Isabelle Huppert and Gabriel Byrne in a still from Louder than Bombs.
Readers of the Review know that the Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier is one of our favorite young directors. (See Issue 203 for a discussion of his first two features, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st.) His new English-language debut, Louder than Bombs, stars Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne, and Jesse Eisenberg. Last week we caught up with Trier and Eisenberg for a conversation that ranged from Knut Hamsun to The Karate Kid to David Foster Wallace. We also talked about the making of Louder than Bombs.
Joachim, what’s the question you’re most sick of answering? Is it, Why did you set your new movie in America?
Yes, that question has come up a lot. It started at Cannes, where there was a notion that certain auteurs—Sorrentino, Yorgos Lanthimos, myself, several others—had done something wrong by making films in English. Almost as if that were a kind of sellout. As if cinema weren’t a language that transcends the spoken word, or national belonging. I want to say, Let’s be old school and try to think more authentically about what a movie could be. It could be many things, in particular an expression of tone or mood or place, regardless of the director’s nationality. Like, there I am shooting in upstate New York, with my Swedish cameraman, and we’re framing a window with pine trees outside, and we feel at home, even though we’re in Nyack. These things are ultimately so complex that the whole idea of a movie’s “national identity” has become very confusing for me.
Did you ask the actors for help with the dialogue?
I always do that, even in Norway. And I am fortunate to work with actors like Anders Danielsen Lie and Jesse Eisenberg who are smart about these things, and are not sentimentalists. They’re interested in how to use language to work against the emotion. Sometimes a whole scene will be about avoidance, about holding back, about what is not said. For example, the scene where Jesse’s character speaks to his old girlfriend and the subject of his mother keeps coming up—but indirectly.
There’s an enigmatic quality to the character I play. His mother has killed herself, but he’s not reacting to his grief in a way that’s immediately obvious. And yet his reaction is emotionally correct. An actor will always take that kind of emotional logic and run with it, will make the character as eccentric as they can, because it’s rare to find a script, like this one, that allows an actor to behave ambivalently or to live out ambiguity. My character abandons his wife and child in a way that’s seems innocuous at first but then seems increasingly immoral. When I read the script, I couldn’t get his moral compass. It seemed vague. But then, when you’re acting it, it seems exactly right—this is what somebody would do in this particular situation.
I love watching your character hang up on his wife—once by pressing his laptop closed with one finger, the other time physically backing away from his iPhone.
[To EISENBERG] I feel you act in two traditions. We’ve never talked about this, but on the one hand—it seems to me—you are naturalistically inclined. You go for truth, and you’re very good at that. At the same time, you always smuggle in something very specific, like closing the computer with your finger.
So by “two traditions,” do you mean naturalistic and comedic?
Naturalistic and, so to speak, idea based. With Isabelle Huppert, for example, you have an actor who is very intuitive. She comes very well prepared, but then she lets herself loose. Jesse is the first actor I’ve worked with to whom I can say—as if he were a waiter dealing with twelve customers at once, remembering what each one had ordered—I think you should discover this, then discover that, then discover this other thing. And Jesse will say, Got it. [To EISENBERG] You have this very pointed specificity, which means you’re intellectually tracking the scene as well as being truthful. You don’t often see that combination. Of course comedy—timing, beat, structure—is the essence, I find, of the American, rapid-fire dialogue tradition that you’ve mastered.
Do you not have that tradition in Norway?
No. In Norway we speak four times as slowly as you do.
But you talk fast.
This is exactly what I’m saying—I belong here.
You’re the Aaron Sorkin of Oslo. What you say about Isabelle and Jesse makes me want to ask about one specific scene. The photographer played by Isabelle is discussing a dream she had with her husband, played by Gabriel Byrne. And there’s this close-up where he’s talking and she just … drifts away. It’s an incredible moment. How did you direct that?
Isabelle is talking about a dream of a sexual experience in a war zone. She dreams that she was raped, but in her dream her husband was watching and smoking a cigarette. And Gabriel Byrne asks, What is this really about? What are you really trying to tell me? And they have this slight argument, and as always there’s a certain sexual tension, and Gabriel’s playing it a little bit funny and annoyed, and she’s playing it as if she’s teasing him. And it works.
We do one more shot at the end—the shot you’re talking about. Isabelle says, Let me try something. And suddenly she lets this very deep melancholia swell. Meanwhile, Gabriel goes off on a comedic bit. He asks her, How did I smoke? And he does, like, five different ways of smoking. And you see the discrepancy of communication. They both ad libbed. She started crying, almost, but held back. And he starts doing his joke. You see a couple struggling and failing to meet each other, to connect. That’s what I call a jazz take, where I ask the actors to improvise. But the theme, the subtext of that scene is already at play in the writing. As long as you’re thematically primed, as we were, because we did rehearsals—we met, we talked—then you can let go, and you will still come back to something that could be of relevance.
The movie starts with a sort of prologue, with Jesse and his wife and child in the maternity ward, then there’s a Charlie Rose clip, which turns out to be a clip within a documentary—a clip within a clip. And then, very quickly, the scene changes again. What pattern are you trying to establish?
In the beginning you want to do two things. You want to focus the audience so they can interpret the events that are about to happen. Like in a book, you establish the themes. The opening of the film now is Jesse’s finger and a baby hand clutching it. The vulnerability of a child dealing with a parent. That’s the essence of the film.
At the same time, you need narrative. You need to get the different characters up and running. What’s the drama? Jesse goes straight out of that room and meets his ex-girlfriend. He’s unresolved about his place in life, about becoming a father. And that’s it, we can leave him for a while and start building the story of the mother as an icon. Then we see the father in great worry about his younger son. Had we been more clearly expositional, we would’ve placed our cards on the table. But because we’re making a mosaic, we’re asking for a bit of patience. Some people love that, some people hate it.
There’s something static about this family, something frozen. I’m trying to capture awkwardness, and that’s not easy to dramatize. So the mother’s documentary, for example, is rapid—you have the Charlie Rose interview, the war zone, it’s dynamic. I’m trying to create something like a musical motif—this is the song for her, this is the song for him—but formally, in how we shoot the scenes. Jesse is confused. We see him walking the labyrinth of the hospital. The father is slow, contemplative, processing from the outside, looking into a world he’s not really engaging in. The little brother slowly takes over the story, and the pace of his thoughts starts driving the film after a while. This film is really about the exterior and the interior lives of these people—and the interior unfolds at a different pace. But it requires patience from the audience. The beginning was difficult. We struggled a lot in the editing room. We had to cut a tremendous scene of a big fire, a burning barn, all this shit …
You never actually filmed the burning barn, did you?
We did film it. Here’s the story. When I was eleven years old, I burned down my house the night before Christmas. This is true. It was a mistake, it was just a candle that fell over. It was just terrible. I felt very guilty about it. But it was okay. My parents are very nice people, they didn’t give me a very hard time. Years later, the opening of Louder than Bombs is supposed to be a little kid that lights a match in a field, and it starts burning closer to a barn. Inside the barn that starts burning, you hear screaming animals. The kid is shocked. He’s dumbstruck. He doesn’t know what to do. Jesse wakes up. Oh, was it a dream? Had it happened? Was it him as a child? And he looks over at his wife, who’s pregnant. That’s the opening of the film. In writing, marvelous. Financially, impossible. Anyway, the producers supported us—and I know for a fact that one of the producers, to try to be nice, talked to the financiers about my childhood trauma to try to justify it.
My God. You brought in your therapist as a consultant.
Exactly, and everyone agreed—it’s expensive, but Joachim deserves to resolve this trauma. So what the fuck happens? Okay, what happens is the scene just sets the whole film on the wrong fucking track. This is the hardest thing about being a director. You make mistakes. You have these pyrotechnics and screaming animals and the most expensive scene in the world, but the close-up of what happened between Jesse Eisenberg’s finger and the newborn baby’s hand was ten times more powerful. Who’d have known? That’s making movies.
Is it okay if I ask a question? Everybody keeps asking me about your perspective on the American family—whether it’s different from an American’s perspective. I never know what to say.
While we were writing the film, my cowriter, Eskil Vogt, said, Damn, Joachim, most of the stuff we know about Americans, we learned from The Simpsons. There were moments of panic. Like, having grown up with the wonderful films of John Hughes, which I adore, I didn’t know if there were still cheerleaders in America. Or was this just something from the eighties?
You give Jesse that line when he’s watching the cheerleaders with his brother—“I can’t believe this shit still exists.”
And I’m glad you did, because it’s absurd. Every time I go to a basketball game, all I can think is, How does this still exist? It seems like a relic. The cheerleaders come on to tantalize our sexuality and then the basketball starts? It’s just the strangest thing. It seems like if it didn’t exist and it all the sudden happened one night, we’d all be horrified.
To go back to the family question, look at Death of a Salesman. Here is the patriarch living in the meritocratic America where he’s failed. The real drama lies in the abandonment of the mother, who has taken charge of the house and the sons, and in the sons’ different interpretations of the loss of their idealized father. Now, if you look at this film, here you see a mother who isn’t stuck at home, thank God, but can go out and do a wonderful job as a war photographer. But it leaves the father in a vulnerable position, having to do what women have traditionally done. He gets a lot of this transferred anger for the two sons, who are not allowed to be angry with their dead, idealized mother. I’m not trying to talk about gender, but about vulnerability when family structures change. Is that European? Is that American?
Along those lines, I have a question for you, Jesse, but I’m afraid it might sound weird. The moment you and Isabelle Huppert are brushing your teeth in the mirror and your character notices her scars—is he … turned on? By his mom?
Yes, he is. I think it speaks to what Joachim was just saying. The more the sons idealize their mom, the more they view their father as powerless. My character ends up conflating his idealization of his mother with his own sexual feelings, and his sexual dissatisfactions at college. His mother also happens to be this awesome woman who, by virtue of being played by this cool French actress, is very alluring, and by virtue of my meeting her the day we shot that scene, is increasingly alluring because I know nothing about her. Joachim wanted there to be some kind of unspoken Oedipal dynamic …
So you talked about that before the scene?
With Jesse I could talk about things like that, because I think we’re both psychoanalytically inclined. But of course it needs to be playable. There needs to be ambiguity. I’ll give you another example. Is it Swift who said that sexuality and death are all that really concern the truly great mind? I don’t know about the great mind, but they certainly concern this film. I mean, here you have the little brother sitting in the classroom, listening to the girl he’s infatuated with as she reads out loud from a book by one E. I. Lonoff—make of that what you will…
Lonoff from The Ghost Writer?
If you look at the cover of the book she’s reading, you’ll see it says E. I. Lonoff, as a tribute to Philip Roth. Now you’re the only one who knows. But so, the kid’s watching this girl read from their assignment, and he’s going through puberty, he’s infatuated, he starts thinking about his mother’s death because of what she’s reading, and the girl’s voice becomes his inner monologue. I haven’t seen anyone do that before. It’s one of the things I’m a little bit proud of in this film. Then he starts thinking about the moment when he and his mother played hide-and-seek when he was little, and he realizes that she must have seen him all along. And then he snaps back to reality. So, through the form of this flashback, you get the Oedipal confusion, the attraction to the girl, and the association to the mother’s death without nailing it down. It sounds trite when I try to explain it. But I hope it’s at play in the formal choices.
When we made the film, I was thinking a lot about Adam Phillips’s book Missing Out. His idea is that we all continually live not only the life we live but also the life we imagine could have happened, or might happen if things were somehow different—and that this unlived life is an entity of its own that continually affects us. That notion is inspiring. I was constantly thinking of how to make scenes that could illustrate that, through showing, not telling, through form. I’m not saying we’ve managed it, but it’s something I’d love to have done.
Lorin Stein is the editor of The Paris Review.
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