Ruben Östlund has always maintained a fearlessness in his work. 2011’s Play depicted a group of Swedish-Somali boys who rob white kids by preying on their discomfort with race. A thread in 2008’s Involuntary deals with male sexual assault among a group of longtime friends. 2017’s The Square takes aim at the fine art world—a terrain notoriously difficult to properly satirize. Östlund rarely steers clear of a topic due to it being labeled verboten or too hard to tackle.
His latest, Triangle of Sadness, concludes an impromptu trilogy comprising 2014’s Force Majeure and The Square. The three are linked by their exploration of masculinity in the 21st century.
When Triangle of Sadness premiered at Cannes this past May (securing Östlund his second Palme d’Or win after The Square), many noted the irony of a film which skewers the ultra-rich screening in a location where festival parties occur on yachts of a similar scale to the one the Marxist captain (a bearded, inebriated Woody Harrelson) commands in Triangle of Sadness. I had a similar experience, albeit on a smaller scale, watching the film in a screening room on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, the street with an endless slew of luxury brands, many of which populate the characters’ wardrobes (and wrists) in Triangle of Sadness.
In the first act of Triangle of Sadness, Östlund wrings comedy out of an endless argument between a young model couple (Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean) over who should pick up the dinner bill. Lingering on awkward conversations with characters who are less than wordsmiths is a speciality of Östlund, and this particular sequence was inspired by his own life. The film moves onto a luxury yacht, where Dickinson and Dean’s characters vacation alongside a cast of colorful, wealthy, mostly Russian people. This superyacht is dramatically sunk for the final act. From there, the small contingent of survivors from both above deck and below must find a way to survive in a primal, caviar-less landscape. This Gilligan’s Island dynamic leads to a makeshift matriarchal society in which the yacht’s toilet cleaner Abigail (Dolly De Leon in a star-making turn), seizes power as the group’s sole provider of food and fire.
I spoke with Östlund over Zoom, where we discussed his process for incorporating everyday encounters into his movies, why he doesn’t care about spoilers, and his response to those who yell that his films are overly simplistic.
The Film Stage: Where did the genesis of the three-act structure come about, where we start on the relationship between these two models, transition to the superyacht, and then deal with the survivors on the island after the boat crash?
Ruben Östlund: The script was written during the #MeToo movement. I think #MeToo was a great movement, and still is a great movement, but it was lacking a little bit in the discussion about power and about beauty and sexuality as a currency. It became more about the man-woman thing and less from a perspective of looking at power dynamics and human behavior.
The fashion industry is interesting because it’s where beauty so obviously becomes a currency where you can climb in closed society. For example: a lot of male models are street-cast. They come from all different parts of society, many from the working class. One story that my wife told me about was a man working as a car mechanic who was street-cast: “Do you want to try to be a model?” “Yeah, sure. I can try that.” Two years later he’s doing a perfume campaign which makes him world-famous. If I showed it to you, you would say “Ah, it’s that guy.” The problem for him is that he’s starting to lose his hair. He’s losing his currency and his beauty.
That was basically the starting point of the film, to look at the currency of beauty from the male perspective, because we are so used to seeing it from the female perspective. All of a sudden we can actually talk about these things without it being stigmatized.
So I wanted to look at beauty as a currency in the fashion world and the hierarchies of the fashion world. Then I wanted to look at beauty as a currency on the luxury yacht. Then I wanted to take away all of the hierarchies and flip the pyramid over and then look at the new setup from the deserted island. This was all in order to try to show our behavior comes from our position in a structure, in a hierarchy, rather than individually.
You frequently collect small moments that happen to you or to other people you know, and put them in your films. Logistically, how does this process work? Are you carrying around a journal and writing these moments down, or do these stories float around in your head until they end up in a script?
I would say it’s a combination of these two things: first when you have a film in your mind for five years—like I did with Triangle of Sadness—then you know the film well and you’re constantly writing it. All of a sudden you look at how someone is lifting a cup and it’s like, “That’s how they should lift the cup on the yacht. Of course. There it is.” It depends on how much stamina you have as a writer. How much time are you willing to spend with your project?
When it comes to things that I’ve experienced myself, I was writing the script and I felt it was too thematic—it’s too intellectual. I needed a scene where I had experienced the themes of the film on a personal level. So I started to look back on my life and I was reminded of this fucking bill situation from when my wife and I first met. I understood the pain for her and I understood it for me. The pain as a woman is to have your value as a woman questioned, and the pain as a man is to be treated like a wallet. The gender expectation was so connected to the theme of the film: the man as the money and the beauty as a currency.
Is your wife OK with the inclusion of that moment? Or does she realize that’s the price of admission being married to you?
[Laughs] Luckily we constantly talk about the content of the film and she has given so much of herself, her profession as a fashion photographer, but also the private side of us. I promise her “I’m not only going to make a fool of you—I’m also going to make a fool of myself. I will be fair.”
I was thinking of novelist Karl Ove Knausgård and those stories about how he lost family and friends when My Struggle came out.
At least I’m not writing autobiographically. So I can hide myself behind fictional characters.
When you get to the big shipwreck, how did you determine the dynamics of who would survive? There’s a lot of colorful characters on the boat, but only a small number present in that third act. Were there drafts of the script where other people survived? And how did you make that determination?
I knew that I wanted it to be more men than women, because I wanted the matriarchy consisting of three women, with Abigail at the top. And I wanted someone that we were really worried about to be on the island. I was thinking about a child, but instead it became this woman that had a stroke and is disabled. That character is based on my mother-in-law. She had a stroke a couple of years ago and the only thing she can say is “In Den Wolken.” So it’s also something that comes from my life.
And then I knew I wanted to have Alicia [Erickson] on the island also, because she was extremely loyal to the upper class on the yacht. When they came to the island I wanted her to be in between the guests and Abigail.
An idea that didn’t make it was to bring Woody’s Marxist captain character to the island. I initially thought that he should be hurt, or wounded in some way. When Dimitry is saying this Marxist quote, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” Woody should start to laugh, but at the same moment, a coconut falls down from a tree and kills him. [Laughs] And that would be his journey on the island.
The corpse of Dimitry’s wife [Sunnyi Melles] washing ashore was written only after she gave this great performance on the yacht. I decided “we need to bring her to the island in some way.” And then I thought of that scene where Dimitry’s stripping her of the rings.
You are a known YouTube fan and have talked about its influence on Force Majeure and The Square. Were there any YouTube videos that influenced Triangle of Sadness?
There are two clips that I talked about doing this film. “Denver the Official Guilty Dog” is the first one. You have to check it out.
It’s an owner that comes home and one of the dogs has eaten the kitty cat treats. And he goes over to Suspect #1: “Did you eat the kitty cat treats?” And the first dog is ashamed but “I don’t think it was you.” So he walks over to Suspect #2, and I have never seen shame expressed in such a strong way. The way that this ashamed dog looks is emotionally painful. And I’ve been dealing so much with shame in my movies. So I showed this clip to Harris and Jean-Christophe [Folly] for when their characters had stolen the pretzel sticks. And I said “We have to do better than this. We have to be stronger than Denver in order to express shame.”
A social contract was broken and now we are ashamed. This of course is a parallel to us human beings. If we don’t have any shame for having extreme wealth, if we don’t have any shame that people are extremely poor, then we are going to lose a certain kind of ability that pushes us to an equal level as human beings.
Then there is another clip with two monkeys in cages and the monkeys do a very simple task. They give the scientist a stone and then they get a reward back. So Monkey #1 gives a stone and gets a piece of cucumber. Then Monkey #2 gives a stone and he gets a grape. And Monkey #1 sees this and gets very “What the fuck is this?” It repeats the task: it gives him a stone and it once again gets a cucumber. The monkey gets so angry. It’s starting to look at the stone that he had given him and he throws the cucumber on the scientist. It’s hilarious to see how inequality provokes animals as well. I have had a lot of fun discussing this with my cast.
As human beings we are obsessed with equality. We get very, very upset when we see someone, for example, sitting on the street. We can get used to it, but when we see it in the beginning we get really upset with it. It’s one of the reasons we’re so successful as a species: because we are obsessed with equality. We manage to make a lot of people participate in an equal society. I have a very positive view on human beings, even if we do get sidetracked sometimes.
I was listening to your Film at Lincoln Center talk from 2017 for The Square and you reveal the entire plot of Triangle of Sadness, including the final scene. You mention how YouTube titles spoil the content of videos and so we watch them to see how something is made. Even more recently at Cannes, you joked about spoiling the ending for your next project. Where does this instinct to not worry about spoilers come from?
It’s part of my process for how I write the films and learn how to direct the films. For me, to be open about the content and where I’m going brings an audience to me—I’m hoping the audience gets in connection with me. I want to create something for them. I want to show them that I trust them. I want to be transparent. I want them to be on my journey.
Many times I’ve been given input that are genius ideas that I haven’t thought about myself. For example, my original idea for Triangle of Sadness was that it should be a mechanic from the boat that knows how to fish and to make fire. It was supposed to be a man. Then I was pitching the film to my film students in Gothenberg where I work and one of the students said, “Isn’t it more interesting if it’s the woman?” I was like, “You’re completely right.” And then I can change things.
I really want to fight this idea about the creator as a solitary genius that’s in connection with God. It’s about working together with a group of people with many brains that are involved in the project. I have the responsibility of what’s going to be in or out of the film; I’m taking on the curator’s responsibility basically of how the film is going to be told. That’s a big part of why I believe in being open about the process.
The visual staging of your films are so important to the humor and drama in your stories. How do you work with your DP Fredrik Wenzel, who also shot Force Majeure and The Square?
Early, I’d sit down with Fredrik and Josephine [Åsberg], the set designer. I consider the three of us the core of the visual work with the film. I would sit down and talk to them about the content of the next movie and try to describe what the challenges are. For example, the challenge with the next movie is that the whole film is going to take place in an airplane. And I set a goal for us: how do we create an epic visual experience even though we’re making a film that only takes place on one set? Let’s really try to create a strong visual experience.
For every scene we are talking about how to bring out the different elements and make them very clear. We are never trying to hide anything. We are always trying to go as clear as possible, as communicative as possible. And we try out things over and over again.
Where do you think this impulse for transparency comes from? With both the storytelling and the visuals you strive to present stories clearly and transparently for audiences.
I can see a side of myself when I was a first-time, second-time, and third-time director—that I was a little bit in love with the European arthouse cinema, where its always filming characters from behind and not saying straight out what the film is about. Because maybe the film is about more than you think yourself, and maybe some magical thing will happen if you’re not telling straight out what you want.
The other day, at a Paris screening of Triangle of Sadness, a philanthropist stood up and he was very upset. He was saying “It’s too simple! It’s too simple!” And I said, “Sorry, can we give the microphone to this gentleman? What is too simple? Can you specify?” “No, if you don’t understand it’s too simple, you don’t understand me on that level.”
I have never been afraid if I think that there is a certain topic that is simple, because I think the topic that Triangle of Sadness is dealing with is completely basic human behavior. It’s a basic problem that we’re dealing with in society. I go out on the street and I see class society every single day. You can’t say it’s too simple. This obvious problem is not complicated—it’s about how we are dividing the resources of society.
It’s easy for you to say “it’s much more complicated.” It’s not. If I make the decision about what I believe the content is about, and what I’m interested in, I’m not afraid of being direct.
Triangle of Sadness is now in limited release.