Joachim Trier on The Worst Person in the World, a film for our generation

The Oscar-nominated fifth feature by the Danish-born Norwegian filmmaker finds hope in a world of darkness and despair.

Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World was conceived before the pandemic, shot and released during it. Told in 12 chapters, it’s a coming of age story of Julie (the magnetic Renate Reinsve) over four years. She changes vocations and lovers as she navigates modern life. In reality, fractured by screens and social pressures, she searches for a more profound sense of self. 

In the wake of the pandemic, the film captures the zeitgeist of a generation of young people faced with an uncertain future. The path many of us found ourselves on two years ago now seems impossible. Who are we, and who do we want to be? The endless future that seemed ripe with endless opportunities has narrowed down to a few small paths. The film’s formal adventurousness features epic and grotesque romantic gestures, a frozen ballet at the heart of Oslo and a mind-altering psychedelic experience. This deep sense of play speaks to the pliability of our identities: we’re not just formed by what we do, but what we imagine and how we’re loved. Even if Julie’s life is marked by loss and uncertainty, she finds love and happiness. 

Earlier this week, Joachim Trier was nominated for two Oscars; for Best International Feature Film and Best Original Screenplay with his co-writer Eskil Vogt. The Worst Person in the World is his fifth feature. 

Justine Smith: Many of your films deal with characters torn between the pursuit of life and art. In movies like The Red Shoes, these characters tend to choose annihilation rather than one or the other. With The Worst Person in the World, you reject that self-destruction. How important is it that this film ends on a more optimistic note? 

Joachim Trier: I hope that there’s hope at the end of my film. I feel that I’ve made some true tragedies, like Oslo August 31st. As I’m older, I wanted to make something about self-love and hope; the endurance of loss that shapes us. I’ve been through loss and the loss of love. It’s made me more resilient. It’s taught me humbleness. 

I don’t want to sound like a hippie, but in an era where there’s so much pressure, particularly on young people, I wanted to make a film with warmth and hope but wasn’t shying away from the fact that life is also sometimes tragic and sad. Working with Eskil Vogt, my dear friend and co-writer, I wanted to make a romantic and fun film. But I also know we’re going to write something sad because we care about things like the passage of time and mortality. They keep coming back in all of our films.

The dichotomy in Reprise, the film we did 15 years ago, was the dichotomy of life versus art — an impossible dichotomy like in The Red Shoes or a beautiful short story by Henry James called The Lesson of the Master. With Julie in The Worst Person in the World, there’s more of a Julie versus others – this question of whether she will be able to sustain any sense of self-acceptance when there are family pressures, this love you’re yearning for and professional choices. I see it as a different dichotomy.

The worst person in the world Joachim Trier
Joachim Trier and Renate Reinsve on the set of The Worst Person in the World

JS: The film tackles this experience of growing up and the melancholy of having to mourn all these versions of yourself that never could exist because you don’t have enough time to do and be everything. Do you ever mourn versions of yourself that never existed?

JT: Maybe I also mourn versions of myself that I was allowed to be but couldn’t continue. There’s this wonderful book called Missing Out by Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst. He said, watching people you realize how much of people’s “real life” is stuff that never happened. Your sense of self is connected to things that never materialize in reality: imagining that ex you might end up with or that job you don’t like might change. That dichotomy between those energies fascinates me. Life has to feel endlessly possible, but we’re not going to live forever. I’m trying to bring these philosophical ideas down to a simple level of human character.

JS: Can you discuss the atmosphere you’re creating with others while working on a film?

JT: I don’t like to create stuff alone. I’m very fortunate to have a super team and great actors. Choosing who I’m collaborating with is half the job, if not more. I love to work with people where I erase their sense of distance to [the material], and it becomes them. A lot of the actors I work with, halfway through the shoot, say, “I don’t know what’s me and the character anymore.” Every moment needs to feel like you’re responding as yourself. And that’s my job to bring them there through a lot of rehearsal and conversations on set.

I let them explore how they would react and see where that takes us. Even in the writing room, which is more intellectual, I want room for formal and silly ideas. We’re making a film with mortality and these big existential questions on one end, and then on the other, someone farting on a toilet. That’s what I love. 

I see a lot of films get bogged down with the pressures of financing, and the grownups want you to make films a certain way because it looks sellable. I know that pressure to hook people. I try to have fun because life is short. That’s my ideal. I’m not saying every day is fun. Some days it’s pouring rain, and we’re trying to do something beautiful, but we all feel terrible, but a lot of the time I think it’s fun to make movies.

Renate Reinsve in The Worst Person in the World (directed by Joachim Trier)

JS: Your films feel very intimate, as if they capture very private moments. How do you work to capture that feeling on-screen with the actors?

JT: That is the art of good direction. I try the best I can to allow the actors to feel intimate with the camera and the other actors. It can even be freer than in real life because it’s fiction. It’s a kind of perverse, enjoyable game that we play where we’re allowed to be there and explore something time and time again. We get a groove going where we don’t owe anyone an explanation other than just being and doing. It’s not an intellectual pursuit but letting something happen. 

Some people might find the shot/reverse I sometimes do unvirtuous because we should move the characters and not cut between faces, but I love close-ups. I love to trigger an event with the actors who feel so at ease they can reveal something that is even a little bit mysterious to themselves sometimes. They don’t owe me to explain what went on. I’ll never push an actor to do something they’re uncomfortable with: There has to be trust. I’m given the material [footage of the performance], and it’s my job to do my best with it, treat it respectfully, in alliance with the actors’ intentions. I take that very seriously. 

JS: This might seem like a strange question, but do you keep a diary?

JT: My films are, more than anything, where I put all my understanding of the world. I try daily to come up with ideas for the film. In writing, it’s obvious we come up with many ideas, but also, during the shooting, I try to think of new angles or something new to be said. All my creative input goes into that more than noting things down. The danger, though, is that life flies by fast, you know? 

When I was a teen, I filmed all my friend’s skateboarding and edited it together with music. Some of them became pretty popular underground skate movies. I can look back at them, and they’re moments from my life. I remember the streets, the light, that summer and those people. Some of them have passed away, some of my old skate buddies ended up in bad places, and some had a wonderful life. Life is messy, but I can look back on my films, and they’re pieces of my life that I spent with great friends. That’s my diary.

The Worst Person in the World opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Feb. 11.

The Worst Person in the World (Directed by Joachim Trier)

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