Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier is no stranger to the Cannes Film Festival, having premiered his critically acclaimed drama “Oslo, August 31st” at the event in 2011. That movie, the tense day-in-the-life story of a recovering drug addict, came after his similarly well-received debut “Reprise,” the story of aspiring writers released by Miramax in 2006. Still, Trier’s current Cannes entry “Louder Than Bombs,” which premieres at this year’s festival in competition, marks a new stage of his career: It’s his first feature shot in English with a cast of name actors.
The movie, which wrapped production last fall in New York, stars Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert, David Strathairn and Amy Ryan. The story takes place in the aftermath of an established photographer’s death and its impact on her family. Last fall, midway through the production, Indiewire visited the Brooklyn set and spoke with Trier in between takes about his decision to avoid offers for other projects and develop his own project.
Does this production feel any bigger than your previous work?
It feels the same. It’s always full of wanting to do something special and pushing on and the angst and all that stuff — it sounds pretentious — but all that goes into filmmaking. It’s felt exactly the same.
Then again, this is the first time you’re working with well-known American actors. How has that affected the experience?
Well, they’re great. It’s been nice to befriend them. That’s one thing. They are very good. Actually, I feel very privileged working with them. But I think all actors around the world that I’ve worked with — I went to school in England and I worked in France and stuff — everywhere, people struggle with the same challenges: wanting to make it real and nuanced. It’s nice that all of them have opened up. We haven’t had anyone who’s been a prima donna or an asshole. That’s the only worry that you have when you come to work in America with bigger names. But they’ve all been really, really sympathetic and involved in the characters. So far, knock on wood, it’s been a great experience.
A lot of times when non-American filmmakers start getting noticed, they’re asked if they would consider making movies in the U.S. Now you have. So how did that come about?
It’s a long story. After having been to film school in England and after “Reprise” was made, I had a lot of people approach me about doing an American movie. Also, coming from a small country with only five and a half million people speaking my language, it felt kind of interesting to start working on a slightly bigger canvas, with the accessibility of the language that my characters spoke. I had started to write something in English way back. This is a project that’s been around for a long time. I’m trying to find the real character-driven stories that are culturally specific but that I can understand. I’ve spent a lot of time in New York and I feel that this type of family that we’re telling this story about is not only American. I hope it’s more of a humanist story of family relationships and siblings and parent-child dynamics. These are themes that are universal.
What kind of projects were you getting offered before?
A lot of different things — books and a lot of movies. Some have been made. Nothing felt quite right for me, and in that process I guess I’ve also realized that I love writing. I wrote with Eskil Vogt, my co-writer again on this one, and I really enjoy that. We’re writing another Norwegian film that I hope to do quickly after this one, and then maybe we’ll do something in English again. We have a lot of projects that we want to do, so rather than saying that all of those projects that I was offered were awful — several of them were great, probably, but they weren’t right for me.
So then just a few were awful?
The first year after “Reprise” was released, I read like 70 scripts, because I was a polite guy. I spent a year just reading, and I was like “Okay.” None of them were quite right for me. But anyway, it’s nice to get the attention — but I don’t want to come off as an asshole.
Did that experience inform your need to direct what you write?
Yes, I think so. It’s an ongoing process of learning not only your craft, which hopefully progresses and changes, but figuring out the life of being a film director. This is only my third film, so I’m learning as we go along. I’m finding that doing one’s own writing is interesting and it also makes me be bold on set. I can change things around all the time if I need to. I can change a line of dialogue without having to consult anyone, and my co-writer Eskil Vogt, he has complete trust in me as a director. So it’s a very flexible way of working. The actors can also contribute great ideas, which they often have. It gives me authority over the material in a number of ways.
You said you wrote this several years ago.
Right. And it’s been redrafted several times. It’s changed, ironically, a little bit like “Reprise.” Not exactly the same, but “Oslo” was like this quick film that was written and shot right away, while “Reprise” and “Louder Than Bombs” are these more intricate, interwoven story patterns with montage sequences and conceptual scenes — it’s a different process. I choose to look at it as if it probably needed a little bit of time.
Is it accurate to describe the story as a family drama involving multiple generations?
Yeah. I think it’s trying to take into consideration the different perspectives in a family story. It’s about a mother who’s passed away and also a father and his two sons, played by Gabriel [Byrne], Jesse [Eisenberg] and Devin Druid, a fantastic young actor that [casting director] Laura Rosenthal brought to my attention. He’s nailing it. He’s incredible. He’s done a couple of good things before, but for me, he’s just remarkable. Really interesting kid.
How would you describe the theme of the story?
It’s about how they’re grappling with loss and how to move on in life. But more than a story about grief, it’s about identity and memory and how people remember things very differently — and how that plays into the development of their personality. All that sounds very academic, but I hope we have a good character, human drama here.
You’re afraid of sounding academic?
I am! It’s funny because when you put things into words, sometimes they sound very constructed. Like if you say to someone, “We have a lot of conceptual montage scenes.” That sounds very cold and remote, maybe, or removed from the audience. But what we’re trying to do is get into the characters’ heads. We’re tracking perception, we’re tracking memory, we’re going through the thought processes, we’re looping back and forth in time, we’re going through the same moments that they share, and sometimes seeing it from different perspectives. Someone described it to me as a family drama told in the tradition of Russian literature. It has a lot of mystery in it because they’re trying to figure out who was Isabelle [Huppert], the mother, Gabriel’s wife. There are things being revealed in this story that play into the present day action.
So a lot of flashbacks, then.
Yeah, and dream sequences and stuff. A little bit back to the patchwork aesthetic of “Reprise.” Playing around with the medium, but doing it close to the skin and trying to do it with a big machine this time. Look at all the trucks parked out there. That’s not what I’m used to. But all of the team is very, very involved: We’ve cast our team with people who read the script, who got involved, who want to do this specific film. One hears that you come to America and the teams are very professional, but they might not be as engaged in your specific script. I’ve found, on the contrary, that these people are very, very engaged with what we’re doing. I’m really happy about the team, which makes a huge different for me as a director.
You’re credited as an executive producer as well. How hard was it to gather the necessary resources to get this project off the ground?
All credit is due to all of the producers. Many people have worked on this and done great work, both in Europe and in America. Arte is involved, CNC, Danish Nimbus, Norwegeian Motlys — all that is a bunch of European financing. Then there’s Animal Kingdom, Big Beach, Bona Fide, great people. Memento is helping us. But this is all the business side.
To make a film like this where the director has final cut and it’s at this level where the cast has been cast not for financial reasons but because they’re right for the roles — those are ideals that I had at home. Those were the principles. That’s why it’s taken so long, to be honest. We didn’t want to settle for any other way of doing it. I have other projects I could do. I wanted to do this one right. I don’t want to be one of those Europeans falls on his ass in America — that’s my biggest nightmare. Of course, it might still happen — who knows how this film will turn out? — but right now, it’s not filming at that state.
What do you think is the biggest challenge at this point?
Just mentioning the words “family drama” will have people step back, probably. I want to kidnap the drama back from HBO and put it on the big screen. We’re shooting in 35mm.
Are you going to be able to show it that way?
Perhaps not. We’ll probably have a couple of screenings like that. I’m more accepting of DCP projections than I am of the shooting of it. I still love 35, and I think that it will make a difference when people see it. I truly do. This is how I shoot. I’ve always done it. I’ve got Jakob Ihre, my wonderful DP — he has the Arriflex LT on his shoulder with the ultra-prime. Simple lenses. It’s the way that we play.
How has the production evolved since you started?
It’s always a discovery full of surprises. Every film you’ll find — and all filmmakers will say this, but it’s really true — I’m trying to stay open to it. We just this morning changed around the dialogue in a later scene and we have another scene set earlier that’s left today, so we asked the cast to start doing some of that dialogue while we were doing our first scene. And so that dialogue played in. I’m trying all the time to stay open to finding the film. We need luck to make movies. It’s fishing or something. Maybe I’m using a stupid metaphor, but what I mean is that you don’t know anything before it happens.
How would you describe the tone? It sounds like a fusion of the multilayered narrative approach in “Reprise” and the quieter style of “Oslo.”
It has humor as well — it’s mixed — but I agree. It’s an interesting question you’re asking about the mixture of the two. I think I’ve learned a lot about character from “Oslo” and about how to go in deeper, almost, with a single character. Then I’m bringing that back into that ambition of a multi-layered narrative from “Reprise.” Maybe that’s the way to see it. I hadn’t thought about it that way. But since you’re mentioning it…let’s see how it turns out.
What was the hardest period of the shoot? You had five weeks with Jesse before he was due back on the set for “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
No, that was actually okay. He’s a damn good craftsman of an actor. He’s very pleasant and a great guy, actually. Very collaborative. You could give him five notes.
But you had him the shortest period?
It was okay. He’s a sport. There were some long days there, but I think he did well. He’s a great actor. You can give him very specific direction and he will be like “OK” and do five different variations. Fantastic guy.
What do you make of somebody with those kind of strengths doing superhero movies?
Perhaps I shouldn’t say too much, but maybe this has also been a little bit of a new thing for him as well. It’s a different type of character than he’s played before. I hope people will enjoy what I’ve enjoyed, which is Jesse going out on a limb. In “Louder Than Bombs,” it’s quite a dramatic character. Very subtle and dramatic. He’s often been cast in more comedic roles; he’s done some serious drama like “The Social Network,” but this is different. I don’t want to put down his other work, which is remarkable, but he’s doing something specific for this movie. That he’s embraced that, I think, is marvelous. I’m really happy about that.
What about Isabelle Huppert?
She’s great. It’s very fun to work with her. She’s a very generous person, and damn what a pro. We were discussing something around her when we were setting up a shot, and she was sitting there and she said, “Oh, Chabrol always used the 50mm lens.” I thought, “Goddamn it! She’s worked through this.” Plus, she’s a film buff, and she shares her experiences a lot.
And Gabriel Byrne?
Gabriel’s fantastic. He plays the father, the warm gene, of the family. It’s a modern take on a dad, I think, grappling with his sons and being there in a strange way. I think as a person he is that, the character of looking out for everyone. David Straithairn is funny, Amy Ryan is incredible. We have Rachel Brosnahan, I don’t know if you’re familiar with her. She’s in “House of Cards,” and is someone to look out for. She plays Jesse’s ex-girlfriend. She’s really great. It’s a good variety of people.
Are there other films that would say have inspired aspects of this one?
I grew up watching a lot of American movies that I thought were about drama. You look at a lot of Woody Allen’s work, especially also his more serious movies like “Interiors” or “Another Woman.” And “Ordinary People,” or Paul Newman movies. A lot of American movies. Of course you have films like “The Ice Storm,” as well — things that deal with the family. A lot of that, going back to what I was saying earlier, has been shown wonderfully on TV. I think there’s still a place on the big screen for those types of stories.