On Trauma, Loss, and Fatherhood: An Interview with Joachim Trier on Louder Than Bombs

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By Amir Ganjavie.

Louder Than Bombs, Joachim Trier’s third feature, tells the story of an aging schoolteacher (Gabriel Byrne) who grapples with the recent death of his wife (Isabelle Huppert) and tries to find a way to reconcile with his two sons (Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid). Quite a bold entry by Trier, it is his first big production – coming after his previous local films Reprise (2006), and Oslo, August 31st (2011) – as his first English-language feature with a known cast and impressive scale. The exquisite performances and the neat, well-thought-out transition between frames and shots that compose the structure of this muli-layered movie once again confirm Trier’s well-earned reputation as one of the finest young European directors of recent times.

The following is an interview with Trier conducted after the screening of Louder Than Bombs at the Toronto International Film Festival.

This is your first big project and it is very different from your previous movie, so what was the difference between working on a big scale and a smaller-sized project? Did the change of scale impact your freedom in working?

That’s an interesting question and I’ll try to answer the best that I can. I think that a part of what I do as a director is to create a specific mood around the camera for the actors to feel free and although this is a much higher budget movie and is produced in America it is still a film where I have creative control. I only wanted to make a film if I had control over the final cut and I was able to choose the actors who I thought were right; that was amazing. Of course, I was used to working with local actors so I wondered how this was going to work but I had experience from England where I’d gone to the National Film MTV School in London and so had worked a lot in English before. As a director, you set the mood for how to work around the camera. I also had the same cinematographer with whom I had worked on my two previous films so I felt that it wasn’t so different.

However, there were a lot of differences and those mostly had to do with the fact that we were in New York and had a much larger crew so it could take a lot of time to move things around. Nonetheless, the people were efficient and we had good experiences with the team and crew. Every film has unique challenges with the characters and some actors may find something difficult so you try to solve it. Every film has that and it wasn’t different on this from anything else that I’ve done.

That’s an interesting observation because some of the art cinema directors who have gone on to direct big projects have said that they could no longer control the situation.

Louder 02I understand but this is the whole point of spending a little bit of time, putting the film together and being patient with how we put it together. I made my first film, Reprise, about nine years ago and it was distributed in America so I met a lot of great producers. I got a lot of offers to do other people’s scripts but none of them were quite right for me. Also the situation with some of those projects would have been for me to come in as a hired hand and that’s not the way I like to work. I come from a film family background. My grandfather was a filmmaker. My parents worked on good movies. I’ve made films since I was a kid. It’s a part of what I spend my life doing and I don’t feel like working on movies to which I don’t have a real personal connection. That could maybe happen one day with a script that someone else writes but for now I’ve been really comfortable making sure that I set the parameters for how the work proceeds and I also work with a team. I almost call it my “band,” you know – the editor, the writer, the cinematographer, and several other people. We try to develop and work together and to create situations in which we can do our thing.

You raise questions about human existence in both Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011), both of which feature a character who is an intellectual. We see the same here in Louder Than Bombs, where there is a quality of intellectualism in your characters. Why are you so interested in this issue?

That’s a big question! I remember reading an interview with Antonioni when I was quite young. I was in my early 20s and I was very interested in his movies. He was asked the same question and he said, to quote the master, that he was interested in people who had a lot of self-knowledge but that he also wanted to show that they couldn’t solve the big questions of existence either. I thought that was an inspiring way to think about it. I think that I have different types of characters here. I also have a boy of fifteen who I don’t know if I’d call him intellectual but he’s a curious person with artistic sensitivities. Perhaps in my films people are just more articulate and speak with a certain knowledge. Obviously they’re all educated middle class people so I understand your question but on the other hand I think they’re also vulnerable and messed up. You know, I’m interested in the combination of how we perceive ourselves in our memories and how we try to convey ourselves but are unable to. I think that’s an interesting thing.

At the beginning, it appears to me that the older brother is the hero of the story but then as the story progresses we realize that the younger brother is the hero. It’s like the strategy that Hitchcock employed in Psycho when he shifted the hero. Can you elaborate on the process?

Well unlike Hitchcock I don’t kill my characters, which is the big difference. I do like your observation though. What can I say? I think that I wanted to make a film that was polyphonic, which is a musical term for having different threads or melodies interwoven to create one story. So I’m interested in changing the main character and at some point the father is also very important. It’s like waves. I perceive it almost more like music than just a narrative and a part of what I’m interested in is how the smart big brother who’s very super ego-driven and has a sense of the world is more vulnerable than we think. It may be the little brother who we think at the beginning is really messed up who turns out to have some answers. I’m interested in how perception and being are two different things.

The big brother experienced some very funny moments at the beginning, encountering his former girlfriend in an awkward situation, a scene which was very different from the rest of the movie. It was very unpredictable why did you put that scene at the beginning and why you did not repeat the same structure in the rest of the movie?

Interesting! It was different when I wrote it and shot it. We wanted to start the film with the baby holding a hand. The film focuses a lot on separation and togetherness in a family and the complications of a separation so I thought the baby, the child, and the father was an interesting place to start the narrative since in a hospital you have the whole cycle of life. In one part of the hospital you have babies being born and then you walk a little bit and see someone losing their mother. Now with this beginning you know that the film is about these life cycles so it suddenly just struck me as a thematically good place to start but maybe in terms of temperament it’s more like a prologue. It has its own life in the beginning if that makes sense.

The movie asks the audience to reflect upon questions of memory, trauma, and loss. Usually when you are going through such process you need time to reflect. Time and its passage are very important in relation to trauma and its resolution. However, in this movie you use lots of montages, which sometimes disrupt the passage of time with lots of forward and backward scenes; there is little chance to contemplate in this movie I mean. Given this, don’t you feel that this montage technique sometimes works against the theme of the movie, which was to resolve the traumatic experience ?

Louder 03That’s a very interesting question and I’d say that I haven’t thought of it like that. The characters are different but it’s very much about how to deal with grief, delayed grief, and things that couldn’t be resolved but are somehow communicated, what has been dealt with, and what hasn’t been dealt with. So I think that yes, they should have spent time and I agree that grief has to do with patience but they’re not dealing with grief very well in this family so maybe that’s why the film is presented that way. There’s a kind of a dead silence in the house and that’s contrasted with a lot of the flashback scenes. I’m trying to work with two types of energy. I’m a big fan of contemplative cinema and like how Oslo, August 31st has a more elongated use of real time. In this film I’m trying to use montages to see if they can fit together. We live in a time when cinema is forced to be increasingly homogenized in terms of what we expect for a motion and pacing. However the motion and pacing – dealing with time – in a film are some of the most personal aspects for a director so I’m curious to experiment with that. I think that use of time is in itself is an aesthetic tool.

Louder Than Bombs has some striking examples of close ups too.

I’m very interested in the close-up as a cinematic trope or a cinematic possibility. I mean I come from Scandinavia and if you look at people like Bergman they’re the masters of the close-ups. Some people say that close-ups are for television but I think it’s very cinematic. It has nothing to do with television. If you watch a face on the big screen then that’s unique. You get closer to the eyes and the nose and the skin and the sense of someone if you go really close with the camera. That interests me but the question about the images of Isabelle Reed is that I feel what’s interesting about them is that in a way she’s closer and she’s looking straight at you yet she’s also just an image and you don’t quite know what’s going on inside so it’s a double image. It’s an image of extreme closeness but also an image of extreme distance and to me that is the story of that character and how they perceive her.

So you’re very interested in enigma? 

Absolutely, but also the fact that it’s a mother and they feel close to her. I’m curious about how that is to feel the enigma of a parent. That’s one of the central themes of the story.

In the movie we see a father who is not in control of his life so he lives in a state of uncertainty. He wants to somehow find his position in the world again, to understand who he is as a father and how he relates to his whole family. He wants to say that he pays more attention to the family than the mother, who cared more for her job and would not leave it for her family. The father especially hopes to regain his relationship with his young son who did not listen to him very well. Did you want to say something about fatherhood and its meaning in contemporary society? 

Very much so! I wanted to draw an image of a modern father who is not the classical brutal patriarch but someone who is vulnerable. I grew up in a society which I would say was post-feminist. In Norway in the 80s we had a female prime minister. In 1907 we became the third country in the world to give women the ability to vote, which is fantastic. I’m not a big nationalist but this is one of things about Norway that I think is good. At the same time, I’ve also grown up with different types of father figures around me and very often I feel that the narratives told about fathers are always about the absent father. We’ve seen that and it has been dealt with very well millions of times. Here, I was interested in asking some questions about the limits and roles of what fatherhood is today but again through a specific character. So yeah, it’s hard to talk too much about it because I feel that the film is about it and the film is talking about it for me hopefully. But I’m interested in that.

There’s a scene in which the boy remembers how his mother taught him about the power of cropping images since changing the framing of a picture can totally change our understanding of it. Can you elaborate more on this scene and its relationship with your understanding of cinema?

That’s a good point. I think that’s kind of a small version of the whole film anyway. The film is very much about both what is left out and what is left in. It’s about how to perceive each other in a family and how interpretation plays into even the closest relationships, which is a paradox. We believe that close relationships are hypersensitive to all communications but there is always an absence in human relationships and that becomes a grief in itself. So yeah, what you see and what you don’t see is important and as a child you are unaware that you are only getting a specific framing of your parents. Then as you grow older you reencounter your memories and your perception of your parents will change. I’m sure that all humans go through this. It’s a central part of the human experience and through that we also change our perception of ourselves. Memory and identity are interesting topics and can be used to store talent.

Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.