Every once in a while, a director comes along with the ability to utterly transcend the medium. Joachim Trier is one of them.
The Norwegian director broke onto the scene with Reprise (2006), a film about two aspiring writers. Like its protagonists, the film was teeming with manic creative energy. It was a fitting debut for Trier, who has since established himself as a rare literary voice in the cinematic universe. With the breathtaking Oslo, August 31 (2011), a melancholic portrait of a young man's return to society post-rehab, Trier portrayed a labyrinthine mind in order to expose the truth of the modern human condition.
Trier's current theatrical release Louder Than Bombs is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a grieving family. The family's matriarch, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a famous war photographer, died in a car accident just blocks from the family's home. When the film begins, some years have passed since Isabelle's death, but her presence reverberates throughout the household. She is felt in the fissures between Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and their son, Conrad (Devin Druid), a sullen teenager who violently deflects his father's attempts at communication. She is felt in the hardened veneer of the eldest son, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), as he returns to the house to help prepare photographs for a retrospective of Isabelle's work. And, most vividly, she is felt in the memories—experienced in flashbacks—that grip her family's consciousness frequently and without warning.
"What I find inspiring in literature is the spirit of how free one can be when presenting human thinking and stories and characters."
It's not so much the details of the plot that ultimately interest Trier. He's a literary director; his work is flecked with insights that can often only be gleaned from the written word, and he does this by embracing a novelistic form. We sat down with Trier to discuss this, along with how drama can benefit from CGI, and the mechanics of exposing a character's inner world.
"What I find inspiring in literature is the spirit of how free one can be when presenting human thinking and stories and characters," said Trier. In Louder than Bombs, Trier shifts perspective from character to character. Sometimes the same scenes are replayed—remembered—with a different character's subjectivity. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom was an inspiration for his untethered narrative approach. "No one talks particularly about the form," Trier said of the novel. "They talk about the character and the content. But Freedom has a section that's a diary. We do that in Louder than Bombs, too. With a very character-specific story, like this one, it's all about trying to get under the skin and into the mindset and memories and thought patterns."
In one scene in the film, Gene follows Conrad after a school day. When we're in Gene's perspective, he's being discreet as he trails his son around town and, eventually, to a graveyard. In a disconcerting and bizarre move, the boy flings himself upon a grave. Later, we hear Conrad's side of the story; when the scene replays, we realize the teenager knew his father was following him. The grave fall was an antic.
"Jesse Eisenberg came in and he was almost quite rude to Gabriel Byrne, and I could see that terrible dynamic of the son and the father."
At other conjunctures in the film, Trier excerpts Conrad's journal. Sometimes Conrad lets Jonah read it aloud; other times, we hear Conrad read it in narration. Once, Conrad's imagination takes hold of a scene previously characterized by realism: as a classmate reads a section of a novel in front of the class, Conrad rewrites the words to narrate a daydream of his mother's death.
In other films by other directors, scenes like these might take the form of expository dialogue. "Sometimes narration helps the image from being enslaved by a plot machine," Trier said. Like a novelist, Trier regales us with details of his characters' interior lives—their dashed hopes, their contradictory desires, their idiosyncratic habits.
But Trier has some reservations about being described as a literary director. "In a way, it's a double-edged sword," he said. After all, he chose to become a filmmaker, not a novelist.
"Terrence Malick or Andrei Tarkovsky work with this idea that you feel you can smell the place, or you can sense the floor," Trier said. "That tactile quality of space and people is a filmic approach. Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, which is one of my favorite movies, plays with literariness to be able to do something very particular with the form that becomes more filmic."
"I hate the fact that we have to pigeonhole films—oh, this is a family drama, so we need a house, and they cry and they sit in the house. No! Let's make it beautiful; let's use CGI."
By melding literary form with cinematic moments, Trier achieves the best of both mediums. "It's interesting how these two art forms influence each other in complex and unexpected ways," he said.
In fact, for Trier, the writing process begins with these textured images and scenes. He and long-time co-writer Eskil Vogt throw around evocative images; one by one, they build upon them to form a story. "An image or feeling can drive the script for a little while," said Trier. "It's not the story first; it's all these moments first, and then you try to shift order and make sense of them later."
These inchoate scenes can be as absurd as dreamscapes—in fact, sometimes they find their way into the film as dreams themselves. One such dream finds Conrad wandering an ominous forest at twilight. He comes upon what appears to the body of his crush and proceeds to lie down next to her. "It's a very odd moment where we suddenly have insight into the mind of a very introverted character," said Trier. "It's a little bit scary; it's tender, but also very Gothic, erotic, and sensual. I remember experiencing this image and just feeling like it needed to be in the movie somewhere." (When I remark upon the adolescent nature of the image—"sex and death, how adolescents learn to think"—Trier jokes, "You will be thinking about that for the rest of your life.")
In the co-writing process, Trier and Vogil each play to their own strengths. "Eskil is a better writer than I am," said Trier. "We're honest about that. Even though I write, too, he's just more eloquent. But I end up as the director, so I'm very involved in the final touches of the dialogue and dynamic [between characters]." Their process is iterative; both writers are open to change during rehearsal and even on set.
"It's a very dynamic process," said Trier. "We shoot the text as it's written, but then I often do a jazz take towards the end of each angle we shoot, where they're allowed to just try stuff. Great stuff comes out of that, but we stay with what the content and the theme of the scene is. They can improvise a little bit around it and suddenly they come up with something much better than what we've written. It's a back-and-forth." Even as he's open to change, Trier adheres to his strong intentionality. "I believe that there needs to be a solid intention or theme in every scene. I don't believe in free improvisation for the kind of films we do."
For all the literariness of the form, much of the poignancy of Louder than Bombs exists in the space between words. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that the actors lived inside their characters for the entirety of the production.
"It was interesting to have Jesse [Eisenberg] and Gabriel [Byrne] come and meet for the first time," said Trier. "Gabriel is naturally inclined to be a caring and generous person, and Jesse doesn't really enjoy rehearsals so much because he just wants to believe he is the character. Jesse came in and he was almost quite rude to Gabriel at the beginning, and I could see that terrible dynamic of the son and the father. It's not because Jesse's mean—he is a very sweet, sympathetic person. They both just got the dynamic. They stayed in that painful place of being those characters together. Very good actors do that."
"They stayed in that painful place of being those characters together. Very good actors do that."
On set, Trier gave the actors freedom to explore their characters' interpersonal relationships. "I try to be specific about what matters to me," he said, "but then let the actors find a way to bring their own thing into it."
Navigating the fragmented structure of the film presented some interesting challenges in working with the actors. "Everything has to feel linear to the actors," said Trier. "There's a lot of inter-cutting, but I encourage the actors to focus on the scenes, so I give them in a linear order. We forget the script with all its jumping around and voiceover. The actors can only be true to the moment that they play. We almost shoot like a documentary—in documentary, you do long takes and then you cut it up. We've got to go via that kind of present, real-time feeling, and then go back to the fragmentation in the editing phase."
True to his liberated form, Trier doesn't limit himself to genre expectations. One of the most arresting scenes in the film, Conrad's vision of his mother's car crash, was done largely with CGI. It's a decision that one would not come to expect from an intimate drama about family grief.
"I hate the fact that we have to pigeonhole films—oh, this is a family drama, so we need a house, and they cry and they sit in the house," said Trier. "No! Let's make it beautiful; let's use CGI."
CGI is a welcome challenge to the director's intentionality. "It's complicated, because it's a leap of faith and you can't blend in mistakes by changing the camera angle and saying something else to the actor," said Trier. "You have to commit. You can't go back once you've done it."
"I was saying to my friends back in Norway, you come on set [in New York] and it's like Coachella every day. 'Oh, this is us? All the tents, all these people? Jesus. Is this my set?'"
Because the car crash is interpreted from Conrad's subjectivity, Trier envisioned a hyper-realistic slow-motion sequence, reminiscent of a video game. "Conrad's imagination has that manga, gamer aesthetic, but still a sense of poetic realism," said Trier. "That sequence had incredibly complex shots done with VFX, the special effects team, heavy CGI work, and 3D, like an action movie. I've shot commercials; I like to use the whole spectrum of what filmmakers can do."
"How did we do it? A lot of generous hours of Isabelle Huppert hanging upside down in green screen room," said Trier. "Several cars had to be smashed up and it was rather expensive, I'm afraid, but I'm very happy with the result. It's an interesting and a necessary moment in the film."
Since Louder than Bombs is both Trier's first English-language feature film and the first film he's shot in America, he's had to adjust to some cultural differences. "Shooting in New York, I got the best team I've ever worked with," he said. "It's much bigger; you have teams like five times as big. I was saying to my friends back in Norway, you come on set and it's like Coachella every day. 'Oh, this is us? All the tents, all these people? Jesus. Is this my set?'"
There's a downside to the grandiosity of American productions compared to the skeleton crews Trier is used to back in Norway. "In Norway, you can scale up and down every day if need to," he said. "Primarily, the problem with [American productions] is the expense of it. It's lovely to have these talented people chipping in. But you need more days to shoot. If all your money's spent on having those extra people around every day, then you don't get that much time to shoot, and that's an issue."
Ultimately, Trier advocates for a middle ground. "Maybe there could be a way to combine both [Norwegian and American] ways of thinking, so you could scale up and down a little bit more and then get more time for the actors."
In addition to embracing that middle ground, Trier hopes that the next generation of filmmakers will have the courage to eschew traditional filmmaking. "Bring your personal mood and style, because that's all you've got," he said.
"People will often try to teach you to be within a certain rule set of aesthetics," continued Trier, "but when I was nine, I listened to Afrika Bambaataa and Grand Master Flash from South Bronx. I thought that was the coolest feeling and sound I'd ever heard. They didn't do that to become rich or popular. It was something that came from a particular place in their life. And the same with New York Dolls and The Ramones. When they picked up guitars, it was just a personal expression. They took a chance and maybe people loved it, maybe people hated it. They just said, 'Fuck it. This is how we do it.'"
"I think cinema needs that attitude more than ever," he continued. "What I love is to see filmmakers who stay true to their vision. That vision can be popular, human, or generous. It doesn't have to be narrow or arrogant. That's not interesting. Just true to something."
But, he cautions young filmmakers, don't go too off the rails. "It's fun to imagine that you're living like a drunk Bohemian, but it's not great for filmmakers because it's hard physical work. So stay fit and get your sleep."