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‘The Square’ Director Ruben Östlund Wants to Push Cultural Boundaries, But Won’t Read Any Scripts With Killing

People can't stop talking about the monkey and the condom in art-world satire "The Square," which holds up an unflattering mirror to complacent Liberal high culture.

“The Square”

“Revenge!” cried Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund as he recalled winning the Cannes Palme d’Or for “The Square” (Magnolia) last May. While the red-haired provocateur has an impish sense of humor —one early DVD touted “the best Swedish movie of the year” on the back cover, and on the inside, “the worst Swedish movie of the year” — his films steer audiences into uncomfortable places, forcing them to look at themselves in unflattering close-up.

That’s why Östlund is used to fielding a range of reactions to his movies. “It’s pointless if I communicate something and everyone agrees,” he told IndieWire. “Since my first movie, I have been dealing with ‘provoke food.'” (That’s Östlund for “food for thought.”)

However, he has his limits. ”I never kill any of the characters in my film,” he said. “I had to say to WME, my agents who are sending me scripts: ‘I don’t want to kill anyone in my films. I have never seen anything killed in my life; why would I produce those images when people are getting killed all the time?’ So few filmmakers in my business can say they have never killed in their films. It’s a cheap way to create a dramatic moment.”

“Force Majeure”

Magnolia Pictures

That said, Östlund’s films never shy from conflict. His first fiction feature, 2004’s “Gitarrmongot,” translates as “The Guitar Mongoloid.” His breakout came a decade later with “Force Majeure,” shot at a ski resort, a setting he knew well; he shot ski movies until he started film school. “The whole point of ‘Force Majeure’ is the avalanche scene,” he told me over lunch in West Hollywood, “and the father who runs away. There you have it. When Tomas runs away from the avalanche, that’s instinct; then he has to live up to the idea of what a man ‘should’ do.”

The shortlisted foreign-language Oscar entry movie fared so well with audiences and critics that Östlund believed it was a slam-dunk for the 2015 Oscar nomination. He and his 15-year producing partner Erik Hemmendorff confidently videoed themselves at Central Park’s Trump Tower chomping apples and watching the nominations live.

Östlund recalled the day: “We are super jet-lagged,” he said. “We have a whole day scheduled after the announcement. We are cocky and self-assured. Then we realize they are going to tell the films in alphabetical order. All the folks stopped calling. From it being so hectic, it was silent — ‘What are we going to do with this failure?’ Then I realize, when I go off-screen, we can record the sound of me freaking out.'” The resulting YouTube video went viral.

Which is one reason why the Palme d’Or win for “The Square” at Cannes, over such fellow eventual Oscar submissions as “BPM: Beats Per Minute” and “Loveless,” was so sweet. “That day waiting for the call was a very nervous day,” he said. “I went and bought a new tuxedo shirt. The first one out, I didn’t want to share the screenwriting prize with Yorgos Lanthimos. Then there was Best Director and Best Actor. Finally there was only one prize left — ‘The Golden Palm goes to ‘The Square!’ It’s a relief.” Now Sweden has submitted Östlund again for the foreign-language Oscar.

Elisabeth Moss and Ruben Ostlund at Cannes

Cannes Film Festival

Unlike the self-contained story of “Force Majeure,” “The Square” sprawls across as a series of broken social contracts. “It’s a larger topic about society,” Östlund said, “who we should be as human beings, ethics and morality.”

The writer started collecting stories on that theme. He attended a theatre performance with a man with Tourette’s Syndrome spasmodically clapping; his wife told him about a beggar who asked for Chicken Ciabatta. “I wanted to find a situation where my morality was challenged,” said Östlund, “even when I think about myself as a good guy. When I am failing, we learn something about ourselves.”

In his home town of Gothenberg, he read court transcripts about boys robbing other boys of their phones, as nearby adults did nothing. “Adults didn’t stop them. It was the bystander effect,” he said. “Kids didn’t help, either. Back in the ’50s, you looked to older adults to help children; now it feels more individualistic. Society has become safer, but our paranoia has increased.”

That led him to create the antihero of “The Square,” museum director Christian, a well-groomed, entitled, and powerful man at the top of high culture. “It’s interesting to be a man nowadays,” said Östlund. “Things have been very safe in our position being patriarchs of society. Our behavior has never been in the limelight. Now the camera is aimed back at us and we are being criticized for our behavior, which is scary and brings out self-consciousness, a feeling of ‘Why should I be judged?'”

“The Square” follows two storylines. One follows the museum as it markets an installation, The Square, in which a person standing inside the lit border can ask a stranger standing outside for a favor. The other plot involves Christian’s pursuit of his stolen wallet and phone. Östlund and a friend came up with The Square concept, inspired by the moment in 1967 when Swedish drivers switched overnight from driving on the left to the right, as well as pavement crosswalks. “It’s a beautiful invention,” said Östlund, who oversaw its installation in two Swedish locations well before production began. “Paint lines on the street and car drivers are careful of pedestrians. We can have other contracts where we are true to each other and share humanistic values.”


Terry Notary in “The Square”

When he was writing the script, Östlund felt something was missing. “Something was boring in the film,” he said. “It wasn’t wild enough. I came up with an idea: What if Anne has a monkey at home? One hour in, suddenly comes a monkey into the apartment and sits down. Anything can happen from that. You are opening up the movie for the audience, they’re insecure, you get them on their toes again, you play with them. You don’t know what I’m going to do with you!”

The director saw actor Terry Notary on YouTube in a demo for how he used arm extensions to mimic chimpanzee movements in “Planet of the Apes.” “The monkey is often used in art to remind us that we are animals with instincts,” said Östlund. “In this clash between two personalities, instinct and culture, interesting things happen.”

Here, it took the form of a formal dinner when a crazy performance artist (Notary) playing a wild animal hunting his prey disrupts their meal. The 11-minute scene took one day to choreograph with complicated tracking shots and three more to shoot.

“It’s a love-hate thing,” he said. “I’m so happy I am not there. I have a tickling feeling looking at it, it’s stimulating. I’m scared of it, but I can enjoy it because I am not there. If you create the right rhythm, then you will get the audience’s attention. I edit each scene by itself, trying to push as far as possible. That scene should be the strongest moment in the film.”

After seeing “The Square” at Cannes with a big audience for the first time, the filmmaker went back into the editing room to sharpen the last 30 minutes. “I sped it up a little,” he said.

Claes Bang

Magnolia Pictures

When casting his lead, Östlund auditioned widely in Scandinavia, the UK, and America, asking the actors to write a speech about how they would use The Square. Danish actor Claes Bang nailed it after three meetings, said Östlund: “He wanted someone to stand there and say, ‘My father has just died and I have no one to talk to, can you talk to me for an hour?’ That hit me in my chest. He had the ability to put emotions into this very conceptual idea.”

Bang is sleekly attractive, speaks Danish in the movie (Sweden and Denmark understand each other) and English with a plummy British accent. Some reviewers like him as the next James Bond. Östlund chortles: “Hey, Danish directors and film industry, why didn’t you see Claes Bang until he turned 50? You missed out on him!'”

He chose “Handmaid’s Tale” star Elisabeth Moss for journalist Anne, who interviews the museum director at the start of the film, and later takes him to bed. “She’s so American,” he said. “She’s the most intelligent actor I have been working with. She has an understanding; she got the set-up for the situation.” The director liked to let his actors improvise, he said: “She had an intuitive way of adding things herself. ‘Why didn’t I write that?'”

Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang

In the film, Anne and Christian have sex and she asks for his condom, which he clutches protectively to his bare chest. “The social contract between a man and a woman if they’ve had sex is, ‘Now what do we do, how do we solve this?,'” said Östlund. “She was using this to push him in a corner because she likes him and doesn’t dare to say it. That scene is shifting. Is he paranoid? Is she going to do something? Is he being silly?”

“From the beginning, Ruben asked me to take [Christian] down, unsettle him,” Moss told me during an interview with Bang in Toronto.

“He might have phoned her and said ‘Let’s go out again,'” said Bang, “if he didn’t have the feeling she’s coming on too strong.”

“Anne’s a bit smarter than he thinks she is,” Moss said. “She’s throwing [the condom] out there. She knows the reaction she’s going to get; it’s like blood in the water.”

“This is like food for an actor,” said Bang. “You can work with this. On set, Ruben is prepared to wait for what he wants. He has a bullshit detector.”

“He needs to feel it and believe it and knows when he’s got it,” said Moss. “He’s asking a lot of his actors and of himself, too.”

“It’s like a piece of free-form jazz,” said Bang. “I think the structure is challenging and not satisfying, in a way…This is what life is. If you want absolution, you don’t get it.”

Next up for Östlund: The director is assembling financing for his first English-language film, “Triangle of Sadness,” about a working-class male fashion model starting to go bald and seeks a romantic partner with whom he can brand a new identity. He’s meeting with talent. Calling Channing Tatum!

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