It was bound to be a wide-ranging conversation when Joachim Trier and Renate Reinsve beamed in from different corners of the world to talk with Paul Thomas Anderson, with “The Worst Person in the World” star tucked into a hotel room in London at 2 am, its director putting off sleep for another hour in Oslo where it was 3 am and Anderson in Los Angeles where it was a far more hospitable 6 pm. But still, it was unlikely anyone had talk of a sociological study in Stockholm as a topic of discussion on their bingo card.
“There was an anthropologist who had done an experiment about giving cameras to children in kindergarten to see what the pure cinema of a child was and they were asking ‘Tell us a story,’” Trier said after Anderson had asked about scenes that might’ve intimidated him in the days leading up to filming them in “The Worst Person in the World.” “The kids were completely confused. And one day she said the magic word, “What do you want to show us?” And the kids took the camera and one of them saw a mouse and the camera [became] the mouse and they showed where the mouse had been and another one loved this little part of the kindergarten that he or she thought was pretty. They were all filming because they want to show you something.”
“I’m still very childish,” Trier added, recalling his days as a skateboarding champion in his native Norway. “I want to show you a place. I want to show you the sun and I want to show Renate Reinsve and Anders [Danielsen Lie] and Herbert on their best day, stepping into that kind of scene where we’re shit-scared. It’s like my old skate buddies jumping down and doing a switch dance heel flip down a set of stairs — it’s like, someone’s going to break their arm or someone’s going to make it, but we’ll be here until they do it and the excitement of the event you have planned and planned and now having the honor of that whole audience you have invited us to screen for and you as a master and what I feel you’re doing with San Fernando Valley —that’s not just about plot. It’s a presence of cinema and light and space and movement. That’s what I’m into and I think you do that so beautifully. That’s what I’m looking for as well at our best.”
This summit of the filmmaking gods was convened by Anderson as part of a series he guest-programmed at American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, cheekily called “Gary Valentine’s Day Weekend” after the lead in his latest “Licorice Pizza.” Amongst classics such as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Top Hat” and “The Fortune Cookie,” he would seem to be anointing another in Trier’s latest film, centered around Julie (Reinsve), a twenty something frustrated at trying to find her way in the world and her future not made any easier by the romantic possibilities in front of her, either her longtime boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), nearly twenty years her senior, who has found success as a graphic novelist, or Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a barista closer in age but further away in intellectual or social standing.
With Reinsve occasionally at a loss for words after Anderson called her “the best listener I’ve ever seen in a movie,” describing “what you do in your face the best acting I’ve ever seen,” the two directors spent no small part of the 45-minute conversation trading kind words about one another’s work in what felt like a rare break for the two from the awards season gladhanding both have had to do, filled with genuine admiration and wonder as they tried turning compliments into questions for the other. When Anderson marveled at how loose everything came across in “The Worst Person in the World,” Trier contemplated what the director’s role on set is through the lens of one of Anderson’s films.
“One of my all-time favorite films is ‘Phantom Thread,’ said Trier. ‘It made me realize so much about the extremities of what it is to be being forced into vulnerability when you’re trying to control and I think there’s something at play in being a director. I’m speculating a director has a special relationship with the subject matter of control, for better or worse, and they can talk about that in a human way because we have put ourselves in this strange life where we are supposed to put our heart on the table with a big, big machine around it, so a part of us needs to be a control freak and another part needs to be a masochist who’s forced to let go and explode into something else.”
Fittingly, the free-wheeling conversation ended up getting around to cogent recollections around some of the most pivotal scenes in “The Worst Person in the World.” There are spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen it – and you should — read at your own risk, and some quotes have been condensed for clarity, but below is the trio breaking down some of the most memorable sequences in the film.
As instantly iconic as the opening frame of Julie standing outside is, all dressed up with nowhere to go standing on a balcony overlooking Oslo — one Anderson raved, “You know you’re up against a very interesting opponent watching that first shot and you say, ‘I want to know more about that girl because I can’t figure out what’s going on. She either seems super confident or super lost or maybe it’s both, but it’s so thrilling” — it wasn’t originally wasn’t initially placed there.
“I knew it was an emblematic shot — Julie versus the city very simply — and I even said to my team, ‘It’s the opening shot,’ but I didn’t plan it to be,” said Trier. “She has a place where with expectation and pressure and she’s standing on the brink, looking back at her boyfriend who has his own thing and she’s wondering what’s going to be my place in this place and I thought that was a good character moment.’ And my opening of the film didn’t work, which happens. Maybe it doesn’t happen for you, but it happens for me a lot and then you have to scramble.”
Trier had originally envisioned a scene with Julie waking up in bed, with the man she’s just spent the night with slowly coming into focus as she’s talking about their relationship, outlining all his anxieties unaware that he’s describing many of hers.
“It wasn’t bad writing, but a sense of my curiosity about that character that bordered towards some sort of male narcissism,” said Trier. “When I started the film, I’m like, ‘that’s Julie’s opening’ and I was ashamed. My editor [Olivier Bugge Coutte], who’s a much smarter person than me, said ‘[The original opening] – that’s all funny. It’s almost a sketch. But that’s not the way to start this film.’ And I completely agreed.”
Coutte and Trier pulled the image from a later scene in the film where Aksel is lauded at a book party for his latest work, and bits of the largely discarded opening still found their way into the opening montage that follows, but when firmly establishing Julie’s ownership over the narrative, Trier recognized the need to build up the romance between her and Aksel from early on and leaned on improvisation again, only this time it was from the set.
“All the stuff where she puts her books into the bookshelf and she says, ‘I have two of the same book,’ it was a mistake because it was done at the end of a day very quickly as an improv scene,” Trier said of the most endearing part of the meet-cute with Aksel. “The art department just put a bunch of books into a box and I said, “Remember Virginia Woolf’ and then they put a lot of other stuff in there. Suddenly, there were two of the [same] book. Renate is such a great actor she played off that.”
Trier noted the scene made it into many of the film’s marketing materials.
Reinsve said she considered giving up her acting career the summer that Trier had handed her script for “The Worst Person in the World,” though she noticed even he had been suspiciously avoiding her in the months leading up to it.
“That summer, I felt like you were avoiding me a bit,” the actress teased Trier, having become friends with the director after playing a bit part in “Oslo, August 31st. “You were stranger to me than usual, but [Joachim] couldn’t say anything to me because he didn’t have the money yet [for “Worst Person”].
She was well-known on stage in Norway, but bit parts in film were unfulfilling. That all changed working with Trier.
“I worked on a few film sets doing a few small things and I always felt so alone,” said Reinsve. “You just come in and do your thing, but you don’t really act together and you don’t really meet the other actor until you’re there, so I felt that it was really important to build trust and Joachim does that really well from day one. [And] the way you work Joachim, everyone works together and everyone was so invested in this project. Everyone had their favorite scene and the moment that was most important to them. I would talk to the focus puller about a scene that was really important to him and I had so much respect for his point of view. I really felt we were in it together.”
Anderson would tell Trier of Reinsve, “You’ve found an incredibly loose and intimate and unique performer for the story you wanted to tell. It’s clear that one doesn’t exist without the other and this gift of a film you’ve given us,” but he specifically referenced early on of her entrance into the wedding reception — one where she knows no one in the room, after leaving Aksel’s book party in search of her own adventure and meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) — and the demands of a big crowd scene like that where she’s able to pull the focus towards her.
“There’s either big acting, knocking over furniture or there’s small acting where you are seeing something and you just keep drawing in and someone is imperceptibly doing something in their face that’s poking holes in you,” said Anderson. “Then [Julie] starts to walk away, getting into that magical sequence at the party where I was so rocked by [how Renate and Herbert] are at the foreground of that party, but that really feels like there’s a wedding going on. You can see the wedding deejay making his choices. You can feel him like he’s really going to get the party going with this track. The music choices, the way everybody kind of knows each other, but doesn’t – it seems so entirely plausible that she could crash that party. It took my breath away.”
Trier admitted this was one of the scenes that made him most anxious once he got back to the edit, saying, “Will the extras [and] will the party vibe be there where it needs to be or will I suddenly sit in the edit and everyone will go, “No, this scene was nice, but I don’t believe she goes to that party and doesn’t get discovered.”
He added, “Sometimes I think that in making movies it’s fun to have a big machine and a mechanism and then in the middle, there’s chaos. That scene is like that. It was quite meticulous to make that party function. I had great help and support from other smart people, but then Renate and Herbert in the middle of that, keeping it loose and adding to what was scripted and doing additional improvisation that ended up in the film, those were really some great nights that we shot.”
Time Stands Still in Oslo
“Hopefully, you can hear the gasps and the joy [from here]. This is the kind of audience that’s thrilled at that idea,” Anderson remarked after the Aero audience heard Trier say there was no CGI involved in the showstopping scene in which Julie pauses time to decide whether to pursue a relationship with Eivind after a surreptitious run-in or continue on with an increasingly passionless relationship with Aksel. Her run through the streets of Oslo as people were frozen in their tracks really did involve extras simply standing still in place.
“We played a lot of music on set and warmed people up and we had planned it out,” Trier said. “I like to prepare everything and then we like to shake it up on the day, so we had really a structural plan for all of the shots and then we kept it loose on the day and refined it, but I had some good assistants – Andrè Chocron, a director himself did choreography. But what was funny was we had to block off the streets and stop traffic and we’d have these windows of four minutes where people could run into the street and freeze.”
Anderson couldn’t help but compliment Reinsve’s graceful physicality, to which the actress, who had once trained as a competitive swimmer, said, “We actually made that body [to run] because I was running too elegantly for Joachim, so we had to make her more messy, and I had my arms like this [shaking them wildly].”
What the two couldn’t control, however, was how many extras wanted to be in the frame, though even that aligned with what Trier ultimately wanted from the scene.
“We realized along the way that some other people were looking at us from their windows and they’d run down and stand still. People were joining in!” Trier laughed. “We had people there that we had never trained and you know ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ when he sings ‘Twist and Shout,’ and all of Chicago dances, that was my ideal, like the city would value the romantic gesture of Julie turning off time.”
The notion of having the entire city come to life in all its messy glory gave Trier the license to overlook any imperfections that inevitably occurred.
“There’s this little girl who’s seven or eight and I saw on a big crane shot when we thought we had it perfect on the playback that her hand was moving.” said Trier. “I thought, “Fuck it, that’s fine.”
“I felt more terror and excitement at two people talking at a fucking table than any fucking car chase that I could possibly imagine,” said Anderson of the frank conversations between Aksel and Julie that make up the climax of “The Worst Person in the World” after she learns her former partner has cancer. “How did you approach all that? Because I imagine those words on the page could look so clunky and straightforward and it seemed like two people really being honest with each other. I didn’t feel the writing.”
Trier acknowledged that he felt some of the dialogue felt too “explicit” on the page for the hospital scenes in which Aksel can look back at his life with clarity in stark contrast with Julie, who doesn’t know what she can look forward to, but he trusted the actors to make it feel organic.
“It could be banal or it could be lucid and I think [Anders Danielsen Lie is] touching on a clarity between the characters when [Aksel] says to her, a line of dialogue like “You’re the big love of my life” and [Anders] manages to say it with a tenderness and a truth because he’s in that context, but he doesn’t make it heavy,” said Trier, adding later, “Intuition is not something you’re born with. It’s something you train at a lot and both Renate and Anders, who plays Aksel and is a doctor in real life, are both triggered by an intellectual approach to gain that confidence. Then [they] take over the role and on the day we’re looking for events that were unforeseen to find behavior that makes us curious and things that were hidden to us.”
Trier confessed he still didn’t know what inspired Reinsve to have the reaction she had after Julie delivers a particularly emotionally devastating piece of news to Aksel about herself.
“Renate, you have a great long close-up where you’re spacing out and Aksel asks you what are you thinking about and you break into a smile and you start crying and you say, ‘I can’t handle that. You’re giving me these compliments,’” recalled Trier. “And I think it’s deeply touching. At the same time, as a director, all those thoughts that you were thinking as an actor in that moment, I had no clue what you were thinking about. It’s all hidden to me, and leaves a space for me to look at you and fill in the interpretation and there’s something secret. And I don’t even know if you remember. I’ve asked you about it once before and you said you couldn’t quite remember.”
Reinsve didn’t have a concrete answer now either, but said the time that Trier afforded the actors both on the day and well before even arriving to the set paid considerable dividends.
“It was really about finding the events and the dynamic between us,” said Reinsve. “Because the characters are so complex — we built them very thoroughly, layered them as detailed as we could emotionally, but it was really about us being honest and just sincere with the situation, bringing ourselves into also all the analysis and the foundation that we built before.”
“There’s a question that I really, really want to ask and I thought I’d be able to hold out longer until I got to it,” Anderson said about the film’s final scene, mere minutes after the end credits rolled. While the film’s epilogue reveals what became of Julie, the scene is significant for another reason, acknowledging the circumstances “The Worst Person in the World” was shot during when characters are wearing masks on a film set, including Julie.
“I think I lifted up out of my seat when I saw that for the first time,” Anderson marveled. “Something about it made me feel like I had seen something that had genuinely happened and I was placed back into the real world.”
The film had been written pre-pandemic, and Trier said he’ll often go into making films without ultimately knowing what they’re about, but he realized in making a film about his hometown of Oslo that it would’ve been inappropriate to ignore the moment it was currently in as he was making the film.
“The film is ultimately about time, identity and memory and how things pass by so fast and that is something we need to negotiate and figure out, to live with, to become something rather than be this ongoing stress of looking and being lost,” said Trier. “We’re all trying to grapple with that and I feel that film has this extra dimension of reporting on things that are outside of our control. I’m filming a city I grew up in, for example, and I’m trying to show it to you and then times change and COVID came and delayed our shoot and I realized that moment will pass too.”
However, in being true to the moment, Trier recognized he had found his perfect ending.
“I’ve filmed since I was a child on Super 8 and all my buddies were skateboarding and I made one skate video every summer when I was in my teens and I look back at some of those films and I lost some of those friends,” Trier said. “Some became lawyers, some became junkies —people went in all directions, but I have those moments of those summers still in those films and I still look at my films a bit like that. That’s one side of me thinking about memory and holding onto things and the other was that it was elegant revealing new layers of Julie that she would appear from a mask. We all love good reveals of characters in movies, and a re-reveal of our lead, taking off the mask [after] having changed, I believe, the mask is more a signifier of that change somehow.”