I spent a good year looking through war photographs and it really got to me. I almost got depressed and it was a very, very tough period.
Joachim Trier’s first English-language film Louder Than Bombs is an intimate family drama about the impact of a mother’s death on her husband and two sons. Three years after the death of celebrated war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), a major exhibition is being planned and her longtime colleague Richard (David Strathairn) is writing a New York Times feature pegged to the opening. We learn via a quick montage of award speeches, interviews and news reports that Isabelle did her best work by remaining in conflict zones after the tanks pulled out, in order to capture the consequences of war. It is also revealed that she died not in the field but shortly after retiring, in a road accident just a few miles from her home in Nyack, New York.
Richard respectfully informs Isabelle’s widower, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), that he intends to reveal the full circumstances of her death in the profile—it’s believed that she drove deliberately into an oncoming truck. Gene asks for time to tell his moody, solitary, introverted high school son Conrad (Devin Druid), who was just 12 when his mother died and has been spared any knowledge of her apparent suicide. Conrad’s older brother Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) takes a break from his wife, his newborn and his college professor job to come sort through Isabelle’s studio for material from her final trip to Syria to be included in the show. To examine the relationships in dysfunctional family, the script moves constantly back and forth in time and includes brief dream sequences. Points of view are frequently switched, voiceovers sometimes complement and sometimes counterpoint the image and so much is bubbling under the surface. Gene, for instance, is the doting father who desperately wants to communicate now with his sons but may have missed the opportunities he had in the past. He is also the husband who never openly opposed his wife’s dangerous career but never forgave her for it—he couldn’t live with the frustration of never having her at home and the anguish of knowing she might not return. Isabelle herself, with all her deep affection for her family, can’t help her addiction to her job, disturbed by the ethics of her profession and conscious that her frequent and long absences from home have turned her into an onlooker every time she returns.
After our first meeting at Cannes in 2011, we caught up with Trier at the Carlton Hotel this week.
The 68th Cannes Film Festival runs from May 13 to May 24.
Reprise was a small, intimate story. Oslo, August 31st widened it up a bit. Louder Than Bombs is wider still. Was this a natural progression, born out of your rising profile?
So you’re insinuating that I should do TV shows next. [Laughs] Have you ever seen Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons? [François] Truffaut said watching that film felt as though someone had taken ten gallons of water and poured it into a pint glass. There’s this sense that it’s fun in cinema to shrink and stretch and do multiple things at once. I guess the ambition of Louder Than Bombs was to try and tell quite a complex family structure story and do it in a feature film format. Right now, the feature film sort of exists between the YouTube clip, which is exciting for one minute, and a seven-season TV show. So what is the feature film? We should try to be a little bit bold about narrative structures and possibilities right now. There’s a lot of theory about how we should tell a story. I’m interested in sequential possibilities and trying to tell multi-character plots. I thought Reprise had that kind of formal playfulness, and maybe Oslo, August 31st had a more straight-forward trajectory—this is my personal analysis, so I might be completely wrong. But it’s an interesting question. We’ll see what happens next. I just don’t know yet.
Why did you decide to make an Engligh-language feature this time around?
There were several things going on. I went to film school in England. Norway is a small country with just five million people that speak the language. When I went back to Norway, I did a couple movies, but I was actually planning to do an English-language film right after film school. And now it’s here. It’s not so different, even if the characters speak English or Norwegian. The point is to continue making personal films and continue to be bold about what we’re experimenting with, regardless of the budget size. That’s also the reason this took a long time. It’s a film where I had final cut and creative control. I wanted to do a personal movie in America and that’s not so easy these days. A lot of the financing for this came out of European collaborations, although there was some American money, too. I grew up watching Kramer vs. Kramer and The Breakfast Club—these films mattered in my life. A lot of American films aren’t allowed to be made that way anymore. There are some great American movies and I’m not against American cinema, but it’s really hard to go there and make human dramas.
Where did you shoot this?
In New York, all of it: upstate, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. It’s a Danish, Norwegian, and French co-production with some money from America. I was laughing because a lot of these films at the festival, including mine, have these crazy-long front credits. [Laughs] There’s like twenty or thirty names. But it’s okay because that’s how you’re able to do films that take more risks.
It also gives you the freedom to cast anyone you want.
That’s exactly what you can do because no one’s forcing me to say, “You must have a superstar.” In my view, my cast has some of the greatest stars in the world because they’re good actors. I think it’s wrong to think you can only make dramas if you get one of the five most commercial actors out there—that’s not a cool system. I met Isabelle Huppert at the Stockholm Film Festival a few years ago when she was given an honorary award and, as you understand, I’m a film geek. I just think she’s wonderful. I also won an award there so, suddenly, we were onstage standing next to each other. We stayed in touch and she watched my movies. I was very fortunate that she wanted to join this one. Gabriel Byrne we got in touch with when we had the script. I was looking for someone who could be that warm, pivotal father figure and not play the stern, authoritarian character we often see in family dramas. Did you meet Gabriel yet?
I just ran into him outside.
So you know what I mean. He’s so sympathetic. He’s also smart and you can’t say that about all actors. [Laughs] It really wasn’t so difficult when he agreed to do this because it was superb. And Jesse [Eisenberg] is, of course, a very funny guy. He also writes stage plays so he’s actually someone you can discuss themes with. He’s a really smart dude. I think in this film he shows his more vulnerable side than in a lot of other parts he’s done.
Scandinavian cinema is often characterized by its use of long stretches of silence, for instance. Where do you think that kind of stylistic generalizations comes from?
Can I be honest? Who makes scenes with really long dialogues? [Ingmar] Bergman! Just look at Scenes from a Marriage where they’re talking their heads off. And it’s fantastic, you know? Then you have great moments of silence in the same director’s oeuvre. These storytellers are individuals. There’s this perception that Norwegians live in the mountaintops and they don’t even talk to their neighbors. I’m afraid you’re right because there are some of those people. [Laughs] But everyone’s different. I come from the city. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but I’ve lived in New York, London, and sometimes stay in Paris and Copenhagen—city life isn’t so different from one another. You go to New York and read the same book you would in Berlin.
Food is cheaper in Sweden than in Denmark.
It’s the most expensive in Norway! But that’s where I live for some stupid reason. I’m half Danish and half Norwegian, and I stand on two feet. No, but seriously, I grew up in Oslo so maybe I feel more Norwegian in a way since we’re talking about national identities. I was telling Gabriel that, when you come to Cannes, it’s almost like you’re in the Olympics and carrying a flag: “This is the Norwegian film.” It’s like the lovely Irish book The Dubliners by James Joyce where the man gets on a chair and says, “I’m a nation!” I think sometimes you feel that way here. Can I just be me?
Did you write Louder Than Bombs with New York in mind?
It’s funny because I had thought John Hughes’ movies like The Breakfast Club were shot in New York and when I went to New York to write this, it turned out it was Chicago all along. I went to the wrong place! But in all seriousness, it had to be a big city because the mother was a French war photographer and I wanted the father to have this acting background. The perfect place was New York because you also have Magnum and VII there, the big photo agencies. You also have, like I was saying earlier, this sense that the family could have parents who were once ’80s hipsters, but now living upstate. This is a common story you hear in real New York, so we aimed for that. I also always wanted to make a film with autumn leaves on the East Coast of America. I love Kramer vs. Kramer and the look of a lot of ’70s American cinema that we don’t see much anymore.
Did shooting Stateside take some getting used to?
Yeah, but I created the way I want to work around the camera. The tricky thing comes with the size of your team and how many trailers you have to have, for example. You can’t just say, “I don’t want one van for food and one for snacks,” because union rules say you need both. The production designer, the prop master who’s in charge of the objects, and the set dresser who places the objects—these are three different departments. Sometimes you work quickly on set and end up touching things that you’re not allowed to touch. If you have a baby on set, you have that baby for twenty minutes with two hour breaks. The person from the Screen Actors Guild will literally stand there with a stopwatch like, “You have thirty seconds left with that baby!” You learn these games, you know? But American crews work hard. American crews work a minimum of twelve hours a day, plus rigging. They never work for less than fourteen hours. Then you have transportation and they work sixteen hours a day. It’s a crazy way to shoot! In Paris, you shoot eight-hour days.
I understand there was a period of time when the film was at a standstill.
That’s a long story and it’s been a long journey. The short of it is that we almost got it up and running in 2013, but there were some financial wobbles because we didn’t get all the money in time. We had so many investors and I don’t totally understand it even now. You need to have cash flow and supposedly there was conflict between some of the producers. It was very sad for all of us. But Isabelle and Gabriel stayed on and they both said, “Let’s please try to make this film.” A year later, we got more financing from France, the U.S., and Norway. Everyone just chipped in more money and we were able to pull off the film. Jesse was able to get out of Batman vs. Superman for three and a half weeks to shoot with us. We shot for about eight weeks, but we were able to plan it in such a way that all of his scenes were shot back-to-back.
We’re given multiple views on who Isabelle was and, crucially, who she might’ve been. It’s not always clear what’s real and what’s not real. The characters’ memories, dreams, and fantasies are given to us in fragments, which was very interesting to watch.
In order to create and explore these very, very subjective portraits of individual characters, we thought a lot about literature where you can go into characters’ minds, imaginations, memories, and dreams. The video games that the little brother plays is one representation of our fragmented perception of reality, which is obviously quite modern and natural for all of us now. I think the way images represent a portion of ourselves plays into our views on reality, and that should be mirrored in the way we tell stories in cinema. Cinema is the place where all these images come together. We can have a YouTube clip next to a war photograph, both shot on 35mm film. I just like that it all ends up in the same big frame. I think something like that mirrors these characters’ rather fragmented perception of Isabelle, not to mention the reality around them.
What’s the story behind the photographs? Were any of them staged?
Those are real conflict photographs by several different photographers. It’s easy to get cynical these days and we’ve become numb to these kinds of photographs because there’s so much of it thrown at us all the time. I spent a good year looking through war photographs and it really got to me. I almost got depressed and it was a very, very tough period. Some of these photos are quite good and rather poetic. I’m very grateful that the photographers let us use these photos in our quest to create this one oeuvre for Isabelle.
In American cinema, people are quick to turn tragic events into films. I’m surprised no one’s brought the 2011 massacre in Norway to the screen. Maybe it’s too soon.
Right after the bombing, there was a photo taken of one of the corpses in front of a government building and people reacted with moral indignation immediately, like, “How can you show this dead body in the newspaper?” But that’s because it happened in Norway. We see similar photographs from third world countries every day in the same newspaper and no one reacts to it the same way. There’s a segment in Louder Than Bombs where Isabelle talks about how we should regard the pain of others, how to look at other people’s grief. That bombing, this moment of high conflict, coming into the city where I was born made me question our perception of conflict and how we convey these stories. I think that’s the best answer I can give you. In direct and indirect ways, of course, those events matter. I think for some people there was a sense of innocence that was lost. It definitely affected people and I think we’ll see more of it. The admirable thing about American culture is how they’ve always been great at commenting on societal issues immediately, in both serious news reporting and pop culture. We have different experiences in Europe and it’s not up to me to say one thing, but Europe has traditionally had a way of looking to the past.