When The Worst Person in the World premiered in competition in Cannes this year there was the sense of an arrival, notably in the case of its leading lady, Renate Reinsve, who won the festival’s award for best actress. In actual fact, the film was closer to a destination, being the third part of an unofficial triptych begun by Norwegian director Joachim Trier with his 2006 feature debut Reprise, about two young bohemian writers living in Oslo. He followed it in 2011 with Oslo, August 31st, in which Reprise’s star, Anders Danielsen Lie, by day a successful medical doctor, played a melancholic drug addict and Reinsve made her acting debut with just one line of dialogue (“Let’s go to the party!”).
While the two films do not necessarily follow on, they each evoke a time and a place, which struck Trier when he and his co-writer Eskil Vogt began fleshing out the concept for The Worst Person … in which Reinsve plays a young woman whose career and love life aren’t exactly going to plan. “Oslo, August 31 was made 11 years ago this year,” Trier reflects, “so I think that returning to that world and the setting of those two first films—now that I’m older and more experienced—was kind of a good, liberating feeling, like a sigh of relief. I thought, ‘Jesus, I know this world. I want to go back to the streets of Oslo and shoot in those areas of town and see how they’ve developed.’ I also wanted to be with Anders again—my friend Anders, who’s gone on his own journey for the last 10 years—and pick up with him. See how he’s aged and write a new character for him. He read the script and said, ‘You know what? I think this is a part of a trilogy.’ It wasn’t planned, but it seems like it’s resonating with those who know our previous work.”
In the race to the International Feature shortlist, Trier’s film was seen as one of the lighter options, which is unusual seeing as the story features quite a few moments of heartache and sadness. Is it true that the film was originally conceived as a romcom? “It was,” nods Trier, “but then, Eskil and I are who we are. My joke is always that we live in the part of the world where Bergman made his movies, and I guess we’re all afflicted by that, you know? We adore him, of course. He’s a great master of cinema, so I don’t mean it in a flippant way. What I mean is that we wanted to talk about time passing and loss, but we were also thinking, ‘Can’t we also talk about levity, love, and playfulness?’ We wanted to take all that stuff that we love in movies and see if we could do our own Scandinavian, perverted version, where it all can live in the same universe. I guess it coincides with Julie’s character growth—the development of her more chameleon-like playfulness in the early parts of the film and then her realization of the limitations of time and relationships.” He pauses. “I guess it’s sort of a coming of age movie for grownups.”
Here, Trier reflects on five lessons he learned from the shoot.
1. Writing is truly a team effort
Eskil Vogt and I write together, and we’ve done that since I made my first film, Reprise, in 2006. It just works, you know? It’s like a band. We have, I think, a good collaboration that encapsulates both a sense of discussion of cinema—like, what do we like in movies? What are we missing these days that we’d like to watch ourselves? And then, on the other side, because of our long friendship, we are able to refer back to experiences together. I can say, “Oh my god, you remember when I was with this person or that?” and he can share his stuff. We can actually talk about a lot of honest, personal things, and yet try to find a formal approach to making screenplays. I think that’s quite a unique thing to have, both that friendship and that film fascination that we share.
2. Your location is a character, too
I realized, through being interviewed by a sociologist, that in the 15 years since Reprise, Oslo’s population has increased by 50%. There’s a point in Reprise where a character says, “We’ve got to get out of this place, it’s too stupid and small,” whereas in the beginning of The Worst Person in the World, the lead character, Julie [Renata Reinsve], is smoking cigarettes, looking down on the city and thinking, “Damn, there’s pressure here.” Oslo isn’t just a little brother in Scandinavia anymore, it’s a place that’s come more into prominence, culturally, and perhaps financially as well. There’s been a big, big expansion of wealth in the middle class during the last 10, 15 years and stuff like that has really changed the demography of the city. Maybe that’s your headline: “How the meritocracy reached Oslonians.” But it’s true. There’s a different kind of pressure to be someone, I think. It’s more urban than it used to be.
3. Real is better than VFX
There’s a scene where Julie runs through the streets of Oslo, and everyone she passes is frozen. I’ve gotten this question a few times, and I’m always happy to say that it’s not CG—everyone just stood still. I shoot on 35mm. I like to catch things in camera. I still like the playfulness and joy of making movies, it’s really fun. Renate has commented on this as well, how weirdly wonderful it was to have the cops stop all the traffic, Cars were parked in the middle of the street, people would just stand still, and she would run through this, as if the whole city was frozen. I wanted it to feel like a musical piece—charming and playful, like there’s wind in the trees and in her hair, not a slick, cold, meticulous CGI sequence. It’s almost as if the whole city is really in a musical sequence and it will break into song and dance at any moment.
4. Don’t take your actors for granted
I’ve jokingly said in the past that I feel like Anders Danielsen Lie is the Norwegian Daniel Day-Lewis, only that instead of going off to make shoes, he goes and removes people’s appendixes. Every time we do a film together, he always says to me, “I think this might be the last one, and I’m so happy we made it together.” Now, when every cast member is done on the shoot, I always do a speech for them: I say a few words of appreciation and the whole team claps them out at the end of the day. That’s a tradition. On The Worst Person we only had a week left of shoot, and Anders was leaving early. I ended up sobbing. I cried in front of everyone and said, “I’m so worried we won’t work together again. I hope you will come back.” And he said, “Of course I will. Just write me another part.” And I think that’s the truth of the matter, and I hope it’s OK that I say that. I think if Anders gets the right parts, he will always say yes.
5. Music matters
I come from a music family. My grandfather was a film director, and he was also a jazz musician. My dad played jazz before he became a sound designer for films, and I grew up with musicians around me. I DJ. I’ve done that since the 90s. I love music, and I guess it’s the only other thing than movies that I could do, although I’m not good with instruments—I was kicked out of a punk band when I was a kid for being a bad drummer. Eskil and I write with music, and we blew half the music budget in the first third of the film. Luckily, my producers were very supportive. I said to them, “There are three things we have to invest in. We need time on set with actors because I want the greatest performances. We’ve got to shoot 35mm, and we need a good music budget.” And they were like, “But that’s what’s the most expensive—those three things!”
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