Ruben Östlund On Keeping ‘Triangle Of Sadness’ Social Media Critiques Timeless [Interview]
Feb 2, 2023
When Ruben Östlund jumped on a Zoom call to discuss his new film we weren’t interested in talking to him about the buzzed-about sea sickness sequence in “Triangle of Sadness.” That wasn’t a surprise. Östlund knows how to conceive universally funny scenes. No, it’s what his Palme d’Or-winning black comedy has to say about today’s social media-obsessed society, the haves and the have-nots, and the prevalence of sexism in the global culture that’s truly noteworthy.
READ MORE: Harris Dickinson navigates the “Triangle of Sadness” [Interview]
Incredibly, “Triangle” is actually Östlund’s second Palme win. It’s a follow-up to 2017’s “The Square,” another dark comedy shot primarily in Östlund’s native Sweden. But over the five years that he spent working on his English language debut the hierarchy of social media services changed. Snapchat and Facebook lost cultural cache while a newcomer, TikTok, became something of a sensation. And, yet, despite leads Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean portraying popular “influencers,” you won’t hear any of those companies’ names over the course of the movie. Östlund says it was important to not become too fashionable or trendy, “because then it will be old very quickly.”
“I have a friend that is having a restaurant, and he is always talking about the interior of different restaurants when we go to them,” Östlund says. “And if you have a restaurant that is trying to be very modern, he says in half a year this place will feel old. But if you go with a classic style, then it will not feel old in 10 years. Then it will last longer. So, I think it was important to try to figure out, what part of this internet behavior is in connection with the core of being a human being? The narcissistic part. It’s that, that I wanted to focus on. But it’s the same thing on what the characters are wearing because the costume designer and I had a lot of discussions about, ‘O.K. I don’t want them to be too spot on, trendy today. Because then it will be old when the film is finished.’ So, it’s a balance, of course.”
Over the course of our interview, Östlund reflects on the talented Dean, who died suddenly at the end of August, the timely coincidence of having a corrupt Russian oligarch as one of his ensemble characters, the advantages of testing movies with real audiences, his upcoming project “The Entertainment System is Down,” and much, much more.
The Playlist: I know that this has to be awkward, and not what you were hoping for during this press tour, but there was a tragedy recently with one of your leads, Charlbi Dean. I know her passing was totally unexpected. What made you want to cast her? And when you think about the production, is there any memory that just comes up in your mind first?
I was looking for quite a long time for an actor to play Yaya. And my wife, she’s a fashion photographer, so she knew the fashion industry and quite many of the models. And she had a friend that was saying, “You have to try out Charlbi Dean. She’s this South African model and actress.” So we flew her up to Sweden, and I tried out the bill scene, the scene when the man and the woman are sitting on the table and the bill comes on the table. And we had so much fun trying out that scene. So, she was allowed to use any way she could to manipulate me. And she was fantastic at manipulation. Just the way she used, “Wow.” So, when I did something that was wrong, she’ll go, “Wow.” What’s “Wow?” What does that mean? But it was a fantastic way to control the situation. And her body language and everything like that, she knew exactly how to maneuver and play it out. Like a chess game, almost. So, I was very impressed with her first improvisation. Then, “O.K., let’s try it again.” And she had exactly the same kind of presence and feeling. So, it felt like she was doing it for the first time again. And that is kind of unusual that you have an actor that is not getting tired, that is 100% on the string, and very focused, and not losing energy, and not losing the tension that you can have from the first take when you approach something. I realized, also, that she had a certain kind of ability that maybe comes from being very, very used to being in front of the camera. She would never, never let down her guard. She was never low on energy. I never had to ask her that, push up the energy, and so on. She was 100% on the ball, every time. That is impressive, also, because I do so many takes, to see the kind of stamina that she had when we were working.
The memory I can share with you was [it was a special shoot] because we were shooting during the pandemic. And when we were shooting the island, it was basically the dream of being a collective, and working together, because we were in a small, small village in Greece. And that village ends with the road. So there’s only one possibility to get in there. And during the pandemic, we had to control the whole village. So, it was basically only the film team, a couple of people living in the village, but no one else. So we spent seven weeks there, walking up and down the same road when we were off-set. You got to see the different members of the cast coming on the road. “Oh, yeah.” “Hey.” “Hey.” And we really got closer to each other during that shooting. And I would always remember when you saw Charlbi coming from the little store that was over there, and she was walking on the street, passing my hotel, and going to the hotel where she was living. And “Yeah.” “Yeah.” “Hey.” “Hey.” “See you tomorrow at the shooting.” It became very familiar. Like a family feeling over the whole shooting. And the way that Charlbi was a team player, and pushed up her colleagues, there were so many times when she put in some energy of her, in the production. So, when this happened, of course, it was a tragedy. It’s always a tragedy when someone dies young. But we were an ensemble, that was doing this together. And when we were going to Toronto, the ensemble was supposed to stand there. All of us together, like we did in Cannes. And all of a sudden, it was one spot that was empty. So, it was very emotional. So I really, really want to try to tell everybody, try to look at her performance, because she was going somewhere. It would be interesting to follow her.
She was one of the actors who really popped for me after I saw the fo;, at Cannes. There was something special there. I did want to ask you about Cannes, however. It wasn’t your first one, but it was certainly her first one, and I think it was the first for Harris as well. Maybe I’m wrong. You’ve already won the Palme d’Or. Were you still nervous or checking out how they were all taking it all in?
No. I feel, also, that when you have these actors that are there for the first time, especially the young ones, you want to help them with their experience. Because it’s easy that you are just nervous, and you just look at yourself, and you think, “Oh, I’m not good.” And it was important for me to send them the film before so that they can watch the film by themself. And when we are in Lumiere that night, when we have the premiere screening, they should enjoy it. All of us had a goal. We wanted to be in competition. We wanted to present the film in the best possible way because of the content, also. This is really the room that I have been aiming for, in Cannes, with that kind of setup. This kind of thematic, and topic. So, it was a great feeling also to be able to say, “Don’t be nervous. Come on now. Let’s enjoy this experience together.”
I remember when the Jury President, Vincent London, announced who the winner was, I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said it was unanimous, Something along the lines of “the second we saw this movie, it was going to win the Palme.” How did you take all that, to realize that it had made such an impression on the jury right away?
You get happy, of course, and then you get humble, and then you get a little shy. You get shy when you meet the members. You’re like, “Whoa. Thank you so much for liking my film.” You don’t know what to say. It took five years to do “Triangle of Sadness,” and you’re spending every day with it in some way. And you have a family that is dealing with me, dealing with the film. And people that actually also are participating in the film. So, in the end when you are showing a film and people are happy, then it’s a fantastic feeling. But it also becomes, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to react.
You just mentioned how you spent five years making this film. Five years ago, TikTok wasn’t a thing. There were other parts of social media that were more popular than they are now. How did you move forward making the film knowing, “O.K. I need to be careful about not including A, B, and C, or it might become dated, or it wouldn’t work.” How many iterations of the script did that make you go through? Or was it not as big a problem as someone might assume?
I think it’s an interesting question because I think it’s very important to not become too fashionable. To not go too trendy. Because then it will be old very quickly. I have a friend that is having a restaurant, and he is always talking about the interior of different restaurants when we go to them. And if you have a restaurant that is trying to be very modern, he says in half a year this place will feel old. But if you go with a classic style, then it will not feel old in 10 years. Then it will last longer. So, I think it was important to try to figure out, what part of this internet behavior is in connection with the core of being a human being? The narcissistic part. It’s that, that I wanted to focus on. But it’s the same thing on what the characters are wearing because the costume designer and I had a lot of discussions about, “O.K. I don’t want them to be too spot on, trendy today. Because then it will be old when the film is finished.” So, it’s a balance, of course.
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