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Interview: Ruben Ostlund’s The Square Looks At Modern Society

What began initially as an art project and installation conceived by director Ruben Ostlund served ultimately as inspiration for his latest film, The Square. Claes Bang plays Christian, a museum curator at the X-Royal Museum. His forthcoming exhibition is called “The Square” simply a square that sits in the middle of a room.

Ostlund says of the original installation, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”

When Christian’s phone gets stolen he’s forced to question his place in the world and the world around him. The PR company hired by the museum pulls a publicity stunt at a black-tie gala that pushes Christian into a crisis. In another scene, a lecture is disrupted when a person suffering from Tourette’s has a fit.

I caught up with Ostlund to learn more about his creative thinking behind The Square, his method of doing long and multiple takes,  and working with Elisabeth Moss. This was the first time Ostlund has worked with and directed an English speaking character.

Let’s start by talking about that opening sequence where you have Elisabeth Moss setting up and the awkward conversation happening. 

I think I was interested in the expectations we have of each other in being a man and being a woman. There’s a social contract that the Elisabeth Moss character is trying to use in order to trap him a little bit. Without giving her sexuality over to him, in some way she has signed this contract, and I’ve always been interested in how sexuality is connected with economics.

We see a white space that’s empty, except for the “You Have Nothing” installation piece in the background. What made the art world the perfect setting to express your message?

The film began with me and a friend actually making an installation piece like the square that you see in the movie. We had an exhibition at a contemporary art museum and at the same time I wanted my next feature to deal with the installation piece.

It felt natural to set the film in the art world because then we had the possibility of verbalizing the concept of the square in a way that wasn’t too constructed. I liked the idea of having an artificial world that exposes something about us as humans. An art museum is quite an interesting space.

Here we have a space where we can discuss what society should be and what we don’t like, what it is to be a human being. When I was traveling around these museums, I felt they were repetitive. Whether it was a neon sign on the wall, or there was a Warhol, it was all about collecting objects and how valuable they were, and I wanted to criticize that.

Further into the film, you present us with Terry Notaro disrupting the audience at the black-tie dinner. What was the dilemma you wanted to pose for the viewer in that scene?

The scene was done in order to expose the bystander effect. Are you familiar with it?

Yes. [The bystander effect is when in an emergency, concealed in the anonymity of a group of onlookers, a bystander will feel less obligated to intervene and help.]

In Sweden that term is not very familiar. Often when we talk about people becoming passive in public places or on a bus, we tend to place guilt on the person and say how egotistical of them or comment on how cynical our world has become. I wanted to bring it down to an animalistic level that we are herd animals and that’s one of reasons we get paralyzed. We think, please don’t take me, take someone else.

For me, it’s a way of trying to create an understanding about how we behave and it’s also about breaking that pattern. The film was made with the goal of bringing the film to Cannes. I wanted it to compete in competition. In competition you have a tuxedo dressed audience and I loved the idea that you would have a black-tie dressed audience watching another black-tie dressed audience having to deal with this.

What’s the message you want the viewer to leave with, and what’s it like when you’re watching it with the audience and you feel “They get it”?

Like a dog with a ragdoll, it’s like shaking and shaking. As soon as I start directing, I have a set up about how fun I think it will be, like with the Tourette’s scene. There’s this art theory language scene, and when they’re confronted by someone with Tourette’s, it’s brilliant. I wanted to take that scene and twist it and twist it and twist it. I think they first version of that scene was almost fifteen minutes long.

Very often when we’re making movies it goes by so fast. The film needs to go into the body of the audience. The audience has to experience that in real time in order to feel the film. I like pushing them.

You talked about the scene being fifteen minutes long. Tell us a bit more about your method.

One thing I think that’s important in movie making is that it’s a visual expression. When you’re writing a script, it’s a paper product. If you want to transform that from paper to visual, it’s going to take some time because you have to reevaluate so many things that you have written in a certain way but when you come to set and see it, you realize you had to deal with it in a different way. Time on set is what makes it possible for me to transform this paper product into what I want it to be. I want to capture the essence of the film.

For this, we had 70 shooting days which is double the average film shot in Sweden. I start the day by letting the actors try out the situation. The follow the script as closely as possible but it doesn’t have to be verbatim, but they have to hit marks to get to the end of the film.

At the beginning, we can take risks and do things that are unexpected, but if we were short of time, we’d never ever do that. We repeat that through the end of the day, and by the last hour I’ll say there are five takes left. It’s like an important soccer game that we have to win. It’s a combination of repeating something so many times, and then creating that authentic moment that is only created once.

How did you get Elisabeth Moss involved and what it was like  directing an American actress?

I was nervous about it because I was afraid that I wouldn’t hear the nuances in the dialogue, but I had a casting session with her in London and we had an hour-long improvisation. I told her what I was aiming to achieve and talked about the content I wanted, and she was really good in those sessions.

I hadn’t planned on using an English speaking actress, but I had to give her the part. She also said yes immediately.



The Square is released on October 27