Movies were never intended to be Lukas Moodysson’s primary artistic outlet, but it was his desire to be in a band that led him behind the camera.
“Music was much more important,” says the Swedish filmmaker. “Books were also much more important when I was younger. I still read more than I watch films, but there is something that is so fascinating about the process of making films, which is actually maybe even more important to me than the actual result. The process of actually building your own world, that’s just like a game. You put clothes on people, you decide the color of that wall should be red, so it has something to do with taking words that are written on paper and making them three-dimensional. There is some kind of disease that makes me want to do that.”
If filmmaking is a virus, it was one that nearly did in Moodysson on his last film, the ambitious Michelle Williams-Gael Garcia Bernal drama “Mammoth” that aimed to bring the often imperceptible effects of globalization to light. An international production that demanded as much from the writer/director as he often does from his audience with such daring works as “A Hole in My Heart” and “Show Me Love” (retitled in the States from the original “Fucking Åmål”), Moodysson pushed himself to make the film that spanned three continents, only then to have his father pass away as he was editing it.
In the four years that followed, he would turn to writing books, including a thinly veiled fictional account of his time in mourning and a nonfiction tome in which he openly wonders if he could make another movie, setting the mood so low that Moodysson says his wife Coco “was happy for me to do this fun film after writing sad novels about my dead father.” In fact, it was when he picked up her graphic novel “Never Goodnight,” loosely based on her childhood in Stockholm during the early 1980s when she formed a punk band with her girlfriends, that he regained his passion for the form.
It’s a change of heart that’s evident in the unfettered joy that bursts from every frame of “We Are the Best!”, the resulting film that show its punk spirit not only in the inflamed screech of the guitars and preteen vocal chords of Bobo, Hedvig and Klara, its trio of rockers (played by Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, and Liv LeMoyne) but in Moodysson’s undiminished desire to question authority and societal norms. Last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, I spoke to Moodysson about how his decision to adapt “Never Goodnight” didn’t happen as easily as one would think, living in faster times and where his interest in strong female characters comes from.
Your wife Coco wrote the graphic novel “We Are the Best” is based on, so were you compelled to make the film because of that relationship or was there something else that attracted you to it?
That’s really the most difficult question because I don’t really know. It’s like what are the reasons why we do things in life? It’s difficult to know afterwards, but my guess is that after I took a couple of years [off] and didn’t make any films, I did some other things — I wrote two novels, and it just felt really nice to not make movies. Then after a while, even though I’m quite slow, I’m quite restless at the same time and after writing these sad novels, I just needed to do something happy and where I worked in a group. On a personal level, it was a way of changing something in my life. Then I just felt that it would be so nice to do something with children again. It wasn’t as easy deciding that I should do my wife’s book because I really felt that people would hate us for being “full of ourselves.” Actually, I felt that it would make people irritated, but so far, no.
Was it interesting to explore an area of your wife’s life that you weren’t a part of? Was she protective of the material in any way?
When I started writing this, I decided I had to not respect the book too much because I had to make it my own, so the very first thing I actually wrote was just like [an idea] of what she was like, [imagining her] in the big city, alone on the street, 12 years old, walking home. Her mother is away, her father is away, so that was the first scene for me. Then I never really thought very much about Coco [my wife], I just felt that Bobo has changed her name too and she got a life of her own. I didn’t really feel like I was doing a biographical movie — I was actually telling something that had a lot to do myself since I grew up in that time, about being 13 years old in general and being anti-things. Well, most things.
It’s interesting Hedvig is the main addition you made from the graphic novel because she’s the outsider of the trio as a devout Christian. Why did you want to add that character?
When I sit down and write things, they come intuitively. I don’t plan things. I never write a synopsis. I just write and then I’m surprised by what I’ve written. I’m not really sure if I can answer that either, but one reason, maybe, is that the book is much longer than the film. It’s 300 pages and there were a lot of things that I couldn’t keep in the film. The book actually goes back in time to when they were eight or nine years old and they were doing different things. I couldn’t really keep that part. I also felt that it would be interesting to see [a character like Hedvig] because in a lot of subcultures, there’s a tendency to let people believe that they are very open-minded but they are actually aren’t. I really like the scene [in the film] when [Bobo and Klara] are saying, “Okay, let’s try Hedvig and let’s make her stop believing in God, and if she doesn’t stop believing in God, we will just kick her.” I think that’s the problematic thing for subcultures, alternative movements that don’t really respect the opinions of other people.
Visually, you seem to have the same ethos – I’ve always wondered whether when you’re moving the camera around during a scene, are there certain cues you build in to focus on something specific or does you just go to what attracts your eye?
Sometimes cues, but it’s a matter of intuition as well. It’s a camera style that’s very close to my personal way of looking at things, and I think for many people, it has to do with curiosity, just like being in this conversation. At the same time I’m talking to you, I’m looking out at the skyline of Toronto and seeing a car down there or someone there, [my eyes] going back and forth. Zooming in and zooming out. Also, placing the camera a little bit in the distance, not too far, but a little bit away, makes you very, very curious about things.
I work with Ulf Brantas, the cinematographer, in trying to not talk too much about things and to just be curious. He, too, tries to follow where the interesting things are happening and a lot of the time, it feels like we’re on the same wavelength. There are some times, of course, when I say “Next time, we’ll try to focus a little bit more on Bobo,” or something like that, but we both have a tendency to always want to get closer. I really have to push myself to make do with wider shots because I’m not really interested in wide shots.
You mentioned wanting to work with kids again, but it seemed after your recent streak of films, the most rebellious thing you could do is make a really happy, exuberant film like this – was that also part of the appeal?
I feel like I have so many different voices in me. All human beings do. I really respect people who go in one direction the whole time because that’s also really nice, but it doesn’t really work out for me. I have to jump. In my personal life, there is a lot of euphoria and happiness and fantastic things, but there are also a lot of dark and terrible things. Closing your eyes to one thing or the other thing is a bit like limiting yourself. I’m just trying to be as honest as I can. This time, I really wanted to make something that really focused on, not that it’s a very, very simple world that we live in, but that it’s still very possible to live there and that there is always some kind of hope.
Was it interesting to go back to this period of time and compare it to today?
When I looked at some old documentaries from 1982 with young people talking about things, one thing that really strikes you, now we’re talking about kids and young people in Stockholm, is that they speak so much slower. I think the world in general was slower. There are many things that are better in the world today — if you grow up in a small place today, and you have access to the Internet, I suppose it’s so much better than in 1982 where you just feel completely alone. Today, if you were alone somewhere out in the wild, you’re able to find someone else who likes the same music or who likes the same things that you do. But there were also some things that were better in 1982. If you look at it now, it feels like the trend in 1982 was to be as laid back and cool as possible. Whereas today, young people in Stockholm or in Sweden speak much faster and in Sweden, we speak much slower than, for example, North America. I was at the Customs and they were asking these questions so fast. I don’t think our brains are capable of keeping up with the speed that we’re speaking.
How did the songs for the film come about?
In the script, I had written just some fragments of lyrics, but the music and the whole song was actually put together by the children, together with a dance/music coach and she actually taught them to play. Liv, who plays Hedvig, she knew [how to play] of course. The other ones didn’t really know how, so she was teaching them their instruments. She’s a singer. She’s an artist. She’s quite well-known in Sweden so she helped them. She wrote the song together with them. I think they made the most of it themselves. It’s not a very complicated song.
You said at the Toronto premiere that you find female characters more interesting than men, though you started backtracking a little. Why do you think that is?
Maybe it comes from my grandmother or something. Also, the older I get … I can’t drive a car. I don’t know how to use a hammer. I feel more and more like my grandmother. She liked flowers, and porcelain, and things like that. I’m not saying that porcelain and flowers are necessarily a female thing, but I just don’t really feel comfortable in the traditional, masculine [role]. I do like sports actually sometimes. I also like figure skating. I had a time when I was buying jewelry for my wife like rings and things like that and she didn’t really wear them a lot, so it always ended up me wearing them. [points to his right hand] This, for example, is my wife’s grandmother’s ring. My wife doesn’t use it.
Was your wife actually on set for the film, if for no other reason to check the authenticity?
No. Well, the last day actually she came, and I would call her sometimes, especially when we’re talking about set design and clothes to just ask her, “What kind of shoes do you think they should have?” And so on. But it was really important for me to not think too much about her because then it would have felt incestuous. I rarely talked to the actors about the real background of things. Only when we talked about the clothes and things like that, then we had to talk about what are they really into in real life. But it’s never like I would sit down with Mira and say that “Okay, Coco did it like this.” I treated it like a fictional story when I was filming it.
Was this a reenergizing experience?
Very much. I was really crying at the party at the dinner when we had finished. It was such a good team that I worked with and I always feel very much like an amateur, but, I truly felt this time I felt quite comfortable. At that point, I just wanted to make a new film. Right now is actually the first time in my film career that I actually thought about making maybe someone else’s script just because I want to get back — I’m even talking with a friend who’s producing not very good crime things, TV shows. It would be really great fun to do something that is totally unpretentious and just for the fun of it. It probably won’t happen. I’m not sure.
“We Are the Best!” opens in New York at the Angelika Film Center and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and Los Angeles at the Nuart Theatre. It will expand on June 6th. A full list of cities and dates can be found here.