By Anna Bielak | May 23, 2012
Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier’s second feature — Oslo, August 31st — follows Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) as he nears successfully completing treatment at a drug rehab in the Norwegian countryside. Anders is permitted to travel to Oslo for a job interview, but he uses the opportunity to attempt to reconnect with friends and family. Anders is as smart and handsome as ever, but he is deeply haunted by all of the past opportunities he has wasted and all of the people he has disappointed. He may feel like his life is already over but he tries to maintain a fleeting glimmer of hope.
An official selection at Cannes Film Festival 2011 (Un Certain Regard), AFI Fest 2011, Toronto International Film Festival 2011, Sundance Film Festival 2012 and New Directors/New Films Festival 2012, Oslo, August 31st is a harrowing character study that is certain to leave no viewer unscathed. This is our second interview with Trier for Strand Releasing’s theatrical release of Oslo, August 31st in the United States. Both discussions are so different that we decided to publish both! (If you missed them, check out our 9/10 review of Oslo, August 31st and Don Simpson’s interview with Joachim Trier.)
Anna Bielak: You started shooting your film at the turn of the seasons because you see a specific kind of melancholy in the early autumn. What does melancholy mean to you?
Joachim Trier: Melancholy is connected with the kind of acceptance of the futility of human efforts. We believe that it is possible to save things, but everything passes us by no matter what. I associate the last day of summer with the end of things, the collapse of things, departure that is unavoidable. Falling into melancholy is a way to cope with death, it helps with working it out. Moreover, living in the season you’ve mentioned is like being on the edge, like looking at a very ripe fruit — you know that at the next moment it will start to rot. Yet, until that happens, you can luxuriate in it.
AB: Everything passes away but the crisis you are talking about — a crisis that touches upon the generation of young people. Have you reached to your own intimate experiences while writing the script?
JT: During writing the script we were inspired by the book written in 1931 by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. We focused on translating the motifs from the book into modern day narration. So yes, I have a very personal attitude to the subject. You know, sometimes while you are listening to a piece of music you start to recollect some emotions. When you are watching a movie or looking at a photo, you learn how to accept some of the experiences you have had. All my life I was watching lots of movies, yet nothing was so important as Louis Malle’s Le feu follet. This portrait of solitude helps me to understand myself and my emotions. Soon after celebrating thirty birthdays, you begin to notice that most of your friends have families with children, houses and bills to pay. Suddenly you notice that you are not a twenty-something dreamer looking forward to a bright future. The time to accept who you really are has come. If you think about those issues — yes, they are all connected with my experiences. However, the main character is not my alter ego. I have never been addicted to drugs, yet I know many people who were and their stories haven’t been told.
AB: Solitude is not Ander’s only problem and it is not only a problem for people who have never been married. There are scenes in Oslo, August 31st that reveal how lonely some married people can be…
JT: …because solitude has many different varieties. Anders’ life doesn’t have a stable structure. After rehab he gets the unique chance of having a second birth. He is at the turning point, at the beginning. He is the one who has an opportunity to stand still and look at the loves of others. Yet, while doing research, I was talking with an extremely intelligent guy who was at the detoxification clinic and he told me how hard it is to come back into society. About a year after he left rehab, he was still taking his hands out of his pockets whenever he entered a store so no one would think that he stole something. The acceptance of oneself — especially the new oneself — it is an extremely hard and long process. Nothing is easy. Practicing the traditional model of family is not easy either, it may cause feeling of loneliness and loss. On the other hand, there are people who need to feel free to live — even if the price is bitter solitude. Though I do not want to generalize, there are way too many examples to look for one definition.
AB: Speaking about families, let’s talk about yours. You grew up in a family of filmmakers, right?
JT: Oh yes! The parade of filmmakers passed by my home! My grandfather was a director. Yet, he stopped making movies after the second world war because of what he had experienced on the front. He was a jazzman also, so there was an extraordinary atmosphere in his movies. My mother was a traveler, she made several documentaries on emancipation in Africa. My father is a sound designer. My younger brother makes documentaries like my mother. He made one about Norwegian arms dealers. It was sort of black comedy… Before that he was making music videos for international television stations. My sister is a bit wiser than all of us [laughs], she is a still photographer.
AB: Your family is quite big. What happens with Anders’ family in the movie? We enter his house after him, but there is nothing but emptiness inside…
JT: Emptiness it is also symptom of the melancholy you’ve asked about. I didn’t want to introduce viewers to the Anders’ family. It was a totally intentionally dramatic grip. Anders has and meets many friends, but when he goes home — to the place where he should feel good with the people closest to him — he sees only gloomy emptiness. I wanted to create a very subjective kind of film narration, to show reality from the perspective of one protagonist. This emptiness at home speaks much more than the family members could ever say. Anders is the key to this story, nobody else is needed.
AB: In your previous movie Reprise (2006) literature was the main issue. In Oslo, August 31st it is more hidden; but still this is a topic that concerns you. The best friend of Anders — Thomas — is a journalist…
JT: Hans Olav Brenner — he is an extraordinary guy! He is not a professional actor. This was his debut on the silver screen. I was writing the script thinking about Anders Danielsen Lie. Finding a good friend for him — that was the problem. None of the Norwegian actors fit into that part. None of them were natural enough, and on the big screen every single falseness is seen. So what did we do? We engaged Anders’ real best friend. Hans is a TV presenter, a journalist. He has lots of experience in doing interviews, he is very well-read, talkative, and — last but not least — he is a great listener. Those characteristics were the most important to play Thomas. Yet, speaking about literature, I don’t want to pretend to be an expert on the subject, because I am not. Once I was almost kicked out of high school because making movies took all my time. However, the education system in Norway is very interesting and helpful for people like me. Most university lectures are open to the public, so from time to time one of my friends would call: “Hi! There will be an exciting seminar about Nietsche, are we going?” [Laughs] I’ve never been to the university on a regular basis. Ever since I can remember, I wanted to make movies. But, if you want to make a film with as much dialogue as Oslo, August 31st it is essential to have people on set intelligent enough to speak for hours. People who are aren’t afraid to take the challenge when somebody knocks on their door and wants to talk about life.
AB: Anders Danielsen Lie is like an experiment. He is a doctor who works in a hospital. He is an actor only after hours.
JT: Anders is extremely talented, he is a musician too! I met him a few years ago when he came to the casting for Reprise. His mother is an actress; he was in a film once before, as a child. He stands in front of me and starts to tell me something about Pasolini — and he was funny! It was out of the ordinary and he intrigued me enough to cast him. When we had finished shooting Reprise he went back to work in the clinic. Teenagers go there to talk about sexual issues. It wasn’t a very comfortable job for Anders back then, because after his role in Reprise, he was named the sexiest man in Norway. [Laughs] Yet, he still works as a doctor and he wants to continue to do it in the future.
AB: Why does the protagonist have the same name as the actor? Did you want to mix reality with fiction on purpose?
JT: I was using his name when I was writing the script. I could not change it afterwards. The name had stuck. Moreover, the woman Anders is looking for — Iselin — is Anders’ real wife. My brother is in the movie as well, he is the guy at the party. Lots of friends of a friends were on the set. Good communication among us was very important to me. I wanted to make sure that they understood what I wanted to say.
AB: While I am looking for images in your movie, I also see the city. In my mind, every single city has its own music. What would be the one connected to Oslo?
JT: Absolutely! Oslo, August 31st it is also a story of the city. I love to observe places and I always try to figure out how they store memories, how fast they change… They sound differently every time. I listen to lots of different music, I like a variety of styles and genres. However, what is interesting about Oslo is that in the 1980s you could hear only American or British music. Norwegian music appeared more recently. It is the same with movies. In the last decade, more Norwegian movies about contemporary people and issues have been produced and released. We have started to speak for ourselves — we don’t need to assimilate to different patterns anymore. We are going in the right direction, aren’t we?