Published:  04:00 AM, 22 February 2020

Ruben Östlund: Director of the newly-crowned Palme D'Or winner, 'The Square'

Ruben Östlund: Director of the newly-crowned Palme D'Or winner, 'The Square'

Joe Utichi: Like Force Majeure, The Square seems to be a film interested in the disconnect between what we believe and what we do. How did it come to life?

Ruben Östlund: Yeah, the conflict between our instinct and our intellect. It generated because I was making a film called Play and I read through court files because it was inspired by robberies that took place in the city where I live.

These really young boys were robbing other young boys in a mall. When I read the court files I could see that on very, very few occasions adults interacted or tried to help the kids. And the kids didn't ask for help.

I talked to my father about this-and this story actually became a scene in the film-because my father told me that when he was six years old, and he was brought up in the '50s, his parents put an address tag around his neck and sent him into the streets of Stockholm to play.

A six-year-old boy in central Stockholm, all by himself. But it was so obvious that, at that time, you looked at other adults as someone that would help your children if they were in trouble. Today we tend to look at other adults as potential threats to our children.

And when I was dealing with this, they also started to build the first gated communities in Sweden. A gated community is a very aggressive way of saying, "We are not taking responsibility for what's on the outside; we look on that as a threat." So in this context, me and a film producer friend of mine, Kalle Boman, we came up with the idea that we should create a symbolic place where we are reminded of our common responsibility.

And we were invited to a museum-the Vandalorum design museum in Värnamo, Sweden-to do an exhibition about something, and we did an exhibition about this. They built the first Square, and now there are actually two other cities in Norway that have built Squares in their cities.Joe Utichi: Why do you think it takes an installation like this for us to engage with sensibilities we all believe in to begin with?

Ruben Östlund: For me, it was a way of breaking the Bystander Effect. We are herd animals, so we get scared when things happen. We have to be reminded, "It's actually me that should do something." And it's as easy as a traffic sign. Civilization is built on agreements between human beings.

These roads have pedestrian crossings, and it's a very simple agreement: here, the car driver should be careful and stop for pedestrians. And of course, you can create new agreements. As we started thinking about this, we realized that we all want to look at ourselves as rational and intellectual, but we have to be reminded to act in a certain way.

Joe Utichi: In Force Majeure, you questioned the fight-or-flight response of a man who witnesses the start of an avalanche, and then the human fall-out when his partner realizes he didn't think about her or his kids. With The Square, the canvas is broader still, and there's commentary on the world of contemporary art, social commentary, family commentary. Was it all fertile ground as the puzzle pieces started coming together?

Ruben Östlund: I think for me it was a very hard film to write, and it was a hard film to make. How do you feel about the topic that-like the PR guys say in the film-everyone agrees on these values of the Square, so why should I get engaged with it? But for me, it was the moment when I realized I wanted to tell the story on two levels, so to speak. One, on an individual level, when you're practicing your life, trying to deal with morality issues in what you meet in the streets and your family.

And the other layer was, for me, those topics on more of a societal level, and attacking the media climate a little bit, and attacking the art world that is supposed to deal with the ideas raised by these topics, and commenting on what we have to deal with as human beings.

I spent a lot of time traveling around, going to contemporary art museums, when I was writing the script. Every time I ended up in a different city I'd visit the art museum to see what was going on there. I must say, it's very hard to tell the difference between them. You know, they have this piece of sign in neon, and they have these big pieces of metal standing in the middle of the room, or whatever.

I felt a little bit like how Duchamp must have felt when he put a urinal in a museum. Then it was a provocation, but today it's not. It's like a ritual or a convention that is just repeating itself. It has lost the connection with what's going on in the outside world.

Joe Utichi: Were you tempted to unleash Terry Notary in the screening?

Ruben Östlund: [laughs] Actually we had a great idea for the red carpet that he should come with his arm extensions. But the problem was that the arm extensions got stuck in lost luggage at the airport, and they arrived two minutes after we had stepped into the car. But we had the idea of creating a PR stunt on the red carpet.Joe Utichi: Had you written those scenes into the film before you met him?

Ruben Östlund: I did actually write the scene before. I was goggling monkey imitation, or actor imitating monkey, and there was this video that Terry had done for Planet of the Apes, where he did a demonstration. It's fantastic.

He's like, "OK, so this is what a chimpanzee looks like when they're walking," and it's like, yeah, and it's a chimpanzee. And then there's the gorilla. Even a child could see he was the best at imitating an ape. You strip acting back to a very, very basic level. So we called him and asked if he'd do it.

Joe Utichi: You also cast Dominic West and Elisabeth Moss, who speak English even though the film is predominantly in Swedish. How did they come to be involved?

Ruben Östlund: I am with WME in America and they very much wanted me to do an English-language film. I thought that it was important that I put The Square in a Scandinavian context, because of how we look at Scandinavia and its social democratic background and history.

But then I started to cast, and I cast in Norway, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki. I went to London because of BAFTA, and then I arranged a couple of meetings and did some improvisations with quite a few English-speaking and American actors in London.

Elisabeth Moss I had seen before in Mad Men. I didn't know Dominic West's work, really. But with both of them I really, really loved how intelligent they were as actors. I was scared, you know, of working in English, because I thought maybe I would lose the nuances and things like that.

Joe Utichi: So was this a toe in the water for more work in English?

Ruben Östlund: Maybe.

Joe Utichi is a journalist specializing
in film and entertainment.

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