YouTube is a procrastinator”s dream, a narcissist”s platform, an entertainer”s rocket, and a dumping ground for the mesmerizingly mundane. Snowballed together, it”s the perfect screenwriting tool, a breadth of humanity”s successes and failures available to stream. As Ruben Östlund pieced together “Force Majeure,” his new comedy and Sweden”s entry into the Best Foreign Film Oscar race, the writer-director turned to YouTube for doses of reality. If someone captured an event or action or pang of emotion on camera and uploaded to the Internet, then it happened in real life. And it could happen in “Force Majeure.”
That”s not to say Östlund”s film is down-to-Earth. Set during a Swedish family”s week-long vacation to a French Alps ski resort, “Force Majeure” ignites marital woes by throwing Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two kids into a “life-threatening” avalanche situation. Or, they think they”re in danger, enough for Tomas to run away in absolute fear leaving Ebba to grab the children and hold on for dear life. When it turns out to be a controlled avalanche with only a hint of danger, the holiday sours. There”s tension, embarrassment, and a whole lot of awkward. Östlund steers “Force Majeure” between the absurd to sensitive, a tonal control that stems directly from his YouTube building blocks.
I sat down with Östlund to discuss the influences behind his biting comedy, crafting a movie about 21st century men and women, and why he can”t help but laugh when someone films themselves falling into a bear pit at the zoo.
You started out making skiing films in your early twenties. Why did you decide to return to that world at 40?
I went to film school and I quit the ski world. I left my friends in the ski world. I was looking for a situation or idea that would take place at a ski resort, because a ski resort is so absurd, so kitschy. All those neon colors. I think it”s funny. All the lifts, going up and down on the mountainsides. Grooming tracks. It”s a fight between the civilized and the uncivilized. Civilization is trying to control the power of nature. It”s like a metaphor in itself. How did you wind up juxtaposing that comedic, visual mundanity with Vivaldi”s “Summer”?
Erik Hemmendorff, the producer, sent me a clip that said “Kid Shreds on Accordion.” It”s a 12-year-old playing Vivaldi”s “Summer”! We found him on YouTube and got the original tape and used his original tape. He”s so intense. And Vivaldi”s “Summer” reflects the inner-chaos of the family, or Tomas. I also wanted parts of the film that brought up the tempo and make it more dynamic. My previous film [2011″s “Play”] was shot with 42 single-take shots. It was very hard to create dynamics in that film. In this, I wanted to go high and then go slow in some scenes, deeper in some scenes, then push up the tempo.
The film is stoic and artful in its compositions. That's rare in comedy. How do you see the visual choices playing into the relationship?
I had been looking for a voyeuristic [style]. We are looking at people doing things. Almost like a anthropologue. A sociological study of humans. “This is the human when he is ashamed. This is the human when he”s ashamed.”
There”s a janitor character who winds up playing an actual voyeur to the main couple.
I wanted someone from another socioeconomical situation. The family [members] are well-to-do Swedes. They don”t have any economical problems in the life. They”re beautiful. Everything is perfect. They stay in a five-star hotel. Then we have the janitor who is like, “What are their problems?” He”s in the film to reflect absurdity of their relationship problem. The lifestyle we have is so focused on relationship problems that we are allowed to spend our whole lives having problems with our relationships. It”s as absurd as the ski resort!
What”s serious for them should be funny to us.
I guess we”re laughing at it and horrified. It”s very clear that the problem they have, when he abandons the family, is a real issue for people. I read an investigation about airplanes hijackings and the percentage of divorce after hijackings is extremely high. Even if you get out without getting hurt, people get divorced. The role of the man and the woman doesn”t fit expectations. The man isn”t acting like the action hero he is supposed to.
Here in America, there”s a continued conversation about masculinity, what modern gender roles should or should not be. What is that conversation like in Sweden? Does the movie confront that identity analysis in a specific way?
In Sweden we have a political party called the Feminists. It almost got into the government. It was very close. They”re strong when it comes to opinions. The feminist discussion is on the agenda in Sweden. I think if you look at the reactions in Sweden, the feminists are loving “Force Majeure.” “This is the portrayal of man we”ve been waiting for!”
As a ski expert, how common are ill-timed controlled avalanches? Is the film”s scenario coming from any real life experience?
That situation is inspired by a YouTube clip that I saw. A group of tourists sitting at an outdoor restaurant.
YouTube is an essential filmmaking resource.
The bus ride at the end too. Google “Idiot Spanish bus driver almost kills students.” Then you can Google “worst man cry ever.” That avalanche at the restaurant was similar because people were panicking and running away. There was no catastrophe. It was only the snow smoke reaching the restaurant. I think it”s so comical when people are looking at something that is spectacular and beautiful and then they”re screaming for their lives and running. There”s something humorous in that tragedy. Like when people are looking at the bears in the zoo and they fall in. One second you”re safe and the next you”re like, “aaaaaah!”
Next: How the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster informs “Force Majeure.”
Do you see this as a particularly modern behavior?
I”ve been interested in the topic for a long time, that we humans have such a problem with losing face in front of each other. So every time I have a scene where I think there could be a reference on YouTube, I will Google it and see. It”s the way I work. For the fear of losing face, I was very inspired by the captain of Costa Concordia. “Captain Coward” or whatever they called him. It was the same situation. He started this stupid lie. He said he fell into a lifeboat. Tomas says, “You can”t run in ski boots.” It”s the same kind of rhetorics. You try so hard to not lose face, you end up in an even worse situation. The captain of the Costa Concordia said things like, “I”m the victim of my instinct.” I put that line in the film.
There”s a scene in the film where Tomas and Ebba have dinner with an English-speaking couple and those lies come out. It”s terribly awkward.
There is an actor in Sweden who has done really beautiful, strong, intense silence between dialogues. Holding out on the silence between the dialogue. One of the goals for the film was to create this vibranting, awkward silence when no one knows what to say or do. They”re getting nervous. I”m fascinated by social fear. Not agreeing on each other. Fighting in front of one another.
”Force Majeure” has a strong visual style but the writing”s there too, managing to keep a foot planted in realism and screwball at the same time. How did you approach that?
My previous films have been very realistic, almost naturalistic. In this film I wanted them representing man and woman on an abstract level. When I do the casting, I”m testing the scenes. I”m testing the situations. “Could this happen?” When you write something, it”s difficult to translate it to moving images. You can see when something”s not working. So I”m trying the scenes out while casting and rewriting while shooting all the time. When the camera is in position, you can see what”s not possible. “You would never start a lie in this position.” I always think, “When would I say something? How would I act?” when I”m working with actors.
And for those who see the film, a spoiler question:
You alluded to the final scene of the film earlier, when Tomas and Ebba take a terrifying bus ride down a steep, windy hill. The scene flips the movie on its head. How did you wind up going that far?
First, we have the fact that everyone is doing the same thing Tomas is doing. Ebba is running away and leaving the kids. It”s interesting, people say it”s not the same thing. But if you imagine Tomas is running away also, then it”s totally different. The role of the woman is allowed to be drawn away by her emotions, act irrationally. But she has the convention and expectation of taking care of the family on longer terms. If you”re a man, you should stand up if there”s a sudden threat. If you don”t, that”s a crime. The only one who gets to the airport is Cholette, the one who has been living a sinful life. In a normal movie, she”d be punished in the end. I was thinking, when they”re standing with cell phones, they”re hoping the bus will crash. It”d be like a Biblical moment where Cholette is being punished for her behavior. Instead, all the people have to walk on this solitude road. It”s getting darker and they don”t know how far they”ll have to walk [laughs].