Joachim Trier’s inventive debut film Reprise, which traced the divergent paths of a pair of best friends turned professional writers, was a critical and crowd favorite and put the writer/director on the world cinema map. Trier’s second feature Oslo, August 31 tells the story of Anders, a troubled young man attempting to transition back into society after a lengthy stay in rehab to treat addiction. Trier calls the film, “A road movie by foot,” and follows Anders as he navigates the city of Oslo throughout the last day of summer. The film premiered at Cannes and has made a prestigious run along the international festival circuit screening at Sundance, Toronto and most recently as part of the New Directors, New Films Series. Reprise co-star Anders Danielsen Lie, who is actually a doctor by trade, and returns in Oslo to give a brave and nuanced performance that any actor would be proud of. Trier and writing partner Eskil Vogt will next be working on an American film called Louder Than Bombs that he hopes will begin shooting in the fall, but wouldn’t reveal its connection to The Smiths’ classic album of the same name.
Writer and Director Joachim Trier
"Reprise" was such a personal film — how did you begin the process of looking for new material?
Anders Danielsen Lie – "Oslo, August 31"
After Reprise I actually considered quite a few projects, read a lot of scripts, and I found out that I had a lot of stories that I wanted to tell myself. So it took awhile and we (with co-writer Eskil Vogt) even wrote another script in between the two films. But then I had the opportunity to get some funding to do a Norwegian film as long as I was able to have it done within a year. So we looked for an idea that we could write quickly and we felt that this was the one. It’s based on a French novel from 1930 (Le Feu Follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle) which I know sounds quite strange, to start off with such old material, but the story is so timeless and there was something about this character that we felt we could put in a modern Norwegian setting that hopefully would resonate and feel contemporary. It’s strange when you start out with a book from France in the 30’s and then end up writing something quite personal about the kind of people you know now.
So was it difficult to update the material?
Like I said, I think there’s something timeless about this character. He’s someone very handsome and gifted and full of opportunities but he’s also very much ashamed and alienated and conflicted about all the opportunities he hasn’t taken and things he hasn’t been able to do. The theme of ambition and the devastation of not being able to live up to one’s own aspirations is something I find to be quite contemporary. It’s something I certainly see in a lot of people’s lives now but I also think it’s just human and enduring in a way.
How did you convince Anders, who is a doctor not an actor, to come back and do this film?
Anders Danielsen Lie
Yes, at the moment Anders is working as a surgeon in Gjøvik, a small Norwegian town about 2 hours drive outside of Oslo. It actually wasn’t that hard to get him to come back out and act. I think he wanted to try but he’s very much triggered by the content or theme of a project. He’s not someone who just says, ‘Oh that’s a great character.’ He really wants to be a part of the creative process and help understand the themes we’re exploring. We invited him out to dinner and asked him to do it and as I’ve said at the premiere at Cannes and many times since I think he carried the film on his shoulders. We wrote it for him and if he hadn’t said yes I’m not sure we would have made the film.
But this is not an easy role. Not only are the subject matter and some of the things he’s asked to do difficult but he’s in almost every scene.
That’s true but I know him personally now since Reprise and I knew that he had it in him to explore something deeper. The great thing about Anders is that on one level he prepares very much like a method actor. He did extensive research. He went undercover to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He talked to psychiatrists and even old friends of mine who had dealt with addiction. He really scoured the environment. But at the same time, on set he’s very in the moment and free. Some days he would rely on his research and other days he’d be very instinctive and just experiment to see if something would work. That’s probably his best quality, he’s not dogmatic.
How do you choose the music for your films? I know in "Reprise" it was based more directly on the lives of the characters and in Oslo it seems a little more associative.
"Oslo, August 31"
Yes, that’s true. With Reprise there was the subtext of Joy Division and mirroring the story of Ian Curtis, you know this was before Control came out, but just those myths of the guy in the band that was sort of a genius but wasn’t able to survive or live the normal life and the paradoxical devastation of that. So using Joy Division and later New Order in the film fit Reprise and it is also the story of Norwegian punk culture in a strange way. But with Oslo it was different. You’re right it was more associative, more emotional, sort of choosing what would fit for that moment. Like there’s a somewhat nostalgic song by the old pop band A-Ha playing as Anders arrives in the city… It’s hard to intellectualize how those choices are made but ideally it should work on several levels. I wanted all of the pieces of music we used in Oslo to matter. Whether it’s played on the piano or played in the taxi or in the background at the party I wanted it to be sociologically distinct but also emotionally poignant. It’s very easy to score a film and destroy images by overemphasizing an emotion so you’re always trying to maintain a balance within each scene.
I always appreciate that you build your films with a strong narrative structure but still leave space for improvisation and small moments to happen. Is that your preferred way of working?
I believe in the ethos, “Luck favors the well-prepared.” The film was shot very much how it was written but having said that I think one must allow for detours to arrive back at the places that you had planned. It’s strange sometimes you loosen up the scene a bit with the actors and you do what Anders and I have taken to calling ‘the jazz take’ where you stick to the same chord structure, you stick to the lines more or less but you try to do something a little different and suddenly there’s a break or a change in the scene and it comes out better or you get a moment you didn’t expect. So I think controlling chaos is kind of the dynamic you’re continually playing with in cinema. Another example is creating a complex and elaborate shot with camera movements that you plan very well but shooting in a city like we did here, people walk into frame or something will happen... There are always technical concerns but I try to keep the filmmaking very personal and in the moment. That’s my ideal at least when I work, trying to combine a certain old-fashioned sophistication that I admire and am still trying to learn, I mean I’ve only made two films, but combining that with something that is very close to the skin of the character and take risks rather than be formulaic. Growing up with the street culture of hip-hop and punk I feel like you should dare to represent the stuff you know from your own life.