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‘Triangle of Sadness’: Behind the Ruben Östlund Comedy’s Big Sale to Neon at Cannes

The Swedish Palme d'Or winner ("The Square") loves making us laugh, no matter how long it takes.

"Triangle of Sadness" is Ruben Ostlund's new comedy which sold to Neon at Cannes.

“Triangle of Sadness”

There’s a reason why Cannes Competition title “Triangle of Sadness” just sold big to Neon after an extended bidding war among A24, Searchlight, and others.

It’s the Scene. After the first screenings at Cannes, audiences came out laughing, and they kept telling people about the Scene. It takes its time. It builds. And builds. It starts on a yacht cruise, during the Captain’s Dinner, as the seas start to roil and exquisite seafood is served to the champagne-sipping black-tie passengers. The waiters lift the gold lids on briny octopus as the cabin starts to tip up and down. Soon a few guests start to feel queasy. One throwing up inspires another. And another. Meanwhile the Marxist captain (Woody Harrelson) engages in a drunken dialectic quote-throwing contest with a Russian oligarch (Zlatko Buric).

And that’s just the beginning. Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, whose Palme d’Or winning, Oscar-nominated art-world satire “The Square” was a global hit, took six months to edit that sequence. And he previewed his first English-language movie five or six times to see how audiences in different countries responded to his latest shot at the self-satisfied bourgeoisie. This time Östlund inverts the class structure by stranding that oligarch on a desert island with two influencers (Charlbi Dean and Harris Dickinson, who beat 119 rivals for the role), a software billionaire (Henrik Dorsin), and a member of the yacht service staff (Dolly De Leon).

After “The Square,” everyone was curious to see what Östlund would do next. He took rounds of enthusiastic meetings. Signed with WME. Saw Searchlight turn his movie “Force Majeure” into mediocre remake “Downhill.” And thought he had set up his next deal. “I was a little bit naive and maybe unprepared,” he told IndieWire at Cannes, “because it seems like there’s a different way of doing business deals in Europe and in the US. It’s also a way of getting you away from competitors by saying ‘yes, yes, we will work with you, blah blah blah.’ And then in the end when you’re signing the contract, it’s like, ‘no.’ It made us waste one year.”

Triangle of Sadness

“Triangle of Sadness”

Cannes Film Festival

This is standard operating procedure in Hollywood. So the Swedish filmmaker ended up raising the financing for “Triangle of Sadness” through old-fashioned funding via broadcasters, funding bodies, and pre-sales with the indie distributors who did well with his prior movies. And he wound up making a $10 million movie with complete freedom. “The Square” had enough English to give him the confidence that he could handle an English language comedy. “I was afraid that some nuances would disappear,” he said. “And of course, when you go to into English, then you actually are evaluated by the international critics in a different way. When you do filming in a different language, you can cover up bad acting and bad pronunciation of dialogue. So you’re much more exposed when you do an English-language film.”

Of course, English can broaden a movie’s global appeal. But not every international filmmaker can successfully make that transition. “My intention was to shock the audience as much as I always want to shock the audience,” he said. “But I was scared to lose my old audience. I was scared to lose the kind of connection I had built up with the distributors of the European arthouse cinema. It’s been very important for me to try to keep that audience and step it up, make it a little bit bigger, of course.”

And comedy can be universal, especially physical comedy. “The situation has such a clear and strong setup,” said Östlund. “Like paying the bill between a man and a woman. Culturally, since we live in a patriarchal world, not only do the men have the money, but basically all the countries where I pitched the film, everybody can relate to this situation. And many of my situations are very simple. They are not twisted or advanced. They are more similar to stand-up comedy humor. So I was maybe a little bit worried about some nuances, but not in the big picture.”

Ruben Ostlund at Cannes

Anne Thompson

The nugget of the movie came from his wife, fashion photographer Sina Görtz, who told him that male models make one-third the income of the women. “They are considered just male models,” he said. “It was just a reversed hierarchy, and one of the few professions where men earn less than women. So it was an interesting starting point.”

And Östlund got interested in the story of a model who was working as a car mechanic at age 19 when he was street-cast and became the face for a huge perfume campaign. “He got so connected with the brand of the perfume,” he said, “that no one else booked him. And at the same time, he’s up there on the top and being world-famous. He’s starting to lose his hair. So the agent was saying to him, ‘Okay, you have a couple of more years before the hair problem is too much. But in order to make you get booked again, it would be great if you get together with a famous girlfriend, because then we can rebrand you. And then you’re not only the perfume guy.’ And this guy was saying, ‘What about love?'”

As for the scene in the elevator when the couple is fighting about who paid for dinner, that happened to Östlund and his girlfriend before she became his wife. “If you go to the Martinez, and you look in the elevator shaft, maybe the 50 Euro bill is still there,” he said, “because that happened. When we met five years ago, I was on the jury here. And we had that fight about the bill and I loved her too much to go into these roles. And I felt I have to take the bull by the horn and discuss this with her.”

They wound up getting married. “I managed to change her expectations and she thinks she managed to change me.” And they now have an eight-month-old baby.

“Triangle of Sadness”

30West

Soon the movie takes its model couple and plunks them on a yacht. “Since I was interested in looking at beauty as a currency,” he said, “and how it can make you elevate in class [in] society. Of course, the class aspect of the film was there already from the beginning. And with these influencers going on all these trips, it made sense that beauty became a ticket to go on a luxury yacht. The setup of the deserted island has been used so many times in order to take away hierarchies, and look at our behavior. What happens when we are trying to deal with surviving? So it made sense for me to do it in that way.”

The throwing-up sequence was “very hard to edit,” he said, “I must say. We took six months to edit that sequence because there were so many things happening parallel. And how do you create a structure out of chaos because it’s chaos on the boat? I had points where I thought, ‘Fuck, I failed in shooting this.’ I felt that in the wrong order you didn’t feel the seasickness at all.”

And when it comes to the island, everything is upside down. What does the hot young model have to offer there? “All of a sudden he’s dealing with a different power structure and he realizes about his value in sexuality and looks,” said Östlund. “You’re starving. So all of a sudden he’s willing to use his currency in sexuality and looks in order to get more fish. And I think also that is probably true in many relationships, that there is a transaction going on. When it comes to class, and social groups, it’s very seldom that you marry someone that is not coming from the same social group as you. It’s an economic situation you are aware of when you’re picking your partner and building your future.”

“Triangle of Sadness”

As for the big sale, the international sellers agreed to screen the film privately in Cannes a few days before the public screening, but 30West and WME did not start serious negotiations until after the movie played for the public and press. The movie provoked bouts of laughter and even applause after hilarious scenes. It’s rare for a Cannes Competition title to sell at the festival for a significant seven-figure sum (sources cited an $8 million asking price); this one did because it’s a crowdpleaser, another rare commodity in the Competition. (“Parasite” fell in that category, but Neon already had acquired it before the festival.) Streamers weren’t interested in “Triangle of Sadness,” mainly because they want worldwide rights, and are chasing movie stars. Neon will give the film a serious theatrical release, likely after a fall festival platform.

Next up: Östlund already has another idea he’s starting to write; Woody Harrelson has already signed on. “Entertainment System Is Down” takes place on a long-haul flight. “So quite soon after takeoff, the passenger gets the announcement: ‘Unfortunately, the entertainment system is down.’ So he is doomed to hours and hours of this flight without any digital entertainment that can distract him. Let’s see what happens with the modern human being in that same sociological lab.”

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