With his three features across the last decade — Reprise, Oslo, August 31st, and Louder Than Bombs — Norwegian director Joachim Trier has handled the battle of inner demons with a vibrant poignancy that few other filmmakers can match. His English-language debut, which enters limited release this weekend, follows a father (Gabriel Byrne) and two sons (Devin Druid) and (Jesse Eisenberg) as they navigate life after the death of the family’s matriarch (Isabelle Huppert, appearing in flashbacks.)
It’s a immensely well-acted drama that strings seemingly minor occurrences together for an ultimately significant emotional catharsis. I had the opportunity to speak with Trier about his approach to storytelling, taking on American culture, what he learned after turning down over 70 scripts, working with Jesse Eisenberg and Isabelle Huppert, his love for Andrei Tarkovsky, and much more. Check out the conversation below.
The Film Stage: Louder Than Bombs takes a non-linear approach in structure, but it feels very seamless. There are no markers to tell you which time period you’re in. Coming from an editing standpoint, how do you found that structure?
Joachim Trier: Yes. I thought of it musically. “Music is pure form,” I’ve heard people say. I’ve thought about form and content in moviemaking and storytelling. People think, somehow, form is an alienating thing. I think it’s an including thing that you can’t avoid, really, how you shape something. So I wanted there to be kind of a sense of a mistake in this film — like fragments of family life you could call the film, or something. We’re putting all of these different individuals and these very intimate portrayals of them up against each other and we’re sensing a discrepancy of their viewpoints. We’re watching three men trying to deal with new relationships and new women in their lives while they have this glooming memory of their mother that’s kind of absent from them now. So I felt it was natural to work in a more fragmented form to express that as an emotion.
This is your first film taking on American culture, with high school and videogames. I love the scene when Jesse Eisenberg’s character tells Devin Druid’s character to just stick it out and it will all be over soon. We see so many films celebrating high-school culture, so it felt refreshing. Can you talk about approaching from that angle and how you viewed American culture growing up, and if it changed when you made the movie?
Yeah, I grew up watching a lot of American movies. I also spent a lot of time there. Yeah, John Hughes meant the world to me. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club took young people’s lives seriously and I love those films. I didn’t research; I went to high school. So the irony is that, when it comes to the gaming aspect, it’s very similar in Norway as it is in America because they game with each other at night. There’s probably a kid from Japan at the same time as well. It’s a weird international connection through online gaming that’s going on. So that’s kind of interesting. I guess I express my viewpoints through the film. I have curiosity, and I like New York a lot. New York is also a place where a French war photographer could be a natural part of an American family. I feel like it’s that kind of place. It’s full of different cultures blending.
That’s true. I was reading another interview with you, where you said after Reprise you looked at about 70 scripts in a year and you didn’t really like any of them. Was there a unifying thing or a sense of what pushed you away?
Not at all, really. It was more that I realized through the process how I really had a lot of ideas that I wanted to do. I guess I needed to read 70 scripts to really realize how important it was for me to express my own thoughts through my scripts in a way. Yeah, I guess also, after Reprise, a lot of people asked me to “do my thing” in brackets. “Put my touch” and “cut it like that” in a more conventional thriller, for example. I thought it was not just a spice you add to a piece of steak. It’s got to be an inherent reason why you take an approach to a story or narrative. I learned a lot from reading those scripts. Not necessarily about the films that were written, but about how I liked working.
One of the first images I saw from Louder Than Bombs was a year ago at Cannes, with the cheerleaders in the air in the poster. It’s a very evocative image and not what I expected just from the logline of the movie. Did you have a hand in picking that as the key art, you could say, for the movie? What drew you to that image specifically?
Yeah, I think there was some contrast to the title and the sense of levity and beauty, which would hopefully make people understand that the film is ultimately not an immediate grief drama of someone sitting around the house crying because their mother has died. It’s actually a film about life and has a lot humor, combined with the melancholic feelings as well, of course, in the story. So it was created by some designers and we all, as a group — the producers included — liked it. It was good at Cannes. It kind of created some curiosity, if nothing else, about the film.
Definitely. I wanted to talk about your cast. I recently read an interview with Jesse Eisenberg where he said shooting Batman v Superman was no different than an independent movie for him because of what he was able to do, and it was still small-scale, in terms of his performance. Have you see the film yet?
No, I haven’t yet, unfortunately. I’ve just been busy promoting since I came to America.
I’m curious: working with him, did you see this sense of discovery and letting him work on the character on set as well, like he seemed to do in his big-budget movies?
Yeah. He liked to stay in character a bit, which is funny and sometimes a little scary when he’s playing someone like Jonah, who is not to be quite trusted, but also is sweet. It’s an interesting process. I would say that I’m very grateful that Jesse played, in such a vulnerable way, this character of Jonah, which I think shows new sides for him as an actor. I’m very happy he did that in our film. There’s almost an analog process of the character that you go through and Jesse purposely went through, going from controlled and this impressive intellectualism that his character portrays and then slowly breaking down into a vulnerable place without language, almost. So that was an interesting process that I’m happy you caught.
Then Isabelle Huppert, who just this week I saw Valley of Love, which was also at Cannes. Did you get a chance to see that?
I haven’t seen it, no.
In that film, she plays a character who is dealing with the loss of her son and it was interest watching these two films virtually back-to-back, to see from a reverse perspective people dealing with the loss of her character.
Ah, that’s interesting. I knew that, but I hadn’t thought about it.
Her character almost feels like this ghost, but not in a scary sense. Her impact is felt in every scene, whether she’s in it or not. Can you talk about the initial process of explaining this character to her and what drew it to her?
Well, I knew Isabelle before this, actually. I think that she’s one of the actresses that I admire the most in the world. She’s part of film history if you look at the films she’s made. I feel like there was something she responded to from the script that had to do with a strong working woman that has a warm presence with the children but is also restricted with time. I think that everyone who works in movies knows that feeling of being away from the ones you love, and that has a painful, dramatic dimension to it sometimes. I think she brings such an unexpected trajectory to each scene. Even though we have talked a lot and have done rehearsals, I think on the day she brings these surprises that I love. It was a real treat working with her.
You’ve spoken before how you have friends in journalism, and there’s this pressure to deliver things in a fast-paced way with immediate gratification for the readers. In a cinema sense, it can be the same, but you say you approach things with an ambivalence, in the sense of letting the audience fill in the gaps that you give them. You could describe most of my favorite movies in that way.
Oh, I’m happy.
I like that approach. Does that come in the scripting stage?
It’s there all the time. If I want to make a film it’s because I’m curious and I am exploring something and I don’t have all the answers. There needs to be something to explore — something I’m drawn to or something I’m not sure about or some problem I’m trying to figure out. There needs to be that, so that keeps going. I work with a good team of people that I’ve known for a long time. I think everyone has that about them: they’re trying to work something to a place where it’s both things, also distinct and particular. You don’t want to be vague at all — that’s the worst — but ambiguous or let there be space. I think what you were bringing up earlier, where we’re living in a culture of immediate gratification at the moment. A lot of things are being done to be looked at quickly and then forgotten, so I guess I’m mostly interested in the opposite. Things that need a little bit of time, but will ultimately stay with you.
In your own cinema-viewing history, has there been a movie that you perhaps weren’t drawn to immediately that you then ended up loving over time?
Yeah, I’m trying to think. Yeah, an example, I was drawn to it immediately, but it just opened up more was The Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky. The first time I saw it I was drawn to its beauty within each fragment, but I didn’t feel it as a whole perhaps as much. I probably watched it 15 times since then and I feel that it continually goes deeper and deeper as a unique accomplishment in cinematic art and film history.
You also mentioned before your love for Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, which has a few parallels here. Can you talk about that movie and what you thought of it?
I love that film very much, but what I said was that was a version of a type of film that I knew from my childhood, from much earlier, like Ordinary People or the early Woody Allen dramas. I think that’s a version of that kind of American family story which [Hollywood] used to do a lot, but which has turned more into melodrama or TV shows, recently. I wanted to try and do a version of that in my own way, in my own form or own approach. But I like that very much. I have a great respect for Ang Lee and James Schamus, who wrote it, who is really a remarkable figure.
One of my favorite scenes of your movie is when the son, played by Devin Druid, is walking a girl home from the party, and I won’t spoil it —
The peeing! [Laughs]
How did you come up with that? It’s such a great moment, in the sense where he’s longing for a connection and that’s the closest he gets.
Yeah, that’s one of my favorite moments of the film. The great thing about writing with Eskil Vogt, who is an old friend of mine, is that no idea is too stupid. I think we sometimes find our best material at first through very spontaneous, open discussions of possibilities of things that could happen. Then you just go with that and you both accept that the unexpected or the curveball or weird thing can be much more potent than the obvious thing. That’s always what you’re looking for.
My last question to wrap up: I recently revisited your first film and you have these montages, which are also a bit in Oslo, and they return here about halfway through the film — the fast-paced montage capturing life as it is. What draws you to wrapping up things in a quick pace like that?
In all the films, we are interested in quite different dynamics. I mean that in the true sense of the word “dynamic” — that it changes pace. There can be a stream of consciousness and then there’s suddenly a different type of pacing with more contemplation or more being with the character. We go between these different energies and that creates the driving force of the film. I do love that you can just throw maniac rants of thoughts at people and you can do it cinematically. I think that’s kind of fun.
Louder Than Bombs opens on Friday, April 8th.