The writer/director of The Worst Person in the World ponders love, death and the possibility of a cosmic order to all things.
After a premiere in competition at Cannes which netted star Renate Reinsve the Best Actress trophy, and a whirlwind world tour packed with critical acclaim and a slew of glitzy award nominations, Danish-Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier reflects on the personal details at the heart of his character-driven dramedy The Worst Person in the World.
LWLies: This is the final film in your Oslo trilogy, following Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. I’d love to hear about your relationship with the city in your work.
Joachim Trier: I grew up in Oslo, so it’s intuitive material. I know what streets are cool and what streets I wouldn’t want to film on, and I have a good sense of how those narrative parts fit together. As an example, Axel, lives in a more posh, cultural part of town, whereas Eivind lives in Tøyen, which is the more newly gentrified hip neighbourhood. It’s very much like East and West London. Different parts have been gentrified or had a rebirth. It’s fun to play around with that. But I’m also reporting on a city in development, in the background behind the characters. We see a building site in Oslo 31st August when the main character comes out of rehab, with all these cranes; that building in The Worst Person in the World is where Eivind works in the coffee shop. All this stuff is there that wasn’t 10 years ago, so I’m tracing the expansion of the city.
It’s nice to see a hometown treated with such tenderness. If I made a film about my hometown, I don’t think I’d be as kind.
You know, I’ve never really thought about it like this before, but I think it’s like the characters in a way, having journeyed from resentment and this self-deprecation into more of an acceptance. In Reprise, my opening line, with these guys who want to be great writers, they say something like ‘We’ve got to get the hell out of here’. But I think that relationship with the city is like how a divorced person treats their ex with more love and tenderness after the fact.
And then there’s the fact Julie in the film has reached a place of self-acceptance within the world, by the end of the film.
There’s that John Lennon quote, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” which I feel relates to the film a lot. We had a couple of quotes that come up while we were working, and one I made up was ‘To hate oneself is a lifelong romance’ which is a riff on Oscar Wilde’s “To love oneself is a lifelong romance”. There’s also the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who said “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards” which is kind of the endpoint of the film.
Earlier we talked briefly about Jackass because of your background in skateboarding. When I interviewed one of those guys, he said, “I will always not be ready to die,” which I thought was so profound. Apparently there’s something about people that put themselves in danger that makes them wise.
I did this personality test and it turns out I’m a high-risk seeker. I’ve broken every bone in my body; three years ago, I smashed my knee up and had five operations after doing some downhill skiing at high speed. I had about 32 pieces of metal drilled into my leg, and I think making movies, a lot of us are drawn to that mad idea of trying to control chaos. The pressure is so big and you’re up against limitations of weather and then the emotions of 400 people on set every day. But it’s kind of fun.
What sort of on-set environment do you try to create for your collaborators?
Directing is about creating this feeling of almost a big party, where we don’t want anyone to be left out. Everyone has a role, and everyone needs to feel their work is valued. So for me, I want people who are very passionate, I want it to be more than just a job because it is tough. And I also want everyone to know that they are actually part of creating the performances in the film. Actors are supposed to be highly sensitive, so they’ll pick up on it if the crew are bored or miserable. It’s not that I want people to go around and pretend to be happy on set, but I want everyone to be aware that we’re part of something together.
When the actors are on set, we have calmness, quiet, focus, we play music that’s appropriate to the scenes and, and try to figure out what the actors need. But when they get off set, it’s like a Formula 1 pit stop, everything is very efficient and quick, so we can give the actors the time and space they need when we’re rolling. So when Renate says, ‘Oh, we had so much time while we were filming,’ I’m so proud. I say, ‘I’m glad we fooled you.’
When you’re working on a character-driven film you really need your actors to have a great sense of the role they’re playing, beyond what’s on the page.
Yes, and I have to give a bit of credit to the National Film and Television School, where I studied, because we had some really great teachers there. Ian Sellar, Stephen Frears. We had Altman and Mike Leigh come around and do workshops and it was an environment of very, very, very sophisticated performance directors. I came into the school already having a lot of formal ideas, and I loved Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Brian DePalma, but I needed that environment to train and study. So credit to the NFTS. And now that I’ve seen Joanna Hogg’s Souvenir films… I fucking loved Part Two, I think it’s a masterpiece. So you can see that training in other graduates, too.
There are two Harry Nilsson songs featured quite prominently in the film, which feels like an unusual choice for a contemporary romantic drama. Was that down to personal preference?
Yeah, I think that those are the greatest pop songs ever made. But the film is also a dialogue between generations, and I’m not even trying to be objective. It’s my Oslo. It’s my temperament. My music. But I’m realising right now, at the same time that these are my tastes, it’s also the taste of Julie’s generation. I have a lot of friends in their late twenties and early thirties, and I DJ as well – I’m a big music nerd. Julie’s generation don’t give a shit whether it’s a song from 1968, 1977, 1984, 1999. The soundtrack could have been both Julie and Axel’s playlists, as well as mine.
How much of yourself do you see in the characters within The Worst Person in the World?
Going into writing, Aksel was much easier for Eskil [Vogt] and I to write because he had more similar generational content, but Julie was based a lot on people I knew, as was Eivind. But I realised throughout the film that I was dealing with aspects of myself in Julie: her naivete; her dreams. I wouldn’t be a filmmaker unless I had that crazy notion deeply rooted in me. And yet time and time again, in love, in life, realising that there are such limitations to the world and reality, and negotiating that as you get older… I learned a lot from loss and things that happened to me. Looking back in the earlier part of myself, I wish I’d known what I know how. Yet the paradox of time is that you can’t know how you’re going to act – you have to go through it. But Julie’s dreamy messiness, I try to sustain a part of that in myself.
Do you notice a difference when writing male and female characters?
When I made my first two films a lot of people felt that I had passive male characters, that they had no sense of direction. At the time I was really trying to deal with the representation of male characters on screen and create ones more like the guys I knew and I didn’t see in film so much. Guys that are vulnerable and lost and don’t quite live up to macho expectations that a lot of storytelling demanded then. I was kind of burned by that a little bit, that people thought our men were so passive, but when I look at Eivind, he’s also a vulnerable, kind man. I know a lot of men like that. A lot of people have asked me how I can write a female character like Julie. I guess from day one, I didn’t want to apply any gender clichés. I’ve never made films about stereotypical guys, so if people find Julie to be particularly interesting I take that as a compliment. But I didn’t approach her with any big gender perspective or theory. I was just trying to create someone I felt I knew.
There’s a sense within The Worst Person in the World that the most trivial moments in our lives turn out to be the most meaningful. Do you feel there is some sort of cosmic order to the universe?
I’m more from a psychoanalytical tradition, but in the modern way of believing that we are dealt some cards, through genetics but also through experience, and we play them as best we can. But I want to believe – I have to believe – that we have opportunity. We need to feel that we have choices which can change our lives. But I also think we are continually negotiating our relationship to mortality. I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God, and I envy people who do because I think that gives more hope for something beyond this. So my existential approach is to try to accept what happens. I don’t believe that we have complete control, but that doesn’t have to be a cosmic system. It’s a circular motion of trying to control and accepting what happens. Over and over and over again. But I think Julie also has a bit of Gifted Child Syndrome, where she feels like she has to control things, has to reach her potential.
That’s a very modern, prescient feeling for a lot of people. We’re told as children we should achieve so much, then in adulthood it feels like all those things have eluded us.
I think it’s a reflection of how we live in a society with a lot of transactional value. We are told we have to figure out what our part is, and our value is defined much more than it was even 30 years ago. That value is at play at an early stage in everyone’s life. Just from social media, your attractiveness or worth can be defined by attention. And it’s hard, because we’re forced to approach this part of our identity all the time. We’re being asked, ‘Who are you? What’s your character? What’s your purpose? What are you good at? What are you not good at?’ There’s a lot of this transactional stuff that applies to relationships. Julie and Aksel are idealising each other. They’re both looking for their value; Aksel gives Julie a sense of definition that she prefers in the beginning and then comes to hate later. But I think that’s what love is. It’s learning how to dare to be accepted without rationalising what your worth is.
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Published 10 Mar 2022
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