Joachim Trier’s movies are quiet. Almost too quiet for those of us used to the barrage of CGI action extravaganzas. They’re what we don’t see often nearly enough anymore on the big screen: They’re movies about days, perhaps much like ours, unremarkable other than that they’re lived within a runtime. While our continue after the credits roll, those days are little more than whispers remaining.
In his latest, Louder Than Bombs, Trier uses his careful camera to follow Gene (Gabriel Byrne), a patriarch mourning the loss of his wife Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) after she is killed in a car accident. Three years later, the family has yet to recover. Their sons Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid) push away from their father, seeing him culpable for their mother’s descent into depression before her death. Jonah is starting a family of his own, but is unable to move on from the tattered one in which he grew up. The youngest, Conrad, suffers the most on the outset, enduring his painfully awkward teenage years without his mom and resenting his dad. Living under the same roof again soon breaks the unspoken tension among them.
“We came up with the story of this family, and it just felt like a New York family story,” said Trier of developing his characters in Louder Than Bombs. “I wanted to get very intimate with each of the characters, and very subjective. I wanted to then base the drama on those subjectivities.”
Although it looks to be a movie mostly about grief, Louder Than Bombs is also very much about love, both romantic and familial. Trier explains, “It’s almost like the three guys are in different stages of man. It’s the story of three men trying to deal with the women in their lives. The mother passed away three years ago and still echoes in their mind.” And it’s not just women that cause these men pain. It’s also their relationships with each other. “I wanted to do this portrait of a father, not as an authoritative figure, but a loving one who wants to stay close to his boys but isn’t really allowed.”
Trier sees the inner life of his characters as a universal touchstone for many viewers, as the most interesting aspect of the stories he works on. “Every time we do a movie, it is like: How do we get into their heads? How do we show their perception of the world, their thinking? How do we make portraits of their mind rather than just the exterior façade?” he asks.
And how does a director like Trier show the audience what his largely gloomy and silent leads are thinking? “In this [movie], I had these amazing actors that could draw you in, yet I wanted to do a montage-based, freeform film that could use any trick in the book.” He elaborates, “We do a diary scene, you see scenes from different perspectives. We use voice overs, memories. It’s kind of jazzy.” Trier says that his early interest in rap, namely Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, piqued his interest in remixing narrative. “I’m always interested in how to create an emotion that is specific through form.”
Although Louder Than Bombs is Trier’s first feature length movie made in English, this wasn’t his first time working outside of Norway. Trained at the National Film School in London, the budding director made three short movies in England before returning home to make the ambitious Reprise and haunting Oslo, August 31. “I wanted to work with these great actors,” he said of returning to the English language. But why the U.S. as opposed to the U.K.? “I love to look at Volvos driving under autumn leaves in upstate New York. I love ordinary people, Woody Allen movies, great character dramas in the American tradition that aren’t made that much anymore.”
“The irony for me [is] that shooting in English is not difficult,” says Trier. “But you need to do a little bit of anthropology. I wanted to be fair to the culture of present-day America. I went to high schools and nervously hoped there would be cheerleaders, and it wasn’t just an invention of ’80s movies. I didn’t want to fall on my ass as a naïve Norwegian.” Lucky for him, cheerleading is still very much a part of the high school experience.
Just as the creation of his characters was born out of a methodical process, so was working with his leading actors. “I tried to do rehearsals, and they gave me time for that. It’s about dynamics, exploring the characters,” he said. “We know each other by the time we get to set, and I let them do a lot of different stuff.” But Trier doesn’t tolerate too much improvisation, insisting his actors “stick to the script” for the sake of the story. He will, however, end shooting a scene by giving the actor a bit more space. “I do what I call a ‘jazz take’ at the end of every angle so that they can try something or be more impulsive. I think all the actors love that and they brought a lot to those moments when they were freer.”
The rehearsal came in handy not just in the creation of the on-screen chemistry, but in the development of the characters by the actors. “The script and the final film were so full of montages, which are hard for actors to play,” said Trier. “So my co-writer [third time collaborator Eskil Vogt] and I would write out things for rehearsals that were longer and more linear so that they feel more truthful about everything in the moment in their character’s story.”
Although she doesn’t get as much screen time, the presence of Huppert’s character Isabelle is heavily felt throughout the movie. Seen only in flashback and sometimes in dreams, she becomes infinitely more interesting as the movie goes on. Of course, she is not the saintly figure to which the movie first introduces us.
“I wanted the mother to be an admired person because it made the grief story more interesting. That she was a public figure and a figure of great importance,” Trier explained. “Her work makes it harder not to idealize her.”
Her profession as a war photographer is certainly curious since Gene’s job is really only said to be that of a teacher and Jonah is never shown at work. This too was easily answered by the director, who confessed a deep interest in conflict photography. “It’s really a job that exposes work and ambition versus family life.” He said there was a purposeful political choice about her job as well: “In present-day America, it’s becoming its own story about dealing with the trauma and complexity of the many conflicts Americans are involved [in] around the world.” The movie shows the after-effect, “the grief of going from conflict to home.”
But there’s yet another, subtler layer to Gene and Isabelle’s relationship not quite discussed in Louder Than Bombs. “It’s also a gender reversal,” insists Trier. “There’s the heroic story of a mother, and the father stays put. He’s at home, trying to be there for his children and, instead, gets all the transferred anger from the mother who’s so idealized.”
“In modern life, I think things are more complex when it comes to gender and who stays home,” Trier added. “It’s a good thing.”