Peeling the Onion: Joachim Trier on His Layered, Slow-Burning Louder Than Bombs

In Louder Than Bombs, Joachim Trier’s latest exploration on the catalysts and consequences of human behavior, the Norwegian director fabricates a family of men whose communal grieving involves filling the void left by the most important woman in their lives.

In the emotional debris following a fatal car crash, three surviving characters desperately seek comfort, whether they verbalize this or not.

French thespian Isabelle Huppert plays a war photographer whose death becomes a turning point for her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne), her oldest son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), and the family’s youngest member, Conrad (Devin Druid). Unspoken resentment, hurtful silences, heartbreaking mistakes, and solitude of grappling with pain even while physically together, make for a compelling drama that translates the Scandinavian filmmaker’s wide-ranging cinematic dialect.

MovieMaker sat down with Trier to have a lengthy discussion about the themes that inhabit his humanistic and unpretentiously philosophical quests, and Louder Than Bomb‘s distinctive quality of “harmonious fragmentation.”

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In your previous film Oslo, August 31st, the narrative focuses on a single character as he walks around having insightful conversations. For Louder Than Bombs, you decided to expand in scope by dealing with four stories about people that lie to each other. Why this narrative departure, perhaps not thematically, but regarding the complexity of their intricate relationships?

Joachim Trier (JT): There is something about Reprise, my first film, that had sort of a multi-character plot to it. I found that it was interesting to try to make a film about a family as the main character, rather than just one person. In a strange way cinema has the capacity to do really intimate portraits, and as you’ve seen in Oslo, for example, it does that with one character. I was interested in the discrepancy and the difference between how different individuals in a family interpret the same events very subjectively, and to try to find a form to talk about that.

The story, as you know, deals with the absence of a mother, and I was thinking that I didn’t just want to do a story about immediate grief where you get the phone call, “Mom is dead,” and everyone is crying around the house. That’s not the story I wanted to do. I wanted to talk about three different stages of adulthood as a man and how each of the individuals try to find new women in their lives. You have the 15-year-old gamer kid with all his introverted nervous angst trying to deal with an infatuation with a girl in his class; then the older brother is a 30-year-old man with great ambition being shocked by experiencing fatherhood for the first time where he is so unresolved with his own parents, and then Gabriel Byrne playing a modern father who tries to be both a mother and a father to these boys, with all the anger geared toward him. To try to make all that into one story of a feature film was the challenge and the fun of doing this.

Joachim Trier. Photograph by Steffen Oftedal

Joachim Trier. Photograph by Steffen Oftedal

MM: Though it could seem that Louder Than Bombs is leading up to a shattering revelation, the plot is not anchored to a big twist or secret. Everyone knows what happens; we are witnessing the way they process this.

JT: I guess the revelation is the acceptance of communication between them and we are peeling the onion more than we are pulling the rug. We are revealing the characters. It’s a strange thing. I am very interested in a very visual type of cinema. Studying at the National Film and TV School in London, and now that I’ve done these two previous films, I’ve become more and more curious about human behavior. I think that’s what I find to be the revelation of making a story—rather than about exterior events—to try to do make an tactile, intimate portrait of humans. I think that’s what I’m geared toward at the moment, in the films I want to make.

MM: How does the transition from making a film about a single character into one where multiple characters collide change the way you approach the construction of the screenplay?

JT: I think it is just more work [laughs]. You work with more destinies. We very often had way too many scenes because we had the whole plot from each character’s perspective, and then we tried to make it work together—and there was the space between them, which was as important as each character.

For example, in one scene, you see the father and little brother’s different perspectives about the same events. It’s almost like a thriller—that’s where you would do that kind of plot twist, when you see things from different perspective. But we tried to see if there was an emotional or dramatic potential in that device. Then it becomes interesting to tell the whole story from one perspective and then the whole story from another perspective and see which bits we could use. I worked with [screenwriter] Eskil Vogt, whom I’ve worked with before in my previous films. We come from a shared passion for cinema. We know each other so well now, since we’ve been friends since we were in our teens, so we’re able to show up in the morning at work and talk about life and then talk about some movies we have seen. Life and movies become our stories.

MM: The portrayal of a teenager for whom online gaming is the most tangible for of interaction really opens a window into a group of people often ridiculed or rendered uninteresting. How did you craft this specific type of teenage boy?

JT: We met a lot of teenagers. There is an interesting thing going on with gamer kids right now: They have their own perspective of the world that we, as a different generation, are very nervous about. I think there are a lot of parents that are worried about kids being online all the time. We hear all these horrible stories in the news about the introvert child that suddenly does something terrible. But I also think that, since there are so many of them, we got to give these kids our ear and listen to them. What’s happening in their lives? When a big part of your life is online gaming you can still turn out a good human being, I think. I try not to judge when I write. I try rather to explore and to learn.

Jesse Eisenberg as Jonah and Devin Druid as in Louder Than Bombs. Photograph by Jakob Ihre

Jesse Eisenberg as Jonah and Devin Druid as Conrad in Louder Than Bombs. Photograph by Jakob Ihre

The funny thing was that in this case I met some teenagers in New York and some in Oslo. For people of my generation, these geographic differences would mean quite different experiences of cultural identity, Norway and New York. But because these teenagers were into the same culture, online gaming, they have a very similar experience of many things because they play these games with each other at night. They stay awake and get to know someone in Japan or New Zealand. It’s interesting. It’s a new paradigm of social interaction, which we are dipping into in the film. You also see the comedy of the father trying to be a part of the game. I thought that was a present-day situation that we should cover.

MM: How did the cinematic grammar of the film, which is made up of montages, narration and other eclectic visuals, develop into what we see on screen? It’s fragmented but cohesive at once.

JT: It’s quite intuitive, and then it becomes intellectual. First you come up with stuff, you write it down, and then you start editing and putting it together, coming up with more, and refining it. But it starts from a place of intuition and fun. It’s fun to make movies. We were yearning for a free form—what we would call a dirty formalism. We don’t seek meticulously to create it as a structure. We come up with stuff, material, tons of it, then we edit it, and then we make into a script. A lot of people are saying that our films are intellectual—and maybe they are, I don’t know—but we start out with almost a musical intuitive way of working. I come from being a music fan as a kid—hip-hop. I remember, as a kid, listening to types of disjointed hip-hop music that just felt interesting to me. I liked that things could be fragmented and yet harmonious. I guess fragmentation and harmony is what we strive for in Louder Than Bombs on some level.

MM: Isabelle Huppert plays a war photographer in Louder Than Bombs. Why did this particular profession strike you as the correct one for her? It’s an interesting choice for the woman that’s at the center of the story, even through she is not alive anymore.

JT: I’ve been very curious about that profession for a long time. I’ve read a lot about it, I’ve met a lot war photographers. The wonderful British photojournalist Don McCullin wrote an autobiography that’s remarkable and very insightful. The profession is kind of dying. As a lot of people are talking about the death of cinema, I often find these professions of conveying narrative in a contemplative space are now being exchanged with the rapid immediacy of information. The instantaneousness that’s being worshipped at the moment—I find that an interesting subject. I’m not completely comparing it to movies because we are still going to the movies; we still give movies two hours of our lives, and most polite people turn off their phone and just watch the big image. But there is a sense of the rapid being the virtue of our present day, as opposed to contemplation and giving things time.

I think Isabel’s character is going through that realization as well in her profession. At the same time it also tells the story of the difficulty of combining the ambition of work with home life, which is a timeless subject. I remember growing up watching films like Heat by Michael Mann. It’s the classical case of the alpha male: “I can’t be with my family because I’m either a criminal or a cop and I need to solve the case.” I love that film and I think it’s interesting, but I wanted to do a more modern version of that could have a woman. I’m from Scandinavia and my mother was a feminist in the ’70s. I’m used to women working; they have for generations.

MM: The fact that she comes in and out of the family narrative makes her feel like she is not really there, even when she is physically present. Everyone around her is used to her not being there, thus she is not needed. Is this a root of loneliness and isolation?

JT: There is loneliness to her character. You could say that the Oslo and this film communicate with each other through that sense of disconnectedness that Anders feels in Oslo and that Isabelle feels in this film. Actually, the line “No one really needs me” appears in both films, and that didn’t occurred to me until later—the sense of not being connected, seemingly on the surface being a part of the context of family or a friendship, but not feeling it yourself. That disconnect, I’m interested in.

I don’t mean to be pretentious or say a big philosophical thing now, but let’s be honest: We are in a culture now that exceedingly deals with self-representation as an image. It’s about “me and all my cool friends” or “the meal I’m eating” or “the great holiday I’m on” on Instagram or Facebook, as opposed to the sense of the loneliness that we all need to deal with and that all human beings are ultimately sharing on some level or another. In these cases of Isabelle or Anders in these two films, the gap between the representation of success and the feeling of self has become too big, somehow.

Isabelle Huppert plays war photographer . Photograph by Jakob Ihre

Isabelle Huppert plays a war photographer, here with Gabriel Byrne’s Gene, in Louder Than Bombs. Photograph by Jakob Ihre

MM: In Oslo suicide is a prominent theme that drives the action. In Louder Than Bombs the suggestion of it may be the catalyst that sets in motion the men’s paths. Why do you think this is a recurrent idea in both films?

JT: In this case is about abandonment of a mother. It’s a very aggressive move, so to speak. It creates a particular type of aftermath and grief, which, of course, has a great sense of guilt. Why is it a theme? Because it’s existentially triggering and complicated. There are personal reasons for it and there are also thematic reasons. I don’t plan to do another one about suicide, but you could say that Oslo and Louder than Bombs are companion pieces. One is seen aggressively subjectively from the inside of that terrible event and the other is really about the surrounding and the aftereffects. I started writing this film before Oslo, and then I went and did Oslo and came back to Louder Than Bombs, and the character that changed in the rewriting was Jesse’s (Jonah), because suddenly we’d done this story. Not that he changed completely, he still had a child and he still was a son in the family, but there were some elements that were kind of done in Oslo. We were able to attack that character in a new light after Oslo.

MM: The feeling of place in Oslo is incredible noticeable. The city is a spiritual presence in that film as he tours it and reflects on his past. In Louder Than Bombs the location is not as prominent or specific. How did the  new setting change your process?

JT: It was easier to shoot at home, yet it was fun to explore a new place. The irony is that we worked with a production designer called Molly Hughes who has worked with Spielberg and also worked on some of the Harry Potter films. She has a great variety in her work.

We were in Nyack, Upstate New York, inside a house that has sort of a ’40s functionalistic big glass façade, and we were looking at the pine trees outside, and Molly, who is American, looked at me and said, “This feels like Scandinavia, doesn’t it?” I was standing with my Swedish cinematographer and we said, “Yeah, it does. Wow.” It was the sense of nature, particularly upstate, even part of Long Island, or Palisades. They have these cities that feel like you are suddenly in the wilderness, which is very Scandinavian. Space functions like a sense of culture, nature or tactile feeling for me. The earth and tress reminded me of home. It wasn’t that foreign to me.

MM: Does having a bigger international cast change the way you tackle working with your actors, or is there a change solely on logistic side of the production?

JT: Not in the way I work with them, because they were all very friendly and collaborative. The process of setting up the film is very different. We knew that we wanted a film where I had cast approval and final cut. We didn’t even need to talk about it; everyone involved, including all the producers, were very collaborative and very nice. They all understood what the film was and what I was after in terms of casting. Maybe this is a unique experience because it’s rarer and rarer: I was allowed the best actors that I wanted for the part, rather than just thinking about what name was the biggest. The financing was put together in a very careful and smart manner so that we could get the best actors. They all wanted to do it. It was difficult to create a family that looked the same, but I think we managed to create a family and I’m very happy about that. But around the camera and how we worked, it’s not so different than what I would do at home.

MM: What’s your take on the concept of an international director’s “first English-language feature” and how people then view him or her?

JT: I felt that at Cannes, because it became a theme of the festival last year. They were going to kick in the nuts anyone one of us who left our original language. I wasn’t the only one. There was Yorgos Lanthimos with The Lobster, Paolo Sorrentino with Youth, and other directors. We knew they were going to give us a hard time, because that’s easy to write home about.

Fuck it, what can I say? I saw Youth the other day and it’s a fantastic film. What’s the problem? Give us a break. Why doesn’t anybody talk about our film language? Why give us a hard time about people speaking a certain language? I come from a county where there are only 5 million people speaking my language, and once in a while I’m going to venture into the world and try to work with an international group of people. It’s the most natural thing in the world for me. I’ll fight to make personal whatever I do. Anyway, some people react negatively to that, it turns out, but other people have embraced it. I just hope that people go to the movies with their eyes and their hearts and not only with their language ear.

MM: Taking that into consideration, are you shooting your next project back home in Norway?

JT: I am, actually. We haven’t announced it yet, but I’ll tell you the secret that I’m shooting something soon. I can’t really talk about what it is yet, but yes, we are doing a Norwegian film this year. We’ll see what happens after that. Maybe another English-language one, we don’t know yet. MM

Louder Than Bombs opens in theaters on April 8, 2016, courtesy of The Orchard.

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