I got to know Ruben Östlund when he asked me to come on a scout in the Italian Alps for what was to become his 2014 feature, Force Majeure.
We had met briefly before; the Swedish filmmaking community is small and we shared a DIY attitude toward filmmaking, but our approaches were very different. He was heavily influenced by Roy Andersson and that director’s wide, static, and meticulously planned shots, and I came from handheld improvisations, where the camera was much more interactive.
Our first week together was a challenge. Every time I suggested a camera position, Ruben would be at the other end of the room, claiming he’d found the right spot.
Early into Force Majeure, we were planning for a shot where Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is out skiing alone, and she needs to use the bathroom. As she squats among the trees, she catches a glimpse of her family on the adjacent slope. We wanted it done in a single shot—a bit tricky with the timing of the actors, kids on skis, camera tracking, and a whip pan. On the tech scout I asked Ruben if he thought that two meters of track would be enough, to which he responded, “Don´t ask me, I’ve never done a tracking shot in my life.”
I was used to the idea that the first take could potentially be the best. Ruben wanted to shoot first thing in the morning, with basically no time for lighting, choosing of aperture or rehearsing for movement, so I secretly started calling the technical team earlier and earlier to be able to prepare. On day 13, we were up 3,000 meters, shooting the scene where the family takes off into the fog. The weather was brutally windy, with great swirls of snow and smoke filling the thin air.
I needed to clean a neutral-density filter and asked for the time to do so, but Ruben called “Action!” I completely lost it and went over to his monitor, starting an argument. Ruben looked at me calmly and said, “There is no need for that.” I immediately cooled down. From that point on, we gradually formed a process, a sort of arrangement where he would get to shoot first thing in the morning, even if we weren’t done preparing, and in return he promised me that he would never use the first 15-20 takes. He liked the concentration that the rolling camera brings, and in the in-between moments, the team and I could work on improving the frame.
When Ruben asked me to shoot his next feature, The Square, I suggested that we always use a dolly. Now that I knew and understood Ruben’s methods, I wanted the process of finding the frame to be as smooth and direct as possible. Before every setup, we would roll around to all the different suggestions for camera positions and record them on the Microsoft Pix app. Key grip Elias Branner would mark the positions on the floor. I’m very interested in camera height, sometimes even more than position. A couple of centimeters seem to make a huge difference in how you read the image. So once we found a position that we felt was right, we started recording camera heights (lots of them; maybe one every five centimeters), and then flipped through them on Ruben’s monitor. Comparing and evaluating the different suggestions became very easy and, most importantly, it was free from bias. If you a have hypothetical discussion about where the camera should be and why, you will probably automatically start to defend your position. Here we were, sitting together, looking at the actual result, and in the end we always seemed to agree on where and at what height to place the camera.
The cheerleading element in The Square draws from the fact that Ruben’s daughters compete in the sport. (They actually came in second in the World Cup this year!) The very first day of our shoot was the Swedish cheerleading championship. We were supposed to get images of audiences, judges, in-the-moment reactions, etc., so the setup was documentary-like. Best of all, Ruben was on some last-minute financing run so he couldn´t be there! I was on my own. It was the first time I shot in Open Gate mode (a larger-than-normal frame size) on the Arri Alexa and even though I had done tests in pre-production, being in the actual universe of the film and seeing it through the lens is different. On the tests, I very much liked how the 50mm lens felt on the larger sensor area, so on that day, among the colorful cheerleaders, I shot most of it on that lens. In the end, none of that footage ended up in the film, but it served as inspiration for the staged event we later created. And we ended up shooting the film almost exclusively on the 32mm. Maybe 50mm was too advanced for us? Next time.
The first proper day of shooting on The Square turned out to be one of my worst days on set ever. We were going to do the car scene in which Christian (Claes Bang) and Michael (Christopher Læssø) drive through a tunnel and get pumped up for their night raid. It starts looking forward down the tunnel. Two motorcycles come roaring past from behind, one of them rearing. The camera in the passenger seat whip pans 45 degrees and is now aimed at Christian driving. Dialogue starts and when Michael leans into frame to raise the volume on the car stereo, the camera whips another 45 degrees, now aimed at him in the backseat. At the end of the two-minute shot we pan back to Christian. I wanted these pans to be super-fast and extremely precise without any correction. They should feel almost like cuts, but with the momentum of the long take intact. The idea was that these whip pans should come at various moments throughout the film to energize without cutting and also create this unsettling sensation.
For the car scene I used the Micro Scorpio remote head because it was the only head I could fit where we wanted it. The problem is that the head is not really made for sequenced programming, meaning it’s easy enough to program separate movements but if you want them to come in a continuous flow, it becomes quite a challenge. On top of that, you have to go several steps into the menu for every pan when operating it. I was riding with my first AC, Sofia Larsson, in a car behind the talent car, operating from there. Resetting everything took a long time; we had a specific route where traffic was blocked, and I knew we had a very limited amount of takes that night.
On the first take, midway through the tunnel, the head suddenly panned totally off.
We reset and I started to reprogram. We drove out of the tunnel and it happened again. And again. And again. Remember, this was the first day; my confidence was not sky-high. It was 2 p.m. and there was no one to call. Between every failed attempt, I locked myself in the car with Sofia and reprogrammed, which took about 10 minutes. I was sweating buckets. Sofia was dead calm and focused.
We headed out again. The first pan worked. We went into the menu to dig out the second movement, pressed the buttons in the correct order (otherwise the head would go back to start position), waited for when Michael leaned into the frame, and then pressed go. And so on.
We came to the end of the tunnel, and out of nowhere the head panned off again. I was out of ideas. Sofia inspected the rig and noticed that the control cable to the head seemed a bit tightly wired. We loosened it, and suddenly it worked. MM
The Square opens in theaters October 27, 2017, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.