Ruben Ostlund on ‘Triangle of Sadness’ and His Project on Air Rage
After winning the Palme d’Or with “The Square,” Ruben Östlund has shocked Cannes audiences again with “Triangle of Sadness,” an equally provocative social satire starring Woody Harrelson as a rabid Marxist who is the captain of a cruise for the super-rich. “Triangle of Sadness” is so far the most buzzed-about movie in competition and a domestic deal believed to be in the $8 million arena is currently being negotiated. Östlund spoke to Variety about his original way of developing scripts and casting, and the sociological aspects of both “Triangle of Sadness” and his next project “The Entertainment System Is Down,” which he said will star Harrelson as the “captain of an airplane.”
“Triangle of Sadness” was in post-production for a long time. When I saw you at Goteborg Film Festival in January, you had a three-hour cut!
It’s now 2 hours and 22 minutes. It’s actually as long as “The Square” is.
Was it like killing your babies?
Yes, 100%. Of course it’s painful but you come to a certain point when you realize that the film is for the big picture, there are some right decisions to do and then it’s not so painful anymore. Before you get to that point, it’s painful to even touch a frame to take away one second. I would say that the editing process of that film has been harder than ever before because the theme is very complex. But here I have so many characters who are playing an important role.
Did you ever consider working with a streamer so that you would not have to trim anything and could have a three and a half hour-long film like Martin Scorsese with “The Irishman”?
I’ve never thought about that. But, you know, there’s one thing that I love about the cinema and that you’re watching things together in the same room. Basically, it creates a certain kind of reflection to the content that you have just watched. It fits my feelings so well. I want people to reflect on what they have seen. I want them to have a discussion afterwards. When it comes to the streaming services, there’s been some kind of discussion but it’s a different thing to sit alone in front of your screen.
After exploring the contemporary art scene, why were you interested in the world of fashion and modelling?
Well, my wife is a fashion photographer. So when I met her seven years ago, I wanted to hear about the fashion industry and the beauty industry because I’m scared of it. At the same time, I’m attracted to it, and I think it says something about beauty. Beauty is scary at the same time as it’s attractive because it also reminds us about the hierarchy. Beauty creates a certain kind of hierarchy in all social situations. She told me a lot about the male models. For example, the male models, they earn one third or one fourth of what the female models do. It’s one of the few professions where men are earning less than women. They constantly have to maneuver homosexual, powerful men in the industry who can be door openers. If you sleep with them, it becomes like a door opener.
This seems like this aspect could spark a lot of debates.
Yes, it reminds a lot about topics that were brought up with the #MeToo movement, where your beauty and your sexuality becomes a currency and also that in certain businesses and power positions, the power is misused. So I thought it was interesting to attack the idea about beauty as a currency, from a male model’s perspective, but also from a female model’s perspective. The whole film has a certain sociological approach. It’s looking at how our behavior is changing depending on what position we have in hierarchy and the materialistic setup that we are dealing with.
How do you prepare when you write a script about an environment or an industry that you don’t know so much about?
I had an insider info from my wife since she’s a fashion photographer, and she gave me access to a lot of people that I could talk to. So I did research. But you know what I also did? I actually have a fashion brand, and I was creating a clothing line for his special brand. So I was actually creating some clothes and had that as a part of the research.
So you were kind of immersed! And I spoke to someone yesterday who told me that she auditioned for you and it sounded an interesting experience!
Yes, that was also part of the research, because I was talking to all these actors, like these beautiful men and beautiful women, I could talk to them about what were their experiences of having to deal with being beautiful. Because there’s a downside of it, of course. As far as the audition, I had them do one scene that’s in the film where the bill comes to the table and the woman actually says that she’s going to pay for the restaurant, but she doesn’t pick it up. And this is, of course, is harder for a man to handle with the cultural expectation of a man and a woman going to a restaurant. The man he wants to pay, but at the same time, he doesn’t want the woman to play this princess in this relationship. I did this with a lot of actors from all different parts of the world, I did it with French actresses. It was very interesting because depending on where you did the conversation and which nationality the actors had, they answered a little bit differently. You know what the French actresses said?
No, what did they say?
They said, “But I will make love to you tonight!” It was obvious that there was a transaction that was going on. So you should pay because I will make love to you tonight.
No way! That’s terrible. How did the Nordic women react?
The Swedish man probably had less of a problem to bring up this topic during a dinner. And I think that maybe the Swedish women actually are more willing to pay even if they are going on a first date. But if you look at, for example, the American actors that I tried with, it was inconceivable that they wouldn’t pay. It was not possible. Sometimes I was playing the female character and sometimes I was playing the male character and I got an expert in how to manipulate the male character. I found the best line in order to push them to feel guilty. I’m just taking away all their manhood.
In your movies you often look at human flaws like cowardice and stinginess, for instance.
I think it’s once again connected with sociology. Sociology looks at where humans are failing because we can learn something from it. And I think that why I’m interested in the failures of the characters in order to try to understand myself. When you look at the characters in my films, I never want to judge them. I only want to look at them as interesting examples.
Would you consider “Triangle of Sadness” your most international and most ambitious movie so far?
It’s maybe twice as expensive as “The Square” and we have actors from ten or 11 nationalities. From the Philippines, South Africa, France, the U.K., the U.S., Germany, Sweden, Denmark, etc. It’s a multi-national cast and a really colorful and fun ensemble, I would say. It was logistical hell to make this happen during the pandemic.
Especially for Woody Harrelson who came from the U.S., I can imagine.
Yeah, he was stopped at the gate and the producer had to call the people working at the gate so that they would let him board the plane. It was on the edge many times where we almost got into big problems, but we managed.
What are you working on next?
My next project is called “The Entertainment System Is Down.” It takes place on a long haul flight. And quite soon after take-off, the crew of the flight is telling the passengers that the entertainment system is down. They are now stuck on a 15 or 17 hour-long flight without any digital entertainment. They don’t have the screens that we are so used to in our contemporary world. So it’s going to be like a study of how human beings interact in this little laboratory that is a plane. It will look at how modern human beings are wrecked under these circumstances.
Sounds promising! So it’s about air rage.
Yes, air rage is a term that is used when a passenger becomes so violent that they have to proceed with an emergency landing of a flight. I read a study about it and they found out that when economy passengers are boarding through business clause or first class, the risk of average is increased by four times. It’s super interesting fact because it says so much about something that is true, that inequality is provoking us, inequality is making us frustrated. And if we see if you are confronted with inequality, I think also there’s a risk in our society that it will provoke rages.
Are you looking to make it in Sweden or abroad?
I haven’t decided yet. Once again, it’s a possibility to have an international cast because these long-haul flights always have international passengers.
Do you have a script?
I will start working on it now after Cannes.
It’s been in your head for some time now. I remember you mentioning this project to me several years ago.
Yes, it’s my method to tell about the film to everybody and then people tell me, ‘Oh, you have to hear that story, what happened to me when I was on a flight, etc.” So this is really a research method for me to pitch my film, even if I’m just pitching the set-up right now. Soon I will start to pitch more and more. And once I can pitch this film from the beginning to the end to someone, then I know how to write the script. When you’re communicating it verbally, you can tell immediately when someone is not very interested or when you catch someone’s attention. So it’s a very efficient way and it’s something that I always try to teach to students at the university.
Are you going to work with the same team as “Triangle of Sadness”?
Yes, I believe that it takes at least three films to get to know each other. The DOP, the set designer, me and Erik Hemmendorff (co-founder and producer at Plattform Produktion), we’ve been working for a long time. We know each other quite well. But when it comes to the crew, I would say it takes three films to get to know each other. And then you can start to use the good things and you can avoid the bad things that have been in these relationships. So I want to keep on fine tuning and do better and better things and try to master the craft of filmmaking together with the same people.