Some filmmakers hate the pitching of their movie ideas blown over from Hollywood. How can they reduce what is in their head to a few sentences? Ruben Östlund is different. The Swede who made his film (Tourist, The square) which is usually backed by group behavioral research, shares its film ideas anytime, anywhere, with anyone. That’s how he tests them. And Östlund is also not afraid to demonstrate how he convinced financiers to put their money into his first English-language and most expensive feature film, Triangle of Triangles.
“Okay, so the movie starts in the world of fashion. Then we go to a luxury yacht and we end up on a desert island. We follow a male and a female model, they are a couple. And we experience how they use their appearance as a means of payment , in the three different environments. There’s a Marxist captain on board the yacht, played by Woody Harrelson—you can see everyone’s like, ah, Woody, okay! And he’s holding the captain’s dinner in rough weather, so all the passengers are super seasick. It’s the end of western civilization.’
48-year-old Östlund – thin beard, watchful eyes – sits in a hotel garden in Cannes opposite a couple of journalists. It’s May. In a few days he will be awarded the Golden Palm, his second already – from now on he belongs to the select list of several Palm winners (including Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Haneke). Triangle of Triangles is a black comedy about class society, which becomes sharper on the superyacht: at the top the guests consisting of billionaires, millionaires and models/influencers, then the visible, white staff and at the very bottom the cleaning and engine room workers recruited from poor countries.
“We have at least two billionaires who are investing money in this film. Isn’t that amazing? When you meet them, they are also ordinary people, just like everyone else. They were born with money or had a great idea that suddenly made them that way Goddamn has become rich. Should you ask them to give their money to charity? It is a very idealistic idea. If we want to save the world, we must regulate capitalism.’
The fact that Östlund’s film starts in the fashion world is due to his wife, who works as a fashion photographer. ‘When I met her eight years ago, I wanted to know everything about the fashion industry. For example, she said the male models earn about a third of what the women earn. And about the different brands’ strategy. The more expensive the brand, the angrier the models look in the advertisements: they look down on the consumer from above. You will see models smiling at the cheaper brands: welcome to our group! It fascinates me how that industry manages to sell us clothes based on the foundation of our human behavior, our herd mentality. What interests me about fashion models is that they often do not come from the upper or middle class: their beauty is a ticket, an opportunity to move up in society.’
Like his Avalanche movie tourist (Force major for the international market) and satire in the art world The squarealso stings Triangle of Triangles in Presumed Gender Differences: How Men Can Fail to Conform to Their Own Self-Image. “I am sure that it is super complicated to be a woman. But I’m a man, so that’s why I focus on that topic. You can also see those films as a trilogy about the man of our time: the struggle with male identity. It’s unfair, yes, the idea that men shouldn’t be afraid, like the father i Force major who forgets his family for a moment when he runs from an avalanche.’
Do you want to continue it even after this trilogy?
‘I do not know. Maybe. My next idea is ‘the entertainment system is down‘ – a film set during an intercontinental flight. I am curious about the micro-society of an airplane, which is a bit like a laboratory for a sociological experiment: to see what happens to modern man when we cannot distract ourselves, when we are alone with our thoughts. I’m reading a sociological study about a phenomenon called “air rage”: passengers get so angry that they have to make an emergency landing. It turns out that the chance of that anger increases if the passengers have to go through business class before boarding’.
Triangle of Triangles is also about the super rich. Did you know that class?
“The rich came in after I decided the models would go on a luxury yacht cruise. I pick a topic that I think is interesting and then release it into an environment that I know people like to click on. We want to a ski resort, we want to be in the art world, and we definitely want to be in the fashion world and a desert island.
‘It’s like a Trojan horse: you make it up to lure your audience so that you can then discuss things that you think are important. And I want the audience to identify with all the characters. If it doesn’t work, I’ve failed. I am not portraying the super rich as subhuman. I want to be as mean to the poor as to the rich in my film. Not a lesson like: poor people are nice and sincere, rich people are shallow and selfish. Because I don’t believe that.
“But if you look at the world of luxury yachts, you also come across the excesses, the absurd behaviour. The ship we were on, the Cristina O, once owned by the shipping magnate Onassis, had been chartered the week before: the crew had received a total of 250,000 euros in tips. If you hear the stories from them: passengers who want goldfish in the jacuzzi, or a bath full of champagne. Someone wanted a tiger on board; they docked at a port town with a zoo. The idea is, I think, okay, I’m paying so much money, so now I want to see how far the service goes. IN Triangle of Triangles Russian oligarch’s wife demands staff go swimming as she wants to “turn the tables”. I often came across such stories: then we are poor for a day and you are rich for a day. Like a kind of carnival.
‘The theme of my film is based on Marxist theories: that our position in a hierarchy changes our behaviour. I like pitching my ideas before writing the script because it invites people to share their experiences. I collect everything that fits the theme. Such an uninhabited island too: it applies Lord of the Flies by William Golding as the plan, a book that created the idea that people stranded on such an island become selfish and uncivilized. But there is a fantastic book by Rutger Bregman (Most people are good, ed.), a historian who researched real Lord of the Flies-similar situations. As it turns out, it’s quite the opposite. We work well together, help each other and accept a new hierarchy on the island.’
All your films are inspired by sociological research. Where does that interest come from?
‘I was about 10 years old, I think, when my mother told me that in elementary school – she was a teacher – she had done the Solomon Asch Conformity experiment with her students. A well-known experiment: you draw two lines and get the majority of the group to say that the longest line is the shortest, to see how many people in the minority agree. I probably didn’t know what sociology was at the time, but I loved it immediately. Sociology does not blame us when we fail. It says: it’s not about you as an individual, it’s our nature in combination with the circumstances we’re in. I use that approach in films. I want to stay away from qualifiers like “protagonist” or “antagonist”. Even the news today divides everything into good and bad, because of the dominant American hero culture. Cheering for the good guy is an absurd way of looking at the world, but also so effective. This is how we see the world now, especially on the Internet. And sociology can cure that misunderstanding a little bit.’
You should make a superhero movie sometime.
‘Ha, that would be nice. A superhero film with a sociological approach.’
Ruben Östlund on his choice for star actor Woody Harrelson
‘I saw him for the first time Natural Born Killers from Oliver Stone. And I liked him in Milos Formans The people vs. Larry Flynt. He is of course a great actor. I knew I wanted someone famous to play the role of the idealistic, alcoholic and Marxist captain Triangle of Triangles. I thought it was funny that for a while you only hear his voice when someone knocks on his cabin. And when that door finally opens: wow, it’s Woody Harrelson!’