“I especially like your early, funny ones.”
That famous line from Stardust Memories, was Woody Allen’s knowing acknowledgement of the increasingly common critical and cultural responses to the Bergmanesque existentialism of his motion picture therapy sessions in the late ‘70s, now retroactively applied to many of the later films that simply seem to be going through the motions.
When it comes to the career of director Lukas Moodysson, that line also cuts neatly to the core of many people’s feelings. Moodysson’s warm-hearted and frequently hilarious first two films Show Me Love and Together did nothing to prepare audiences for everything that followed, repeatedly plunging them into the depths of despair. A girl is sold into sexual slavery in Lilya 4-EVER, but somehow the blunt trauma of A Hole In My Heart‘s jolting pornographic shocks proved even more dehumanizing. The abstractions of Container were equally depressing given how it went out of its way to confound viewers, many of whom who were put to sleep by the enervating ennui of Mammoth, which even the presence of Michelle Williams and Gael García Bernal did little to enliven. A deathly sort of acquired taste, I’m a big fan of all of Moodysson’s work, but my days of enthusiastically recommending his work to just about everyone have long since past.
That is until, We Are The Best!, a film that shows Moodysson back at his best and most accessible, and one the director wanted to make in order to show that “Life – despite all evidence to the contrary – is worth living.” Not exactly happy in the Pharrell Williams sense of the word, but he’s Swedish don’t forget, so one would hardly expect an upbeat statement with rainbows and unicorns. The story of three punk-loving thirteen-year-old girls in 1982, who don’t fit in and form their own band is one which our own David Hall said was full of “euphoria and joy”, a “quiet riot of punk positivity” that mimes the era’s scrappy ebullient scrappy spirit of a few flung together chords.
While every other new Woody Allen film is lazily hailed as ‘return to form’ by critics who lay into him on the next one, in Moodysson’s case, a return to form is exactly what We Are The Best! is, and something worth talking about. So that’s exactly what we did when we caught up with him ahead of the film’s release.
Speaking about adapting his wife’s graphic novel, his habit of frequently casting and working with kids and returning to the tone of his earlier films. We also learnt that like Allen before him, Moodysson feels a particular allegiance to Bergman. Far from indicating his returning to darker material that critics will turn on, one senses the ‘happier’ Moodysson may not hang around for long, but for now at least, his new film has left reviewers overjoyed. With a 100% rating on the tomatometer, we’re 100% sure audiences will feel the same way in welcoming him back to cinema screens this Friday.
Vérité: The film is based on your wife Coco’s graphic novel. What was it about the material that made you see the potential for a film?
Lukas Moodysson: There is potential for a film in everything. How you choose is not really something that is conscious, at least not for me.
Is the graphic novel your wife’s own youth?
90% of it. Every time you sit down to write or draw something, it’s always a version of what happened. It’s not a documentary. There are a lot of elements that are fictional, both in the book and the film. I think the atmosphere is the thing closest to her youth.
Of the three girls is there one of them you related to more than the others?
I feel a bit of Bobo in my life but also a bit of Hedvig and Klara depending on what time of my life I’m thinking of. If I had to pick one I would probably say Bobo. She’s close to me in many different ways. From the music I listen to everything else. The biggest difference is not that they’re young girls and I’m an older man, but that they grew up in Stockholm and I grew up in a small place. And that’s a big difference.
Given that it’s your wife’s novel, did you feel you had to be precious in the adaptation?
No. I felt really disrespectful, like I could do more or less whatever I wanted. I was scared when I showed her the finished script that she might think I had destroyed it, but she was okay. I think she felt the same way I did actually, that as a writer I had to be free and free myself from her story. I only tried this once before. I co-wrote a TV series a long time ago directed by somebody else and it was important for me at that time to not care at all about how it was made and it turned out very different from what I’d expected it to be. There’s a respect in disrespect. You have to make it your own.
What was your approach to re-creating 1982 on a low budget?
I knew that there would be limitations and that I wouldn’t be shooting any wide shots of big squares or have cameras flying over the city. Visually it’s quite restricted. We shot on one street and built the apartments. We thought of simple solutions but we also tried not to make it into an eighties movie. I didn’t want it looking like a museum. If there was a choice between two jackets and one was obviously eighties and one was more neutral but still correct, I would always pick the more boring one, much to the disappointment of the costume designer, but if it becomes too much of a costume drama you can’t relate to it.
I’m sensing that you found the period setting to be a bit of an irritation.
The book was written in 2008 and it took me four years to find the courage to make the film. During that time I thought about it a lot and it was actually the costume drama thing that stopped me from jumping straight in, because I knew I couldn’t just go out into the street and start filming because everything would need to be dressed, but in the end when we were actually making the film, the time travel was really enjoyable. When we building the apartment sets I really got into that, choosing all the right furniture. It was a lot of fun. In general shooting this film was a lot of fun. It felt really nice going to work.
Is fun something you were consciously looking for given the heavy-going films before this one?
I usually don’t think about that sort of thing, but in this case yes… I think I’ve become a better person. (laughs) I remember when I was making Lilya-4-EVER, I was in Estonia and different places travelling the whole time and didn’t even have a cellphone, I just felt like I didn’t really think about my family and just concentrate on the film. These days when I’m here I miss my family much more than I used to. So something has changed. I always miss my children a lot, but before I could find some button in my head to turn that off. I don’t have that now.
Being so youth-oriented, this feels very much like you’re going back to the beginning of your career. It feels very much like Show Me Love and Together.
That’s valid. Though I don’t think back much and I haven’t seen those films in a long, long time. If I watched them today I’d probably be very surprised and not really remember them very well, but I think I can remember and relate to the idea that there was some kind of atmosphere or tone in those films. For me it’s more of an abstract thing. It’s like if you’re a composer and you write something in A-minor or C-major and you feel like you want to go back to do something in A-minor again.
Does this relate in anyway to the fact that so many of your films have children as the central figures?
No. It’s more of a tone. This could have been a thing with grown-ups as well.
Then why children? Filmmakers are always warned not to work with kids, yet you’ve done it so many times and so successfully.
I think partly, I’m quite interested in traditions. We all want to be autonomous and our own products, yet we are always very much products of our past. As a filmmaker and a writer I belong very much to a Swedish/Scandinavian tradition – that’s also in our literature – of making films for children and about children. I feel very rooted in and proud to be a part of. Almost all the good Swedish directors have made films like this. Bergman with Fanny & Alexander, Roy Anderson with A Swedish Love Story. From the eighties and nineties there were a lot of good TV series about this that have inspired me quite a lot. It’s a tradition that’s still quite strong and much more interesting than films made for children in the US for example.
Through your career has your eye for casting kids really sharpened? Does it ever get easier even though a lot of the time they’re not established and you don’t have any other work to look as a reference.
It’s actually the same thing with adults because for this film, something that you probably don’t recognise is that most of the grown-up actors are unknowns in Sweden. Not amateurs, but Bobo’s mother for example had never been in a movie before even though she’s worked in a lot of theatre and musicals. Some of the actors are from small regional theatres. We also auditioned lots of more well known, established actors but I just picked the ones who were the best, so there’s not a big difference between how I cast young and old.
For the girls, I’m presuming they’re all first-timers?
Mira Grosin who plays Klara was in a short film, but on the whole, they’re all relatively fresh to film and on top of maybe being quite self-conscious in front of the camera.
You also altered their image quite radically. Is this something they really took to or needed a while to get used to?
Maybe when they were at home there was a feeling of crisis and not liking what they saw in the mirror, but when we were working together they seemed to be having a lot of fun. We discussed it a lot. One important thing for me is that whenever I want to work with specific actors whether it’s adults or children, I never tell them “you got the part.” They get an offer to be in the film. It’s their decision. They get a script that they go home and read. If they’re children, they discuss it with their parents. The decision is theirs, not mine. It has to be a mutual thing. Before they say yes, they know exactly what’s required of them. I think they enjoyed getting crazy haircuts. Like Bobo says in the movie, it grows out!
In terms of how the girls look and who gets to wear a Mohawk, you’re not just leaving that to hair and make-up?
I’m very involved in getting them to try different things and gradually deciding on a look. I was there when we did the haircuts. I didn’t cut it myself ‘cause I’m not a hairdresser, but I talked about where it should be shorter or longer, stuff like that. I’m very interested in the details because I didn’t want it to look too perfect.
The scene in which the girls get drunk together is constructed of multiple cuts, which suggests a fair amount of improvisation. How do you execute a scene like that?
In any scene I shoot, I rarely do one take that works out all the way through. I have to be very present and paying attention for that ten seconds of magic in a particular take. A mistake a lot of actors make is thinking they have to be producing something the whole time, or doing something. It’s really to let the energy levels go down sometimes. Like life, sometimes it’s just silent and people don’t say anything. So if something isn’t happening in a scene I just take it easy, ‘cause maybe something will happen half a minute later. I’m confident enough to just start the scene and see what happens and usually something does.
Do you think children are naturally good at improvising?
No. Some are, some are not like grown ups. No difference. I think since I really partake in a lot of the auditions, a lot of children don’t know how to improvise at all. I think a lot of people – including me – are quite good actors actually, if there’s not a camera around. But it takes a special talent to be in the moment so much that you almost forget about the camera. I think that’s quite rare regardless of age. Maybe a slightly higher percentage of children but I’m not certain.
Because it’s told almost exclusively from the girls thirteen year-old point of view that feels really authentic, do you have the thirteen-year-olds who will watch the film at the forefront of your mind when you’re thinking about your audience?
For thirteen-year-olds this will be a difficult movie. Because when your thirteen years old you want to see films about people who are fifty years old. My daughter who is actually in the movie – she plays Hedvig’s little sister – she and her friends saw the movie. They’re nine and think it’s really interesting to watch a story about thirteen-year-olds. So I think it will appeal more to children who are nine, ten, eleven years old. And then maybe there’s a gap around thirteen until you’re about sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old.
Children already nostalgic for their youth!
Well this is just a theory, I don’t know!
Well in theory, I think the film has the potential to crossover to a wider audience, certainly more so than your recent films. If it’s met with the commercial success we all hope it is, would you ever consider giving the states a go? You’ve already worked with Hollywood stars in Mammoth.
That was sort of a one-time thing because I mainly feel I belong to the Swedish language. It’s a language thing. I’m not really interested in the US. I could make a movie in Korea, but why? I’m not from there. I don’t really understand why people go to the US to make movies if they’re not from the US because they don’t understand the US.
What about someone like your Scandinavian contemporary Nicolas Winding Refn who likes to shoot all over the world because it purposely puts him outside his comfort zone.
I respect that, but will continue to do the opposite. I feel very, very Swedish and interested in Sweden. Not so much the rest of the world, or at least the US.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on April 16, 2014