Dressed in an impeccable suit and a pair of hip trainers, Joachim Trier looks like one of the characters in his acclaimed film Reprise. He seems like one of Reprise's characters, as well; bright, self-aware, given to both bold pronouncements and sly moments of self-deprecation. Trier's film won accolades on the festival circuit and even won Norway's Amanda award for best direction and best screenplay; chronicling the lives of two best friends with shared ambitions of literary glory, Reprise manages to be clever without being cool, hip without being insular, and conveys both the better natures and the human flaws of its characters. It's also startlingly funny, and while all the hip narrative touches in the film are clearly deliberate, they manage to be cool without ever for a moment seeming cold.
Trier spoke with Cinematical in Los Angeles about writing Reprise, the challenges of getting a European film to an American audience, the universal fashion code of Fred Perry shirts and how he's already said "No" to the idea of remaking his own film for American audiences. This interview, like all of Cinematical's podcast offerings, is now available through iTunes; if you'd like, you can subscribe at this link. Also, you can listen directly here at Cinematical by clicking below:
(Interview transcribed after the jump)
Cinematical: I was interested, in reading the notes for Reprise, that writing the film started as sort of a diversion from something else you were doing; can you talk a little about that?
Joachim Trier: I think all writers have the tendency to procrastinate a little bit, or run away from what you're doing; but we (Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt) were actually working on a thriller, more of an experimental genre film, and then suddenly all these ideas about Oslo and these kinds of characters came up. And I was kind of ashamed of it, to be honest; I had been living in London for seven years, and my co-writer was living in Paris and we were like "No, we can't make films about people we know in Olso ..." But a lot of ideas just came organically, and at some point we decided to go with it -- to explore those characters, and see what sort of stories came out of that.
Cinematical: And, just out of curiosity: while you were working on Reprise, did you get a better direction on where to go with the thriller?
JT: No, a third thing came up, and then a fourth. (Laughs.) I think this is how it works; it's not always what you think you want that ends up being the project you do. But it's important, at some point, just to make that decision and spend all your energy on the one you're going. A lot of directors, I think, develop millions of projects at once, and I am very much wanting to focus in and use my energy on one at a time.
Cinematical: It's interesting; you said that you had been living in London for seven years, and you felt a little awkward -- if that's the right word -- about going back to Oslo and telling these stories. What helped you get over that?
JT: I think it's ... you know, I've always done films that I thought of as personal; but not necessarily 'personal' in the sense that they were about my life. But that they were personal aesthetically -- that there were of looking at the world, or of pacing a story, that I was interested in. I use my taste a lot when I make films; (it's) a bit like ... all my friends who are in bands are always saying "Oh, we make the music that we like to listen to ..." you know? And I think, making films, that should be the approach as well. It's easy to get intimidated by the big machinery and the financial context of doing a film. And I think it's important to have your passion and your taste drive what you do. But, having said that, I think that to make films about young aspiring artists sounds like such a cliché -- but that's exactly what we wanted to do; take a cliché and turn it around.
Cinematical: And also, you play into the cliché remarkably well; you sort of exploit it. You've got their dreams of literary glory; a lot of the film is in this hypothetical future tense. This could happen in the future. Was that in the script from the beginning, moving back and forth along the timeline?
JT: From the beginning, we had a lot of formal ideas about Reprise. And one of them was that we wanted to encapsulate dreams and hopes that these young guys had, because I think that's a part of their reality; that's a part of what they see themselves as, what they dream of. And I think in a strange way, we wanted to get rid of some of the clichés by exposing them and then see that, life, in the story, takes them other places.
Cinematical: I'd like to ask, just for a second, about the casting of your actors. Because you get great performances out of the two male leads, but they're not ... they act, but they have professional lives outside of that, as well. Was that something where you were more eager to work with them, to see what external real-world influences they could bring to the parts?
JT: I think we didn't have any actors in that age group that were right for the parts in Norway, so I sort of had to go and look for people without experience. And Anders Danielsen Lie, who plays Phillip, is a doctor, and Espen Klouman-Hoiner is a copywriter. Espen, who plays Erik, has just enrolled in the National Norwegian Theater School. And Anders might be doing a bit more acting, even though he's now a doctor. It's kind of interesting. I think they brought a lot of themselves to the film. It's not an improvised film; it's a film where a lot of the dialogues were written -- but having said that, I think there's something to them being very similar to the characters, almost in a scary way. And I know that when we finished shooting, Espen asked if he could buy all the costumes that were used in the film, because it was just the kind of clothes he liked anyway.
Cinematical: And they do have this sort of very certain light in their eyes where you get a sense of them, and they have to convey sadness, they have to convey embarrassment ... those moments feel real; do you think that having people with less formal acting experience helped those moments stay real?
JT: I think, to create reality in film, you still have to go through constructedness; you gotta go through a process of artifice anyways. I'm not one of those people who thinks, "Oh, the real person will seem real on the screen;" to create something that is seemingly real takes a lot of work. But having said that, I try to structure the scenes quite tightly, but then within that, leave them some space to go unexpected places, and do variations on scenes sometimes, so I can cut together a take that's more silent, or more energetic, or where I have angled it slightly differently.
Cinematical: What was the biggest technical challenge in shooting? Was there a moment when you found "Well, this camera isn't working ..." or stock, or lighting; were there unexpected technical challenges?
JT: Film is the art of compromise; it's so tricky. You want sun and you get rain. But what was interesting -- and we were fortunate, actually, as well -- Because in Norway, within a period of two months, we actually got people swimming in the sea, we had a wonderful sort of fall mood, and we also got winter and snow. And all within four weeks, which is quite unique. But I think this is also the fun of shooting in Oslo, to try and time it so we would get all these seasons. The film's story spans over a long period of time, so we needed that.
Cinematical: A lot of the film kind of reminded me ... I've been watching a lot of French New Wave films. And a lot of the film, even down to the physical looks of some characters, reminded me of the French New Wave -- but, also the cross-cutting and the recording ... were you thinking of that? I'm very curious as to what your influences were. ...
JT: I'm a big film buff, and I watch a lot of movies, also old movies. And I think the French New Wave -- it's not just one thing. There were so many directors that were working in France, and in Italy, and in several other places at that time, that were exploring film language. It was exploding, it was saying "we can be something else," people were trying many different things, and that spirit inspired me. But also particular film makers, like Alain Renais's ability to explore memory and identity, or Godard's wonderful view on young people in Paris in the '60s in, for example, Masculin Feminine; those were great influences.
Cinematical: At the same time the film feels very modern; it's got this detached narrator, it's got flash-forwards; it's got random moments from other character's lives. A lot of the time in films that can lead to a detached sense of irony, but in Reprise it actually adds to the sincerity. Did you feel like you were taking a risk with some of the formal structure things you were doing?
JT: Yeah, I felt it was risky being this formal, but I always felt the heart of the film was about the characters, and that combining that with a formal approach that would bring the characters out, or their way of thinking, or to use identification with characters in a different way than just showing them in a transparent movie language where everything's seamless; I wanted people to feel that they were watching a film, yet be close to the characters. I don't believe in the dichotomy of form and content being different from each other; to put it like this, it's hard to separate. So I think a formal approach can still make emotional cinema.
Cinematical: There are some pretty rough moments in the film, some things that are hard to watch. What do you feel when you watch the movie? You have an intellectual response to it -- "I made this, we got that shot, I didn't like the lighting on that day ..." Do you find that, when you watch it, you still feel something emotionally?
JT: I think after a while you get slightly blind to your own moviemaking. And I haven't watched Reprise for quite a while, because you watch it so many times going through the post-production. But I think part of the craft of being a director is changing glasses, or changing your view on something; it's trying to see it fresh. That's a part of the discipline of making movies, to try and see your own material fresh, and sometimes you do it and sometimes it's really hard.
Cinematical: The movie is set in Norway's literary scene, and I'm curious if, when it came out, there was any response from that community - if people were saying, " ... He got it all wrong ..." or "No, that's pretty much what it's like ..." Was there a response from the Norwegian literary community?
JT: They pretty much embraced the film, and felt that they were fairly represented; I'm not saying I'm speaking of all writers (in the movie), I'm just speaking of some particularly young ones. Having said that, I think we did thorough research; I know a lot of writers, and I think part of making movies, part of the fun of that, is going into an environment and exploring it properly, to see what details are expressed in what you bring to the movie.
Cinematical: I noticed at one pint, when two characters are talking about depression and not leaving the house, the subtitle says "So, Rainman, are you going to go out?" But the actual line is "So, Elling ..." (A reference to the 1996 Norwegian film Elling, about two men who leave a care facility for the mentally ill to share an apartment.)
JT: You noticed that; that's hilarious.
Cinematical: I think that's something about five people in North America are going to get ... Did you worry about if there were other specifically culturally Norwegian things that were going to get dropped out in subtitling, or in its being adapted for America?
JT: I'm not worried anymore; I've traveled enough with the film to trust that there's something there even if you miss some of the local references. You know, the same question was asked in Norway, because there's a lot of international music or literary references in the film, but they're mostly used jokingly, or just to show an aspect of a character; I don't think you'll miss anything if you don't know about those things.
Cinematical: And also at a certain point, the process of being young and bright, but not terribly mature and a young man in a large city -- that's fairly universal. Do you feel like that's helping the film?
JT: Absolutely. It's that paradoxical universality, when you think you're doing something very local and Norwegian, and then someone in Turkey or someone in New York or someone in Paris says "Oh, I know exactly people like that ..."; that is a funny experience.
Cinematical: Well, when one character says "I have to get out of Oslo," you could substitute the name of any big modern city there and it would still sum up that same universal feeling. And house parties are very universal ... That was more accidental than calculated, that you're sort of making this universal 20-year-old-ish experience?
JT: Yes and no; through being specific in Norway, I also think we can be specific internationally because we ... It's kind of an iconic portrayal; in any city, you're going to have a bunch of guys in Fred Perry shirts and that particular kind of sneakers on that will listen to Joy Division and read intellectual poetry and really want to be artists ... and we wanted to look at that, but shot inwards as well, and see the complexity of that, almost-cliché or iconic bunch of people, and show that they're sensitive and complex, as well.
Cinematical: And, also at the same time, a little bit pretentious and self-deluded.
JT: Absolutely! This is a film about people that, at the outset, are quite self-indulgent, you could say, and it's about that discovery that it's really hard to live up to your own expectations of things.
Cinematical: Speaking of the soundtrack, I'm wondering if that was calculated -- if you said, "Oh, we have to have this Le Tigre song ..." or if someone just came into the production office and said "Oh, you have to hear this single; it's great ..." Was doing the soundtrack choices expressive and fun, or was it calculated and deliberate?
JT: Most of the music references were in the script already, but it's like humor; you know, you get tired of your jokes and you change your jokes. And looking back at early drafts, you go "Oh, maybe they weren't so bad in the first place ..." but you made something else. And the same with music. And the same with music. We went through several drafts; at some point, we had "She's Lost Control," by Joy Division, and then "New Dawn Fades" fitted better, with the lyrics; you go through little changes. But the general idea of that sort of music was always there.
Cinematical: The film had incredible acclaim on the festival circuit; it won the Best Picture award in Norway ... and, at the same time, it's a film you've been living with for quite some time; I talk with many directors whose films start out on the festival circuit and then gradually build over time ... in many ways, are you kind of sick of talking about the movie?
JT: Yes and no? I'm not sick of it; I still feel close to the film, and I'm always curious, when I go to a new country, of how people react. But I've certainly spoken a lot about it over the last year, and it's great that we're now writing a new one. I think that's healthy.
Cinematical: What are you working on now?
JT: I'm working with the same writer (as Reprise, Eskil Vogt), and we're working on a film that's a completely different environment than (Reprise), but still ... we're trying to do something where we push narrative structure a little bit, and we try and explore something new.
Cinematical: You certainly push narrative structure here (in Reprise) with the flash-forwards, and the hypothetical future conditions ... you're hoping to move things more in that direction?
JT: Yeah, or use it appropriate to character. It's not like I sit down with a little box of different spices I have and I put that on the film; if it's expressive in the right way, and certain scenes come to us and they have to be that way, then they will be.
Cinematical: You were talking about Goddard and other filmmakers of the past you admire; whose word do you admire in the here-and-now? Whose films do you watch currently and say "Wow, they've really got something ..."?
JT: Arnaud Desplechin, in France I think is interesting; he's got a new film that's going to be at Cannes, now, in a couple of weeks; I look forward to that. Wes Anderson's fascinating, I think; Noah Baumbach is an interesting director. ... Many people, actually; there's a some local Swedish and Danish people, Jesper Ganslandt did Falkenberg Farewell, which I think is a wonderful Swedish film; I don't know if it's been distributed here. I hope he gets picked up. ...
Cinematical: Do you feel like the gulf of the Atlantic Ocean -- so few European films make it over here to theaters, so few films make it to a warm reception over here, from Europe. ... do you feel lucky that you've been able to cross that chasm? And do you feel depressed that so many other European filmmakers don't?
JT: I feel very lucky, and very glad Miramax and Scott Rudin picked Reprise up; I think that's wonderful, and I'm grateful for that. And yes, it's kinda sad that it's so hard to export foreign-language films; I mean, coming from Europe, all languages are different from country to country, and the inability to show a Norwegian film in Sweden, for example, sometimes, is really sad. It's a paradox; we went straight-to-video in Sweden, but we've been sold (for theatrical distribution) in Asian countries and America and France. Sometimes, the closer you get, sometimes, the harder it is to sell the films; it's strange.
Cinematical: If somebody hypothetically called you up and said, "We'd like to throw a chunk of money at you, we're gonna re-make Reprise, we'll set it in L.A., they're going to listen to X instead of Joy Division. ..." Would that be a terrifying prospect, or would that be something you'd be cautiously optimistic about?
JT: I have personally declined offers to direct a new version myself, for sure; I think I'm really happy out the film the way it is, to be honest with you.