Joachim Trier On The Worst Person In The World, Wanting To Freeze Time And Why Love Is Dangerous

The Norwegian filmmaker talks about the most romantic scene he's ever shot, the kind of sex scenes he finds uninteresting and what he loves about Oslo
Joachim Trier On The Worst Person In The World, Wanting To Freeze Time And Why Love Is Dangerous

Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier understands what it's like to be young and hopeful. Over his bittersweet, loosely connected Oslo trilogy Reprise (2006), Oslo, August 31 (2011) and The Worst Person In The World (2021) — young adults make elaborate plans for the future, only to eventually realise that their ambitions outweigh their expertise. Time stretches out before them, inviting in its endless possibilities, and yet seems to run out all too quickly. The Worst Person In The World follows 29-year-old Julie (Renate Reinsve), who hops from career to career in an attempt to find herself and leaves behind her a string of imploded romantic relationships that are just as messy. The film's title is flippant; Julie's actions can be callous and hurtful, but still aren't deserving of hyperbole. Rather, the title reflects the kind of self-deprecation anyone who's experienced crushing moments of self-doubt or failure has no doubt given in to. 

While Reinsve won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival last year, the film was nominated in the Best International Feature and Best Original Screenplay categories at the 94th Academy Awards. Trier talks about why he couldn't have made the film if he hadn't become more optimistic about love, how he tried to avoid cliché with its sex scenes and why art should be allowed to be messy and provocative:

The Oslo trilogy is about young adults who have this whole idea of what their life is going to be like and then they grow older and realise it's nothing like they'd planned. I know this was a fear you had because I read that you were shooting commercials in your 20s and you didn't know if you'd ever get to become a feature film director. What was your perspective on this fear like then and how has it evolved with each subsequent movie?

A lot of the films that I've made, particularly the Oslo trilogy, deal with people who feel some sense of pressure, not only from society but also from themselves, to try to achieve something great, to try to have a great destiny. That becomes rather troublesome and dramatic for them. Maybe that has something to do with being Norwegian? Or also being part of an environment in which there are these great expectations you need to live up to. I've seen a lot people feel like they don't quite fit in with the future they're being presented with. It happens everywhere in the world. In my case, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. I didn't know how that was going to happen. I struggled very hard and it was very dramatic and I was very lucky to get into film school. Now I'm in my late 40s and I feel very fortunate to be allowed to make films. I guess if you find purpose in life, that becomes your battle. It can either be making art or doing something specific that you care about. And if you don't have that, then that becomes your battle — trying to figure it out. 

Oslo is the setting of four of your five films and there's this wonderful montage at the beginning of Oslo, August 31 in which people are talking about what they love about the city. From a writer and director's perspective, what aspects of Oslo are you drawn to?

I like movies that take the audience to a place. The irony is that when people in Oslo see my movies, they're like, 'Oh that's how you see Oslo. That's not how I see it.' It's always subjective. It's always about trying to find the beauty or the dramatic value of a place. That's a very cinematic thing we forget. Sometimes, we talk a lot about storytelling, about plot, but to me, movies should also be about conveying a place, feeling a place — the light, the architecture, the people. I guess I learn more about being from Oslo through making these films because you have to sharpen your gaze and figure out, 'What is worth looking at?' Then you start thinking about streets, places and environments in a different way. 

I grew up in Oslo and one of the things I really love is the light. I love that during the winter, it's really dark so that when spring and summer arrive, there's almost no darkness. You have these beautiful summer nights with a little bit of light in the sky and these long mornings because of the seasonal changes. And I try to capture that in my films. It's about being specific and trying to see where you can find beauty and how you can show it to people around the world. It's a great privilege. What I perceive as a little, unimportant place where I grew up — no one cared about Oslo then — is now being seen by people in different countries and that matters hugely to me.

Renate Reinsve is incredible in the film. What did she bring to Julie that wasn't in the script? Were there times when her ideas of Julie differed from yours and co-writer Eskil Vogt's?

Renate had a tiny part in Oslo, August 31. One line of dialogue. I was like, 'She's so good, she's going to be amazing. She's going to be famous.' And she was more famous in theatre than in film. She didn't really get any great parts so we wrote this part for her, 10 years later. In a way, we sculpted the idea of Julie around her. This is not her story in a biographical sense, but a lot of the humour and the emotion comes from Renate's capacity to create some sort of order out of the chaos of the character we wrote. She held it down, she made it specific. It's hard to define what it was she brought in terms of the storytelling, but every day on set, I felt like I had a companion who really understood the character, who challenged me. For example, in the breakup scene with Aksel, there were certain ways in which she wanted to attack him. She wanted to change some of the dialogue and that brought in more nuance.

You've said that your process is to always invite actors to discuss the scenes they're nervous about. Were there any scenes Renate was the most anxious about? How did you talk her through them?

I think my main job is to try to support the actor when they're experimenting and trying to get an interesting performance, and to be their friend and their ally instead of trying to order them to do this or that. I try to support their interpretation of the script, as much as I can. Renate is not very anxious, she's very brave, which I find admirable. There were moments when we had to do transitions, like the process of her aging. We had to figure out if we could get people to believe that she'd been through a long period of time, we had to figure out her look. I didn't want her to act 'young' and 'old'. That would've been cheesy. So the support we got from hair and makeup and costumes somehow made Renate appear differently and then she could play off that in a subtle way. That's something we spent a long time talking about — the physical development of the character. Some of the big tasks, like the crying, the yelling, the running, were all things she looked forward to. She's tough. The nuances were challenging but she did very well.

I love the scene in which Julie runs from Aksel's home to Eivind's coffee shop because time is such a recurring theme in the Oslo trilogy, whether it's all the flash-fowards and what-ifs in Reprise or all of the lamenting for lost time in Oslo, August 31st. This scene feels like such a corrective — the ability to just slow down time and experience all of the things you want to. What was the idea behind that and how did you end up shooting it?

Only now that I've made these movies do I realise that they deal with the movement of time — imagined time, subjective time, the past ways in which we try to grapple with the rapid movement of life and the anxiety of missing out on the big parts. I've been looking for a way to freeze time in my movies and this was an opportunity to convey almost the most romantic thing I've ever done. Not just romantic in the amorous way —  which it is because it's about someone falling in love, an almost forbidden kind of love — but also in the sense of letting the imagined or the free thoughts take over the film and be explored without resistance. The most interesting drama comes from conflict and in this scene, we're letting it go. We're leaving conflict behind for a moment to experience something joyful and sweet. I wanted to film them like a musical. I wanted these people to feel frozen in time but I didn't want it to be slick or cold. If I'd done it digitally, I'd be worried that it looked too much like a commercial. So I had people stand still and be choreographed. It was really fun to shoot.

"In a lot of films, the couple kisses, they lie down, there's sexy saxophone music, you pan over some naked bodies and people are all, 'Oh, they're in love.' It's not the most interesting way of doing lovemaking scenes"

Talk me through the imagery of the whole hallucinogenic scene, from Julie throwing her tampon at her father to her seeing herself as an old woman breastfeeding a child. How did you arrive at each of these specific images?

There were some crazy days in the writers' room when we were like, 'What are some of the ideas Julie could be dealing with if we access her subconscious?' It's like her subconscious is throwing these images at her — this anxiety of having your body age and feeling out of place in yourself, which is a very human experience done literally in this hallucinatory situation. She has all this suppressed anger towards her father, who's neglected her. I shot a lot of extra material that I didn't use in the film, a lot of verbal confrontation between Julie and her father, which helped us understand the layers of the character. She was very explicitly yelling at him. But as the film came together in the edit, I felt like this was already at play somewhere and I wanted the audience to fill in their own experiences of anger towards a parent or someone in their lives. 

I was nervous about it because I'm a man, and in this day and age, there is a great attention to what stories we're allowed to tell according to who we are. I understand the need to talk about appropriation, but I think that as a storyteller, it was important to be true to the character. We're two men writing but we're also teaming up with the actress. We're all from different backgrounds. We talked and tried to find the truth in the character. It was a joyful and liberating experience. All I can hope for is that this sequence, in all its wackiness, will make sense to some people. 

I wanted to ask you about the sex scenes in this movie because there's a great emphasis on female agency and female pleasure. In the scene with Eivid, Julie takes control and bites his butt. When she breaks up with Aksel and they have sex, it's focused on her pleasure. When you have two men writing a movie, how do you approach this?

The film deals with pleasure and passion. It's a love story. Sexuality isn't something that should be hidden away. It isn't something bad. It's a beautiful, important part of being human. So how do we approach that without giving in to cliché? Film is a medium which objectifies us — when you're talking in a film, you almost become plastic, you become an object, an image. You're not a real person. It's the nature of cinema. So when you're taking the camera into the bedroom, which is a private situation, you need to be cautious to not create cliché. In a lot of films, the couple kisses, they lie down, there's sexy saxophone music, you pan over some naked bodies and people are all, 'Oh, they're in love.' It's not the most interesting way of doing lovemaking scenes. So since we're looking at Eivid from Julie's point of view in some scenes, her passion for him, his physicality, I spoke to the actors very honestly and said: I have a plan and I want you guys to be comfortable, but I also want us to feel like a woman can look at a man in that way. It's equal between men and women, in my experience. It's not like men look and women are objects. We all, at moments, hopefully beautiful to each other. So I wanted to talk about that.

This is the kind of cinema in which you lend your view to the characters, and then you step back and you're objective and that becomes subjective. So as a director, when I film a city, it's very subjective because I'd want to see it from exactly this angle. But when I'm showing characters engaging with each other, sometimes I lend the view to them. Their subjectivity is my objectivity. You're letting the fiction lead the way. It's not just two men writing, but also trying to see how Julie sees. That becomes the art of it. It's an interesting exercise for any character, regardless of gender or age — what is it like to see from their point of view? 

I also wanted to ask about the way you approach love in the Oslo trilogy because in each installment, it's a force for instability in the protagonists' lives or it causes them pain. Why is the happy ever after, at least in romantic terms, so elusive?

I think I've come a long way. I'm older and more relaxed now and therefore I could make The Worst Person In The World, which is more hopeful than the other movies. There's a sense of compassion and love in Reprise, but some of the boys in that film are very childish. They're very scared of women. Others, like Phil, understand the need for companionship and friendship with Kari, who he loves very much. Love is tricky, love can be dangerous, it can set you out of your sense of control. It can be the most beautiful and the most horrendous thing. Anyone who's lived a life of experience can say that that's true. It's complicated. It's also the moment in life when you can be good at planning but still set off balance. I think we learn through losing balance. Love can be a journey of growth, but it can also be unpleasurable at times. I'm interested in going into the dark spots of life, where cinema needs to probe. So many films talk about joy and happiness. Love is certainly a place for great drama, but I'm more optimistic these days and I hope the Worst Person In The World reflects that.

The Oslo trilogy and even your film Louder Than Bombs have characters who are writers in some form. The Worst Person In The World is even structured like a novel. Why is this recurring element in your films?

I steal from the novel, not to try to create a book, but to find a freer way of telling a story through the movie. I'm interested in the rush of jumping back and forth in time, changing pace, mood and perspective — things that would fit easily in a book but which we're often told are not right for cinema. I'm also a bit of a restless person. Maybe that's just my temperament.

"Love is tricky, love can be dangerous, it can set you out of your sense of control. It can be the most beautiful and the most horrendous thing."

The film takes on cancel culture when Aksel's questioned about his sexist comics. He says: I think art has to be messy and free. Do we stop creating because some people might feel bad? Is there a line you draw as a writer and as a director?

I try to not see just one side of this issue because it's a complex one. Everyone's allowed to have an opinion. The woman who attacks Aksel is probably right in saying that there's something childish and provocative about his early comics. That's how I imagine him, as a provocateur, someone who got famous during the 90s for pissing people off and being a funny, cheeky artist who was also kind of an asshole. Suddenly, some years later, someone's saying: Listen, we don't want that anymore. And he's hurt because he felt like he was doing something free and fun. Now, he looks back and doesn't know anymore. 

I think art should be allowed to be messy and people should accept that there is provocation and that's a necessary way for democracy to move forward. Sometimes we get hurt or pissed off to an extent where it's meaningful or intelligent, but there are limits to that, of course. I don't think that it's an easy subject and we need to talk about it in a more generous way. We need to listen to each other. I see things case by case. I change my opinions sometimes. I don't think that using your freedom of speech to hurt people is very sophisticated. It's rather silly and stupid. But sometimes there are groups that need to be satirized. People in power need to be made fun of. We've done that for thousands of years. Those are cases in which it can be virtuous to be a provocateur. Sometimes, everyone laughs at a bit of a stupid joke. That should be allowed too. 

We're in an interesting time when we're negotiating these things and I fall on the side of freedom of speech a lot. It's not only important that people are allowed to make mistakes when they create art, but that we also respect people's feelings and that people need to be heard. If there's a homogeneity of repressive expression — like if there are a lot of movies representing women in a derogatory way — let's talk about that. On the other hand, we all need to accept that there are jokes that hurt us. Actors are great at making parodies, and every time I make a film, they all compete at parodying me or making fun of me. And I let them. There are times when I'm like, 'Am I that stupid?' It's a little hurtful but I know they genuinely care about me, so I'll take it. There is this moment of seeing yourself from the outside, but as long as it's not mean-spirited, we should accept it.

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