TIFF Interview: Director Ruben Östlund and Actor Terry Notary Talk ‘The Square’

On the basis of his first 4 features, writer-director Ruben Östlund has established himself as one of the most exciting voices of world cinema. His work is often mischievously satirical, giving him a reputation as the “Master of Discomfort.” With his latest film “The Square“, he soars to new heights with a brilliantly absurd comedy centered around the world of modern art. In celebration of the film’s TIFF premiere and its recent selection as Sweden’s Oscar submission, I sat down with Ostlund and actor Terry Notary for a discussion on pretension in art, the value in making mistakes and the gratifying feeling of awards recognition. Below is an edited version of our conversation:

Shane Slater: What made you decide to explore the modern art world?

Ruben Östlund: We made an art piece that is called The Square. And I decided I wanted to make a film about the same themes as The Square, and try to raise awareness. I thought if we put it into a contemporary art world, then we could discuss these topics verbally. Then I started to do research and travelled around looking at different art museums. And I felt that they pretty much looked the same all over the world. A white cube, a neon sign on the wall, a couple of objects on the floor. My approach to that was I wanted to criticize this thing about collecting art pieces that are valuable in terms of money, rather than having something that expresses questions about the world outside of the museum.

SS: Both “Force Majeure” and “The Square” center around confident men who you gradually cut down to size. What attracts you to these types of characters?

RO: When you see a crack in yourself and you get to know yourself through that, that’s what interests me. When you see people struggling with playing the role of themselves. You can feel safe playing the role of the man in the family, but something like the avalanche happens and that self-image is crushed. I think it tells us something about expectations and the stereotypes that we adapt to. And it’s the same thing when it comes to this art museum guy. He’s in this powerful position but he is also trapped. Because everyone expects him to act in a certain way, and he has a lot of different forces pulling him.

SS: That early interview scene with Elisabeth Moss made me think about pretension in film culture. Were you trying to comment on that as well?

RO: You could definitely aim the camera towards the film industry and film culture in the same way. That text that she reads is one I stole from a fine arts professor at the same film school that I teach at in Gothenburg! We have to work hard to detect the bullshit. There’s so much bullshit when we are playing unconventional roles. Sometimes we say something that is actually interesting, but very often it’s not.

SS: How did you get the English-speaking actors like Terry involved?

RO: Since it was set in an art museum, it’s an international arena. There’s a lot of exchanges, with exhibitions that come from English-speaking people. So I thought it would be possible to use English-speaking actors. But I was very nervous about that because I wasn’t sure that I could pull off directing and still catch the nuances in a good way.

I met Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West when I was casting in London. I did long improvisations with them around the scenes, where I was playing the other part. And Terry, I watched a clip on YouTube he did, showing how you imitate different monkeys for “Planet of the Apes”. Terry was the first person I just gave the part to without a casting session.

SS: This is one of the rare times that we see your human face on screen. Did that provide a new challenge for you?

Terry Notary: No, I didn’t see it that way. When I’m in a performance capture suit, I’m still me, you know? So I didn’t look at it any differently that it was me on camera. My mom did say, “Terry you’re finally in a movie!” [Laughs]. So I guess I impressed my mom for the first time.

But I didn’t approach it any differently as an actor. I use the same approach when I’m doing an elf or dwarf or a villain, whatever it is. I try to push myself hard. But this film pushed me further than I’ve ever been, because Ruben’s technique is to keep pushing deeper and deeper and go further and further. So I was exhausting myself to almost forget what I was doing. It was just giving all of myself to it, without thinking about it.

So I think that’s when it started getting good. Kudos to Ruben for his ability to make a comfortable environment, where you feel safe and feel like you can mistakes and they are almost rewarded. Because they can turn into gems potentially. And also, to allow the space for the stillness to happen. The anticipation that builds in the stillness is actually more poignant than the huge actions. That was the fun challenge for me.

SS: The character you play is so deep into his role that he almost can’t get out of it. Do you take a similar method acting approach to your performances?

TN: I can’t define it really, but I get into a state of mind where I make the outside world more important than myself. Going into something that’s working and then allowing it to continue to happen. So if I interfere with that moment, it’ll mess it up. What I try to do is allow myself to continue without interfering, by just guiding softly and let it run with itself. When you start to judge yourself by your mistakes, then you pull yourself out and you have to push yourself back into that realm again. And it’s hard to revisit once you’ve pulled out. So you have to just allow the mistakes to happen because they’re not really mistakes. They’re gonna be good because they’re real.

RO: One of the challenges with that part is that you’re supposed to play someone who is completely going for impulses. But at the same time, you’re following a structure. So it’s interesting that you’re actually balancing two very different states of mind.

I remember when we were doing Terry’s movement in the beginning, he was 100% authentic all the time. Because we hadn’t decided everything. But when we started to decide, there was a moment when I could see that now the structure controlled him. But then he managed to reach back into it. It was interesting.

SS: You are one of the few filmmakers who seems to openly care about awards. You came so close to an Oscar nom with “Force Majeure”, how does this time feel different?

RO: Everyone cares about awards. I’m the only one saying the truth. [Laughs]. I really hope that the voters have a sense for dramaturgy. You know, we made a video about me freaking out after missing out on the Oscar nomination. Now I hope they won’t to see the Cinderella story, where I get to the castle and am allowed in. I believe they have a sense for Anglo-Saxon dramaturgy, so that’s my hope for this year.

SS: Are you working on any new projects?

RO: Yes, it’s called “Triangle of Sadness”. A triangle of sadness is when you have a wrinkle around your eyes because you’ve had a lot of problems in your life. And this is something in plastic surgery that can be fixed in 50 minutes with Botox So the film takes place in the fashion industry and it’s about a male model approaching 28. And he’s getting bald, so his career won’t last forever. He had been at the peak of his career because he was the face of a brand like Hugo Boss and they had exposed his face a lot. There’s a problem in that since no one wants to book him because he’s known as the Hugo Boss model.

He comes from a working-class background. So his beauty allowed him to travel without education or money and move up in society. So his agent suggests that he gets together with a famous girlfriend, so he can be re-branded. The model is a very sensitive guy, so he wants to be in love. It’s going to be a satirical attack on beauty. Beauty is super interesting.

“The Square” opens in select theaters October 27.