In Joachim Trier’s third feature, Louder Than Bombs (co-written, like his other two films, with Eskil Vogt), we weave between the mindsets and memories of three men — a father, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), and his two sons, Jonah and Conrad (Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid, respectively) — as they recall their memories of their wife and mother, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert). The family is forced to face their past relationship with Isabelle, who was a world-renowned war photographer, as they prepare for a retrospective of her work and an accompanying New York Times profile that will inevitably reveal more than Gene and his eldest son Jonah would like, and more than Conrad ever realized about his own mother.
We met with Joachim Trier to talk about his first American feature (the previous from the Norwegian director being Reprise and Oslo, August 31st), capturing subtlety in film, and his love of disco.
You’re also a DJ, right?
I have a club called Noble Dancer, which is like ’80s soul, hip-hop, post-disco. Like Paradise Garage-ish, we’re playing a lot of gigs recently. I mean, I’m a film director and this is my embarrassing crisis of turning 40 or something but I DJ’ed when I was a kid and suddenly picked it back up because a lot of that ’80s stuff I’m into is so happening. Oslo turned out to become the disco capital of the world. And my friend, who is a DJ, said, “You know, you have a lot of good vinyl from that era, come and play.” And before I knew it I had a room full of kids dancing to Chaka Khan and Afrika Bambaataa.
I’d like to go to more discos.
You must, you must!
For Louder Than Bombs, what was the seed of the idea? There are so many different relationships going on and I’m wondering where it all started for you.
I don’t know. This is the thing: It was like an explosion of fragments and chaos and me and my co-writer having all theses ideas of characters and moments and seeing, oh, this could be a family story. Then suddenly, oh wow, how to use form and fragmentation to talk about a fragmented family. We worked like action filmmakers. We do set pieces so we have a diary of the little brother, day in the life of when the father follows his son and we understand later that we see it from two perspectives, like a thriller. We think like set pieces and then we create the story. So I guess that’s why our films are a little bit strange. Going back to Afrika Bambaataa, we rip it apart and put it together in a hopefully unexpected way. We write way, way, way more than what you see on screen and we take the moments that could be combined and make it out of that.
So there’s a lot left that we don’t know about it.
Yeah, and my first film Reprise was ridiculous in that way. It’s about two friends and their gang of friends around them. I could have easily made two seasons of a TV show out of that. But I wanted to thematically focus it. That’s why I like feature films as well, just to round it off within two hours. To get people to go home and feel like that’s the end. Then hopefully that chaos and all the characters will resonate with people.
Is it easy for you to cut out ideas and material? Or do you ever find yourself precious with ideas?
It comes and goes in waves. I have waves when I need to be precious about things and waves where I get cold and saw off my arm because I need to move forward. And that’s the art, it’s to go in-between those phases in the right way. Abstraction really means to remove, I think. Doesn’t it? Sorry, that didn’t lead anywhere.
No, it led everywhere. I wanted to ask about Devin Druid’s character, Conrad, because I’ve been thinking about that character since I saw the film. I feel like I know him but I can’t figure out how. Where does he come from for you?
He comes from many places. Conrad was so exciting to write because we had to venture into the mind of a 15-year-old kid in present-day America. A gamer that’s much more than he seems. He’s not that introvert kid after all. It is perhaps his social persona, but his interior life — which we venture into in dreams, memories, diaries — is much, much richer. I really love him. He’s someone who has a great mind, he just hasn’t grown into becoming that brave person who knows how to take it into the world. And aren’t we all a bit like that? There’s something inside us that we need to grow into to allow ourselves to be. And that’s Conrad. He’s the one that everyone worries about but maybe he has the smartest answers after all. But I think also Devin Druid, I need to credit him, he came in with a lot of great ideas. Devin knows this character somehow very well and he was 15 when he did the part. Thanks to him as well, we like that character.
How did the actors surprise you in what they brought to their characters?
Jesse brought this almost sinister but humoristic… He’s like, “This big brother, he’s not always nice, is he?” And he brought in this sort of bad guy yet well-intended big brother. What touches me about that story is the two brothers, because they have such an age difference and actually, we observed them getting to know each other. That’s a big part of the film. Isabelle Huppert is remarkably intelligent and a great actress so she would take scenes and suggest other versions of the same words. And Gabriel is kind of a father character in his own right. He’s very conscious of the other actors, very warm. And my companion in creating the film in the sense that he’s a very generous person. And he knew in a way that I wanted to portray his character as heroic even though he gets pushed around by everyone, he’s actually a hero. He stands firm. He keeps approaching his sons even though they push him away. He does what I think parents will have to do, which is stay put. That’s the job. That’s the heroic story of a father that stays put. It’s not a superhero movie like the other movie Jesse’s promoting at the moment. But a hero of sorts.