After “Louder Than Bombs” premiered at Cannes last summer, reviews were mixed and its director Joachim Trier, a Norwegian prodigy making his English-language debut after after the masterful “Reprise” and “Oslo August 31st”), made for an easy target.
“I’m glad you didn’t think I fell on my ass doing American films,” Trier told me recently with an impish grin in Los Angeles, obviously aware of criticism in some circles that something might’ve been lost in translation for his third feature, a drama centered on the family of a war photographer (Isabelle Huppert) who are left reeling after her death on home soil.
I assured Trier that nothing could be further from the truth – his latest sitting right alongside his previous two films as an emotional powerhouse, but in making “Louder Than Bombs,” the director has shown more than a facility for English, he has an unparalleled fluency in the language of cinema, an ability to effortlessly parse through images and sounds that show how the outside world makes a great impression on his characters, in turn allowing for an audience to feel things so deeply themselves through his work. The cumulative result of such sensory synthesis is engrossing and ultimately very moving, particularly in “Louder Than Bombs,” which has the epic scope that a story crossing three generations of men implies but feels startlingly personal nonetheless.
Trier and longtime co-writer Eskil Vogt traverse seamlessly between the stories of the widowed father Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and his two sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), who just became a father himself, and Conrad (Devin Druid), a restless teen at the point of working up the courage to ask a girl out for the first time. With the death of their matriarch still lingering over them, a wound reopened by the impending publication of a New York Times post-mortem written by a former colleague (David Strathairn), each of the men process grief differently, specific to the stage of life they are in, yet all seem to be holding something back that needs to be brought out before moving forward. If the Reeds all seem like ticking time bombs (no pun intended), Trier doesn’t discourage the notion, not only for the sake of drama, but in how he depicts their inner lives, with their thoughts, memories and feelings often brought to the fore, expressed in tiny, copious bursts as if it were shrapnel bouncing around inside their heads.
It’s a transcendent experience, full of ecstatic joy in spite of the pain its characters are going through, and another step for Trier in his own maturation as a filmmaker, albeit one who clearly won’t stop trying new things any time soon. Shortly before “Louder Than Bombs” hits theaters, Trier spoke about bringing his process, often involving a lot of exploration with his co-writers and actors before arriving on set, to an American production, how he creates those magnificent emotional montages and his desire to be part of the tradition of great American films about family.
How did this get started for you?
It started actually before “Oslo,” after “Reprise,” [which was] bought by Miramax and there was quite a lot of attention around it, which was wonderful, and there were a lot of offers on the table to do American films, but I realized I wanted to do my own thing [with] Eskil [Vogt], the co-writer I always worked with. We started slowly thinking about an American movie and it just took awhile to write it and finance it, but there was this fascination for a type of American movie that I grew up watching and loved, like “Ordinary People,” “The Godfather” or “The Ice Storm,” films that are dealing with great characters and family dynamics with great actors. Americans have always done that so well and these days, it just seems there aren’t that many films that do it. Since I was in the fortunate position of getting this financed also out of Europe, combined with some great American producers as well, I was allowed to do that type of movie without all the commercial pressure that a lot of American filmmakers experience.
From what I understand, your process has always been a bit more free-flowing than the general American-style of production.
Yeah, I know, and I completely do what I want to do. After I write the script, I don’t consider commercial potential. I just do what I want to do, then after that I finance it and we go many places in the world to try to figure it out. I’m very fortunate that way. Everyone gets on board and wants to make the film I want to make. I grew up in a filmmaking family — I’m third generation — [and I was always around] music and film literature where I cared about the content and not what was most popular. There’s this notion at the moment that there’s some special, right way to do films, and right now we have to do dramaturgy in a way that’s personal. We’ve got to keep pushing the envelope for movies and experiment and play around. I know a lot of people who are slightly bored with what’s expected for a movie now. But there’s a lot of fun stuff going on. I saw this Los Angeles film the other week, you probably know it called “Tangerine.” Remarkable. It’s great, but I think there’s this expectation of what you’re allowed to do these days and I’m happy whenever people break that down.
At one of the film’s screenings at Toronto, you mentioned how Brian DePalma and Dario Argento are big influences on you in terms of creating set-pieces, which makes total sense once you see one of your films, but one might not suspect from the types of films you make. How did those become influences?
Basically, we set up a lot of our films from the set-pieces, like in action films [where it gives] a certain, formal [quality to the film], almost like a musician just feels a melody or a particular beat that they want to work with. I sometimes get these ideas like, “We should do a diary of a 15-year-old, and that should be a way of conveying certain things. Okay, let’s do that as a set-piece.” Then there’s a special way of using a voiceover, [and for the scene of] how the father [played by Gabriel Byrne] meets Amy Ryan’s character, we can condense that tremendously – that whole affair that they’re having – so that it becomes a conceptual scene. It needs many, many components that needs to be shot over several days. But that’s how I’m inspired. To be honest with you, my dream for the future is to also do [genre] films that have suspense, so Argento and DePalma particularly are very much on my radar at the moment.
You allude to one of the film’s big moments where Conrad lets his brother read a deeply personal essay, which is expressed visually through a montage of clips and images, some of which are yours and others from the outside world. Having seen Eskil’s directorial debut “Blind,” I wondered do the two of you collect images and videos to help inspire you that may ultimately make it into the film or do you find those things after you’ve written it?
It’s always a sense of writing and imagination and stuff like that first. For example, the montage scene with Conrad’s essay in “Louder than Bombs,” that’s written, and then we look for some [clips] and then we come up with more. The editor and the researcher try things. It’s never static. It starts like a script and everything is described in one version, and then different versions [happen] during the process. It’s the same with the actors. Everything is written — the characters and the dialogue are quite defined, then I do a little bit of a rehearsal after we’ve cast and we can re-write after that a little bit to try to find the nuances. It’s an ongoing process.
What about the insert shots that you use in the montages that you’ve created yourself – shots of nature or of empty rooms, for instance? Do you actually know what those will be while shooting or do you go back after perhaps doing a little bit of editing when you know what the context might be?
I don’t go back because I can’t afford it, but a lot of that happens on the fly. I get these ideas on how to do it, or shoot things that I find beautiful or interesting. You have an intuition and you have to understand why and how you can use it. Keeping your imagination flowing while I’m shooting is incredibly important I’ve found.
Since Isabelle Huppert’s character, also named Isabelle, goes on her own journey to some extent, was it almost like making a separate movie with her as far as production was concerned?
She’s pivotal still, and I understand the question because in a way she is the absence that’s present in the film. She’s not a part of that everyday, present-tense of the story, but she’s still there in memories, the dreams and their imaginations. The way I see the film is it’s very much a love story of three generations, [with each of the men] trying to deal with women in their lives when they have this absent mother percolating in their mind continuously, and I wanted to do a portrait of these [men’s] minds and their perception, rather than just the exterior events of their lives, [where they] have grief of her and [this idea of] family, then journey back into who was she and [show the] discrepancy in [all the] different point of views. The theme of war photography was also interesting, [because] I’m interested in portraits of humans during very, very stressful situations in their lives, and dealing with that became analog to what the film is about [which is this] person who is very idealistic and her job is something that they all admire. To lose someone that admired is hard, because in grief you need to accept all the faults and mistakes of that absent person.
Where did Isabelle’s war photos come from?
I met a lot of war photographers. There are quite a few who lent us their materials and I did extensive research to find the right ones. [There’s] Alexandra Boulat, a French photographer, Peter Van Achmel, who works with Magnum in New York, and Paulo Pelegrin, [among] several others — a lot of really remarkable present-day photographers. It was very inspiring stuff and very generous of them to let us use them. I couldn’t have faked those images.
Did the ages of the men in the film come naturally? These really are three distinct moments in time.
Yeah, that came by itself. I was interested in the two brothers and that changing dynamic. One is the introvert gamer, and we didn’t want to do a cliché version of that, but to see his world as a well-respected reality of the story, and [have] the big brother who’s like the young academic that freaks out when having a child because he’s so unresolved with his own parents, and how one seems in control and the other one turns around throughout the story. That was interesting, but then having a father as a rather loving and an endearing guy who tries to stay put and tries to do the right thing but is being pushed away because perhaps also the mother was so absent while she was alive and a lot of that anger has transferred to him. I didn’t want the authoritarian father that they have to kill to move on, but this just came up. You imagine these things, and who knows where it comes from?
One of the things that really struck me was how intimate the voiceovers feel, more so than other films it seemed. During the recording sessions, do you do something special with the actors or even the sound design?
There’s a couple of things. One is the actors are great, so that’s what they do. We explore different types of voiceovers and different modes. It’s not just coming in and reading, it’s something that is being processed to find the right tone. Sometimes we even return back during editing and pick it up again. Then we have several microphones recording that we can mix between with different distances to create that kind of dynamic movement. My father is a sound designer, so I’ve gotten super into music production and [I’m fascinated with] Bruce Swedien, who worked with Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones and the way that they mic’d them up, or the way that David Bowie worked with Tony Visconti, placing mics at several distances [away]. The tactility, the feeling of sound is not to be underestimated, but I don’t do anything that extravagant. It’s a lot about the actors.
In what seemed to be a first, you also introduce a little bit of dream logic into the film. Was that an interesting space to play in?
Again, you want a snapshot of their mind – show their thinking, their perception, their sensitivity and also the stuff that they don’t understand themselves – to let the audience feel deeper about the characters. Dreams matter. Bergman uses dreams, Woody Allen uses dreams. Some of the greatest filmmakers. Fellini uses dreams all the time… Tarkovsky, Argento, and in what other media can you show a dream like that and hopefully make it poignant and poetic? It’s all about the character, [“Louder Than Bombs”] particularly. It’s all about that character tradition in the American family drama – the great performances, the well-cast people that fit as a family. Look at what Sidney Lumet or Coppola did, or the great Paul Newman movies. I’m just honored that I was allowed to try my hand at it.
“Louder Than Bombs” opens on April 8 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Angelika Film Center. It will expand throughout the months ahead. A full list of theaters and dates is here.