“Would I Do That?”: Ruben Östlund Tested His Characters’ Behavior on Himself to Make The Square

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Last time audiences walked into a sophisticated comedy by Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund, a man’s integrity was tested based on his reaction to a dangerous avalanche at a French ski resort. That character’s fragile masculinity didn’t come out unharmed from the incident. In The Square, the director’s Palme d’Or-winning latest, another well-mannered male is overwhelmed with self-doubt following a series of selfish decisions that exhibit his skewed moral compass.

Rooted in the absurdity and tropes of the high-brow art world, where a purse on the floor may or may not be a brilliant piece, the hilarious narrative centers on a museum curator, Christian (Claes Bang) as he prepares for the unveiling on a new exhibit that includes a square painted on the ground where a statue used to stand. In this conceptual space, judgment is forbidden and kindness demanded. If a person is inside the square and needs help, people are obligated to pay attention. Humorously enough, in Christian’s life outside the museum, primitive drives and self-absorbed behavior take the reins.

A battle over a used condom, a brute performance that ruins a dinner and challenges the status quo, a revenge plot to find a thief, and a commercial so outrageous it’s morally reprehensible, are among countless instances where Östlund’s writing radiates ingenuity. Östlund paints a humanistic picture of a an elitist world that can easily feel inaccessible, and whether you are an art snub or have never set foot in a gallery, laughter is ensured for the audiences, but not so much for the characters on screen. Similar to Tomas’ dilemma in Force Majeure, the protagonist here also realizes that perhaps losing it all is the only way to start anew and have a ruthlessly honest conversation with the man in the mirror.

Östlund spoke to MovieMaker about how he makes sure that even the most deranged of situations ring true, his disdain for empty and pretentious art, become more aesthetically daring thanks to cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel. The Square is Sweden’s Oscar entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Director Ruben Östlund monkeying around on the set of The Square. Photograph courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): The Square is a wry look at the contemporary art world, how knowledgeable were you about museums, art dealing, and curation before you delved into their intricacies?

Ruben Östlund (RÖ): I’m a Professor of Film at the University in Sweden, in Gothenburg, where I live. Next to the film program there’s a contemporary art program. I know quite a lot about that world. We are always working close to each other. I have always been a little bit irritated by the corporate bullshit theory that they use when they’re describing their art. Inspiration comes from that, but it also comes from when we made our own art exhibition, with the Square, which actually existed for real. We created a real life version of the symbolic piece from the film. We made an art exhibit with that so that was also inspirational. Also, when I’d been traveling around doing research, I went to many contemporary art museums, and they all basically looked the same. A neon sign on the wall or a Warhol painting, like a convention that’s repeating all over the world when you go to contemporary art museums. These experiences were the inspiration for how I portrayed the art museum in the film.

MM: Why did you decide to make an actual exhibit of the Square in the real world?

RÖ: If you look at the statistics of trust in a society, you can see that in Sweden we have a lot of trust in each other. We trust our fellow human beings, but these sociological examinations said that trust is going down. We are trusting in each other less than we did only four or five years ago. I think that’s something very important to our quality of life, that we trust each other. The Square is a symbolic place where we should be reminded of trusting and giving responsibility to each other, to be reminded of our role as fellow human beings. It’s something about our time and I think a symbolic place like this is needed.

MM: Walk me through the process of creating a character like Christian on the page and then infusing that with what an actor like Claes Bang provides on set –especially for this character whose line of work is far removed from most people’s worldviews.

RÖ: I think my style of directing is very situation based, like situation comedy. When me and Claes, who plays Christian; were talking about the script I said to him, “I only want you to relate to the different situations in the film as yourself, not as a character, but how would you behave in this situation? What would you do? Is it possible for you to do the same thing as in the script that Christian is doing? “ And sometimes, he said, “No, I wouldn’t do that, I wouldn’t react in this way.” I said, “Well, if we change the setup a little bit, is it possible for you to do it now?” And he said, “Yeah, now it’s possible for me to do it.” We were always trying to find out basically, “Would I be able to do the same thing? And when I say yes, that is when I’ve reached something.” So we always tried to look from within ourselves, and look at the situations from that perspective. It wasn’t really that we were working with a character, but rather it was about creating situations where it was possible to behave in the same way as Christian. Of course, the only thing Claes needed to do research on was the kind of language a museum curator of a big institution would use: How do they talk? Exactly how do they wear a shirt, and a suit, and things like that? It was research about how a person in that position would behave.

Claes Bang as Christian in a scene from The Square

MM: Before you had Claes to go through the situations were you testing the situations with your experiences? Did you ask yourself these questions about whether or not you’ll do this or that?

RÖ: Yes I did, when I was writing the script. Many of the situations are inspired by things that happened to me or friends of mine. For example, a friend of mine got her cell phone stolen, and she actually did what they do in the film. She wrote a note, and printed 50 copies, went to the building, and put one in every mailbox. When she was doing it, she realized, “I’m accusing everybody in this house of being a thief.” It was possible for someone like her t do it, so of course; it was possible for anyone else who was a thinking human being. That is very important, otherwise the scene wouldn’t be very interesting. It would be someone doing only a stupid thing and they have to suit themselves but it’s different if you believe that anyone could do it. It’s also such a cruel trick, that they’ve stolen the phone in such a cheap way, asking for help and then robbing you. That’s always something that I think about, “Would I be able to do the same thing?”

MM: Christian reminded me a lot of Tomas in Force Majeure. These men exist in different contexts, but their roles as males in strange positions of privilege and power are very similar.

RÖ: I agree 100%. I think also that, since with both Christian and Tomas, I use myself as inspiration, I understand why they remind you of each other. I was also thinking about it when I was casting Claes. It almost felt like this is Tomas’s life, after he comes back from the ski trip in Force Majeure and he has gotten divorced from Ebba. This is like three years after that avalanche, and this is happening in Tomas’s life. They have separated, and he has his kids every other week. I didn’t think about it when I was writing it, but suddenly I thought, “Wow, it’s the same character, basically.”

MM: There’s also a similar wild dancing scene in both films in which the protagonists revel in mindless abandon.

RÖ: That dancing, just as in Force Majeure, is used because it’s a dynamic way to put anything into a scene. It pushes up the energy, with the music, making it super intense, and it puts in a lot of energy for the audience in that scene. It was a good way to showing him being happy because he got his cell phone and his wallet back, but it’s also used to put some energy into the movie at that point.

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