Flavorwire Interview: ‘The Square’ Director Ruben Östlund on Art, Satire, and Provocation

"I love when a scene can shift in just a couple of seconds from laughter to a situation in which someone feels like they aren’t allowed to laugh."

With his latest film The Square, Ruben Östlund continues his interest in the questions of human psychology and group behavior through the lens of a masculine figure, and again the crisis of masculinity is at the center of the story. Ostlund’s works portray men who are not always capable of comprehending what’s happening around them, but still somehow feel that they are powerful and capable of resolving their issues.  All of this is conveyed via an episodic, fragmented structure, in which the pieces usually work for themselves; the attempt is not to create a classical narrative in which all of the parts relate to each other. The result is a provocative work in which Östlund tackles a philosophical/critical conundrum with humor.

Flavorwire: One of the things that I like in your movies is that they talk about themes relating to the crisis of masculinity. They portray men who are not always capable of explaining what is happening around them but they still somehow feel that they are powerful. Is this something that you have in mind when you decide to write a script?

I think that I’m interested in deconstructing the characters in this film, as well as how the main character sees them. It is interesting to look at that and see where we are vulnerable, even trying to expose things about myself and how I am trying to live up to the expectations of being a man. I would say that I am very much interested in this because I am a man myself.

I really like the performances, especially that of Claes Bang. Why did you think that he was a good fit for the leading role?

Honestly, I worked on the film in quite a safe way, trying out one of the scenes that I thought was the most important scene for a given part. For example, we did this with Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang in the condom scene, and the discussion after that when they are next to that installation piece with the shelves. Then I compared that scene with another testing scene that we had done with another actor. This gives me the ability to see which one works the best and gives the strongest expression. It’s a trial and error process for me – try it, say “no, not that one,” try it again, say “yes, good.” Then you have five actors and you can see who is the best one at playing the role.

Regarding the role of Christian, did you inquire about the curator at the museum or was it based on your personal experiences or stories from your friends?

Yes, Christian is based on research that I did about museums and the people who work there as well as personal experience and those of my friend. I would say though that mostly it was based on my personal experience. Many of the scenes related to something that I did myself.

The long scene with Terry Notary as the animal man is very interesting. How did you find him and can you tell me a little bit about that scene?

I Googled “monkey imitation” and actors imitating monkeys and I found him on YouTube doing a demonstration of how he worked on The Planet of Apes. He was so skilful that I immediately offered him the part. He was the only actor who didn’t have to do an audition, but instead got the part just from me watching that YouTube clip. I think that he really was the inspiration for the feeling that a human being imitating a monkey makes me reflect upon our animalistic side, that we are actually animals trying to cope with our shames, instincts, and needs, with the idea that we are civilized. There is a lot happening in that conflict that help to explain what a human being is.

Many scenes in the movie are very provocative, creating moments for reflection after leaving the theatre. I am curious about your screenwriting process. Is the idea of creating provocative images or provocative scenes a real concept for you while you are making a film?

I think that provocation makes us think about something and reflect upon those things in an efficient way. I would not use a provocation if it did not connect to the content that I am interested in, so provocation in itself is not my goal. However, as long as it makes us think about something that is contemporary and ongoing then it is worthwhile. I definitely like provocation in order to captivate the audience.

The movie has an episodic structure. How did you choose the episodes and make a connection between them?

For me there are two parallel stories taking place in the film. One of them is what happens in the museum with the art piece, The Square, and the PR agency. The other story is what happens in Christian’s private life. The film takes place during the space of maybe one week and at the end of the week is when he’s going out to the boy. Maybe it’s a little bit later, like two weeks or something. The beginning of the film is the same day as they are going to have the PR meeting with the Agency about how they should promote The Square. Then I was trying to collect scenes that I thought had something to do with the topic and the theme. Sometimes I managed to put them together into the story, into the narrative, so to speak, but sometimes they were off by a little bit. I think that the core of all of the scenes is thematic, and I tried to only use things that highlight that theme over and over again from different perspectives. Then if I also managed to put them into the narrative, into the story, that’s great but it really is secondary.

These fragments sometimes works for themselves. You didn’t look to create a classical narrative in which all of the parts related to each other.

Exactly. I think that very often a classical story is very much about storytelling and then I think that we miss out on the power of moving images. The most powerful moving images that I have seen the last fifteen years are from the Internet, especially from YouTube. It has such a great ability to describe a human being and how we behave even if those images are not connected to any story. They are quite often connected to a very simple situation. I think that to be a director today is challenging because the most interesting moving images actually are presented on the internet. We have to try to create those unforgettable moments and situations where we are highlighting humans and how we behave, also in the cinema and also within the context of the feature film.

When you want to discuss a philosophical problem, you’ll often frame it with humor. Tell me a bit about that approach.

Yes, I do convey many of the philosophical ideas in the movie through humor. My approach to my films is that they are more like tragic comedies or comic tragedies. One moment they can be humoristic and then the next moment they can be tragic. I love when a scene can shift in just a couple of seconds from laughter to a situation in which someone feels like they aren’t allowed to laugh. It’s purifying. The audience has to decide how to react and I really, really like that. That’s my approach, along with having a big dynamic range in types of expression.

You seem to be very interested in the long take in your films. How do you think that this structure relates to the theme you are addressing in your movies?

I think that the real-time aspect of moving images is interesting because then you are forced to relate to it more like you are relating to a situation in real life. As soon as you make a cut that real-time aspect is broken and you lose the feeling of a certain kind of relationship, especially the way that the real-time experience is more comparable to real life. That’s one reason for my interest in the long term. I also think that the real-time aspect makes it possible to point out that the situation can be pretty odd at one moment, funny at another moment, and then in the next moment suddenly transform into something horrifying. The real-time aspect also shows what the difficult life looks like. The most radical events sometimes have something very humanistic to them just side by side. It’s an approach that I feel is quite powerful.

“The Square” is currently playing in selected cities and expanding weekly; it opens today in further markets in California (Berkeley, Long Beach, North Hollywood, Palm Desert, San Diego, San Francisco, San Rafael, Santa Barbara, and Santa Monica), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), Texas (Austin, Dallas, and Plano), and Florida (Miami and Miami Beach), as well as Chicago, Denver,  Seattle, Atlanta, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Portland, Asbury Park, and more.