"A by-product of getting a nomination together is that we're now starting to do interviews together," filmmaker Joachim Trier says about himself and his writing partner, Eskil Vogt. "It's lovely, and it changes the way we talk about the film."
The romantic drama about a young woman named Julie is told in 12 chapters, and is centered on a towering performance by Renate Reinsve, who won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her nuanced and deeply emotional work. The Worst Person in the World received Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best International Film, and it became just the fourth film honored in both categories in the past 15 years (following Parasite, Amour and A Separation).
Trier and Vogt have co-written all five feature films Trier has directed, in a collaboration that stretches back to 2006's Reprise and 2011's Oslo, August 31—the first two films in their "Oslo Trilogy," of which The Worst Person in the World is the concluding chapter. The pair's other two films are 2015's Louder Than Bombs (their first English-language film) and 2017's Thelma.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Trier and Vogt told A.frame about their collaborative process, how they handle disagreements, what their goals were—both narratively and thematically—with The Worst Person in the World, and how they try to challenge the cinematic art form.
A.frame: You refer to The Worst Person in the World as the third film in your "Oslo Trilogy." Was the intent when you started writing it always for it to be a third film in that sequence, or did the idea of thinking of it as being thematically linked to your first two films come later?
Joachim Trier: It came later, but, as we started writing it, there was this wish to go back to the sort of freedom and joy of having made our first films—Reprise and Oslo, August 31—which were set in Oslo and were about characters that, maybe more than the other work we've done, resembled people we knew and were around us. And also, formally, we wanted to go back to the humor of Reprise, which we had made 15 years earlier. So all of that was at play, but it wasn't until Anders Danielsen Lie [who plays Aksel in The Worst Person in the World] read it and said, "Listen, this is almost a combination of your first two films. You could call it a trilogy."
Eskil Vogt: We wanted to revisit the energy and the playfulness of Reprise, and while writing it the melancholy of Oslo, August 31 came into it. As we were finishing the first draft, there was this character of Aksel, and we said Anders Danielsen Lie had to play him. So suddenly there was this third time he would play an important role for us in an Oslo-based movie. And then he suggested that maybe it's a trilogy. It's a great way of avoiding criticism that you're repeating yourself.
Speaking of Anders Danielsen Lie, his characters don't fare too well in your films. What do you have against him?
Trier: (Laughs.) When we presented him with the part he said, "Oh my god, here we go again." It starts joyous and it ends sad. But he's good at that! He's a great dramatic actor, and he manages to give insight and levity to rather serious subject matter.
The first three films that you wrote together all feature male lead characters, while your two most recent films have female protagonists. Was that gender switch conscious and something you discussed ahead of time? Or was it just circumstantial to the stories you wanted to tell?
Trier: It brought us there pretty organically.
Vogt: It came out of what themes we wanted to explore, and what kind of characters we wanted to explore. We don't think in those general terms while starting to write, "Oh, we want to do a female character now." It's more like we slowly figure out what story we want to tell. That was certainly the case with Thelma—we just wanted to do something different. We wanted to explore more of a genre movie, and that freedom you have of avoiding naturalism.
But with The Worst Person in the World, one of the things Joachim brought into the writing room was the desire, which I shared, to write something for Renate Reinsve.
Trier: And not only were we writing one character, but we were writing relationships. It was liberating and cool. We're men now in our late 40s …
Vogt: (Interrupts, laughing.) I'm mid 40s, he's late 40s.
Trier: Yes, he's 47 and I turned 48 a week ago, so I'm now "late 40s," according to Eskil. But Renate and Anders and Herbert [Nordrum, who plays Eivind in the film] were playing relationships, and it was interesting as men to try and shoot inwards a bit. We've both been men in relationships, and to look at different perspectives was good. It was a consoling experience.
There's a lot of Aksel I can identify with, coming out of punk and anarchism in the '90s, and then realizing that certain aspects of his identity aren't that relevant anymore. And then he sees a younger person who has different ideas about what it is to constitute an identity. That was kind of triggering and fun to play with.
This is the first time you've segmented a film into chapters. When and how did that idea come about?
Trier: First it was just a sloppy tool, because we had so many weird ideas that we didn't know how to stick together. Then we said that maybe the natural flow of this film is through a sense of fragmentation. Because it's about an existential journey of time passing, and a larger scope of a person's life, then those fragments will make sense as autonomous little short stories that will eventually make out a bigger journey.
But we realized also through the chapters that we were able to omit elements that could show time passing. And it's kind of a coming-of-age story, too. Usually, maybe 10 years ago, that would be something that you told about a 16-year-old. But I think the coming-of-age of a 30-year-old is very relevant in our culture. The chapters really helped us construct that.
As screenwriters, we feel we owe it to the medium we work in to play around with form. The feature film is like the novel. It's something that needs to reinvent itself. We're being challenged on one side from the longer serial format, and on the other side from TikTok and YouTube videos that are a few minutes long. Both of those are functioning quite well out there, and people are watching. So what do we do with the feature film? We really love the big-screen experience, we love the fact that you can end the story, and the character has to linger on in the minds of the audience. That's the full stop of the story, to set a punctuation mark and say, "This is the end." To write toward that is the great art of film writing.
So to pay homage to the novel, but hopefully in a cinematic way, was our notion. We're not interested in writing books; we admire it but it's not our thing. So the chapters were a way to make people conscious that they're watching a film that's taking a few risks in its tonal shifts.
Vogt: There are a lot of great plot-driven movies, and you have that chain of cause and effect. Something is put in motion, and you just watch the dominoes fall until the movie ends. With this movie we wanted to present you with a part of a life. We love that miracle of a feature film, where you feel like in two hours you lived emotions and experiences that are almost like you lived a small lifetime. The chapters helped us to create the structure and create dramatic momentum, even though we didn't have that obvious cause-and-effect chain.
Talk about the mechanics of how you two write together. Are you always in the room together, or do you assign each other different elements based on your individual strengths?
Vogt: We're mostly in the same room. We've come to terms with being slow writers; usually from the moment we start working together until we have a solid draft is about a year. We're together maybe 80 percent of that time. And I just start writing what we've planned, a rough first draft of the dialogue and everything. Joachim will constantly read what I'm writing as I'm working and give me notes.
Were there any contentious disagreements about how the story would play out?
Trier: I think the magic of why we've worked together for all five films that I've directed is that we're like an old married couple. We have arguments all the time but it's never bad.
Vogt: And afterwards, when we remember the argument, we can't even remember which side we were on.
Trier: There's the joy and luck more than anything that we do have a lot of shared tastes. But we also accept the dialectic, and this goes for other collaborative relationships during filmmaking. We don't need to agree all the time, and it's kind of nice to know that someone's struggling and fighting for that aspect over there while I'm concerned with this over here. But we always align ourselves through the writing. And in this case we actually agreed a lot early on about the themes. So the arguments would be about how.
Vogt: Usually in writing, if Joachim presents an idea that doesn't work for me, or vice versa, of course we're frustrated by that, but we always find the third idea that's even better. And I'm very confident that Joachim will take what we've written and turn it into other great collaborations—with his actors, his DP, his editor—and things will change and evolve and that's great.
A screenplay should be an inspiration for the people who are working on the film later. We're not writers who are precious about the words. I love writing dialogue, and I need it to be good dialogue that can work on set, but if something else happens on set, that's great as well. Because I know Joachim will keep the dynamics and idea of the scene, even if the words change.
The opening shot of The Worst Person in the World ends up being a moment from the second chapter, and it's a moment where, as the viewer eventually realizes, Julie's life changes forever. Was the decision to open the film with that moment something that was in the script? Or was it something that came about during production when you saw the power of that image?
Trier: This is a great question and there's a strange story about it. While we were writing, that scene was not the opening, but we talked about it as the iconic opening shot in the sense of setting up the theme, slightly later on, of "Julie vs. the City." We had discussed the location already in the writing room and that she should be standing out there, slightly alienated, and look down at the city and get this weird sense of melancholia that we do. It becomes this existential moment.
So as I'm blocking it with the DP and the production designer, I started calling it the opening shot even though I knew it wasn't because we had our script and we had our opening. And then in the edit, slowly it's like, "But it is the damn opening." So there we are.
Vogt: Joachim lets me come in and watch a lot of different versions of the edit, and when they put that there I also felt it was a beautiful contrast to the title. You see this thoughtful, elegant woman standing there with something on her mind, and then the title comes up—"Worst Person in the World"—and it tells you immediately that this is not a literal title.
Trier: It's ironic in the sense that it must mean something else. And of course it's about her sense of self-deprecation and failure, and feeling like that.
Your films always have these little asides where you latch onto a small narrative path and follow it forward and backward in time, like the photos of Julie's grandparents in The Worst Person in the World or Conrad's letter in Louder Than Bombs. How do you conceive and write these sequences?
Trier: That's some of the stuff we enjoy the most, to formally shake it up. That's the thing again about what people do in novels, and we forget we could also do in movies, is to do digressions. It has to, at least in our cinema, be character-based, and has to thematically broaden it. It's trying to make formal, playful, almost essayistic moments in film function dramatically to drive understanding of character forward.
Vogt: Something we're very interested in is, in scriptwriting how-to manuals, you have this dictum saying "action is character," and what a character does in a movie defines the character. We're often dealing with characters that sometimes don't always know what to choose. They're a little more introverted and they don't know what to say or do. And that's also the character—a character that doesn't act—and then we have to find ways of making that cinematic and of getting into the head of the character.
The example you mentioned with Conrad in Louder Than Bombs is that we see this introverted teenager from his father's point of view, and he seems so frustrating to deal with, and we have all these preconceived notions of how he must be. And then suddenly we get this glimpse into his mind, his consciousness. After that, as the spectator, you don't see him the same way.
There's that idea that a character arc in a movie usually has to be like, "He has to have a moment of insight and then changes to become a better person" for it to be a satisfying experience for the spectator. I feel that's often pushed so far that it becomes a lie. In my experience people have moments of insight, but they rarely change that much. But you can create an equally interesting experience for the spectator if you have one idea of the character, and then at the end of the movie you have a completely different idea of the same character. It doesn't mean he or she has to change that much, but our perception of the character changes enormously. That's a big part of what we're trying to achieve while we're writing.
That idea is echoed in how we see Julie before and after losing someone she loved. Is that idea of the change after a loss something you were deliberately thinking about as you were writing the film?
Trier: Absolutely. Ultimately we're making an existential film. There's a wonderful quote by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard that once said, "We can only understand our life backwards, but we're forced to live it forwards." It's looking at life through the knowledge of mortality. Time isn't infinite. I think the big lesson Julie learns—and that we all have to go through, maybe several times—is that notion of loss, or the limits of our lives. We have at some point in our youth this idea that all doors are open, and we have limitless options. Growing up is to take responsibility for death and mortality and loss. Julie realizing that is the big dramatic change of the film.
Vogt: That's what the movie's about. Joachim in his late 40s and me in my mid 40s (laughs), that's what we experience. You're very lucky if you haven't experienced loss by the time you're in your 40s. You still have the feel that you're not that far from being young, but you have an added experience of knowing that life will end. The movie is about that realization. As Julie experiences that loss, she understands that maybe she won't have a limitless amount of important relationships. Maybe the ones I have behind me are some of the most important experiences that I'll ever have. That's an important moment, and maybe that's what we were trying to build up towards while writing.
Trier: In a way, Aksel's monologue about cultural objects we cling to to feel that we're present and alive is also, in a very direct way, him talking about his own death. He's trying to find an external way to grapple with what he's going through. And Julie is left with that.
This is a delicate topic, but did you worry about being two men writing a story that's partially about the question of whether a woman would be fulfilled by motherhood?
Trier: It's an absolutely relevant question, and let's talk about that. I wouldn't say "worried." We have this rule in the writing room that we're not gonna think too much about the budget or the commercial value or the possible criticisms. We're really trying to support each other as writers, to be free and truthful, because truth can be painful and difficult and complex. What we really didn't want to get wrong were cliches that could be easy pitfalls for men. The truth is, and we both now have children, that we don't think that's necessarily the only way for joy or happiness for any gender, and I think the cliche of motherhood being the ultimate goal for a woman is ridiculous. Yet, we also have to take seriously the rupture of what a fantastic thing that can be in life, and how complex those expectations can be in playing into a young person's life.
I've been on both sides of the fence. I've been a young person in a relationship who didn't want kids, and I've been the older person who wanted kids when the other person didn't. I feel that we both had enough truth—you have to be right with your heart, but also believe that you shouldn't shy away from difficult subject matters like that, even though it's perhaps not expected that men will write that journey for a woman. It's also exciting to try and avoid cliches regardless. We didn't want Julie to just be fulfilled by finding the "right guy" and then her life would solve itself.
Vogt: Early on it was very important to us and it felt right that she would end up alone, in the sense that she wouldn't choose either of the two men, and that she wouldn't end up a mother at that moment. It would feel wrong to just say that that's the way she would be fulfilled. We wanted her to be alone and to be okay.
Trier: We also don't see movies as only representational tools. There's a lot of idealism that I enjoy happening in the world right now, but in art I also find there's a virtue of the failure and incompleteness of all of us, and in characters that are flawed and messy and do stupid things and make the wrong choices, and the comfort of trying to find that truth in stories that I watch, rather than the idealized ambassadors of all the wonderful right choices we all wish we'd be making. We're writing from a place where we try not to judge our characters, but they sure as hell aren't perfect. If people demand that of us because of some sense of representational idealism, I would oppose that because I think it's not as truthful and humane in a way. I know with this film that a lot of women have told me they felt Julie's imperfections were comforting. And maybe some people will feel differently, and that's okay, that's life, that's making movies.
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