From the earliest days of his career, Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund has experimented with the cinematic form to better express his chosen narratives. The recipient of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize in 2014 for Force Majeure (his third feature), along with this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for The Square, it’s an approach which has clearly paid dividends. Making its way online as part of Vimeo’s Staff Picks Premieres, Östlund’s Berlinale Golden Bear winning short Incident by a Bank (2009) was one of the first films to explore the potential of new shooting and editing techniques made possible by the high resolution of the Red camera. In this extract from our 2011 podcast interview with Östlund, we discuss his disinterest in Hollywood movies and how he built his career by embracing digital technology to tell stories in new ways.
If there is a ‘traditional’ route to filmmaking, it’s not the one you took.
No. Actually I started by making sky films. I was very interested in downhill skiing and spent a lot of my winters in the Alps and in North America. Suddenly I came into contact with a small production company in Gothenburg where I live who produced ski movies and I started to make ski films, filming in the winter and editing in the summer. I did this for around five years. In the beginning I was more interested in skiing but in the end, I was more interested in filming than in skiing. Around that time I applied to the film school in Gothenburg.
How did you come to form Plattform (the production company behind all your films) with Producer Erik Hemmendorff? It seems that the projects you create there take a consciously different approach to filmmaking.
Well the first thing was that we got a feeling when we were ending film school, that all the people who were in the film industry thought that film as an expression was at its height in the 60s with the French New Wave and so on. That that was the peak of filmmaking and the peak of the film as an art form. This was something that we of course as new graduates didn’t want to agree on!
The technical movement and the technical inventions have always moved filmmaking forward.
When I graduated in 2001, the moving image was in a very developing phase because of the digital era. That suddenly everybody was leaving the analogue 35mm film to start shooting digitally. If you look at the ways that film has developed during history, when the small 16mm camera was invented, suddenly something happened with the expression of film. The technical movement and the technical inventions have always moved filmmaking forward.
What we thought when we were ending school was, “Okay, we are in the most interesting time ever when it comes to filmmaking”, but we could feel so many conservative thoughts and views of how films should be made. We didn’t actually feel that we fit in in the Swedish film industry at that time so we wanted to create a platform where we could try to use the advantage of that developing technology. For us it was a big reason of why we wanted to start this production company.
The advantages of the high resolution digital image underlies the creation of Incident by a Bank and to a certain extent melds the roles of cinematographer and editor.
Yeah exactly. That’s one of the things I’m very interested in. Since the Red camera’s resolution is so much higher than other digital cameras, suddenly you can zoom in digitally afterwards and create the framing in the editing room. That was the way we made a camera movement in Incident by a Bank because it’s completely shot with a fixed camera. Afterwards we created all the camera movements in the edit and this of course changes the relationships between the professions a little bit. No longer is it the cinematographer who sets the framing of the shot, it’s the editor who decides which framing we should use. But for me, the main reason that I wanted to use this technique was that I was able to control real-time.
When you watch Incident by a Bank which is an 11 minute long shot, you’re really there, you see it as a real-time shot without any cuts but actually there are five different takes that are combined. So when you move from one side of the frame to another side of the frame you can go over to another take without noticing that we are breaking the real-time. And for me real-time is actually one of the most interesting things about filmmaking. The real-time aspect of filmmaking is what makes it different from other art forms.
Incident by a Bank is about a failed bank robbery that I was an eye witness to. If I was to reconstruct that incident in a more traditional way, what very often happens is that the most dramatic points are like the highlights of the film. But when you do it in a real-time shot, then guns going off is just as dramatic as those two main characters who are complaining about the cameras on their mobile phone. Those events are equal in the real-time shot, so a real-time shot is a way to highlight the banal things, the very subtle things as much as the very dramatic things.
This is the short that we made before Play as a way of testing out the technique that I wanted to use in that feature. Often I try out things that I’m curious about in a short. Actually, I worked for half a year on Incident by a Bank, so if you compare how long my shorts are compared to the feature films, I work twice as long on the shorts.
Your interest in portraying everyday actions feels diametrically opposed to Hollywood’s bombastic approach to cinema.
One of the reasons that I’m not really interested in Hollywood movies is because they are so traditional and they are just repeating the same story over and over again. I think in years to come that will be as interesting for our time as the opera is now. The opera doesn’t say a lot about our time that we live in right now and that’s what I can see the future of a certain kind of film and a certain kind of movie is. It’s not interesting in our time any more. It’s interesting in a similar way to collecting stamps is. It’s like a nerd thing almost because you have to have so many references to the history of filmmaking to actually think it’s interesting.
The main reason that I wanted to use this technique was that I was able to control real-time.
That’s one of the reasons that I think it’s important to move away from the Anglo-Saxon drama to a degree and to try to find new ways. If the digital revolution has created the opportunity to shoot at a much lower cost, then we also should be able to make the spectra of the expression much wider than before. Before it was very very narrow, all films looked almost like each other and suddenly we have the possibility to widen the spectra and make films that look different in a 1000 different ways.