Back to IndieWire

Lacking Heroism: Dir. Ruben Östlund and star Johannes Kuhnke on ‘Force Majeure’

Interview: Dir. Ruben Östlund and star Johannes Kuhnke on 'Force Majeure'

Fear is an irrational survival mechanism that pushes us to seek safety when facing danger. But what happens when this innate response clashes with societal
expectations? A man must defend his family regardless of the consequences or harm this may cause him, at least that’s what we are taught. When an unexpected event shows his wife a side of him she
couldn’t otherwise see, Thomas, a Swedish businessman on vacation with his family, has to confront his exposed weakness. Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund’s
latest work, “Force Majeure,” is an intelligent dramedy about gender, instincts, and complex human relationships.

Insightful and genuinely hilarious, the film forces us to question our values and behavior in the face of adversity. Would you run and deal with shame? Or
would you bravely confront danger as is expected? Society’s fear of our lack of heroism translates in us hiding our predetermination for being selfish
creatures. “Force Majeure” has been critically acclaimed since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and it was released theatrically by Magnolia
Pictures in October.
Director Ruben Östlund and star Johannes Kuhnke sat down with us recently in Los Angeles.

Force Majeure” is Sweden’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards and it has also been nominated for a
Golden Globe Award in the Best Foreign Language category.

Carlos Aguilar: What was your approach to create this complex characters and getting to the core of their relationship? This singular event changes the
way the characters see each other.

Ruben Östlund:
The film’s topic has to do with my own relationship experience. “Do you really trust the person next to you?” My girlfriend and I argued when she asked, “I
wonder how you would react in a situation like that?” Even if you know that we are only talking about this in a hypothetical way, you still get a bit hurt
as a man. As a want you want women to at least think you are the kind of man that would have stayed.

That’s why the topic is interesting, because you can’t look at it from a very rational way. It’s about survival instinct. It has nothing to do with this
person in your everyday life or in other situations. This is only something that happened in a glimpse of a second. Even though we are thinking of it as an
event that says something more profound about this person. We are so afraid of being selfish, but everybody is like that when we want to do something that
is just for ourselves.

We are ashamed of being selfish when it comes to relationships and family as well. Particularly when you are fighting to have a relationship based on
equality and to share the burden of everyday life. As a man I think you also feel a bit accused of not taking responsibility the way that you should have
done it. There is something about that feeling that makes the situation so intense once the avalanche happens.

Aguilar: Gender and survival are the center of your story. Tell
me about writing the script and including all these complex nuances
about human
behavior when facing danger.

Ruben Östlund:
It was quiet easy for me to write this film because the core of the
film, the avalanche scene, is so strong and raises so many questions. It
was obvious
for me that this story highlights the expectations we have when it
comes to gender, the role of men and woman in a relationship. I also
used several
sociological studies as inspiration for the film. One of them was
about airplane hijackings, which said that the frequency of divorce is
extremely high for
couples that experience an event like this. In crisis situations you
see another side of your partner that you didn’t know. It might make
you decide you
don’t want to live with that persona anymore.

We have so many prejudices and expectations about how we should
react in such situations. A lot of these myths come from how we think
the Titanic
catastrophe took place. The idea of women and children leaving the
ship first or the idea of the captain staying with his ship until it
sinks to the bottom
of the ocean. But when you look at the statistics, the ones that
often survive are men of a certain age and the ones that usually die are
women and kids.
Men are more likely to act in a selfish way when facing a crisis.
After a tragedy we are often eager to praise the heroes, but most
survivors have done
something they feel guilty about in order to survive.

Aguilar: “Force Majeure” is definitely a master class in tone and the perfect combination between comedy and poignant observations.

Ruben Östlund:
The tone I was aiming for was a blend between strong humorous moments and very strong dramatic moments with some awkward silences and awkward situations as
well. For example, during the avalanche scene there is a line that I’m very proud of. Just before the avalanche is triggered the young boy asks, “Excuse
me, is there any Parmesan cheese?” Then “Bang” the avalanche is triggered. I’m always trying to find that kind of humor. [Laughs]

I try to highlight the pressure that is building up between the couple and within the family with longer static shots in the scenes when they are in the
hotel. That’s also perhaps what reminds people of Kubrick, like “The Shinning” or other films involving hotels as more than just a
The fact that I didn’t use music to highlight any emotions and that I worked with these uncomfortable silences, adds to the tone.

Aguilar: Tell me about creating the impressive avalanche sequence.

Ruben Östlund:
The avalanche was actually British Columbia while we were building
the restaurant set in a studio in Gothenburg, Sweden where I work and
live. The scene is
a combination of green screen, a real avalanche, snow smoke we added
on the set, and GCI. We had very high hopes with that scene. Our goal
was to create
the most spectacular avalanche seen in film history [Laughs]. You
and the audience can decide if we have succeeded.

Aguilar: What I find the most interesting about the avalanche sequence is that he is accused of being a terrible family man because he focuses on
getting his phone and his gloves rather than protecting his family. Does his reaction question his priorities?

Johannes Kuhnke
: He is very committed to work and the phone is his connection to that. He is there to have some time off because he works so much for his family. It’s
also about his income. He has to pay for all this expensive ski gear. Therefore, his job is very important to him.

Ruben Östlund:
I think Eva is projecting things that she believes are wrong in their relationship onto Thomas actions during the avalanche. She is projecting them on the
fact that he got his gloves and his phone. If you look at it closely, he is filming this avalanche. The phone is already in his hand. He ends up with it,
and that’s what Eva is using to accuse him.

Aguilar: The scene in which Thomas finally breaks down is particularly powerful, how difficult was it for both of you to create that as a director and
an actor?

Ruben Östlund:
We had been talking about that scene since day 1. During the casting I said, “In one of the scenes you are going down”

Johannes Kuhnke
: It had to be the worse “man cry” ever. We were trying to make this an over-the-top scene. It shouldn’t be funny, it should be a breakdown, but different
from what we are used to. In film and TV when a man cries it tends to be very poetic, we wanted to get away from that. He is on the floor and he becomes a
little baby.

Ruben Östlund:
Everybody remembers the moment when you see your father cry for the first time. I think we all share the perspective of the kids when they watch that
scene. Thinking of them is like, “Oh my God, they are being exposed to this emotional outburst,” that’s powerful.

Aguilar: Where you concern about avoiding the clichés and stereotypes associated with gender roles?

Ruben Östlund:
It was quiet easy because they are so obvious. Man as a hero is the most reproduced image in cinema, and women are almost always present as sex symbols.
That’s what the film is about. It’s about the stereotypes and the expectations. It’s about the expected roles that we are trying to play when we are in a
relationship. I actually think we are playing the roles of a man and a woman because we think we have to.

Aguilar: The location itself is very peculiar. The characters are isolated from their regular lives but they are not alone in this ski resort. Added to
this there are explosions at all hours of the day creating avalanches, it’s all very haunting.

Ruben Östlund:
The devices that create the explosions and blow up the snow are called Gazex tubes. They are not often used in North America, but in Europe they used them
a lot. Every time it snows at night, when you wake up in the morning you hear “Boom! Boom!” It feels like it’s a war zone.

Also, there is something about being in a mountain environment that makes us feel exposed. You have to adapt to nature, you are constantly feeling there is
danger in this environment. You might get lonely when you are on this vast a mountain and you feel small. That’s what we were aiming for when were trying
to find the right angles while shooting the scenes, to show how small we are in comparison to the environment.

Aguilar: There is a scene near the end that can be a bit ambiguous, but I interpret it as a way for Thomas an Eva to reassure their kids they are going
to stay together. Other people have interpreted it differently. What was your intention?

Ruben Östlund:
What I really like about that scene is the moment right after Thomas says, “We made, we made it!” In a conventional movie we would have cut after he says
that, but instead we stay in the scene for a few more seconds. They have to get up, they wipe of the snow, and then she goes to get her skies.

This highlights this idea that they finally got each other and they live happily ever after, but no! Their everyday lives are going to continue after he
says, “We made it!” They are going to go down the mountain, pack their luggage, and they are going to take the bus. That scene makes it so painful because
it would have been a happy ending, “Can’t they just stop here?”

Aguilar: Are romantic comedies or the Hollywood ideal of love to blame for our disappointment with relationships?

Ruben Östlund:
Most of it comes from your upbringing. It’s interesting because people that have seen a lot of romantic comedies actually get divorced more often that
other people. They have high expectations of what life should be. When I look back at my first relationship, I didn’t have a clue of what was happening
because I didn’t have experience. I didn’t have any references from cinema that I could actually use. It’s easy to get confused when you are trying to live
your life with those expectations.

Aguilar: In the context of your film, or perhaps in general in the real world, what does being a “man” mean in this day and age?

Johannes Kuhnke
: I think the chances of a man running in a situation like this are high, but I think Thomas was brave enough to show his weakness. That says a lot about
being a man.

Ruben Östlund:
I agree with Johannes. That’s what the ending is about. He suddenly can be truthful to other people about the person that he knows he is. That’s what shame
is. You can’t show who you are to other people until you accept it yourself. There are so many things we don’t want to show others even though we know we
are doing them. When his son asks him, “Do you smoke?” and he finally replies, “Yes, I do” It’s a small step in the right direction to becoming a “man.”

Johannes Kuhnke
: I also think that we are teaching our children to be good people by being role models. If not, then they grow up and have kids and their reaction will be
“Why didn’t anybody tell me that marriage was really, really, horrible?” [Laughs]. Most times we pretend to be happy in front of the kids so they have no
clue how to deal with it. They need to know how things work.

Aguilar: The English title “Force Majeure” speaks of an act beyond human understanding or control. How do you think this concept relates to your film?

Ruben Östlund:
I think it’s a good title because the avalanche becomes a metaphor, and the ski resort becomes a metaphor as well. It’s about the struggle between the
force of nature and the civilized man. Nature is trying to reclaim the uncivilized side on men. Force Majeure means “Major Force” in French. It’s a power
that we can’t control. Insurance companies use it as a legal term to describe an event out of your control. If you look at a marriage, it’s also a legal
agreement. This agreement can also end because of an event out of our control.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox