It’s hard to describe Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s new movie The Square in an easy-to-encapsulate ten-word plot summary. It’s more than just a dark comedy or a thriller, but it’s also social commentary on a lot of things in the public consciousness, mainly in Sweden but also things that can relate to things going on in North America.
At the center of the film is Christian (Claes Bang), curator of a contemporary art museum in Gothenburg, Sweden, who is dealing with a controversial new exhibit called “The Square,” which is literally a nondescript square in the middle of the plaza outside the museum. When his phone and wallet are stolen by clever pick-pockets, Christian comes up with a plan to get them back, which begins to unravel almost immediately as Christian deals with a public backlash to a botched marketing plan and an ill-advised tryst with an American journalist (played by Elisabeth Moss).
Oh, and Terry Notary, the performance capture actor whose work can be seen in Kong: Skull Island and the Planet of the Apes movies, shows up at a fancy museum dinner to create absolute mayhem. And that’s actually more than you should know going into a film that’s full of surprises.
Maybe it’s that head-scratching aspect to Östlund’s follow-up to his far more straight-forward 2014 Golden Globe-nominated Force Majeure that helped the Cannes jury in deciding to award The Square this year’s coveted Palme D’Or. It’s also Sweden’s Oscar entry, and I wouldn’t be even remotely surprised if it’s not only nominated for an Oscar but possibly even winning in the foreign language category.
The Tracking Board sat down with Ôstlund when he was in New York, and don’t worry, we did get around to asking him about that chimpanzee who randomly appears in the film before Terry Notary’s show-stopping appearance.
It feels like The Square has real motive behind it, like you had a number of issues you wanted to address, and you put them into this movie. Was this something you had been thinking about doing since before Force Majeure?
It was before Force Majeure. It was when I was doing a film called Play, because Play was about two events that happened in Gothenburg in Sweden, where there was a group of very young boys that was robbing other young boys. There were so many robberies; it was crazy. For three years’ time, they robbed other kids of cell phones and wallets and things like that. I read through the court files and everything like that for the research. The robberies took place in a mall, in the middle of the day, so there were a lot of people in the mall when this happened, and they were really close, also. There were a lot of adults just passing by, a meter away. It was obvious that the bystander effect was very strong. No one had the ability of taking responsibility, really.The kids didn’t ask for help, either.They could have just grabbed an adult and said, “Can you help me?” It was almost like the kids and the adults were on two parallel levels.
I talked to my father about these robberies. He told me the same thing that actually became a scene in the film, when Christian is telling his daughters about when he was brought up. My father told me that when he was six years old, his parents put an address tag around his neck and sent him out in the center of Stockholm to play, all alone. This was in the ’50s. As he expressed it, there has been an attitude change in society. Back in the ’50s, you looked at another adult as someone who would help your children if they ended up in trouble, and that adults had a responsibility for children.
After the robberies that took place in Gothenburg and if I look at how I’m bringing up my children now, I teach them to be careful of other adults. This is even though criminality has decreased, and society has actually become safer, so there’s a paranoia that has been growing, and our ideas about who we are and about the social contract has changed.
This story, combined with a story my journalist friend told me — he was reporting on the construction of the first gated community in Gothenburg, and a gated community is a very aggressive way of saying, “Here are the borders of our responsibility. What’s outside of the gates…”
Right. There are hundreds of those in America. In America, it’s a very common thing.
I know. America doesn’t have that trust in the state that we have in Sweden. So, for us, it was like, “Come on. We have this big common project of the state where we should build society together.” So he was starting to ask himself, “How should we view this common project?” So it was in this context me and a friend of mine came up with the idea that we should create this symbolic place – like this humanistic traffic sign – that reminds us of another social contract. That reminds us of another kind of behavior.
After Force Majeure, I was invited to an art museum to make an exhibition about this, and that became the research period for me for the feature film. Now they have built four squares — two squares in Sweden and two squares in Norway — in four cities.
Wait a second. Those squares, like the one in the movie, they’re real?
I feel that in some ways the movie is a commentary on the art world, and you deliberately picked an entitled art museum curator or director at the center of the story to take him down as the film progresses.
People often ask me, “Why do you want to take him down?” I look at him very much as I look at myself. I believe in this humanistic project, and I believe in humanistic values, as most of us do. But I still want to challenge myself when it comes to how I live up to these ideals in practice, and on an individual level, how I deal with morality and ethics. I compare my movies quite often with sociology and social experiments, because what is beautiful about sociology is that it understands human beings even when we fail. Sociology doesn’t ascribe guilt to human beings, even when we fail. Rather, it tries to show we can learn something about ourselves when we fail.
Force Majeure had the same thing where it asked what would you do in the same situation? Did you already know the actor who played Christian?
It’s funny because he was completely unknown in Sweden. He’s a Danish actor, but he’s not that well-known in Denmark either. But I did castings in Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen, and when I met him in Copenhagen, I gave him a homework assignment before testing him for the part. I asked him to write a speech about “The Square” and the speech he wrote is largely the speech in the film. I thought what he wrote was so beautiful, like when he said, “My father just died, and I have no one to talk to. Can I talk to you for half an hour?”… and the comedic laughs managed to put some emotions into this very conceptual ideal. So that worked out.
It’s also interesting to see Elisabeth Moss show up as the movie begins and then disappear for quite a bit before returning later in some of the movie’s funniest scenes. Why did you want to make it an American journalist that interviews Christian and create that contrast?
I didn’t decide that. She was so good, when we did an Improv, so I felt I didn’t have any choice but to put her in the film. I didn’t want her to be English-speaking, but I met her in London, Elisabeth, and I tried out a lot of other actresses for that part, but when she did it, she managed to push me into a corner. I was playing Christian, and she says, “How do we solve this?” “Like solve what? What happened between us, did something happen between us?” She was so good at pushing me into a corner.
It’s amazing that you would even have to audition her with everything she’s known going back to Mad Men. I don’t know how well known she is in Sweden, but she’s very well known in America.
Yeah, I know. I have said it doesn’t matter who I’m going to work with, I have to do an audition. I really have to. Because that’s also in order to make sure the actor is going to do a good performance in the film, and not to have her in something where they turn out not being the best they can be. So I will always do an audition… and all actors I’ve asked have always been willing to do it.
(SLIGHT SPOILER WARNING: At this point, Östlund starts talking about a couple moments in the scene relating to Terry Notary’s role in the film and we talk about the “monkey” referenced in the title. If you want to experience all the film’s surprises as intended, you may want to skip ahead until the next red text.)
I saw her at the beginning and thought that it was just going to be a funny cameo, but she returns later for even funnier stuff. Did you go into this movie with a full script or did you have the actors do some improv as well?
Yeah, I do Improv on set also, but it depends on the situation. Sometimes you have a very strong situation. For example, when Terry Notary comes into that room as a monkey performance artist, in order to relate to that as actors is very, very easy, and you can immediately feel how you would react, and you have to use the situation and follow the situation, follow what’s happening on set in that moment in that moment. I quite often use improv to investigate this, and also on set, trying to look at it. “Does it work? Does the script work?” You know, follow the script and then if something is wrong, we have to change things.
I have quite long shooting times, so I very often have one day on one scene. Sometimes I have four days on one scene, depending on how big the scenes are. It makes it possible for us to try out things and to take risks in the beginning. So the actors can do things they wouldn’t dare to do if they only did five takes. And then we keep the things that are good, and we take away the things that are bad. And then we repeat over and over again. In the end, I say, “Five takes left – is everybody ready?” Then we push in the intensity and create that unique moment.
The first time you had Terry come in, did the people in the scene know what was going to happen?
They actually didn’t know. They only heard that they would be “confronted by a wild animal.” (laughs) But we were shooting it for four days, so of course, we were repeating 25 takes on every camera set-up, so then they knew. But I wanted to record the sound of the reactions the first time he came in, so I could have spontaneous laughter, the spontaneous sounds that come when you see him. I used that in the editing.
The first time I saw the movie I saw Terry’s name in the credits…
Did you know who he was?
Oh, definitely. I had never met him, but I know his work and when Christian goes home with Elisabeth Moss’ character, there’s a monkey in her apartment, so I thought that might be him. Where did that idea come from?
Did you see that installation in the beginning where, he was like, “Whhoow”?
On the second time watching it, I noticed that he was set-up very early in the movie. but when I saw the ape in her apartment, I didn’t understand what was happening with it.
You know, I was writing the script, and then I was dealing with the script, and I thought, “There’s something missing.” There’s nothing that makes it feel wild and exciting enough. Actually, me and the producer Erik Hemmendorff, we went away one weekend to work on the script and try to find out what it is that’s missing. The only thing we came up with is, “Can Elisabeth Moss have a chimpanzee in her apartment?” What I liked about that was… if you’re watching a film and in the middle of the film, or a little before the middle of the film, that occurs, you have created a contract with the audience that this is the way this film should be told. And then you break that contract. Because into the movie comes this chimpanzee, and that’s not common at all. Anything can happen in the movie after that point, so then you’re making the film dangerous. You’re creating a tension and a vibration in the film. You know, the audience should not sit there and be relaxed and “Okay, now I know what I’m watching.” It should also be like you don’t know anything. Concentrate.
There is definitely a Hitchcock aspect to the movie where you take this generally nice good-looking guy and then you put him in a situation that continually escalates, so it’s a thriller but it’s still comedic, and it’s done in a way we don’t normally see.
One thing that I really didn’t want, was to do an arthouse genre movie. Because I think that sometimes arthouse just doing genre movies in the same way as romantic comedies or whatever, you’re posing that you’re dealing with important content. I really think the content in The Square is important, but I couldn’t see any reason why it couldn’t be entertaining and exciting at the same time. As an artist, I want to be excited when I go to the cinema. It’s very simple.
Going back to the chimpanzee for a second. Sorry, I can’t get over that chimpanzee! It’s a great way to do what you want to do, but you’re also adding another whole level of trouble by bringing a live animal onto set…
There were a lot of problems, actually, because you’re not allowed to shoot monkeys in Sweden in that way, so it’s a French monkey that we took to Germany, in an apartment in Berlin.
So you did all that for one scene that’s never commented on again…
The movie seems to feature a lot of people on edge, which is common in real life, but not so much in movies.
Yeah, I guess it’s the kind of situations I’m interested in. You know when someone is breaking the social contract and then something happens, and we don’t know how to handle it.
SPOILER WARNING ENDS HERE.
I also like that we get to see a lot of Swedish city life, which I’m not sure I’ve seen that much of in other films. So other than the monkey, that was all filmed in Gothenburg?
I only shot the studio part in Gothenburg, actually, but the film takes place in Stockholm, and it’s actually Stockholm. But it’s fun, because the museum is located in the Royal Castle, and the Royal Castle doesn’t have an extension to it, because in the film with computer CGI, we have built these new parts of it, so it’s quite funny.
Okay. I’ve never been there so I wouldn’t know…
But in the film, Sweden is not a monarchy, it’s a republic, so we are chopping off the head of the first family member of the Royal Family, in the beginning when the statue is thrown down. That is kind of a controversial part of the film’s content, at least in Sweden.
You’ve shown the movie in so many places from French to Toronto, so are the reactions very different depending on where it’s playing?
In France, they love so much about the King that gets the head chopped off, because I guess they’re relating to their own revolution. I would say the reactions are pretty much the same, I must say. I think it’s interesting that, in the US, what I love about when I’m screening in the US is that the people get the humor here. They look at both Force Majeure and The Square as comedies. Satire, but comedies at the same time. Sometimes in France they think, “Oh, it’s a very hard film.” Like what are they talking about?
Do you know what you want to do next? I assume you must be courted by Hollywood already to direct their movies. Do they send scripts? Or do you just feel like you want to do your own thing for a while?
Yeah, they are sending me a lot of scripts, but I’ve said, “Don’t send me any scripts where someone gets killed,” because I don’t want to kill any of the characters in my movies. That is a fun limitation to put up to them because then they have to sort out so many of the scripts.
I’m working on my next feature film that I’m writing myself also. My wife is a fashion photographer, and she’s told me so many fun stories about the fashion industry and the beauty industry. The project is called Triangle of Sadness, and it’s when you have this triangle in between your eyebrows because you’ve had a lot of trouble in your life – but don’t worry, you can fix that with Botox in 15 minutes. (laughs)
The Square opens in New York and L.A. today and expands to more theaters in the weeks to come. You can see when it plays near you on the Official Site. If you’re still not sure if The Square is right for you, you can check out the trailer below.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor