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Joachim Trier wanted to break the rules with 'Louder Than Bombs'

The acclaimed Norwegian filmmaker ("Reprise," "Oslo, August 31st") talks about making a grief movie with Jesse Eisenberg and Gabriel Byrne.

Joachim Trier’s "Louder Than Bombs” follows a father (Gabriel Byrne) and his two sons — an adult and young father himself (Jesse Eisenberg) and an introverted, video game-obsessed teen (Devin Druid) — as they cope with the loss of their famed war photographer wife and mother (Isabelle Huppert). It’s Trier’s first film in English; previously he’d made the Norwegian dramas “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31st.” This time he turns his attention not only to American but to grief, and he wanted to use unusual methods to explore the touchy subject.

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This uses narration in a subtly unusual way. What was your thinking far as that went?
I’m a bit of a dirty formalist. I don’t always yearn for coherency. I think that sometimes we apply rules to storytelling that are unnecessary. Narration can be the cheapest trick in the book. In this, we use voiceover in quite different ways. There’s an ambiguity about it. But what I want to do is move it forward and create something that has a character-driven energy to it.

Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t always play the most sympathetic characters. Where is Jonah supposed to fall on that spectrum?
The thing about Jesse is he’s highly intelligent and he himself is a writer, he’s a thinker. At first he was interested in Jonah being the smart guy that somehow has been idealizing his mother and denying his emotions of grief. But ultimately the part demanded he go far into something painful and difficult. And he’s brave in not trying just to make him sympathetic. He’s a complicated person and he dares be that complicated person, without reaching for the sympathy of the audience to create sentimentality. I think that’s an interesting choice from him as an actor.

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And you have Gabriel Byrne's character in a kind of a parental reversal — very maternal while his wife was off having this amazing career.
Absolutely. Modern and natural — and I just think under-represented. Actually, Gabriel Byrne is quite brave in playing that seemingly passive but very loving father who has just kind of stayed put after being rejected and patronized by his son time and time again, beaten up verbally and getting s— from Jesse, who knows better all the time. And Gabriel a few weeks in, he was really quite tired and distraught from the whole thing. And he was like, “Geez man, Gene has a hard time.”

He especially has a hard time when he tries to engage with Conrad via an online video game — after creating a pretty embarrassing avatar.
I love his avatar. He wants to represent himself in the game, which is what an avatar is about. Very often it’s a metaphorical representation, but he’s trying to be very literal, which is a generational gap, isn’t it? A younger person wouldn’t want to be that character — a chubby leopard with dreadlocks.

And his actual attempt to connect with his son online goes horribly wrong. Do you think Conrad knew it was him the whole time?
I presume not. For the father, it’s a big deal meeting the son in the video game, and yet it’s probably something that didn’t even register, doesn’t even matter for Conrad. The film is a lot about the missed moments between people and how we put so much interpretation into everything, and maybe it’s not like that from the other side. As an example, without revealing too much to the readers, there are also the politics of love in high school — “someone’s probably talking about me” and maybe they’re not, as it turns out. That whole politics of who knows who in high school and the very singular perspective on that opens up in the film.

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This felt very authentic to modern life, thanks in large part to the use of real logos and products. That must have been a pretty intense clearance process.
A big nightmare. We had a team of lawyers continuously working with us and clearing clips, YouTube clips, those films, the music, all the war photographs, logos, so forth. It’s an amazing job, and there were restrictions in America as opposed to in Europe where there are more soft laws around those things.

Was that still preferable to making up logos and such?
I think we express ourselves through objects as well as our behavior, so it’s important to try to get it right, and it’s also a slight sense of anthropology in any project, particularly when I do it abroad. I wanted the American elements to be right. I even went to a high school and researched. Looked at cheerleaders. "What is that man from Norway doing looking at cheerleaders with a notepad?"

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In general, how did the experience of doing a film in English differ — aside from the obvious?
I think that every day, coming on set, it was like we had erected a music festival with tents and catering and 40 trucks. The team was tremendous. But having said that, around the camera it felt very similar. I felt that American team was very professional and quick. Union rules are very strict, especially in New York, but we found a good way, you know. But this tier of a movie, that was quite overwhelming.

Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter @nedrick
 
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