If Ruben Östlund didn’t actually make films himself, he’d make a killer YouTube playlist curator. Although it’s temping to look to the big screen for his influences, given the often magisterial compositions for his latest film “Force Majeure,” you’d be far more likely to find them online, from footage of a controlled avalanche where onlookers’ awe becomes sheer panic when the cascade of snow gets too close, the reckless steering of a Spanish bus driver that rattles the nerves of its passengers and a BBC interview where a taxi driver is mistaken for an IT expert and the interviewer refuses to admit her faux pas, continuing the questioning unfazed. That Ostund would be attracted to such a democratic medium where he can catch unfiltered human behavior shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed his career from his 2004 narrative debut “The Guitar Mongoloid,” which blended reality and fiction in tracing the lives of five cultural outsiders in his native Sweden to his planned next project “The Square,” set in a fictional town with an area demarcated for assistance of any type that is overwhelmed by the less fortunate, a response to the proliferation of gated communities in Scandinavia.
However, there is no doubt Östlund has also found a place for his own distinct style in full-length features as evidenced by “Force Majeure,” a darkly comic meditation on the traditional roles within a marriage during a family ski trip. Featuring the strapping Johannes Bah Kuhnke as Tomas and Lisa Loven Kongsli as his poised wife Ebba, “Force Majeure” captures the devastation caused by a controlled avalanche not unlike the one Östlund saw on YouTube, it isn’t the downpour of snow that ensnares the couple, but rather Tomas’ reaction to it, which is hardly what Ebba hopes for as she’s left shielding their two children by herself.
The moment of truth is similar to one Östlund experienced secondhand when a friend’s vacation in Colombia was upended by a robbery that revealed his true colors in front of his girlfriend, which may be why if you ask the director the character he most identifies with in “Force Majeure,” it is Tomas’ friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju), who tries his best to rationalize Tomas’ actions to keep the couple together. Yet Östlund’s connection to the material feels more intimate in other ways, his camera operating at far less a remove than in such previous films as his ambivalent 2011 bullying drama “Play” and a touch of sharp humor that gives “Force Majeure” a depth of humanity that elevates it above his previous examinations of human nature. Shortly before the film’s release in Los Angeles, Östlund and his star Kuhnke took a moment to talk about finding the truth in scenes that would often take 30-50 takes to achieve, how shooting at a ski resort informed the film’s story and how they hope people see themselves in the film.
Ruben actually started out making ski films and the way the ski lodge is presented, with all of its nooks and crannies, would seem to suggest you drew from experience to make seemingly mundane mechanisms turn into devices to amp up the drama. Was that the case?
Ruben Östlund: A lot of the different kind of moods that you’re into when you’re skiing — the silence [on the slopes] or when you’re going in a chairlift or the sound that is in the ski systems — were also the core of many of the scenes. For example, Ebba goes into the woods and she sits down to pee and you hear that lift in the distance, like tuk-tuk-tuk. If you’ve been skiing and you heard those things, you immediately recognize yourself. Of course, a lot of the knowledge I had about the environment I used in the scenes.
Johannes Bah Kuhnke: This kind of sound from the machine or this gnau-nau almost becomes a metaphor for the relationship.
There are many long, uncomfortable scenes in the film that may have edits, but seem to be unbroken. Would you shoot the entire conversations uninterrupted? And if so, would they evolve over the many takes?
Johannes Bah Kuhnke: Yeah, we did.
Ruben Östlund: There were some scenes… for example, when Mats and Fanny [his girlfriend] are in the bed together and Mats can’t sleep when he has this trouble with Fanny’s loss in trust for him, that was very much improvised, starting in one place and ending in another place. In that one, there were not that many repetitions of the exact same scenario. It was more it was setting them free to take the scene in which direction they wanted to. When we look at other scenes, we were testing out things in the beginning to find the most efficient way of telling this, sculpting and finding [out], “Okay, we take away that line and go straight from that to that line.” Then the last 10 takes often look quite similar to each other. It’s the small, small details that look different.
Johannes Bah Kunke: It’s such a luxury to work with because Ruben has his own production company, so he is also the boss. [Films] cost a lot of money and [ordinarily] you have producers shouting, “We can only do two takes on this, go on, go on, go on.” You often leave the set and you’re unsatisfied because the scene didn’t land. They are like, we’ll fix it in the cutting room. It’s a complete luxury to have the freedom to try out [a scene] so many times. It’s very unusual.
Also, Ruben takes breaks after [every] 10 or 15 takes, so everybody can go and evaluate what we’ve done. The actor was welcome to see their own performance and say, “Oh, this felt so good, but it doesn’t look good.” We could adjust small, small details, so it would create a really good scene in the end.
Something I’ve heard about Ruben’s process is how he’ll often find the framing of a scene in post-production. How was that applied here?
Ruben Östlund: I actually did this more in my previous film, “Play,” and a short film that I made, called “Incident by a Bank,” a reconstruction of a failed robbery attempt. In that film, we had a fixed camera. Afterwards, we created all the camera zooms digitally, then all the panning and tilting. I only did it in some of the scenes in [“Force Majeure”]. For example, the ski scenes when Mats and Tomas are out and skiing towards the camera. Actually, they didn’t ski together in that scene. I cut them together, so it looked like they are skiing next to each other and I made a small movement in the image where they are zooming out and following them.
Tomas is not a pretty crier when you see him break down, which is just one of the moments in the film where it’d could easily veer towards mawkishness if it weren’t so uncomfortably funny. How did you actually want to push this into comedy?
Johannes Bah Kuhnke: We wanted to take it so far away from what we’re used to see when we see the perfect cry with a stone face and a single tear rolling down his cheek. We wanted to go really, really over the top. Ruben sent me a clip from YouTube called the “Worst Man Cry Ever.” But it was very important for me not to play the comedy and actually play a real cry, a real cry but taken very hard.
This was a real acting technique I learned from school. It’s from “Macbeth” and it’s like because [Lady Macbeth] is saying, “Blood, blood. Get away from my body,” and most of the actors are, “Blood, blood. Get away from my body!” [at a high pitch] But you should start up with [nonchalantly saying,] “Oh, there is some blood there.” “Oh, there’s a little bit more, and it’s starting to spread over there” [gradually getting to], “Fuck, I have blood here.” Then it can actually grow so, so big and so over the top and still not lose the commitment to the feeling. That’s what we were aiming for this one.
Ruben Östlund: We were starting small, then you have the possibility for the shout.
Johannes Bah Kuhnke: But we wanted to create something that was not poetic but pathetic that people can recognize and still laugh at. If you loosen yourself for being a human and try to watch yourself from the outside, we are very comical, we are tragic, critical types.
I’ve heard the test screenings of this film were particularly interesting, as you’d imagine since you might be testing people’s capacity for selflessness as much as the film’s effectiveness. What did you get out of it?
Ruben Östlund: I’m really happy that people connect to it in a way they immediately relate to it, thinking of their own lives. I also think there are strong parts of the film that trigger something. Rather than just enjoying it like a movie, you need to discuss things afterwards and you’re comparing the actions in the film with actions in your own life.
“Force Majeure” is now open in limited release, including in Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset and the Laemmle Royal. A full list of theaters and dates is here.