From Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, the satirical drama The Square (now playing in select theaters, and opening nationwide throughout November) follows Christian (Claes Bang), a divorced but devoted father of two who is also the respected curator of a contemporary art museum, whose next art show is called “The Square.” The installation reminds individuals of their role as responsible fellow human beings, but while the show itself is getting attention, Christian brings attention to himself, after the theft of his phone causes him to respond and act foolishly and in ways that have repercussions, both personally and professionally.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview Collider, director Ruben Östlund talked about how The Square came about, why it was a difficult film to write and make, what makes Christian an interesting character to center the story around, discovering Claes Bang, how English-speaking actors came to be in the film, what he gets from the test screening process, his struggle with cutting down the film, how he became a filmmaker, and the subject of his next movie.
Collider: First of all, congratulations on all of the success and acclaim for this film! Does that recognition help, in getting the film recognized in the States?
RUBEN ÖSTLUND: Yes, of course! It also helps to make a film that the audience thinks is exciting. I didn’t want any difference between having a concept that I thought was important and an exciting film. I really want to try to combine those two things. Also, there were a lot of people that liked Force Majeure in the U.S., so that helps.
How did The Square come about? Was there something specific that inspired the story you wanted to tell?
ÖSTLUND: This project started with this art installation that is called The Square. Me and a friend of mine created this art installation. If you look at Swedish society, in 2008, there started to be gated communities. If you look at the gated communities, that’s an aggressive way of saying, “Here are the borders of our responsibility. We don’t take responsibility for what’s outside the gate.” That was an attitude change in society. We are more and more individualistic. So, me and a friend of mine created this installation, in order to remind ourselves of our role as fellow human beings and to remind ourselves that we can take responsibility and give trust to each other. That installation was invited to an art museum, after I did Force Majeure. At the same time, I started to work on a script that was about these themes. It really started from that installation piece. The film is an advertisement for that installation. Now, it exists in two cities in Sweden and two cities in Norway.
You’ve talked about how this was a very hard film to write and a hard film to make. In what ways? Were there challenges specific to this particular film?
ÖSTLUND: The topic is so much wider than Force Majeure. That was a really simple set-up, so it was much easier to write that script. This topic is about society and how we look at humanistic values. There are so many more levels to that, that it made it much harder to write.
What was it about Christian, as a character, that made you want to tell his story at the center of this?
ÖSTLUND: I look at the characters as human beings trying to have a certain kind of position. So, what Christian has to deal with is that he’s the chief curator of the museum. At the same time, he’s a father of two and he’s divorced, and there are all these practical situations and set-ups that are attached to him and pulling him in different directions. I always try to look at the characters and go, “What would I do, if I was in this position? What would I do, if I was the chief curator of this museum?” I always look at the character like human beings put into social experiments to see how they’d do with it.
How did you approach finding an actor to bring to life what you were looking for in Christian?
ÖSTLUND: When I was doing the casting, I asked Claes Bang to write the speech about The Square, and he did it in such a beautiful way. He brought emotions into this very conceptual idea. For example, he said, “My father just died, and I have no one to talk to about it.” I thought that was beautiful. Claes is a sensitive guy, and he bring that into his acting. That was important to me. He made me get connected with my emotions, when it came to situations that he was dealing with. Claes is not known in Sweden and he’s not that known in Denmark either, so he had his break in this film. It’s kind of a late breakthrough, so I’m happy for him.
This is a predominantly Swedish film, but then you have Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West and Terry Notary. How did they get involved with the film?
ÖSTLUND: After I made Force Majeure, I had the opportunity to meet many English-speaking actors. And then, I had a casting session in London, and I tried out Elisabeth and Dominic. We did improv together, and they were so skillful. I didn’t have any plans to put English-speaking actors in the film, but they were so good, so I had to use them. It was interesting when they came to set because I think they’re used to doing an average of five takes, when it comes to a scene, and I would say that I do an average of 40 takes, so they had to use their energy in a different way. They had to save their energy, and then for the last five takes, I like to build up some energy on set. For the other takes, I’m trying to sculpt the scene and get the scene the way that I want. I think Elisabeth and Dominic were a little shocked, in the beginning of shooting, but then they understood how to deal with their energy.