Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier has a knack for tackling difficult subject matter with a delicate touch. His first two films—Reprise and Oslo, August 31st—are intimate dramas about confused young people who must confront the realities of disappointment in order to survive. Their experiences with suicide, depression and rage are handled in the most nuanced of ways.
Trier's third effort, titled Louder than Bombs (his first in English) takes place in upstate New York and Manhattan. It closely examines the personal relationships of an upper middle class family attempting to collectively reconcile a deepening past trauma. More specifically, the film strives to uncover the way secrets are passed on between generations, and how stagnation eventually sets in when communication breaks down. In our social media age, where access has become paramount, this presents a fascinating opportunity for self-reflection.
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Byrne and Isabelle Huppert, among others, the film feels like a throwback ensemble piece, one that refuses to sugarcoat or demonize its characters' personal quagmires. CityBeat had the privilege of speaking with Joachim Trier over the phone from Norway about his shift to an American setting, non-judgmental storytelling and what it means to wrestle with transition.
CityBeat: Do you think Louder Than Bombs addresses experiences that are particularly American?
Joachim Trier: In a way, we are dealing with universal themes in the film. There's the element of parent/child relationships, how delayed experiences of grief impact all members of a family. But more specifically, how these men try to move forward, even when the ghost of the their matriarch still lingers around. The idea of who she was still remains unanswered.
When you start exploring a family setting in New York it becomes interesting to look at the specifics of American high school life and the photojournalist environment in New York. On another level, there is also the coming home story of the mother Isabelle (played by Huppert); instead of the more classical situation of a soldier returning from the conflicts that the U.S. has been involved in during the last 15 years. I thought it would be interesting to talk about a journalist in that way.
CB: Devin Druid plays Conrad, a disaffected teen whose rage has real world consequences, but not the ones you might expect. What was your approach toward crafting this complex of a character?
JT: There are a lot of negative preconceptions about gamer kids, and it's a generational thing. We're talking about millions of children who play online and develop friendships. Both Devin and I didn't want to judge and speak negatively of them, simply because they aren't doing exactly what we expect in terms of social life. They have formed this community online, and there's a lot of fun and creativity going on there.
We also play with these clichés, our worry about the introvert teenager and what terrible rage can happen or could be at play in a young life like that. Ultimately I'm interested in humanist stories, and having a bit of faith in people. I also think there's a portrait of a young artist in Conrad's story, someone who actually has a creative inclination, but just hasn't found an outlet, yet.
CB: Many of the characters in Louder Than Bombs and your previous film Oslo, August 31st are torn between roles and expectations. What about this struggle interests you as a filmmaker?
JT: The idea of family life versus ambition is something that many people struggle with on a daily basis. I think in America and Norway, we are very alike. What you do well defines who you are. It's what gives you meaning.
This brings up existential questions of choice. For instance, how do we create meaning in our lives? Why are we forced to have one identity even when it's still so fleeting? Memory is also a major theme in the film. How come we remember these things that we've done together so differently? The film plays around with these various interpretations. That whole idea of identity not being fixed, but being a fluid thing, interests me a lot.
CB: Louder Than Bombs feels more stylistically impressionistic than your previous work. Why use slow motion, dream sequences and non-linear editing for this particular story?
JT: I'm very much interested in how form creates emotion, how we get closer to characters by making formal choices as storytellers, rather than just shooting people walking into a room and talking to each other. There's a whole different journey going on when you're able to experience characters' memories, what they are thinking subjectively, their dreams and different perceptions. I think that's a playful, fun way of making movies.
CB: Isabelle (Huppert) and Jonah (Eisenberg) both struggle with avoidance when it comes to major transitions in life. Why is this struggle so powerful for them?
JT: It's human nature, my friend, to be afraid of the major changes that come. What scares the shit out of people, including myself, are the transitional moments, yet we strive for them at the same time. It's the paradox of moving forward and growing older. Hopefully we get a little wiser with the years. In Jonah's case, what he's dealing with is very much a parallel to his mother—they both feel this sense of idealism toward family and career but aren't prepared for the realities inherent to those situations. Whether it's your vision of what a great marriage looks like or the idealism of a job, you don't really know until you're there, in the thick of it. And that's life.