Writing and directing are explorations of your curiosity about the world around you. The medium of film is unique and allows you to communicate with the audience through conversation and images on the screen. One of the most interesting voices doing this right now is Ruben Östlund.
Östlund is the creative voice behind dark social comedies like Triangle of Sadness, The Square, and Force Majeure. The Swedish filmmaker is known for his thought-provoking and visually striking films and has gained critical acclaim for his unique style, which blends observational documentaries with fictional storytelling, and his ability to explore complex themes such as human behavior, societal norms, and power dynamics.
But his ability to create complex films comes from his screenwriting process. Check out this video fromOutstanding Screenplays, then let's break down 10 screenwriting tips from Ruben Östlund.
10 Screenwriting Tips from Ruben Östlund
1. Your protagonist will biome interesting when their good morals are tested and they are pushed into a corner or have to face a dilemma.
The world isn’t black and white, and a character’s morals and ethics are not either. Challenging your characters with situations they don’t know how to handle as human beings will make your story more interesting. Having the protagonist as the good guy and the antagonist as the bad guy is a very simple way of explaining the world around us, so try to make your main character both sides of the same coin by challenging their ethics.
2. You need to be self-critical and dare to look at yourself and in which way your films are creating behavior.
Everything creates behavior, so you need to look at what you are saying when writing your screenplay. What is the central message at the heart, and how could an audience pull that from the story they are seeing on screen? Be sure you are telling the story you want to tell, and not misguiding the audience down a road that could create unwanted behavior.
3. Focus on sociology rather than only psychology when building characters, their morals, and what they are capable of.
There any many aspects that go into writing a three-dimensional character. While psychology is important, you need to understand what has made them this way. What is it about the world around them that has made them act a specific way? What are their goals in their society? How and why do they present themselves in a specific way? This can help inform you about the world your story is set in while helping your audience understand and relate to the character.
Ruben Östlund behind the scenes on 'Triangle of Sadness'Credit: 30West
4. Let sociological studies inspire you within and always think about what kinds of sociological questions your scene will raise.
Researching topics that interest you and see how people react in those situations. There are specific triggers in the human brain that react to specific situations that we may never find ourselves in. Research and understand how and why these reactions come up, and how those effects will weigh on the characters in your story.
5. Ask yourself if you’re making films out of ritual or if are you actually trying to break convention and make something that is in contact with the real world?
Film is a spectacular visual medium, but take a step back and ask yourself why you are creating a film. Can your screenplay be a novel? Why does it have to be visual? Image can create thoughts, so try to lean into your visual language and play with the idea of the medium to get your audience to ask questions rather than giving them concert answers.
6. There needs to be tension in the screening room. Your audience needs to feel insecure about where your film will take them and how they should react to it.
Östlund likes to create films that feel a bit dangerous because the audience can never anticipate where the story is going. This puts the audience in a weird space where everyone is trying to figure out what the story is and what it means. Östlund believes this tension from the audience comes from their fear of the unknown. Surprise the audience by surprising yourself during the writing process.
7. Begin writing your screenplay in a more literary way and write down things that you wouldn’t see in the finished film.
Writing in a literary way allows you to write out what the characters are thinking as the events unfold before them. These are elements that are hard to show in a screenplay. Writing and understanding these aspects of a character will help you to fully realize their dialogue and actions in the screenplay.
8. Use casting as a part of the writing process by improvising scenes with potential actors.
It can be hard to put yourself into a character’s state of mind if you are not familiar with the expectations surrounding that specific character. If you can, have actors improvise around scenes where social expectations are at play. This can help you shape the scene in the screenplay.
Ruben Östlund on set of 'Force Majeure'Credit: IONCINEMA
9. Your title must come from the theme and the core essence of your story.
Östlund named his latest film, Triangle of Sadness, after this strange paradox of getting rid of your worry lines on the surface with botox but still having the feeling in your mind. You don’t have to know the name of your screenplay right away, but spend time thinking about what the themes are at play in the story and how you capture that within a few words.
10. Allow yourself to be overconfident with your ambitions, but also dare to struggle.
If you have a strong feeling about a scene being a certain way, then there is a good chance that something is working. On the other side of that coin, there will be scenes you struggle with. Allow yourself to work through that struggle so you can feel as confident in that scene as you do in the rest of the screenplay.
Let us know what you think of Ruben Östlund’s tips in the comments below!