Now that Swedish cinema is defined, reductively, by the legacy of Ingmar Bergman and Stig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, Ruben Östlund has emerged in the last few years as one of Scandinavia’s most innovative directors, shunning conventional cinema and venturing to challenge his audience in ways few other practitioners dare attempt. Flying over from his native Göteborg to promote his latest feature Involuntary, Östlund, an excellent raconteur, spoke to us about his creative ambitions and the pleasures of movie making.
Why did you call the film Involuntary and what do you consider it to be about?
I see Involuntary as a thematic film about group behaviour. I wanted to take five different situations and see them from five different group perspectives. It’s a really fundamental thing about being human – after all we’re herd animals. It’s as if we desperately don’t want to lose face in front of each other.
I was inspired by this guy who wanted to fly a hot air balloon to the North Pole and everyone died. What had probably happened was he had made a bet and felt he couldn’t renege on that promise and went ahead with it anyway, even though he must have known they wouldn’t make it. It’s as if he so badly didn’t want to lose face he couldn’t back out on his plan.
What inspired each of the five stories in the film?
A lot of things either happened to me or I knew people who they happened to. For instance the episode with the bus driver who refuses to move until someone confesses to breaking a curtain in the toilet – that happened to my friend Erik. He was on a bus to the Alps and a similar incident happened. Eventually, a particularly drunk passenger at the back confessed to the ‘crime’.
There’s a fine balance between tragedy and comedy in the film – was it hard to find that balance?
I really wanted to find that balance. When I made my first feature I was really tired of going to the cinema and feeling so secure, of just sitting back and letting it happen. I wanted to be challenged more and I’ve strived for this since I began filmmaking.
The film is typically Scandinavian – very deadpan and long takes. There are obvious similarities with Roy Andersson. Do you consider yourself a part of a movement?
There aren’t many people making movies like mine or Roy Andersson. In reality The Girl With The Red Dragon Tattoo is more reflective of the Swedish film industry which tries to emulate successful films from the States.
The critics said the first film I made in Sweden wasn’t a ‘movie’. But that’s because you go to the cinema with a set of expectations so as soon as something appears to not exist within those boundaries people react to it as if it isn’t cinema. This is something cinema has to deal with or it will become like the opera where nothing interesting happens anymore.
You have your own production company. Do you have a manifesto?
We would like to highlight films that interest us, to keep the elements that normally don’t fit which people would otherwise throw away. You think you don’t have the option to produce in a different way but you do.
What attracted you to filmmaking?
I think moving images is one of the forms of expression which changes the way we look at the world and our behaviour. Way more than literature and still images. Cinema creates a behaviour we don’t even think of. A good example is the author of Gomorrah. Half a year after Pulp Fiction came out gangsters in Naples began shooting sideways. It’s ridiculous of course because it’s very dangerous and inaccurate to shoot like this – things got a lot more bloody. Of course, they were doing it because they’d seen it in the movie. It’s a good example of how cinema changes our behaviour.
Involuntary came out two years ago in Sweden – what are you currently working on and does it follow the same non-linear rules of Involuntary?
A film called Play. It’s just one story, one episode and I’ve made it really hard for myself by filming the whole thing in real time. It’s about a real event in Goteborg where 5 five black guys robbed a lot of people using something called the “brother trick”. They would go up to a group of teenagers and ask them what the time is. Immediately the kids would get frightened, partly because of their appearance, and take out their cell phone to check the time. As soon as they see the cell phone one of the kids says, “where did you get that phone? My brother got robbed the other day and he had that exact same phone”. So they create a problem which doesn’t exist and in order to solve it they take them to see the “brother” who will supposedly identify the phone. Of course they take them to an isolated place and then rob them.
They’d done this so many times they’d developed quite a sophisticated rhetoric; one guy was the good cop, the other the bad cop. One would pretend to be on the kids’ side and persuade them to solve it the proper way. Then one of them would call the ‘brother’ and he’d say, “oh, he’s moved on – we’ve got to go here”. They’d take them on a tram and take them often quite long distances. One attempt lasted two hours.
Involuntary opens Friday 29th of October on limited release. To read the review click here.