Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier is best known for serious outings like “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31st,” but the Palme d’Or-nominated writer and director is loathe to classify his work in such general terms. With his English-language debut, “Louder Than Bombs,” Trier continues to embrace drama and pain, but the film is also rife with humor, lightness and even a throwback to the Tangerine Dream-created score for “Risky Business.” It’s Trier’s most “Hollywood” film yet, but that doesn’t mean that he’s eager to do something commercial. In his mind, labels “suck” and he’s just not interested in adhering to them.
Featuring a large cast of both known names and emerging talents, “Louder Than Bombs” focuses on a family — played by Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid — who are still reeling from the death of their wife and mother (Isabelle Huppert) some years earlier. While Byrne’s Gene has attempted to move on and Eisenberg’s Jonah has managed to hide his emotional issues, it’s young Conrad (Druid) that seems most unnerved by the mysterious end of his equally mysterious war photographer mother. As the three men are forced to confront the nature of their lives (and of the woman who still holds sway over them), Trier blends together keen humor, a steadily shifting tone and an impressive grasp of ever-changing perceptions.
Trier sat down with Indiewire at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he happily discussed his rejection of labels, why he was excited to inject some CGI into his feature and how he and writing partner Eskil Vogt finally learned that America wasn’t just “The Simpsons.”
Some spoilers ahead.
This film is your English-language debut, so it seems destined to be billed as some huge step forward for you, though your films have always been well-received. Do you feel like it’s a big change for you?
I sometimes feel that to ask people how they feel about their different films is like asking how they feel about their different children. Because one has strange teeth and pointy ears and they’re not perfect, but you love them all for different reasons or for an experience. Maybe that’s a silly metaphor, but I feel that way. It’s hard for me to judge and I usually don’t watch my films again. But I did actually, I watched “Reprise” again because there was a celebration of it being 10 years since it was shot. Eight years since it came out in the U.S., nine years in Norway, but 10 years since it was actually recorded. And now it’s kind of fun to see, I see that I’ve changed and I’ve developed.
Ultimately, every time I make a film that’s a little bit scary, because you…for those particular films I was very fortunate, I got a lot of praise, a lot of great reviews. So whenever I do something, I worry that people won’t like it as much. On the other hand, to see that I develop and change is a good thing because then there’s a reason to continue. So I’m actually embracing what you’re saying and I really appreciate it.
I hope that, now I did this, and next time I’ll do something different again. And as a creative person, if you only approach this as a popularity contest, you can get stuck in a quite tiny corner. You know what I mean? I try to take risks and try something and experiment in the forms of dramedy, and not every moment of all my films are perfect. I know that.
What was your experience like seeing “Reprise” again after so much time had passed?
It was comforting, because I thought it was much, much funnier than I remember. Actually, the first half of it, the audience was laughing continuously at a lot of jokes. Some of them a little bit silly, but I’m kind of happy about that. [Laughs]
I remember people always talking about how serious “Reprise” was, and I remember some of the people who were negative to “Reprise” were saying things like, “Oh, you’re making these intellectual films.” It’s also got a lot of humor, that was a nice thing to see. But people interpret these things so differently, I never figure it out. There are specific developments.
With “Oslo, August 31st,” I started shooting longer takes, maybe I became even more curious, a more in-depth character drama. Even though that is in “Reprise,” somehow it’s just differently paced, I guess. So I guess I’m changing.
Much like “Oslo,” “Louder Than Bombs” is concerned with perception, especially in families.
You can still talk to your parents about memories and how differently you perceive them. I think everyone has that in their family, the sense that the roles that we’re given or the way that we come home for Christmas or something and we feel, “Ah, Jesus, that character now again, Jesus.” [Laughs] That whole sense of the roles that we end up with in family relationships are not necessarily who we perceive ourselves as.
That’s dramatic premise in itself, but it’s not a story, it’s a dynamic. We were very interested in specific scenes and dynamics of a family, and tried to see if we could make something out of that. And then we had a lot of formal ideas for this one. Ways of using voiceover or trying to use the film media to get into people’s heads, show their thinking. Conrad sitting in class, listening to a girl reading from a book. Then her reading turns into this voiceover, and he thinks about his mother and he thinks what did his mother think about him? Then we go into that, and we come back to the classroom. That’s almost like a set piece, I haven’t seen someone do exactly that version of that scene.
So can we do that? Yeah, let’s try it! Sometimes it’s just a bit of a drama stunt, we try some stuff.
That sequence is very ambitious, but it’s very easy to follow what is actually happening within it.
I hope so, yeah.
There’s a lot of that sort of thing in film, shifting perceptions that really open it up, especially when it comes to Conrad and his father. Is that something that was in the script very early on?
It was, that exact thing, kind of starting a diversion, opening it up to different versions as you understand more of what each character has experienced. That was part of the premise for this one. Conrad says at some point during that sequence — which is almost like a diary, a manifesto that his brother reads — he says that his mother taught him how, if you change the framing of an image, you change the whole meaning. And I guess that’s a metaphor for the whole film, how the film opens up more and more.
That sequence also adds some levity to the film. You used the Tangerine Dream score from “Risky Business,” and suddenly, the film feels like a much lighter, teen-driven feature.
You noticed! Yeah, it’s an homage to some of the great American 1980’s teenage movies. Particularly ones by John Hughes, like “Breakfast Club,” but also Paul Brickman’s marvelous “Risky Business.” Great film. And there’s great satire in American society. Capitalism and identity and all this stuff, it’s great for filmmaking. And it’s taking kids serious, which I love. I want to pay homage to that, so that just fit perfectly, and I’m a big Tangerine Dream fan. Unfortunately, Edgar Froese, the main guy behind Tangerine Dream, passed away this spring, but it was really great to be allowed to use that music.
That part also helps the audience to feel much closer to Conrad, while the distance between us and Jonah seems to stick throughout. How much of that was Jesse’s performance and how much was in the script?
I think it was very much in the script, the fact that Jonah is perceived as someone and perceives himself as someone in great control. And he’s got this great family life, he’s got this baby and things are seemingly all okay. But it’s not — he’s maybe the one who carries the most complicated grief around. Also maybe because he idealized his mother so much and doesn’t want to see her as the complex being that she was, and feels threatened by the truth. Then you’ll always lose, that’s the basis of any tragedy, isn’t it?
He literally tries to throw the truth into a trash can.
Absolutely, [laughs] literally. That’s not a great idea.
That’s not going to change how you feel now.
Exactly, don’t deny the truth, dude. It’s a bad sign. But it’s also, I feel for him actually I do. I think he’s been put under some sort of responsibility in that family of sustaining control and togetherness that hasn’t been very easy for him. I understand what you’re saying, he makes some of the worst mistakes of the movie. But living is tricky, and I think Jesse was very bold.
But he also corners himself because he’s someone who always comments, wants control, and cuts people down. And ultimately, he’s left very much alone. That’s why I feel for him somehow. I understand what you mean by feeling he’s less sympathetic in the classical sense, but that’s also what makes that character kind of interesting I think.
Jesse’s a very funny guy, very intelligent. But for him to go and do a kind of take on such a subtly, slightly sinister character that also has truth to it, I think that’s really bold. And it’s not to be expected from him, and I’m very happy about that.
It’s hard to compete with Conrad because he is the big revelation in the film. He ends the film, he becomes the pivot, but he starts out as the freak. He actually is the only character who perhaps doesn’t really change that much. Because he’s really consistent, but he’s revealed, we peel the onion, we see who he truly is after a while. I should watch it so I don’t spoil it too much for the audience, but I can sympathize with what you’re saying.
Now that you’ve done something like this with such a wonderful high school aged character, do you think you might do something focused more on that age range?
I might not do exactly high school, but I am doing one of the several things. I’m writing about younger people again. It was interesting, Eskil and I did not grow up in America, we’ve been to America quite a lot and watched a lot of movies, but at some point Eskil said jokingly, “Jesus, all we know about America, we’ve learned from ‘The Simpsons,’ we’ve got to go there more and do research.” [Laughs] “Cheerleaders, are there really cheerleaders anymore, or is it just a mythology from the 80s?”
Alongside these great performances, you’ve also got some really technical stuff, including a car crash that features a lot of CGI to make it work.
It was huge. What I knew early on was, I didn’t want to make a family grief drama, dysfunctional family, all those labels suck. When I hear that I go, “Ooh, I don’t want to see that.” That’s part of the truth of what this is, but we also wanted it to be a spectacular journey of dreams and memories and visuals and I wanted it to be a strong visual film.
So we actually try to really…we got quite a big budget for this one, CGI effects. I’ve shot a lot of commercials and stuff and people who don’t know my work I might sound like I’m this European Dardenne purist who only makes social dramas. And, sure, I love that stuff, but I’m actually really interested in — my camera is almost never standing, it always moves, I always want to do something that’s cinematic and in motion. The car crash was a treat, that was interesting to do.
I’m not really talking much about it because I always want it to be — for my own sake, not that everyone else is so interested — but just secret, so we keep the pressure on it to want to create that script to then talk about it. But we know that we want to do one Norwegian story, and we have an international English-language that might be set in several places, but maybe also some in America that we would love to do after that. I’m open to things changing as well. But I would love to do an American film again, that would be fantastic.
“Louder Than Bombs” had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this week. The film will open in the U.S. in the spring of 2016.