Louder than Bombs director: “You’ve got to find your own take”

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 07 Apr 2016

Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier makes his way across the Atlantic for Louder than Bombs, a New York-set family drama starring Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Byrne and Isabelle Huppert. Thankfully he's brought his indie sensibility with him

Like the hip-hop that obsessed him as a teen, Joachim Trier likes to play with form. Listening to the likes of Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash in the early 80s, he fell for the genre’s dirty formalism. “You could scratch a record, cut it up, and put it back together differently,” the Norwegian filmmaker recalls. “I remember getting a tape recorder with two tape decks, so you could record from one to the other, and I’d take all my favourite moments of every Beatles song or hip-hop song and record only that beat on to the mix to create that perfect melody, the perfect tune… and as I played it back it was the worst mishmash you could imagine.” He bursts into a deep-throated laugh. “And in a strange way that’s what I’m still trying to do.”

Now 42 and with a brace of critically lauded features under his belt (2006’s Reprise and 2011’s Oslo, August 31st), Trier’s applies his cut-up approach to moving image as well as sound – but the results are far more successful than those early tape-deck experimentations. He’s at the height of his powers with new feature Louder than Bombs, his English-language debut. The film deftly plays with time, space and point of view as it tells the story of a New Yorker family – father Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and sons Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (newcomer Devin Druid) – haunted by the death of their matriarch (played by Isabelle Huppert, who's on typically brilliant form).

Speaking to The Skinny on a fresh February afternoon in Glasgow, the day after Louder than Bombs’ UK premiere at the city’s film festival, Trier explains that the fragmented structure of his film came out of a similarly fragmented writing process with fellow filmmaker Eskil Vogt (Blind). “We have a very incorrect, I’m sure, way of working,” he says. “I sit with Eskil, we’ve written three films together now, and we sit in a room for six months and discuss all kinds of ideas. It can be a formal concept, it can be character, it can be a scene, and slowly it develops. We admire those who can sit down and go, ‘OK, I’ve got a story.’ But that’s not us.” The result is a free-form style where the focus is on character and formal expression over plot. “I like the fact that you feel that there are some jumps and cuts and things that are left out.” It's a form that fits the content perfectly. Like the characters, the film is littered with absences.

This all might sound like this is some alienating, abstract work, but that couldn’t be further from the case. Trier is simply putting his personal stamp on a very familiar tradition in American cinema – that of the family-in-existential-crisis drama. It’s a subgenre he clearly adores, although he’s keen to claim its Scandinavian roots. “I call it the Bergman-Woody Allen dynamic,” he says. “You know, if you look at the 80s movies from Woody Allen that I grew up watching – Another Woman, Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters – or you look at Ordinary People by Robert Redford, or something like The Breakfast Club from John Hughes, all of that is very influenced by Scandinavian cinema through Bergman, I think.”

Come on, we protest. The Breakfast Club is influenced by Bergman?

“Think about it!” he says, laughing. “OK, maybe I’m reaching there, but I think there’s something going on with that kind of character portrayal and the devastation of identity that it deals with, you know? The difficulty to be who you are in any given environment – I connect that with a sense of Bergman. I wish John Hughes was around – we could ask him. He’s an amazing filmmaker.”

This idiosyncratic approach to familial angst hasn’t charmed everyone. At the film’s world premiere in Cannes, Trier got a bit of a drubbing from critics, in particular the British broadsheets. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw was most vociferous, calling Louder than Bombs “a rather silly, pointless and directionless film.” But a backlash to this backlash has steadily grown as Trier's film has played more festivals, and The Skinny are very happy to be among its supporters. Trier is pretty sanguine in his recollection of the hostile reception: “I think somehow there’s this old school virtue of fluidity in drama, coherence. To be in the moment sometimes and more intuitive seems frowned upon, particularly with cinema at the moment, where, you know, there’s such pressure to be commercial and correct.”

He doesn’t go as far as Ben Wheatley’s recent attack on film critics (“Why should you have a voice to complain about things until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes?” he said recently in response to the mixed reactions to High-Rise) or Alex Proyas (who called critics “diseased vultures” when they turned on his new film, Gods of Egypt), but Trier does lament a tendency towards conservatism he sees in today’s critical writing. “A lot of film criticism these days is just about comparing any given film to the correct dramaturgy: ‘Oh, it was a little bit too slow in the beginning’ or ‘it was a little bit too long,’ you know? But you know what? Any film should be its own shape and form, really. That’s what we should strive for and see what they are expressing through this particular form. It’s like everyone is so scared that we’ll run off and be avant-garde – ‘Oh, no, you mustn’t be.’”

“Just because you’re given a big budget to do a film in America – make it more personal! Make it more your own thing!”

Trier is clearly a man who doesn’t play by those rules. The usual trajectory for European filmmakers making their jump to their first studio film in America is to suppress their personality and be absorbed by the Hollywood machine. Trier’s instincts are the opposite. “I think it’s important that you wear your own jacket, your own style. Just because you’re given a big budget to do a film in America – make it more personal! Make it more your own thing! Because the other way leads nowhere, it leads to ruin. Everyone just gets very homogenised in the way we tell stories; it just gets boring for everyone.”

Most importantly, Trier’s formal bravura isn’t simply about showing off. His inventive use of image and sound, rather than distracting from his characters and their stories, helps us get under their skin – to see the world from their vantage point. “That’s what we set out to do: get into the minds of these characters; show their mental images, dreams, diaries, memories, you know, all this stuff.”

Like many foreign filmmakers coming to America (think John Boorman with Point Blank, Milos Forman with Taking Off or Wim Wenders with Paris, Texas), Trier’s outsider's eye has proved laser-like. His probing of this New York milieu is full of sharp details and acute observations: “I hope so,” he says in response to our compliment, “because I tried to, in all humbleness, really go there and look. I wanted to know how high-school life in America is right now, so I went to high-schools and looked at it.” And he didn't find what he saw in his beloved Breakfast Club. “It wasn’t at all like they are represented in a lot of the films I’ve seen, so I don’t think America is always doing their reality either. You’ve got to find your own take on it.”

Louder than Bombs is released 22 Apr by Soda Pictures