“It’s a tough thing; making movies. And to talk to people who appreciate them means a lot.” Director Joachim Trier has an undeniably infectious energy, housing a clear love for the history of cinema and storytelling art in general. A pupil of director Stephen Frears while attending London’s National Film School, “The Worst Person in the World” filmmaker very much agrees with his former mentor’s philosophy that “90% of what you can do with actors starts with the casting.” Capturing both the frenetic spirit of youth and eventual acknowledgment of adulthood through her character, Julie, Cannes Best Actress winner Renate Reinsve was Trier’s only choice for the part, having written the script specifically with her in mind.
Age lends so much to perspective, and experience has taught Trier that true love may be a question of timing, more so than anything else. Finding a creative space allowing for mindful self-criticism and emotional catharsis, “The Worst Person in the World” asks its audience to look back at those years when you were oh-so convinced the universe must revolve entirely around yourself. But can you truly live your life if you’re just cramming everybody else’s feelings atop your own, or choosing to dismiss them based on your utmost needs in the present moment?
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Starting a relationship with an older, graphic novel cartoonist named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) — whose work is now being dubbed as outdatedly problematic by cultural critics — “The Worst Person in the World” acts as a double-sided cautionary tale reflecting on the folly of figuring out who you are early on in life, when you’re perhaps too young to really be ready to be in love, yet chasing that longing feeling of needed acceptance and connection, both in the intimate and the everyday. Deftly positioning authentic joy and humor against tranquil vulnerability, Trier’s film is the final in his “Oslo Trilogy,” an Antoine Doinel-inspired trio of coming-of-age pictures that hops between character but mirrors the actors’ “generational leaps” in an invisibly poignant manner.
Though it’s been buzzed about since Cannes, “The Worst Person in the World” finally receives a state-side release this week. We had an exultant discussion with the writer/director that we’re pleased to finally unveil. Astute and jubilant, Trier almost gives off a European Guillermo del Toro vibe when he gets fired up about a subject, unbridled passion for storytelling of all kinds bursting out of his disciplined demeanor. We talked about the inception of the project, his love for graphic novels, and why coming up with conceptual scenes built off “messy, jazzy formalism” inform his filmmaking instincts as opposed to worrying about plot.
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I first rented “Reprise” from Netflix, back when they were still shipping disks. I haven’t seen it in a while, but it truly does feel like your work is finally coming full circle with this film.
Yeah, yeah, yeah! The red envelopes! [Laughs] It’s the 15th year anniversary of “Reprise” and 10 years since “Oslo, August 31st,” so it really is all coming together in this one.
What was your overall creative impetus? The film reads as somewhat autobiographical, but you’ve shifted the perspective here by making Renate Reinsve’s character the center this time, as opposed to Anders Danielsen Lie…
Working with Renate Reinsve. I knew I wanted to make a film with her. She played a small part in “Oslo, August 31st,” after she was out of theater school. She has one line of dialog. She did some great theater work after but nothing in movies, and I thought, “I’ve got to write her something.” I also wanted to make it as honest as I could: my version of the difficulties of negotiating love — that chaotic space between romantic notions of the future and the reality that occurs. We all have to figure this out. I thought a 30-year-old woman, in today’s society, would be a tremendously interesting place to start. With Renata playing her, you can make a character whose inconsistency as a character is the consistency. [I wanted to] create a humorous, warm story about someone trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their life—that kind of chaos—and I wanted to come up with something meaningful around that.
You worked with your creative partner Eskil Vogt again, but did you ever think about bringing a female writer on board to add to that voice, or feel any sort of artistic responsibility in that department?
Since we wrote it for Renate, she contributed quite a lot. We showed her an early draft and she provided feedback. It’s a delicate thing to talk about these days. We’re having very valuable conversations that we must have about ideas of gender and representation in art. I have to say that I’ve written men and women before — old and young people who are quite different from me — but I believe as an artist that’s my duty: to try to be truthful and, from myself, try and find a way to understand someone that is not myself, which is the character. The dialog you have between actors and collaborators, that’s the place where we explore something together and question things. It’s not like I’m sitting on a high horse pretending to know the answer. I wanted to tell this story. I always feel that I am all of the characters and I am none of the characters. It was fun because I loved Julie as a character. She means a lot to me.
She’s incredible. I love your chapter cards/titles, “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo,” in particular. How did conceiving that idea come about and were you at all concerned about, for lack of a better term, the “cancel culture” aspects; which the movie later directly addresses?
Julie is someone who is very passionate, and romantic, and she’s writing an essay where she’s trying to negotiate the power play of sexuality as a joyful thing, against a context where we are questioning a lot of important issues surrounding power, transactionality, and relationships. I am trying to make a point about her pondering about it. I don’t want to give way too much because I want the audience to see the film, but it is a humorous take on the times we live in, and I hope people will see that I’m trying to do something honest and complex with that.
I found it fascinating. It made me think about Olivier Assayas’ “Non-Fiction.” Have you seen that?
That movie talks a lot about “auto-fiction,” and whether authors need to try harder to invent stories rather than aping from their experiences. Given how intimate and personal this movie is, do you ever struggle or question if the material is “too me?”
I work like an actor in the space of creation. I get into the zone of the characters. I write one perspective, and then another, and then a third, and I try to ask subjective questions about all of them. After a while I step back, I go out of the room, and I come back and read what we’ve captured, not only the characters but dynamics. For example, I’m interested in the relationship between Aksel — who is a graphic novelist from a different and older generation — and Julie as the lead character. What is that gap between them; as a man and a woman; as older and younger people; as accomplished and yearning? All those dynamics and the paradox of how those things play around. Along the way, you ask yourself subjective questions, but, ultimately, it is a film of relations.
I’m a huge graphic novel reader, so I had to pause and see all the books on Aksel’s shelf. I spotted this gem [holds up copy of Nick Drnaso’s “Sabrina”] as well as some Daniel Clowes comics. Are you heavily invested in that world?
I love graphic novels! Good question! I read a lot of European and American stuff, absolutely. I believe that Chris Ware is one of the most important contemporary artists in any field. There are geniuses [in that field]; there are personal, jokey, funny, skewed comics that come out of left field; there are intellectual comics. Graphic novels are a vast area, especially right now, and it’s exciting.
Were there any specific cartoonist inspirations for Aksel? I got a little bit of a Dave Sim vibe, especially with the retroactive reassessment of his work.
Dave Sim, absolutely, yeah. The whole Robert Crumb school. The character spun out of something that came out in Norway, a similar thing to Mad Magazine — one side political satire, but also mixed with very foolish, ‘80s/’90s, silly incorrect thoughts about sex, and poop, and all that base subcultural messiness that existed underground. His backstory is he comes from that [movement], but he comes into a kind of prominence with this Bobcat character — which is the Norwegian wild cat, Gaupe; the only type of wild animal we have in Norway. It’s that cat. Which is kind of a bourgeois, punk anarchist character. And, years later, in the present day, people feel the story is old-fashioned. He’s struggling to do more personal work and he’s not finding his way. It’s a side plot, but it’s valid [characterization]. Every character is the tip their own iceberg, so you need to have all the backstory in place.
The structure and symmetry of the movie is great. I love the bookstore pivot. Was that a difficult balance during the writing process? You have an excellent sense for deploying playful narrative devices, between the voice-over, or the time stoppage affect…
I call it messy, jazzy formalism. I like to play around. It’s all based on character and getting into their minds. There’s the mushroom trip, where she confronts her father and ex-boyfriends. It’s fun to play around with formal approaches. There’s the meet-cute, towards the beginning. Two people meet at a party and say, “I don’t want to be unfaithful, we both have partners, but are we allowed to do something, on the edge, that’s considered not unfaithful?” Where’s the border? What’s the limit? Just coming up with conceptual scenes that have a strong idea base, rather than simply be narrative, plot-driven type of scenes. That’s what I like doing.
The fragmentation of it is what’s fun to me. You can be in the moments. I always imagine a movie is a record with different songs on it, and I want it to only be hits — as you always do. We are trying to ride the structure of the scenes, rather than just create a plot.
The peeing bit captures that approach marvelously. Good stuff [laughs]. I have to ask about the title. I read it as a double-sided affair, kind of referring to everyone. At some point, all of us truly are “The Worst Person in the World” to someone else, vicariously, if not literally.
Exactly! You’ve got it, man. It is, of course, meant ironically — it’s not a literal story about the worst person in the world. I remember pitching it to someone a few years ago, and they said: “The Worst Person in the World?” Are you making a film about Donald Trump?” [Both laugh] And I had to explain: “No, no, no, no. It’s a Norwegian term.” It’s also self-deprecating. “Oh. I failed. I’m the worst person in the world.” It’s that feeling of misery and personal failure — in love, for example. Sometimes you hurt someone who you actually love. I think all the characters feel it. My ethos when I write is to align myself with the great humanists of cinema. I don’t want to make antagonists. They are all trying their best, but, ultimately, we sometimes end up in a mess when it comes to love. That’s just how life is, I’m afraid.
Yeah, totally. If it’s not to personal, or painful, may I ask if you have that one special person who got away? The end of “Louder Than Bombs” gave me that impression. Do you believe in soul mates?
I’ll tell you; I have thought a lot about it. I think that movies teach us that life is about essence and not about time, when it comes to love. Meaning, if you meet the right person —your soul mate— you will be a match, regardless, but a big factor that plays into a lot of stories about the reality of love is time. Bad timing; meeting wonderful people at the wrong time — when you’re not open to that possibility; or, maybe you are somewhere else in your life where you’re not available for that relationship — will, ultimately, make it difficult.
You need to allow yourself to feel a sense of acceptance in yourself to be able to accept love, which this story is very much about. Julie is idealizing people; people are idealizing her. It’s very transactional, but the question she is asking herself is: “Am I experiencing a true intimacy with someone?” That’s what she’s yearning for and it’s a tough task. I’m not as interested in [mining] my personal life. Is there one right person for us? Sure, there are some people you match with better than others, but I think it’s also about timing, and where you are, with yourself, matters a lot when trying to find a partner.
There’s a line in “Thelma:” “Why can’t I just be what I am?” I feel like most every young woman is forced to ask themselves this. There it was more a supernatural metaphor — not unlike Julia Ducournau’s films — and a term that’s stuck with me from ‘Worst Person’ is “gnawing unease.” Which is a good summation of your work, I feel.
“Gnawing unease…” Yeah… I agree. People ask me whether [the film] is a generational portrait and I can’t say yes or no. I hope I’m being truthful to the times we live in. I’m not a sociologist; I can’t stand on a soapbox and say I know the answer to who we are today, but I’m trying to look at a culture of swiping and media gratification that keeps running in cycles, and all of us are trying to sustain a sense of identity in relationships that are supposed to be solid and continuous, in a very fragmented experience, so I think that’s the kind of “gnawing unease” going on right now.
Out of the New York Film Festival, my editor heard someone describe the film as a “I’m so embarrassed I’m not a real person yet” movie — a line from “Frances Ha, which our review from Cannes compared to your film. Do you pay any mind as to where your films fit into movie history?
I take that as a generous gesture of comparison. I made a film in a country that’s very far away from New York, and if people feel [my film] is in communication with modern classics like “Frances Ha,” I take that as a compliment. Both Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach are filmmakers I admire and am inspired by. I never set out to try and rip them off, but “Frances Ha” is a wonderful film.
Renate Reinsve is deservedly getting raves for her performance. What has watching that journey been like; knowing her career is about the skyrocket?
I couldn’t be happier. It’s amazing! Eskil and I wrote this film for her. I think she’s incredible. To be quite honest, when she won the award at Cannes, and I saw that the movie was going to take off, I had this little devil inside me saying, “I told you so!” I knew, and a director can’t be happier than when the actors you are fortunate enough to work with get praised. I’m so proud of her.
That reminds me of Tony Gilroy pushing for Oscar Isaac to take over the Bourne Franchise. They didn’t trust him and know he’s probably crossing his arms like “I told all of you.” [Laughs]
I went to the National Film School, in London, where I was educated as a fiction director, and I had Stephen Frears [as a teacher], who went on to win Oscars. He’s a wonderful director, and he always said “90% of what you can do with actors starts with the casting,” and he brought into prominence people like Daniel Day-Lewis, Uma Thurman; the list of performers that he brought to that next level of attention is enormous. I always admired him for that. With Renate getting awarded at Cannes, and now the Oscar buzz, people are really considering her as an international acting talent of a certain stature, and that is wonderful.
I spoke with Mia Hansen-Love earlier, so Anders [Danielsen Lie] has been on my screens a lot recently. I’m curious about your relationship with him and how it’s evolved over the years?
I’m doing a talk with her in a couple hours! A double panel that I’m very much looking forward to. I like her a lot; she’s great.
Anders is my friend now. We met doing “Reprise,” 15 years ago, and he is a doctor in real life – a trained medical professional. I’m glad we get to smuggle him back into movies and I’m glad Mia did to, because he’s very selective with what he gets involved with, so it’s always an honor to have him on set.
A side project aspect of “The Worst Person in the World” is the aging Anders Danielson Lie. In a Truffaut, Antoine Doinel sense, it’s an honor to see him age from 23 into his early 30s, and now early 40s. That’s also why I call this a trilogy, with “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31st.” You can trace Anders going through several, generational leaps in his own life, which is like a side effect of [the film]. He’s a very intelligent and very emotional actor and I love him.
“The Worst Person in the World” hits US theaters on February 4.