A former skateboarding champion turned filmmaker, the 38-year-old director Joachim Trier breathed fresh life into the coming-of-age movie with his 2006 feature debut, Reprise. For his second film, however, he’s chosen a more somber subject: the moment when the will to live goes out the window. Loosely based on Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s 1931 novel, The Fire Within, Trier’s latest—Oslo, August 31st—follows a recovering addict named Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) who, having been released from rehab on a day pass, spends his time wandering around the titular city. Unable to deal with his past failures, he decides to end it all. TONY spoke to Trier when he was in town to show the movie at the Tribeca Film Festival.
You were originally supposed to follow up Reprise with your American filmmaking debut, right?
There was an American project called Louder than Bombs that my cowriter, Eskil Vogt, and I had been working on for a while, a multicharacter piece that covered a lot of ground. Because of a variety of factors, it ended up getting postponed. We still plan on doing it—probably this fall—but it wasn’t going to happen when we thought it was. I had a year with nothing on my plate. So I thought, rather than just waiting around, I need to do something quick and from the gut.
Around this time, I had picked up the book of The Fire Within, which I knew from having seen Louis Malle’s 1963 movie. I love French cinema from that era, but for some strange reason, I came to Malle late. I’d recently gotten out of a relationship and I was feeling a little lost. Then suddenly, here was this book that articulated the same loneliness that I was going through. I brought it to Eskil, then bam! We had a script ready in four months. It’s a pretty simple story.
It’s simple, but not simplistic.
Right. It’s not an easy pitch, that’s for sure. Not for my lack of trying. [Laughs] I mean, you could talk about it being a story about addiction, but it’s not just that. There’s a great self-destructive integrity to the main character, and most people can relate to the notion of not living up to your ambitions and hopes. I know I do.
Did you consciously not try to follow the typical path of an addiction film? This is where he relapses, this is where you feel sorry for him, etc.
Yeah, the character even says: Don’t feel sorry for me. This is my responsibility to put my life back together, and no one else’s. In one way, he’s proud, and in another way, he’s unable to ask people for help when he clearly needs it. Anders is not the cliché addict as victim. He uses his addiction as a crutch. The character is dealing with a drinking problem and a drug problem, but those aren’t his only problems.
There’s the sense that he’s already checked out long before he decides that he’s going to end his life. It’s as if he’s already a ghost, watching everyone else go about their lives but he refuses to participate in his own.
That’s an interesting take on it. Someone told me that this was really a version of It’s a Wonderful Life, with a completely different ending. [Laughs] I think he meant it as a joke, but it rings true in a weird way. Those two films ask the same questions: Who am I? Do I matter to others? What would happen if I was no longer here?
The film doubles as a love letter to Oslo; how did you think to combine that with a movie about a man ending his life?
Who was the Impressionist painter that used to carry dark glasses with him wherever he went? On the most beautiful summer days, he’d put those glasses on, so that everything looked very dark; the reason, he claimed, was that when he took them off, everything seemed that much brighter and beautiful. That’s sort of how I approached it: The story is very bleak, but I didn’t want to make a depressing movie. I wanted to show viewers that summer is ending, parties are happening, and the city is at its most beautiful. When you take off the dark glasses, the sense that there is so much vibrancy and life in Oslo is that much more apparent. The tragedy is that Anders can’t take those glasses off. He can’t see the beauty around him.
It’s almost like the anti-Reprise. That movie is all about being in your twenties and dreaming about the future you want to make for yourself. Whereas this film…
…is all about someone who’s in his mid-thirties and feels like he has no future. It’s funny, because the way Eskil and I envision Louder than Bombs, it feels very much in the Reprise vein. It would be a natural follow-up to that movie. So while the intent was never “I must make a different movie from my debut,” the idea of doing something different was certainly appealing. My first film jumps around chronologically and plays with time a lot, whereas this covers one day from start to finish in a linear fashion. There’s room to slow things down, or stop to follow these peripheral characters going about their daily business while Anders sits in a café—which I’d never felt like I could have done before. It was great to try something new.
Did you discuss a lot of this stuff with Anders Danielsen Lie, or were you more intent on him finding the character without throwing a lot of heady stuff into his work?
The one thing I told Anders was, in real life, you’re a talented pianist, you’re an actor, you’re a writer, you’re studying medicine. Now imagine a parallel universe where you could not realize your potential in any of those areas. From there, he quickly got it. But Anders also had the book to draw from, since the character is a variation on the book’s hero. We’re both big fans of American cinema as well, so we watched Hud, The Gambler, a lot of ’70s character-study type of movies; we were very interested in how that era treated antiheroes and how we could draw from that.
Once we had that, Anders kind of went off by himself and started transforming himself physically and psychologically. He worked out a bunch and gained about 20 pounds; he had this notion that this guy was a hipster ex-addict who was full of vanity, and that he’d transferred his addiction from drugs and alcohol to exercise. He also put himself in a very dark headspace for a long time, and kept himself fairly isolated from everybody when we shot. We filmed the movie in 35 days, and it took him six months to get that character out of his skull. I’m so grateful for what he put himself through to do this. And I doubt he’d ever do something like this again.
It’s impossible to think of anyone else playing that role.
We wrote it for him. Keep in mind that, though he’d done Reprise, he’s not really an actor; he’s a doctor. So Eskil and I wrote this script with him in mind, and then thought, What if he doesn’t want to do it. We’re kind of fucked. [Laughs] So we took him out to dinner, and neither of us wanted to come out and ask him to be in it. We kept trying to bring it up subtly, but then never got around to saying it outright. The next day, he called me up and said, “What the hell was up with you guys last night? Why were you acting so strange?” Finally, I told him, “Sorry, we wrote this movie and we want you to do it.” And he said, “Why didn’t you say that in the first place? Of course I’ll do it!"
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