I want them to have backstory and a sense of where they’re coming from. They used [rehearsal] very differently. Isabelle and I worked in detail on several of the scenes, and also to nail her English, so that [her character] would be a person who was honestly French but speaking English.
Jesse didn’t want to be friends with anyone because he wanted to be the slight antagonist in the family. So he came in and behaved a little bit tough against Gabriel. And Gabriel, who’s the most endearing, wonderful, warm person, reacted immediately like Gene, [his character], would and tried to kind of understand him and be nice. And it was perfect. They both felt it because they’re good actors — “Oh, this is functioning. Let’s not do too much rehearsal. Let’s go on set.” I put aside a lot of rehearsal time for Devin Druid and I, but it turns out he is incredibly smart and experienced and has good instincts. I mean, you might imagine someone of that age would be just spontaneous, but he’s very, very precise, and he has this incredible ability to sustain [painful] emotions for a day.
Filmmaker: The balance of the film in the final version, after post-production, is it a similar balance between the characters that you had at the script level? Or did it change a lot, with one character or another becoming more or less prominent?
Trier: It’s a similar balance. But, no, a lot of stuff was left on the cutting floor.
Filmmaker: More than the other films?
Trier: Yeah. I mean, you never know what you need. There was a huge opening sequence with a barn burning in a big field. It was a dream sequence for Jesse’s character, and it was beautiful in and of itself. It was sort of like a Terrence Malick fire. But figuring out the opening of this film took a while, and ultimately, just the close-up that I got almost randomly of a newborn baby’s hand clutching Jesse’s finger, was ten times more powerful than all the pyrotechnics in the world. And that’s my job, to say, “Sorry, everyone. We’ve got to leave that on the cutting room floor.” And what can I do? You’ve got to make the best film. You’re there for the movie.
Filmmaker: In terms of moving yourself from Norway to America to make this film, did you think of this material as being particularly American? Because I could imagine a version of this film set in Norway. Simply by telling this story in America, in New England, it brings up comparisons in American viewers. I put it alongside films like Ordinary People or The Ice Storm — this “family tragedy” genre.
Trier: Yes, from the beginning. I’m interested in that tradition of good character dramas. I’m interested in the Woody Allen films like Interiors and Another Woman, and in John Hughes’ way of looking at teenagers, particularly in The Breakfast Club. I probably saw that 20 times when I was a kid. I mean, what happens a lot to that type of movie, with the autumn leaves, [set in] either Chicago or New York, with communication problems within family, a lot of that has just become melodramatic. I wanted to try to spark a new formal approach to that type of human story that I grew up loving. I think some people are under the impression this is going to be kind of a cheap film filled with people sitting around in a house crying. But we are in different countries. We are in CGI universe. We are in dream sequences. We are in a videogame world. I mean, I wanted to formally approach it the opposite way. I don’t know if we’ve been good enough at conveying that to the audience before they see it, but a lot of people are quite shocked by what they get to see, because it’s not just dialogues and pondering — that could have been a stage play kind of movie, but it’s the opposite.
Filmmaker: So you wouldn’t have thought of putting this somewhere else?
Trier: No, to me, it’s a New York film, or at least American. It’s also a “coming home” story, from a land that’s been at war now for 15 years. And there’s sort of parallel culture of amazing journalism [in America]. This is a country where there are still being printed deep journalistic pieces, where real good conflict journalism is being appreciated. You could say the same about certain places in Europe as well, but I just felt that this film, it’s about how people drive cars upstate and what happens in those cars. It’s about someone living in the suburbs of New York with photo agencies like Magnum [here in the city]. I know people like that in New York, in Nyack. That feeling — there’s something about it.
Filmmaker: What surprised you about making a film here in America, in terms of the process?
Trier: That there are different unions for production design, on-set dressing and props.
Trier: That’s pretty confusing. But we got through it. And I’m very happy about the team. It’s the best team I worked with, ever, I think. But damn, there are a lot of union rules that I needed to learn quickly.
Filmmaker: Like who can move what?
Trier: Who can move what, who can touch what chair and lamp, and who do I talk to about what. A friend of mine was checking in with me from Oslo, and I was like, “Fuck, man, every day on set it’s like I’m at Coachella with all these tents! It’s like a musical festival is getting erected every day. It’s ridiculous and kind of fun.” There’s the snack van and the catering, and they are two different departments, and you’ve got to have [both].
Filmmaker: Was there a development process that this script went through on the American side?
Trier: Yeah, we got some notes. Albert Berger gave some wonderful script notes, and the other producers, too, actually. But Eskil and I have our own development process with our own consultants, usually.
Filmmaker: What do you mean, your own consultants?
Trier: We have some authors and some people in Norway and some people over here. And, like, I had breakfast with Mike Mills two days ago in L.A., and I’ve looked at his cuts and he’s looked at my cuts. I did a little bit of feedback on his last script. Colleagues like that. And I show my film to big crowds in L.A., New York, Paris, Copenhagen, and Oslo, while cutting. I know I have final cut and everyone trusts me, so it’s all about getting tons of feedback.
Filmmaker: What was the challenge with Gabriel’s character in this?
Trier: With Gabriel, we’re doing something which is much more radical than people realize. We’re making a really vulnerable male character in sort of the middle of the drama, whereas people are always used to men being active and authoritarian, you know? He’s really quite a passive, beautiful person, who is really trying to be there for his kids, and who is, at times, avoiding conflict to the extent that it’s heart wrenching. He’s that kind of warm male father, I haven’t seen a lot of. He gets all the transferred anger from the idealized mother being absent. In the traditional home of Scandinavia or America in the ‘50s, Dad would come home and everyone would smile at him and Mom got all the shit. And here’s kind of the opposite. So I thought that was interesting, to keep fighting for him to be vulnerable and not do anything easy with him.
Filmmaker: There are a lot of movies dealing with grief, but they’re often in the immediate aftermath.
Filmmaker: The film is three years later, which is interesting period of time.
Trier: It is, because by that time you think you’re okay, but then the deeper structures of having lost someone and their absence can really come to the surface in a different way. I think that’s the case with [the end of] love, too. A fundamental relationship in your life falls apart, and it takes a while after the immediate shock settles before you really know what happened to you.
Filmmaker: I think at the end of the last interview we did, for Oslo, August 30, that we talked about this film. What sustains you on such a long journey as this one?
Trier: So 30 years ago, the main competition at Cannes, Paul Schrader premieres Mishima, one of my all-time favorite films. It’s structurally experimental and intellectually ambitious. And he had final cut, cast approval, [the film could be as] intellectual as he wanted because he had kind of earned it. And I remember him saying that he felt this responsibility, like, “I am allowed to do something no one else is [doing] right now, I better go all the way.” And with Louder Than Bombs, through 21 financing bodies, backing from good producers in America, a lot of French money, Norwegian, Danish, all this shit, finally, it happened. And I thought, “I have final cut, cast approval, everyone’s supporting me — damn, I better go all the way. My responsibility is towards cinema. I’m a monk of filmmaking — I mean, I’m not doing this to get rich. I’m a third-generation filmmaker, and I do this because I love movies, and I want to do a particular point of view, at a time when everyone’s telling how drama needs to be this or that way. Even in film journalism, I have a worrying feeling that there’s a homogenized sense of what a film should and must be to be functioning. That’s ridiculous. But we’ve got to fight back. When I grew up, hip hop, or a new guitar sound, was what I was into — a new feeling of form that created an emotion. A new feeling, a new beat. If we don’t, as filmmakers, take that seriously, we’re not needed.