Thursday, May 17, 2007

Director Joachim Trier on Citation, Skateboarding, and "Reprise"

-Interview by Jon Robbins

Is it true you were the skateboard champion of

Many, many years ago, yes. I started skateboarding during a period when skateboarding was banned in Norway, from 1979-1989. The only place in the world where skateboarding was not allowed! Either you had to smuggle the boards or build them yourself. So I grew up in this sort of underground skating punk scene where we had to run from the cops and make our own [skateboarding] ramps in the forest. I made skateboard videos.

In fact, I had started making videos as a child. My grandfather, Erik Lochen had a film called The Hunt (that has screened at Lincoln Center), and my parents were involved with film. Since film had always been something I just did, it took me some time to get that I could make a living with film. I started making fictional shorts in 16 mm, and it began to occur to me that through film I might devise a language of my own. Then, when I was 23, I went to the National Film and TV School in London, where I had the fortune of studying with professors like Stephen Frears.

Skating and punk both involve so much self-expression. Do you refer to these experiences when you make films?

I found these to be helpful in the sense that directing entails dealing with pressure and trying to inspire those around you. In skateboarding you can hone a sort of style, but you cannot thematically deal with anything as you can in cinema. I was never good at writing in the literary sense of the word, and was never a musician, so I yearned for something else. In fact I did co-write the script for Reprise, but always aiming for the image.

Would you talk about your connection to Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, which several critics have brought up in conjunction with Reprise.

It has been brought up a lot, and I do like Truffaut, but I also like a lot of the French New Wave, and particularly Alan Resnais. Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad were more what we were inspired by for Reprise than Jules and Jim, although that’s been the one to come up with the critics. Of course it is a huge compliment to be associated with a director like Truffaut. I love the French New Wave in general, Goddard, the writer Alain Robbe-Grillet. And while the opening scene in Reprise does allude directly to the New Wave, ‘inspired by’ would be a more accurate way to characterize the relationship.

Oh I was so convinced…

It’s great that different people have different reactions to the film. One Norwegian critic, and I took this as a huge compliment, said that Reprise was ‘Antonioni on amphetamines!’ So a lot of stuff has come up. All in all I’m a big film buff, I grew up watching these films. For Reprise I was inspired by films like Diner by Barry Levinson, or Annie Hall, or Before The Revolution by Bertolucci. Many, many things, although Truffaut is relevant.

Did you watch any of these while shooting Reprise?

No, it was more subconscious. I never watch a film and then consciously try to make a pastiche of it. But our minds are made up of the iconography of cinema in a way. And I want to let the audience be a part of this discourse. In Reprise, I think the pastiche is in the more humorous parts. Like the beginning, what we always call the overture of the film, which introduces the story, presents the themes of the movie, which will then proceed very differently. I guess that is rather New Wave.

In Reprise you embrace the iconography, as you put it, of these early postmodern filmmakers in a wholly postmodern way…

Well, as a student, I named two films after Jean Baudrillard books. I’m not an academic but I’m hugely inspired by theory, especially French Poststructuralist theory, but all kinds of theory, really. That’s not to say I want to illustrate theories in my films, but I do find it inspiring to ask questions about perception of reality and identity.

And just a little note on your notion of postmodernism: I’ve always asked myself if there ever really was a modernism in cinema, or was it just automatically postmodern from the get-go because of the nature of the medium. Film was already a mixture of high and low culture, it was already dealing with representational identity, it was very often an conglomerate of many means of cultural expression, and very early on film engaged with the notion of identity, and the fluidity of identity and point of view. So I often find words like modernism and postmodernism to be empty when it comes to cinema, which lacks a clear art historical development.

But it seems to me that modernism is ingrained in cinema somehow, that cinema is a form that comes from modernism…

Peter Schepelern, the Danish theoretician, tried to find that break, when modernity as such became postmodernity. Where can we find it? There is always something postmodern there at play in the language of cinema.

May I suggest that your film iterates this break…

Oh yes?

In the sense that it is much more difficult for you or any other contemporary filmmaker not to cite, that the filmic vocabulary, as it were, has grown so much since 1960, never mind 1895.

But if you look at Goddard, he was constantly citing. I mean, look at the Claire references, the American references in his early work. Truffaut as well, was playing with gangster and film noir. You see, I think it was already there, postmodernity, the break was already there, whether one likes it or not.

With all this talk of French filmmakers, I’d like to ask you about the role Paris plays in Reprise. Philip takes Kari back to Paris, specifically to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. And to a tower from which one can see the cleaving of Paris, from city to banlieu…

Yes, yes! Buttes-Chaumont is a special park, and my co-screenwriter, Eskil Vogt, lives nearby. He is also a director, in fact. And I spend a lot of time in Paris, just to get away from things. In fact, Buttes-Chaumont was very popular with the Surrealists. It is a highly constructed place: in the middle of the park, they constructed a mountain and a pastiche Greek temple. So it was perfect for the love that Philip was trying to recreate with Kari. That mise-en-scene really matches the sense of fakery. As for the cleaving of Paris, I think it’s a beautiful idea, but I didn’t think in those terms at the time.

And Philip, too, is split. Try as he might, he cannot resummon his love for Kari.

Eskil and I have a very close friend who was schizoaffective. So we knew about this disorder, which is a combination of a sort of psychosis and bipolar disorder. And we were interested in dealing with mental illness but did not in any way want to do a sociological study. Instead, we aimed for the metaphor of ambiguous identity. In reality, the myth of the mad artist is very sad: Van Gogh was not productive when he was in a psychotic state, it is a terrible tragedy for these people. And then we paired Philip with Erik, a character almost out of Henry James, the kind of person who longs for catastrophe, and feels the unbearable lightness of things. At its core, Reprise is the story of friendship.

And then, in terms of identity, I’d like to say something about Norway, the suburbs of Europe, where one often grows up watching American movies, reading French novels, listening to British music, and reading Japanese comic books. Your identity becomes your taste. Even now, I try not to separate the intellectual from the emotional, nor form and content in cinema. If a scene works on a formal level, it can then have an emotional resonance and an intellectual one. At least this is the gap we were trying to bridge with Reprise. This richness is important to me.

Reprise is also rich in its portrayal of male relationships…

Well, I was very interested in that. I wanted to make a complex film about male interaction. I think people are quite mixed, and I wanted to show these guys who talk roughly but are fragile. And the moment they stop being so close, this sort of talk stops. I really tried to capture that particular way guys have of communicating.

Notions of identity and autobiography are constantly in play in Reprise. Manohla Darghis, for one, wrote about the title of Erik’s book, “Prosopopeia,” citing the theorist Paul de Man on autobiography. Come to think of it, how autobiographical is Reprise?

It is and it isn’t. Both [co-screenwriter] Eskil Vogt and I used a lot of ourselves, and I did find many parts of Philip and Erik that I could relate to. It’s a very personal film, in language and form, because the characters and I come from same milieu. You see, process is incredibly important to me. For me, the most important thing is to express feeling and mood with my films. It’s so difficult to do, but it’s what we all aim for. So when people talk about a film being ‘personal,’ they often only mean autobiography. Yet, there are other ways a film can be very personal. As a director, your mise-en-scene combined with your approach to time are what make your films your films.

As to Prosopopeia, it’s a Greek term meaning ‘to give voice to.’ “The voice of the woods,” for instance would be Prosopopeia. I understand what she’s referring to in talking about Paul de Man, and we’ve never had anyone spot that, so I really appreciated it. Also, Erik gives his book that impossible title, which I find very endearing.

Is it true that most of the actors were amateurs?

I had lived seven years in London and was going back to Norway just to make a film. We worked from a group of about a thousand people, and the leads are mostly nonprofessional actors. The actor who plays Philip will soon be a doctor, in fact. (He was also just voted Norway’s sexiest man by Elle magazine!) We did a redraft of the script after the cast was set, just to make sure everything would fit. This mixture of amateurs and more experienced actors I found rather scary but it’s also one of things I’m most pleased with. I’m very proud of the performances in this film. The actors really gave of themselves. “Every day on the set is also just a day in the actors’ lives,” to quote Goddard. And even though I myself don’t improvise, I shoot a lot of extra material. I think the ratio is 25:1. I like that, I like to go a bit further each time.

-Interview by Jon Robbins