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Involuntary - Ruben Östlund interview

Involuntary, Ruben Östlund

Interview by Rob Carnevale

RUBEN Östlund talks to us about some of the inspirations behind making his second movie Involuntary and why he wanted to highlight group behaviour. He also talks about why he dislikes Hollywood movies so much and why the rising profile of Swedish cinema internationally won’t necessarily benefit him as a filmmaker…

Q. What inspired Involuntary – I’ve read things that came out of your life or stories you heard from other people?
Ruben Östlund: Yeah, exactly. I was very interested in highlighting group behaviour and I wanted to show that I think this is very fundamental about being a human being… that we are herd animals actually. So, I was looking for different situations that take place in different kinds of groups. So, one group was 13-year-old girls, and one was a 60-year-old birthday party and so on, just to highlight the topic.

So, I was thinking of situations I’d encountered myself, or I was talking to friends and they were telling me about situations they ended up in. So, for example, the coach ride… a friend of mine was on a bus journey to the French Alps and when he went to the toilet he accidentally broke the curtain. So, a little bit later into the trip the driver said he wouldn’t go any further until the person who did it confesses.

What I thought was so interesting was this… he told me that he had a couple of seconds when he had the opportunity to say it was him, but the longer he remained silent, the harder it got to confess. In that instance, one of the youngsters was really, really drunk at the back of the coach and after a while his friend said: “Maybe it was him who did this?” So, they woke him up and asked him. He replied: “I don’t know, maybe… it could have been me.” So, then they continued. But in the film, I made it a little bit harder… and a 12-year-old boy with Down’s Syndrome eventually gets the blame.

Q. So, what do your friends think about having their experiences put into a film?
Ruben Östlund: Actually, I haven’t met the friend who was on the coach ride. He told me this story when I was 15 or 16 and he was 18 or 19. I haven’t met him since, so I haven’t had the opportunity to thank him. But other friends think it’s OK. The 30-year-old peer group is based on my peer group and this was the part that was hardest to make, in terms of the fact that I knew the actual victim and the one who did the sex act [putting his penis into the other man’s mouth].

Q. So, who were the teenage girls based on?
Ruben Östlund: Actually, that’s not personal for me. There’s a website called Hot Or Not where you’re supposed to grade the person you see on the screen as hot or not on a graded scale. I just found it interesting that this exists. So, these girls are imitating a behaviour they have seen from other images. I was thinking about when I was 13-years-old and thought it was an interesting age because then the parents aren’t the most important people in the world… your friends are. You’re so afraid of speaking out from the group, and it’s so important that you have the right brand on your clothing or ruck-sack. It’s also an age where the group don’t take responsibility over the individual. So, if something happens, you’re so obsessed with your own image of yourself that you don’t have time to think about anyone else.

I was also interested in that part because of what you immediately read into the motorist who stops and carries that girl into his car [after she’s collapsed]. You see him as a potential paedophile and someone who will harm her, but my experience of adults is that they will help you. So, where does this image that adults will hurt you come from? Well, it comes from the tabloids and from other movies. I spoke to my producer, who also produced my first film, and he’s 65 or thereabouts and he told me that when he was 14-years-old he had a tag around his neck with the address to his flat. He would then walk all over Stockholm and if he got lost, he could look upon another adult as someone who could help him. Today, though, you see an adult as someone who is threatening to you. So, that change in the way we look at each other is very interesting.

Q. You’ve mentioned that you made this film in the way that you did as a kind of anti-Hollywood experiment. You don’t seem to like Hollywood… is that a fair assumption?
Ruben Östlund: I don’t like that we repeat a certain expression over and over again because I think it narrows the way that we look on the world. I also think that there is a certain responsibility if you work with moving images because it’s so strong in creating behaviour; it’s so strong in creating the way that we look on the world, so for me it’s very important that I create images that I have an experience of or is something that I think exists in the world and not just in cinema. Hollywood movies tend to repeat themselves and attempt to create a multiple universe that is based totally on other movies.

I read an interview with Roberto Saviano, the author of Gomorrah, who said that half a year after Pulp Fiction was released in Italy, young gangsters started to shoot with a gun on the side like this [motions the way John Travolta held his weapon in Pulp Fiction] instead of in the straight, upright position. But it’s very, very hard to hit someone when shooting from the side, and the consequence of this was that they had to shoot a lot more bullets, and the victim becomes a mess in blood, and so the police had trouble clearing up. That’s a clear example of creating a certain kind of image and repeating it over and over, making people start to behave in a certain way.

The high school massacres are another very clear example of this… there was one in Finland and before he was recording himself and posing like he was imitating a Scarface character or whatever. Today, we treat fiction as though fiction doesn’t have anything to do with the real world… but fiction creates the real world in the same way as non-fiction does. It even creates the world more, I believe.

Q. How has your film been received in the different countries that it’s been released?
Ruben Östlund: In America, they don’t understand it at all. We attended one screening where they were going into the cinema with their popcorn and one and a half litres of Coke and afterwards they were like [looks perplexed]. So, in the US not good at all. It played really well in Russia and Norway, as an art-house film of course. In France, they thought that the 30-year-old men were homosexuals and so on. Each country kind of has a different way of seeing different situations, but mostly I’ve had a very good response.

Q. How is your third film coming along?
Ruben Östlund: I’m editing right now and I have edited nine scenes and those nine scenes are 38 minutes long. But the film consists of 57 scenes, so I guess it’s going to be like three hours in the first cut [laughs]. It’s a real time event and it’s one situation that it’s based around. So, it’s different in that it’s a much harder film to make because of the real-time.

Q. Has the international success of Swedish cinema – and films like Let The Right One In and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series – helped to raise the profile of directors such as yourself globally?
Ruben Östlund: [Pauses] If you’re talking about the Millennium trilogy… then slightly. But in a way I think that the Millennium trilogy is one of those movies that narrow the perspective of cinema. It’s one of those films that is copying other films. In the beginning, maybe some people said they wanted to see this new Swedish film [Involuntary] hut I think the people that like the Millennium series won’t be interested in Involuntary.

Read our review of Involuntary