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

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MM: Once again you worked with cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel. How has this creative relationship evolved from Play to The Square in terms of visual approach to each film?

RÖ: I think that Fredrik has made me, how do you say, less dogmatic when it comes to the aesthetic. I think when I made Play, I only used six camera positions, and no cuts in the scenes. When we then made Force Majeure, I was starting to cut a little bit, and use more camera positions, and that’s partly because Fredrik was the DP. And now, in The Square, we actually have handheld camera in one of the scenes. Fredrik is a very sensitive guy, and he’s not dogmatic, so he always suggesting wider things. For example, the stairs scene, where the camera is spinning and going upwards at the end, that was an idea that he had. I think he suggests quite daring things, and I think that we had the goal of making the movie visually exciting to watch. Many films today are shot digitally on an Arri Alexa or a Red, and the footage in the different films looks so alike. It looks like the same DP. I really think we have to become wiser when it comes to visual expression, and dare to do things that make it a visual experience to go to the cinema. I think we will work even more, on the next movie, with this aim.

MM: Why do you think movies look so alike now?

RÖ: I think one reason is because the time of shooting a film is often very short. You don’t have time to really be careful on set, and really sculpture the film and the photography. I think that’s part of the problem.

One of many scenes that explore the absurdity of human behavior in The Square

MM: At over 140 minutes, The Square is a relatively long film. Can you talk about what the editing process like to get to this version and how you approach the construction of each scene?

RÖ: The first version of the film was three and a half hours. You have to cut away and kill a lot of darlings, and that of course is a painful process -definitely when you have to do it quickly. We didn’t have that much time. We finished shooting on October 5, and in mid April I had to send the film to Cannes, so it really was a challenge. I actually do the editing of each and every scene first, so I edit the scenes individually, and then I put them together. I fine tune as much as I can before I go, “This is finished,” and I put it to the side, and then I put all the scenes together. Once I have done that, then I work with a Danish editor called Jacob Schulsinger, and he is really good at tracing dynamics in a film, and saying, “That should be the outpoint, and we should go in here instead.” That’s when we cut down the film and try to make it shorter. It’s a painful process.

MM: Cinema is a popular art film, everyone can watch a film, but modern art, the art that we see in the film, often feels pretentious and inaccessible. Was the fact that it’s almost unreachable for the general public something you had in mind when creating it?

RÖ: Definitely. A lot of the art that is in contemporary art museums is only about collecting pieces. When Duchamp put Le Pissoir in a museum, it was a provocation. We wanted to ask ourselves questions, like what are we doing with a museum? What should we exhibit? And that provocation worked at that time. People were disturbed. But that has repeated over and over again, so when you go to the museums today, and you see objects on the floor, that doesn’t really raise any questions, and it doesn’t provoke you, but it’s a ritual, a convention that is just repeated, and we have to be careful of that happening in the cinema world. We critique a certain kind of content over and over again, and that content has no contact with the world outside the walls of the cinema, or outside of the walls of the museum. The art world is a little bit, how do you way, it lacks humanity really.

Elizabeth Moss as a journalist in a scene from The Square

MM: How difficult was it to bring someone like Elizabeth Moss into the mix of a Scandinavian production?

RÖ: It was a very easy decision for me to give her the part. I did a lot of improv sessions with her, where I was playing Christian, and we were playing around with that and having really good fun with it. I met her and Dominic West in London the same day, when I was doing a casting session there. Both of them were really good and convincing. From the beginning, I didn’t want to bring in English-speaking actors for this film, but they actually were the best ones for the parts, so it was an easy decision to put them in the film.

MM: Do you think that something like The Square, a place with no judgment where everyone gets along, could ever exist?

RÖ: I think it’s comparative with a pedestrian crossing. A pedestrian crossing, with a couple of lines in the street, we actually have made a super strong agreement that car drivers should be careful with pedestrians. Of course we can create new agreements in society. Of course we can create new symbolic places where we are reminded about a certain kind of behavior, or humanistic values. Four of these squares have been built, two in Sweden and two in Norway, we actually have built these Squares, but they are there in order to remind us about these values. They might not work 100 percent. Someone might do something bad in the square, not accepting the rules, but it’s a way of trying to create a new social contract. It will work if we agree that this is a good idea, and we are trying together to create a possibility to let this culture be accepted. It’s a lot of work in the same way as, “How do we make ourselves follow the traffic rules?” It’s the same kind of work that is needed if we want to follow the rules of the Square. MM

The Square opened in theaters October 27, 2017, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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