Ruben Östlund, the Palme d’Or-winning director of “The Square,” did not binge-watch series on a couch during the pandemic. Instead, Östlund, who received the 2021 Nordic Honorary Dragon Award on Thursday, told Variety that he had the time of his life shooting “Triangle of Sadness,” his most ambitious film to date, in exotic locations with a multinational cast, including Woody Harrelson.
The 72-day shoot took place on a deserted Island in Greece and onboard The Christina O, a prestigious yacht whose passengers have included Winston Churchill, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe.
Perks aside, Östlund admitted that “on a few occasions (he and his producers) weren’t sure (they) could finish the shooting” in the fall.
One key challenge was having the cast travel from multiple locations, but especially the U.S. from where Harrelson flew, in spite of an international travel ban. “The staff at the gate wouldn’t let Woody board the plane. And then, when he arrived, we were afraid he would be sent back to the U.S. We felt that anything could happen at any moment because of the COVID-19 hysteria,” said Östlund, who mentioned that the production carried out 1,061 tests throughout filming and all were negative.
It was also a race against the clock to wrap shooting on the yacht before filming restrictions kicked in in Greece.
“We had to shoot several days on the yacht just as Greece was going into lockdown, and we knew that if we couldn’t finish the shoot on the yacht, we would lose everything, (including) one big scene where we blow everything up!” said Östlund.
The film boasts a €13 million ($15.6 million) budget and a splashy production value. “It’s an expensive film. We have a cast with actors of eight different nationalities, we captured the fashion world and we’re blowing things up in a spectacular way, including the yacht (which has) a fun symbolic value,” said the filmmaker.
Östlund also noted he had a blast working with Harrelson, whom he described as a “fantastic person” and “100% socialist” from the “many political discussions” the pair had during filming.
In “Triangle of Sadness,” Harrelson plays a rabid Marxist who is the captain of a cruise for the super-rich. The yacht sinks, leaving survivors, including a fashion model celebrity couple, marooned on an island.
“He’s been famous since he was 20 and now he’s 60 … he’s a superstar but he doesn’t act that way. He’s a very social person and we had so much fun shooting this film. I also pushed him like I push any other actor,” said Östlund, whose banner, Plattform, produced the film with Coproduction Office and Essential Films.
Harrelson stars opposite Harris Dickinson (“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”), Charlbi Dean, Vicki Berlin, Dolly De Leon and Zlatko Buric, among others.
Östlund, who is known for his sharp sense of observation, isn’t done exploring human nature in extreme situations. He’s currently in early development on “The Entertainment System is Down,” a feature project set on board a long-haul flight and inspired by Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel “Brave New World.”
“In a world controlled by advanced entertainment systems, you have people stuck on a long flight with no screens to look at. I’m curious to see if people will start talking to each other or what will happen,” he said.
Östlund added that the movie would be like an experimental lab looking at human behavior from different perspectives. One aspect he’s particularly interested in is the so-called “air rages” among passengers. “Air rages are uncontrollable and considered a danger, so when one happens, the plane has to land. Interestingly enough, air rages are more frequent in business class,” Östlund quipped.
The daring helmer said, going forward, he aims to continue making films with his European production partners, whether or not they’re in English.
“While we were preparing this tribute for the Göteborg Festival with [its artistic director] Jonas Holmberg, it was fun because I could look back at my body of work, my social approach when looking at human behavior and I want this to remain my main focus,” said Östlund, who’s been offered several projects from Hollywood since winning the Palme d’Or for “The Square” in 2017.
Östlund also said he had a special bond with Sweden’s Goteborg Film Festival, where he made his first steps in the film world back in 1998. “It’s like a football team you’re cheering for, or old relatives. I feel loyalty towards them; they have made cinema something that’s alive and interesting, and they’re a big part of why I’m doing what I’m doing.”