Norwegian director Joachim Trier's English-language debut Louder than Bombs (2016) stars Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid as a family trying to move past the loss of their war photographer wife and mother (Isabelle Huppert). Trier brings his signature innovation to the film, using humor, surprise and formal experimentation to defy our expectations of a movie about grief.
ScreenPrism spoke with Trier about filming in New York, the magic of the cinematic close-up and falling in love with a story.
ScreenPrism: Your movies feel kind of literary - you use storytelling techniques that aren’t as common in film. Are you influenced by novels?
Joachim Trier: Yeah, but not in the way that everyone is adapting novels these days. I want to do the opposite. I want to take the spirit of what literature can be and try to inspire what movies can be. And to be more specific and to the point that you’re actually making, we’re trying to work with how form or storytelling techniques are not there to show off or to alienate people, but rather to include them into characters and themes. To try to find a freer form that we can play around with, like in Louder Than Bombs when we have suddenly this little diary piece about the little brother and his thoughts about his life and experiences, or when someone is reading out loud and literature suddenly turns into a voiceover — things that I haven’t quite seen anyone do before. I always get a kick out of that, to try to find a specific form or way of telling something.
SP: Do you have any film influences that also play with bringing these more inclusive, literary techniques into movie form?
JT: Sure, I watched Annie Hall (1977) the other day by Woody Allen, and it struck me how incredibly free it was in its storytelling. Suddenly there’s a fun use of flashback that they enter into, and it doesn’t feel stagey; it just feels really fluid. The way it jumps around in time and uses subtitles to express the thoughts of the characters in the middle of the scene, it’s marvelous. Lots of films, actually. But also good character-driven drama, I’m really interested in. I called my production company in Norway Don’t Look Now Productions, so I like that one [Don’t Look Now (1974)] by Nicholas Roeg. I like a lot of different stuff.
SP: What was the seed for the story in Louder Than Bombs?
JT: I don’t know. I want to make up a narrative, like maybe it was wanting to watch a Volvo drive under autumn leaves in upstate New York or something, but I don’t know. I think it comes from many places, many, many fragments of ideas that have gathered through the years with [fellow screenwriter] Eskil [Vogt] and me sitting in the room writing and talking. Then we structured it into a story. It turned out to be a story about men, or guys, at three stages of life trying to deal with women, and then having this looming, absent mother hanging over them that they need to deal with on some level.
SP: It also has the theme of characters being not what we expect: people who seem strong are revealed to be fragile, and younger people show themselves to be more resilient than we imagine. Is that mismatch between inner and outer character something you believe in?
JT: Yeah, I’m interested in how we represent ourselves through the way that we imagine us to be affecting others. And how, even in a closer relationship, that is still at play. The idealized mother who has done such virtuous work yet sort of made her family feel abandoned, even though they’re having a difficult time talking about it. The way that you have to accept as parent or child your family’s individual loneliness, even — stuff that’s hard to talk about — to accept that you can’t save each other from being alone or feeling alone at certain times in life. So I think you’re right, the exterior of us versus the interior is kind of the fundamental drama. And the example is the little brother that we’re worried about, and we’re seeing through the father’s eyes, like, What the hell is going on with my 15 year-old son? He’s a gamer, he seems lonely, he seems almost brooding or dangerous at some point, but we slowly start understanding more what that’s about and what’s happening through a journey into his mind, his memories, his dreams, his video gaming, his diaries. There’s a revelation, a revealing of character, more than it is just seeing that character develop through time.
Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid in Louder than Bombs (2016)
SP: You also deal with parenthood, starting with that opening shot of the baby’s tiny finger, making us feel that we could never be ready for the hugeness of it.
JT: Who ever is?
SP: Where did that theme come from?
JT: It wasn’t [originally] the opening of the film. The opening of the film was a big dream sequence with a field burning and a barn, and we shot it, and it was expensive. I feel terrible that it was cut from the film. But we needed to start – when I saw that shot of the baby clutching the father’s finger, a newborn, I felt, yeah, that’s how vulnerable and how innocent this all starts, but family soon becomes more complicated in most cases, unfortunately. That’s life.
SP: What does the title of the film mean to you?
JT: It just felt right. There was something about the discrepancy of the great chaos of the mother’s work as a war photographer versus the incomparability with the small silence and pain at home that yet can be so devastating. It just felt right. I’ve heard much better interpretations from other people, so I guess people should be left to interpret rather than me explaining.
What I like about the title is I think it asks a question. That’s my spirit for this film more than anything I have done is that I would love it to be a film where it can give space for interpretation, for the audience to ideally ponder their own lives, their own family, whatever they need to think about. It’s the last kind of contemplative space left in our society right now, a movie theatre. If people are polite enough to turn off their phones, we can sit there in silence and have some space with ourselves and a story, the characters.
SP: I also really like how you use silence in the film. Sometimes we don’t hear the music that the teenager, Conrad, is listening to. Can you talk about how you conceived of the sound and the silence?
JT: This will sound funny. My father is a sound designer, so maybe I know how powerful silence can be. The most joyous thing you experience as a director watching a film with an audience is the laughs and the complete silences. That’s the dynamic that we work in. In this film, too, we have a lot of laughs, thank God. Everyone thinks it’s just a sad, grief melodrama, and hopefully not.
SP: It is very funny.
JT: We get some laughs, thank God. Yeah, the laughs and the silences.
The film, we come into it, and it has the sense that the guys in the family are kind of stuck, and then momentum soon begins, and things start moving. The silence helps us feel that sort of stagnated state of affairs, I think.
SP: Can you talk about the dream sequence near the end when Isabelle Huppert's character brings home the old man?
JT: Oh, that one, a lot of people ask about it. I honestly don’t want to talk about it. I understand the question; I respect it, but I think that needs to be there for people to see, and it comes at the end, and it hopefully resonates in some weird way. I hope. I have some feelings about it. I feel that dreams can be more truthful in their strange abstraction sometimes than the more rational approach that we’re always forced to have about our lives and realities. It’s fun to do dreams in films. Film is one of the closest art forms to representing dreams. And dreams are so revealing and feel freer somehow. They can be trite and cheesy, but I hope our dreams in this one are good. I at least had fun making them.
SP: Do you get any of your ideas from dreams?
JT: Not really. But how a dream functions in my life is very inspiring sometimes. I feel that I have very boring, naturalistic dreams, but there’s often one element that’s kind of weird — like two people I know having merged or something. But the way that appears seems natural within the dream.
SP: So you pay attention to the messages those dreams might be sending you?
JT: How can we not? I’m curious, not only about others but about myself. This is what we’re doing, trying to figure out what the hell we’re here for.
SP: A lot of character-driven storytelling is happening in TV today, but you say cinema is still a unique space. What do you think cinema offers for character-driven stories that you can’t do on TV?
JT: It’s that they actually end. You need people to be allowed to dream on with the narratives that they’re watching. The next episode won’t come next week. You have to be more engaged than that, hopefully.
So what does it offer? It offers close-ups. You can’t do close-ups on TV. A close-up on TV is fine; it’s just not the same. A cinema close-up is uniquely cinematic. You never see a face like that. Kissing a girl, you look at her eye, and you can’t see the eye on the scale that you can in a cinema. Even in real life you can’t, so it’s quite an artistic unique experience, an aesthetic precision to watching and observing the human space in close-ups. I come from Scandinavia with a tradition of [Ingmar] Bergman or [Carl Theodor] Dreyer. Both were extravagant and achieved new paradigms of ways of using close-ups, both those directors. So I’m very interested in the close-up.
I hear people saying the opposite, which is stupid. They say, well, close-ups, that’s for TV. No. It’s obvious what I’m saying; it’s the simplest thing in the world. If you look at a big screen, and you see a human being up close, that can be remarkable and quite unique. It’s intimate as well. It can be painful, even, how intimate it can get.
Jesse Eisenberg in Louder than Bombs (2016)
SP: This is your English-language debut. What was it like transitioning into directing in another language?
JT: I went to film school in England. It wasn’t so strange. I went to [the UK’s] National Film [and Television] School, where I studied and did many shorts, and I like New York so much. I have friends here, and it wasn’t so strange. I mean, of course the team and staff were much bigger. There’s [a much bigger] production. I was saying to my friends back home that coming on set in the morning, I thought I had come to Coachella or something. There were tents and trucks, a huge team that you have on the American set. It was a little bit unusual for me to have that many people around. But around the camera it’s the same. Great teams here. I really enjoyed it.
SP: You grew up watching international movies, so in that way it didn’t feel like a change?
JT: Completely. Norwegian cinema history isn’t so much to brag about, to say the least, and I was always watching films from around the world. Many, many different directors from different cultures: America, France, Japan, Russia, so everywhere. And that’s great. That’s been liberating. I don’t believe in national cinema. I think it’s an individual thing. You’ll have Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet all in the same city, and they did unique things. And they were all New Yorkers. Even in the same city you have such different perspectives, and it’s marvelous. That’s film making. I like personal filmmaking.
SP: How did you go about casting?
JT: Well, many of the actors I had wanted to work with. Isabelle [Huppert] I knew a little bit from before, and I think she’s one of the greatest actors of all time in cinema. She just said yes, and I was happy.
Gabriel Byrne, I went to Dublin and he was shooting something there at the time. Lovely guy, very generous, and just one of the few people that could really do such a both strong, intense but yet vulnerable father character. We didn’t want the authoritarian macho dad; we wanted something much more modern and vulnerable, a sensitive father.
Devin Druid and Gabriel Byrne in Louder than Bombs (2016)
Jesse [Eisenberg] is a thinking guy, and it was perfect to see Jesse go from playing this very academic, smart, controlling guy and then slowly revealing this vulnerability of the character, and Jesse kind of went through that at the same time. I think he was very conscious that he would start one place and then slowly deteriorate into emotion and silence. He does that throughout the film; I think he does a great job.
Then we discovered Devin Druid, or rather Laura Rosenthal discovered him. She’s a wonderful casting director, and she brought him to my attention. Devin, who plays Conrad, he’s fantastic. What a talent. He’s really great. I think we’re going to see more of him. I hope.
SP: Can you talk about your writing process?
JT: I’ve written since film school with Eskil Vogt – we’re old friends from Oslo. Our main problem, I think, these days is that we are such film nerds that we spend too much time talking about what we saw last night. But we still get scripts done. He’s great. We sit together until we know what we want to do, and it’s all pretty much described. Then we start writing it out, and Eskil usually writes out the first draft of a scene after we discuss the details, and I read it and give him feedback, and it goes back and forth.
SP: Do you have a moment when you know that the material is alive for you, and you want to go on?
JT: That’s the most important moment in any of the films we do. It’s almost like falling in love with someone. You sit suddenly, and you look at them, and you realize, “Shit.” You feel the gravity. “This is happening now. Oh Jesus, this is it.”
There’s this moment when you’re looking for it, but it doesn’t really occur until it comes from behind. Suddenly, Eskil and I have just oriented ourselves around something, and it’s usually my role then to say, “This is pretty cool. This could be the film, couldn’t it?” And he usually says, “Yeah.” We’re in love with an idea, and then we go from there.
But it has to appear. You can’t force it. You’ve got to know it. And we spend a little time figuring that out every time.