By Aaron Hillis
Joachim Trier’s mother was a documentarian, his father a sound department tech, his grandfather a Cannes-selected filmmaker, and his distant cousin Lars von Trier, so is it any surprise that the feature debut of this Copenhagen-born, Norwegian-based director has already turned out to be one of the year’s best imports? An invigoratingly kinetic punk rock ode to young intellectual camaraderie that’s as funny and sexy as it is haunting and sad, “Reprise” knocks chronology and narrative structure on their standardized asses to detail the friendship between twentysomething writers Erik (Espen Klouman-HÃ¸iner) and Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie). Beginning with the two dreaming rebels standing at a mailbox about to ship their first novels to publishers, “Reprise” digressively dazzles in the moments long after, way before, and several hops in between as one becomes famous, the other hustles in his shadow, and the pressures of reality bring them both closer to depression and madness. (All that, plus a soundtrack featuring Joy Division, Turbonegro, Le Tigre, and the theme from Godard’s “Contempt” so hip!) I spoke with Trier about the film, his collaboration with co-writer Eskil Vogt, and his unexpected airborne abilities as a teenager.
Though “Reprise” is not autobiographical, did you find any ironic or uncanny parallels between two writers who were writing about two writers?
Yeah, not only are we both writers, we’re also good friends, so we could ask the imaginary question, “What would have happened if one of us didn’t want to write or make movies anymore?” It’s the question we pose to Erik and Phillip in the film, because Phillip has other things he needs to deal with in his life and gives up on his literary ambition. [There’s also] that question of “What’s left of a friendship that was initially based on shared passions when that ambition is gone?” Sometimes it’s good to have a friendship where you can imagine certain dynamics between you, even though the film is not autobiographical I haven’t exactly tried to write a book or gone mad. [laughs]
In fact, your director’s statement proclaims that you wanted to depict characters you know intimately, which made me wonder how competitive do your friendships get?
A lot of people have said that Phillip and Erik are competitive, but I never saw it quite like that. There’s an ambivalence whenever you have friends who do similar things to you. You want to succeed together. I never felt competition with Eskil. I always wanted his films to do well. But there’s always an aspect of anxiety: “What if I was left out? What if I’m not able to continue?” It’s a complicated process.
“Reprise” largely concerns the wild spectrum of emotions that springs from the creative minds of twentysomethings. Now that you’re in your thirties, how different is your worldview compared to when you were Erik and Phillip’s age?
I’m probably learning something about both myself and what I’m doing. For example, I’m not afraid of the mixture of high and low culture. When I was younger, I remember thinking, “Goodness, with all those bad jokes me and my friends are telling each other, how can I ever create something serious?” I felt ambivalent about the multiple curiosities I had in life, a bit like Erik, [in that scene] the publisher comes to see him when he’s on the beach with his friends, they’re all talking about silly things, he wants to talk about something very serious, and he feels an inability to combine those parts of his life. With time, it all comes in. You don’t need to cut one away to do the other.
Is that duplicity why you wanted to bring levity and excitement to such heavy themes in the film as psychosis, depression and suicide?
That was our ambition to take that chance. The ultimate challenge of this was to combine serious themes of mental illness with the lightness that I believe is a part of life. Having said that, we certainly didn’t want to take the subject of mental illness [lightly]. We have a close friend that has been through a schizoaffective period in his twenties, which we’ve seen as a big tragedy. There’s enough culture out there that romanticizes people with mental illness, “the crazy artist.” We wanted to work against that clichÃ©.
In a recent interview, you suggested that “a lot of young people don’t feel a strong sense of cultural identity as a Norwegian.” Why do you think that is?
Norway is a young culture, and growing up in Norway, everyone’s into sports. There was a feeling I remember at least in the ’80s, when I was kid that there were no movies or bands worth listening to that came from Norway. This has changed, but a lot of people still look out to other cultures and countries for their inspiration. There’s also a tradition of writers going abroad to do their literature. For example, Ibsen went to Italy to write “Peer Gynt.” So there’s a [stereotype] of this small country where people just want to leave, but there’s a creative dialectic that is fueled by the alienation and self-doubt. A lot of great art has come out of that as well, so I don’t think it’s one-sidedly negative.
What about your own impact? Has the international success of “Reprise” affected the Norwegian film scene, either to energize other filmmakers or help get more indies to be made?
It has, actually, which is great. What’s happened is there’s a bigger political emphasis now on financing different types of films. You have 4.5 million people speaking Norwegian not a lot, so the commercial potential of any given film isn’t great, and you need government support to be able to do movies in Norwegian. A few years ago, everyone was concerned with the audience numbers and trying to get people into the cinemas. The next [step] is to make more sophisticated movies with more thematic ambition. I hope this will continue, and there seems to be the possibility that more heterogenic films will be made.
If it’s so difficult getting Norwegian art films made, why did you cast mostly non-professionals?
We didn’t have any choice. There weren’t that many great actors that age who could play those parts, and we needed to find a bunch of guys who were both intellectual and had a good sense of humor. We looked at stand-up comedians, people off the street, musicians we saw around a thousand people. Ultimately, I found the biggest challenge was trying to create the relationships of the story. Erik and Philip are almost a couple, and Kari and Phillip certainly are. So, the dynamic was just as important as the individual characters.
With your family’s background in film, it makes sense why you might have chosen this career path. But what led to you twice becoming the National Skateboarding Champion of Norway as a teen?
Skateboarding was banned in Norway, the only country in the world that had a complete ban, from ’78 through ’89. Some politician and his great self-protecting social democracy of Norway had misinterpreted some statistics about people from America hurting themselves. My little brother Emil Trier has just made a wonderful [documentary short that screened at SXSW 2008] about this phenomenon, called “Board Control.” In that film, you figure out that it was actually a big misunderstanding. They misused the law that was trying to ban, say, a doll that would suddenly light up and burn a child. For some strange reason, skateboarding ended up being perceived as a dangerous toy.
So people kept importing skateboards, and we kept skating. We built ramps out in the woods, skated in secret spots, and ran away from the cops. Obviously, growing up in a boring Norwegian middle class, everyone wants to do something rebellious. When it was legalized in ’89, there was a huge boom commercially, and there were all these competitions. I was sponsored and got sent all around the world to skate. All those things that had been underground, all that punk music and American indie rock we listened to, suddenly became mainstream. It’s like what happened when Nirvana went on MTV over here, and a lot of people asked themselves, “Why hadn’t [we] listened to Sonic Youth, HÃ¼sker DÃ¼ or Dinosaur Jr. three years earlier?” Sometimes things just change, and it’s interesting to observe. [laughs]
Now that you’ve mentioned film, literature and music, I have to ask about your own media consumption. What are you watching, reading and listening to?
I’ve been listening to lots of Jens Lekman and a [Swedish pop] band called Doktor Kosmos. I just spoke yesterday to this friend of mine in L.A. that has a band called Bigbang, and it’s funny because they’re a huge rock group in Norway, but over here, they’re slowly building momentum. It’s great to see Scandinavian musicians going abroad and doing that. What I’m reading at the moment? Too many scripts and too many books related to work. I wish I had more time to just freely read whatever I’m curious about like I used to. In terms of movies, I think “Falkenberg Farewell” is a wonderful recent Swedish film. I don’t know if it’s been picked up over here, but fingers crossed, because it’s honestly a masterpiece. It’s like Terrence Malick making a Dogme movie. It’s become a big cult hit in Europe, a genuine art movie made over a period of five years with a group of friends who are [playing] themselves. Then they got master editor Michal Leszczylowski who has worked with Tarkovsky and Bergman to edit it for them. So it’s an interesting mixture of something very sophisticated and something very raw. That’s inspiring.
[Photos: “Reprise”; director Joachim Trier, Miramax Films, 2006]
“Reprise” opens in limited release on May 16.