In this special episode, acclaimed filmmaker Joachim Trier tells host Rico Gagliano about how and why he made his tender look at messy modern romance, THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD—from constructing its Oscar-nominated screenplay to casting his star Renate Reinsve (who went on to win Best Actress at Cannes for the role). He also reflects on the dangers of nostalgia and then indulges in some of his own, looking back on the movies—and movie theaters—that shaped him.
THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD is now showing in select UK cinemas and will exclusively stream on MUBI in the UK, Ireland, India, and Turkey starting May 13, 2022.
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I was actually remarking to someone the other day. I went to grad school for screenwriting, and people would ask me "Why didn't you study directing?" And I was like, "Because the actual making of a movie is like building a house." - [Laughing] - It's like... As much hard labor as it is creative. It is... Stanley Kubrick supposedly said, having been a still photographer for Time magazine, I believe, before he became a director, that it's the same thing. It's problem-solving. Filmmaking is problem-solving. So anyone who who doesn't want to be a director, I get it. You need a certain kind of... I say that with a mix of pride and shame. That you actually need a bit of a masochistic personality disorder or something to actually do this thing. [Both laughing] That is Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier. Whose acclaimed movies, sure enough, show a lot of sympathy for characters who are pretty rough on themselves. His debut <i>Reprise</i> was about two young friends in Oslo. One who beats himself up for not becoming a famous author, and the other who has a breakdown when he does. Trier's follow up <i>Oslo, August 31st</i> depicts a day in the life of a self-sabotaging addict. And his latest film is about a woman named Julie trying and failing to find the perfect relationship. Its title is a phrase Norwegians apparently use a lot when describing themselves. <i>The Worst Person in the World</i> I'm Rico Galliano, and welcome back to the MUBI podcast. MUBI is the best place to stream beautiful, hand-picked cinema. On this show, we tell you great stories about beautiful cinema. Season two of the show is coming in June. Today, though, another special episode to tide you over. You are going to hear my interview with Joachim Trier about <i>Worst Person in the World</i>. Like all his movies, it deals with the crazy demands people make of themselves and each other. But it's also funny, achingly romantic and shot in a kind of magical light that's going to make you want to move to Oslo. Last week, just before the Academy Awards and just as the movie opened in UK cinemas where it's playing right now, Trier or told me about its themes, its Oscar nominated screenplay, his star Renata Reinsve, who won best actress at Cannes for this role. And about the movie theaters where he fell in love with breakdancing, Godard, and giant robots. Oh, and heads up. This episode contains spoilers. Thank you for joining me, Joachim Trier. Thanks for having me. I read an interview with you about this movie, and you talked about wanting to make a realistic movie, about the tribulations of modern love and the difficulties of different generations and kind of navigating love and sex. But I haven't heard you say why. Why did that subject fascinate you? Why take it on? I think it's interesting how films propose one reality, and then we live another. And sometimes they're quite separate. It can be quite joyful to go to the movies and watch something that's far removed from the boring, everyday life one has, you know? But I actually am very curious to explore what I think I see around me or what I have experienced myself. Not necessarily... Autobiographical. Oh wait, it was exactly this event or something, but thematically or like feeling. Oh, that's that feeling of... Jesus, I'm at this age and love is still so difficult. Or why does it seem like everyone else is figuring out their love life? And I find it hard or... You know, I've been through those phases. I've certainly in the past had moments where I felt very lost, you know, and the same with people around me. So I thought Julie was an interesting character because she's at the start of the film, really great at maneuvering the kind of lifestyle changes and changing. You know, I want to be a doctor, no I want to be a psychologist, now I want to be creative, I want to be a photographer. She believes that she can be a bit of a chameleon, but when it comes to getting really close to someone, she finds that really hard. And I thought that was a characteristic that many people I know have been through or are still grappling with. Yeah, actually, I went back and I watched <i>Reprise</i> again. Yeah. And it almost feels like a companion piece to <i>Worst Person</i>. It is... It's like characters trying to decide how they fit into society or whether they even should fit into society, whether it's a sellout. - Yeah. - To fit into society or even to have, you know, like a classic and monogamous relationship. Why is this a recurring theme for you? I think that's very personal. I think it has to do with the environment. And my family that I grew up in. This politicized left-wing environment where there was the rebellion against my grandparent's generation, who had suffered tremendously during the Second World War in Norway. And my grandfather, having been a resistance fighter and barely survived, just really never got over that terrible trauma of the war. And I think that seriousness was countered at my parents' generation. With a sense of wanting to be free in the sixties and seventies and wanting to not abide to the rules of the grown-ups, you know, and trying to find a better, freer way of living life. I myself got into punk and I was a skateboarder, and in Norway skateboarding was banned. It was illegal when I started doing it. So the cops would be chasing us. Sure, like in the late eighties. And we were like, you know, "Authority figures are wrong!" "Skateboarding is fun!" And, you know, all that stuff became a part of how I also perceived creativity and identity. So I think in <i>Reprise</i> those guys or wanting to write novels and books and they are feeling that if they just abide to the rules of the adults, they won't have anything to bring to their creativity or to their art. But being an artist is a totality, that's like all you could be. I'm happy I graduated from that way of thinking, and I'm glad I have other things in my life. But I have certainly been one of those people. I remember going to film school at 23 in London. Leaving everything behind and, you know, going for it and just dreaming and wishing that I could become a filmmaker. And, and maybe that's good for a part of your life. But I think it's healthy too, like Julie goes through in <i>The Worst Person in the World</i> to realize that you actually maybe you need a home, a place to be safe with other people. Yeah. And I mean, for Juliette it also seems like a big thing. I think we're left with her thinking "I'm going to figure out who I am and not what how other people look at me." That's a very important thing. I think. Absolutely. Which we're all struggling with. I mean, we it certainly hasn't hasn't become easier in our time and age with, "Oh, that picture of me on holiday on Instagram, that I looked happy didn't I?" "Oh people are responding as if I'm happy." "I must be happy." But am I happy? You know, we're all going through this. I want to turn to your Oscar nominated screenplay. I read a quote from your co-screenwriter and I'm paraphrasing here, I hope I get it right, but it's something along the lines of "Maybe we shouldn't begin building a screenplay "based on kind of traditional narrative structure, but like we should start "with stuff that cinema's really good at, like set pieces "and suspense and musicality, music." So I'm wondering what were the kind of kernel, very cinematic building blocks that you built this movie? That's a great question. Thank you for asking that. That's something, Eskil Vogt, my dear friend and co-writer for five films, the five films I've directed. He said this and I agree absolutely. I think this is our approach. Generally, my phone is filled with notes like, the yellow notepad is filled with silly ideas. Some of them are turned out to be good, and some of them are, you know, just something. And sometimes they're very formal. Sometimes they are a moment, sometimes there a way someone is speaking and then when Eskil and I sit down, we both bring our ideas into the room and we try to feel out, during that year, when we make the script, sometimes more than a year, what we feel is cinematically fun to shoot for me, as a director, but also what we feel could build character. So for this film, like, for example, there's a set piece that, an idea we had early, which was someone crashes a wedding party without knowing anyone. She plays around, gets drunk, she has a conversation where she pretends she's like a doctor, something else which she not. She feels free. And then suddenly she meets someone that she likes a lot. [Audio clip from <i>The Worst Person in the World</i>] <i>- Hi. - Hi.</i> <i>Not asking me the usual questions?</i> <i>- Which ones? - Who I am, what I do.</i> [Clip ends] And this guy likes her as well. And they both admit very quickly that, listen, we're both in relationships, we can't be unfaithful. But then they start thinking about what could we do, though that's not being unfaithful. According to the rules. And they start doing all kinds of strange things with each other. That actually turn out to be quite intimate. They share a secret they haven't shared with anyone. They bite each other like, is it okay to inflict pain on someone? That's not sexual... [Short audio clip from movie of woman laughing in shock] They end up smelling each other's armpits. Like, they do a lot of embarrassing stuff to somehow deeply flirt. But at the end of it, they still go, you know, we're... We didn't cheat. <i>- We didn't cheat. - No.</i> We weren't unfaithful. <i>Bye.</i> Then they leave each other. And that was like the central scene of the construction of the screenplay for you. It was of the early part, it set Julie's character into play because it's a playful, funny way of approaching the serious topic of monogamy. She's being both very honest to her own emotions in the moment, yet she's trying to do the right thing and not cheat on her boyfriend. I think how you deal with that says a lot about who you are. So it was a good character scene to set up Julie. The moment a character, or the characters come into play, we very, very quickly figure out what of those strange ideas that we have can kind of fit in and not. So if I had to define it, your process would be kind of like a whole bunch of scenes in search of a character. Yeah, well-put. Speaking of which, you wrote my understanding is that you wrote this character for the actor Renate Reinsve after she had a bit part in one of your early films. First of all, I think there are actors listening to this right now who'd like to know what did she do in that bit part that made you go, "I'm going to write a full screenplay based around this actor." Yeah. That's a good question. Yeah, it was actually the film <i>Oslo, August 31st</i>, and that's ten years ago. And we were shooting morning scenes and to get the transitional light through a long sequence, we had to shoot, I think eight or nine days with Renata on set, even though she only had this one line of dialog. And, and I realized she was... Her energy on set and the fact that I could give her little things to do in the background, she wasn't the lead character and she always came up with funny stuff, every damn early morning at 5 a.m. She would bike around and laugh and have this incredible energy. And I was like, "Who is this person?" I'd cast her and I thought, she was good at doing this line of dialog, but she was really fun to have on set. And, uh, I'm always rooting for the actors or the people who have like a particular style, but that I see haven't been given the kind of the shot they deserve. And she's certainly one of them. I'd seen her do great work in theater for many, many years. But she never... I mean, this is also an important thing to mention, is that Renata is quite young, you know, and beautiful looking. And she got a lot of smaller characters on TV shows as perhaps the antagonistic new girlfriend, of the ex-boyfriend of the lead or something, like she would... She would get these parts where she was funny and she made the most of it, but maybe she was more cast as a type. What about her did you embed in the character? I know her quite well now, and I think there is a mixture of getting out of emotional, tricky spots by humor and levity and charm that she does well and she is all that. She's very funny, but she also has a sensitivity and a melancholia to her. Quite a serious perspective on life. You know, and I think like that mixture, I find that very endearing. I want to go to the other main character, in this, to me is Axel. Yeah. The first boyfriend that she has in the film. There's a moment at the end that I... When speaking to people about this movie, a lot of them are very affected by it. And I'll preface this by saying, I am close to your age. - Yeah. - And so is Axel. And the people that I'm talking to are tend to be close in their age to Axel. And he has this soliloquy almost, where he's sort of reflecting on his life and the fact that he has always been kind of a collector of objects. And how he's nostalgic for a time when objects had a lot of power as opposed to now when it seems like, you know, everything's kind of ephemeral and maybe digital. And I couldn't help but pop psychologize. - Yeah. - Is that you speaking, you know, a former punk a guy who I know is a DJ at times and like a record collector. Is that you? Yeah, I guess it's both Eskil and me and also trying to deal with something we're a bit ambivalent about in ourselves, in our own life. It is certainly me who grew up believing that my cultural references and the bands that I liked, or didn't like, defined who I was as a person. That's a very generational experience, I think, you know, I have a lot of friends at different ages and young friends who are not so concerned with having like a life choice of whether you love The Who or The Rolling Stones best, or something I mean, you know, like that time has passed a bit that seems... And maybe for the better! And that's where, you know, we can't cling to nostalgia. And nostalgia is dangerous. Nostalgia is also a place where we... It's like a comfort blanket. In the past, you don't die because, you know, you lived. And the future is scary, and mortality and time plays into it in violent and scary ways as you get older. And and I think that... That that moment in the film is about someone trying to reconcile was all that cultural orientation, what did it amount to you know then, so rather than to just say that I'm the guy who thinks that vinyl and Blu-rays are by principal better than the streaming world, because I don't know... I love the fact that I can have the weirdest discoveries sitting on a bus on my iPhone that I would only be able to have in a New York record store, you know, 15, 20 years ago. I think that's pretty awesome. At the same time, there that... Every generation sees that at some point their thing has passed. And I think being in my forties now, that's yeah, yeah, that's personal. For me too. And actually watching the character of Axel talk about his youth hanging out at record and comic book stores that have now all closed. I couldn't help but think about the probably years worth of my life I've spent in movie theaters. And of course, there's a lot of talk now that their time has passed. Next season on this show, we're going to tell the stories of some of the most important movie theaters in history. Which made for a good excuse to convince Trier to indulge in a little nostalgia himself. And tell me about the most important theaters in his history. Yeah. I have a few, and they're all in Oslo, so I won't labor the point of the geography of them, but I... There's... The biggest screen in Norway is called the Colosseum. It's just sort of a big, big, big, big cinema. It's like a thousand seats or something, or more even, maybe 1200. And I remember going to see a lot of the formative big films. Like, I saw E.T. Three times when I was nine in that theater. I had my parents just take me back, and I saw Beat Street. And I think back now, like how weird that Beat Street was that big, but it was the break dance movie, you know? Yeah, those are two very different movies. Were they around the same time? They are both eighties movies. Yeah, they are. And I went from being that dreamy kid that cried at the end of E.T. to being a break dancer in that year when I was nine, this was, you know, 1983 or 1984-ish was so, so... I mean that was a big theater. But I also saw like The Karate Kid. I remember years later also watching a lot of action movies there, you know, like that big cinematic thing on one hand. On the other hand, also the Oslo Cinematek, that I started frequenting and when I was a young aspiring intellectual in my late teens and watching, I was like, oh, all of 80s Godard is playing in the next three weeks. Well, I have to see all of that! Going every day, you know, with my nerdy friends, like, okay, I like that one. I didn't understand anything, but it was cool. It had, you know, it was some weird slow motion stuff with Isabelle Huppert. That's great. I love that you know. It's interesting at a time when theaters were like that important, you know, like it was such a center of a young person's life, you could almost gauge your development as a person by movie theater that you were going to, like, there's the big theater. That's where you're seeing, like, the big mainstream things. Then when you become a punk, you're like, well, then I'm moving on to the art house. Exactly. Yeah, absolutely. That's the journey. But I always kept one foot in each camp, you know? I was asked by Film Comment magazine recently to do Guilty Pleasures list and one of the films I remember being very moved by is the, you know, Transformers 2... - What? - When that was... When they have the, in the birch wood the lik, what's it called? The big robot, the American... Truck. - I don't remember. - Yeah. Yeah. He gets killed in it, you know, it's like, it's kind of beautiful and weirdly Tarkovskian when they're fighting out in those birch woods, you know, so I have a weird... Weird association... I still love all kinds of movies, even though at the moment I'm really I'm really interested in character and human relatable stories in my own work. I still watch everything. Yeah, I'm sure. I am wondering if somehow that scene... [Laughs] The death of a Transformer somehow wormed its way, you know, subtly into some later film you made. Yeah, well, who knows? - Maybe so... - Exactly! No, but this is the point, I mean, I think that there are some films that are easily defined on paper, and they're easy to talk about intellectually, and there are always the films that give me the rush, you know, of cinematic brilliance. I think sometimes strange movies that are quite mainstream can do something with the camera and space and movement. That, to me, reminds me of my primary fascination for cinema. You could see it in Tarkovsky and Kubrick, you know, but you can also see sometimes in a musical or in an action film, just a movement of something and feeling the rush of blood in your body. Like it's physical. You're underwater with the character and you can't breathe, you know, that's seductive, a closeness to a cinematic experience. Yes. It's interesting when you look at kids growing into our culture, looking at films for the first time as they're small, you know, like they they're starting to understand the codes. They're starting to understand how to read it and how effective moving images are. And they will always be. And I think when people talk about the theatrical experience dying and yes, it's changing, but if you take kids to the movies, you see how strong it is. Yeah. It's there's nothing like it. There's nothing like it. Yeah. I read or read somewhere that it's something like 80% of people in a movie theater, if you look at them while they're watching your film, - their mouths are open. - Exactly. It's like you just forget to have even any physical support in your face. - You're so enthralled. - That's it. Let me ask you, as a filmmaker who has obviously been shown in festivals around the world, I'm sure you've seen your films in theaters around the world. Is there one that you particularly like seeing your movies screened? Yeah, I mean, I had a very special experience last year that I should share in the context of cinemas, because because of the pandemic, I was not allowed to screen <i>The Worst Person in the World</i> for more than five people at a time. So and I like to test I like to show my films while I'm editing to a lot of people, not only filmmakers, colleagues, but also just friends of friends, you know, people I don't quite know and just get their response to see what they're what they're interpreting, what they're feeling. And I wasn't allowed to show. So we had screenings like in a day we would do like four screens of five people each. And then, you know, at the end of the day, we could talk to a mass of people. But I was never in the seats with a group, which is very... I really missed it. And then we were invited to Cannes, and I realized sitting in that fancy limousine on to... Going to the red carpet, that holy Jesus, I'm going to show the film to 2300 people in 10 minutes, like 10 minutes from now. I'm going to actually have that experience for the first time. And I hadn't had... I hadn't warmed up to it. So I suddenly got very nervous and also excited, you know, but that that screening and people are very responding very well. A lot of laughter and a great applause at the end. And we were all moved and we started crying and you know, again, this interview now I'm the sobby guy and we only talking about mortality and crying here, but I guess I am. And that moment was really important. But the actors and everyone you know, it was really, really wonderful. So I think it's interesting because we're talking about awards and the Oscars are coming up in a week. We don't know how it's going to be. But regardless, of awards and everything, at least if you have a great sort of premiere screening at a good festival, that's really a joy. And I'm so happy that these festivals exist and create this little moment around a film because it's fleeting and suddenly everyone's on to the next one, you know? - Yeah. - So it matters. It is interesting to me, not this year, but last year I'm usually somebody that's really on top of the Oscars. I always throw a party. Last year, obviously I couldn't because it was COVID times and we weren't allowed to be together. And also I hadn't been to movie theaters. And it was the first time in maybe my entire moviegoing existence that I hadn't seen most of the films, even though they were more available to me online. It was the fact that they hadn't been on movie screens was almost like it kept me from seeing them, like the theaters, you need to have the theaters there to create the moment to make you feel like, "Oh, this is something worth seeing." I agree. I think the way forward for cinema, the paradox right now is that a lot of things are going to happen only on streaming platforms. But specialized cinematic experience films, whether they are arthouse things, as they're called personal films as I like to call them often. Or the big blockbusters. I think those things will survive and they'll exist out there. And it's very clear that there's a cultural discourse around those films that is prominent also because people go to the theater and have that kind of deep viewing experience. And what I like to call deep viewing is not all, it's about being in an audience with other people and the subconscious experience of sharing the film. And then afterwards, even though sometimes I go to the movies alone, sometimes you also do it socially and you feel kind of more obliged to go and have a drink and talk properly about it, or it's an event in your life to go there and therefore you, "What did you do last night?" "Oh, I went to the movies." and "Oh, what did you see?" So there is a system of appreciation of cinema that whether it decreases or increases, I don't know, it might change, it might become more specialized, but it's there and it's valuable. And I still shoot on 35mm, I still care about the movie theaters. And to be honest, a few years ago I was scared. I was like trying to defend it. But now I'm like, fuck it. If people don't want to go, fine, see what happens, I dare you, but don't worry about it. It's going to be fine. I'm not so worried it's going to be okay. Joachim Trier. You can see <i>The Worst Person in the World</i> on big screens in UK cinemas right now, and it'll be on MUBI in the UK and other countries starting May 13th. Check the show notes of this episode for details of where you can watch. And that is our special episode of the MUBI podcast this week. There are more to come leading up to June, when we'll drop our full season two, all about movie theaters, great and small and often both. Follow us wherever you get your podcast so you don't miss it. While you're at it, please leave us a five star review. It helps others find and love us. We would love to hear your questions, comments, or what you think of <i>The Worst Person in the World</i> once you see it. Email us at email@example.com This episode was hosted, written and cut by me Rico Gagliano. Yuri Suzuki composed the theme music, and Martin Austwick composed our poignant midpoint tune. Thanks, this time to Kevin Lee and Julia Nowicka. The show's executive produced by me, along with Jon Barrenchea, Efe Cakarel, Daniel Kasman, and Michael Tacca for MUBI. Thanks for listening. Be safe. Watch movies.