Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund is known for his dark comedic and satirical films “Force Majeure,” “The Square,” and his most recent “Triangle of Sadness,” which he wrote and directed. All received largely positive reviews, including his first Palme d’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival for “The Square” in 2017, and one in May for “Triangle of Sadness.”
“When I was cutting [“Triangle of Sadness”], I was terrified that it might [not] be accepted in Cannes because…it's a crazy hard competition to get into,” Östlund affirms. “I was just relieved that we were invited to [it], and then, in Cannes, you have a great screening, [and] you start to read about having a prize. Even more scary thing when you have won two times, you start to dream about winning it again, so you can be the only one that has won it three times. ”
While filming, the director used the Cannes award to incentivize the entire crew.
“It is great to set a goal for yourself when you're talking to the team, when you're talking to the actors…Then people are really putting in some effort,” he claims. “Even if we don't succeed, it's going to push the performers to have [a] high set goal like that.”
Filipina actress Dolly De Leon recalls experiencing Östlund’s motivational Cannes’ speech on the set. “He would always say, ‘Okay, this is for the Palme d'Or.’ It was a norm when we were on set, he would always mention it as a joke, but we all knew he half meant it,” she recalls.
“Triangle of Sadness” satirizes the social hierarchy inside a luxury cruise. Helming it is an unhinged capitan (Woody Harrelson), accompanied by a celebrity model couple, Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) who are invited along with a group of super rich passengers. The seemingly glamorous voyage ends catastrophically, with survivors, including Abigail (De Leon) the ship’s cleaning person, stranded on a desert island and fighting for survival.
In conversation with Kim Masters, Östlund delves into his directing methodology, shooting through the pandemic, funding, and the aftermath of the film’s success, while De Leon discusses her career, the uncertainty of being cast, and how the film changed her life.
De Leon’s iffy audition
De Leon has worked as an actor for 30 years in Manila. Despite having appeared on dozens of TV series and films in the Philippines, she still had to work in different fields to make ends meet.
“I've been a waitress, a cashier. I've also trained people in the corporate setting and offices, management positions. I've hosted children's parties. I've done infomercials, and voiceovers. I've also done some radio… dubbing,” she enumerates. “I think I've done everything in the book.”
Then in 2018, she was called to audition for one of Östlund’s films. “The film industry is a big deal in the Philippines. We love watching films, so I was very familiar with [Östlund’s] work,” De Leon says.
It was also very intimidating. “It's Ruben! I knew about his films, and he had [a] reputation in the Philippines.”
Even with her film and TV roster, De Leon wasn’t confident about her try out.
“Going into that audition, I really didn't think I was gonna get it at all because I don't really do very well in auditions. So I just went in to have fun, and to see what's going to happen,” she says. “I was just so relaxed and being in the moment and not being too eager to get the part because I knew I wasn't gonna get it.”
Meanwhile, Östlund watched several casting tapes to “understand who should play the part” of Abigail, the ship’s cleaning person. He was searching for an actor who could play being at the bottom of the hierarchy on a yacht to then climb to the top in just a few scenes.
“It's a very tricky part,” the director explains because, “we had to believe that this character does this journey in three scenes, basically, and takes control over the island, so that was a really hard nut to crack.”
When the director saw De Leon’s test tape, he felt she was a fit.
“What you can tell when you're working with [De Leon], there is not a false second. Everything feels true,” he says. “[She] is probably a person that has a huge problem [with] lying, because she can't lie. As an actor that often is quite close to the personality of a person. She's someone that actually can play high status really, really well.”
Being in the film changed De Leon’s life
De Leon got the part and the recognition for it, winning the 2022 LAFCA Award for Best Supporting Performance. But once “Triangle of Sadeness” received a Palme d’Or at Cannes, her career started to reorient.
“It's so weird, because I didn't think it would. I knew that the film would be received very well. I knew that it would be an opportunity for me to be seen, but not in this magnitude,” she says. “I did not expect this. So it's changed everything for me.”
Though De Leon has had an extensive career, she says she didn’t have an agent nor a manager: “Everything is through word of mouth. I even got this part without an agent, so I figured that I can survive being an actor, without anyone helping me.”
But once she started getting more attention, her co-star in “Triangle of Sadness” Charlbi Dean encouraged her to hire help. “She really opened my eyes to it and told me, ‘You need to get an agent. You need to have someone take care of all your needs,’ she recalls. “I didn't even really know what agents did, and she explained everything to me, and she even recommended her own agent. She was really a very caring person. She always looked out for the comfort of everyone around her.”
Dean, an upcoming South-African model and actor died unexpectedly in August. “Triangle of Sadness” was her break-through role, but she had appeared in the DC Comics series “Black Lightning” and several other TV and film productions.
With Dean’s advice, De Leon hired a manager and an agent and she will be working in the United States next year. “That's a big change for me because I've been working in one country all my life,” she adds.
With her career taking off, De Leon says she’s ready for new challenges.
“I've been so hungry and really yearning to learn from other cultures and learn from other filmmakers like [Östlund], who I've learned so much [from], and to me that growth never ends,” she explains. “The only way to maximize your development in any craft that you do is to learn from many different schools of acting. So that's the biggest change right now for me.”
Östlund’s process = filming dozens of takes
While preparing for her role, De Leon says she started reading about Östlund, watching interviews with him and actors who had worked with him, so she became aware of his filming process. But her audition was in 2018, so by the time they started production two years later, she completely forgot about his methodology of shooting the same scene dozens of times.
“I don't know why it went over my head. So on my first day, when he kept making me do that one scene of knocking on the cabin door of Yaya [Dean] and Carl [Dickinson] over and over again, I was starting to doubt myself and question: ‘Maybe I'm not an actress after all,’” she observes. “[As] I was starting to doubt myself, I remembered this is how he does it. He really does it over and over again. After that, it was smooth sailing. My body got used to the way he did things, and it actually kind of worked to everyone's advantage, his process.”
As a filmmaker, Östlund says he adopted this methodology to get to a point where he finds a unique angle of what the actor wants to say on the scene, or allows for changes on the script, and for the actors to improvise.
“[The actors] know where they're going, where they [are] coming from, but I also love to add things if it's something that they need,” he explains. After the actors do a combination of the scene and repeating it many times, they should “have an extreme feeling of their presence.”
He adds, “They are not performing. I want them to feel safe and secure because I believe that's when [they] become the best performers.”
Casting Woody Harrelson
Östlund grew up seeing Woody Harrelson on TV and films like “Natural Born Killers” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt” in Sweden, so he was familiarized with the actor.
“[There’s] just something unique with Woody that you'd like him. When you watch his face, he's likable, you want to spend time with him,” Östlund remarks. “My dream was to work with him.”
The filmmaker also knew it was important to cast a known actor to help with the film’s distribution, get more recognition and media coverage. At the same time, he knew there were risks associated with it.
“That is also a little bit the tricky part of working with a famous actor because [he has] to trust you as a director and trust that you will take care of their performance,” he says. So pushing them to do their best acting and convince them that they were not cast only for their name were two of Östlund’s goals.
He also made sure Harrelson's presence was entertaining for the audience. “I thought it was fun that the first three scenes, we only hear his voice and the third time when [he’s] finally opening up the door, you’d be like, ‘Ah, it’s actually Woody Harrelson playing the part,’ so, it would be fun to play around with like a famous actor like that.”
The epic vomiting sequences
After making the skiing comedy-drama “Force Majeure” Östlund’s writing and directing started to bring more action scenes to his films.
“You try to push everyday as far as possible. You want something extraordinary to happen every day when [filming] skiing,” he asserts.
In “Triangle of Sadness,” he incorporated those skills into the film’s vomiting sequences.
“I want every scene to be strong enough to be able to stand for itself. I, of course, want to try to push it a little bit further,” he says. “I also felt it can be kind of childish with these vomiting scenes if you don't go far enough, but if you go 10 steps further than the audience expects you to do, then something will happen.”
Shooting straight into the pandemic
Pre-production on “Triangle of Sadness” started in 2018. By the time shooting began in early 2020, Östlund says he started hearing rumors on the set about COVID and the pandemic in China and then in northern Italy. He thought it could be a problem for the film, but decided he was overreacting, and what he was feeling was general pressures associated with shooting.
“But then it came closer and closer and it was basically a stress factor to every part of the process because we had flown in actors from all over the world, and it was very expensive to have a break in the shooting,” he recalls.
“At the same time, we were shooting in the studio these vomiting scenes where people were on alert when you were coughing,” he observes. “It was a very strange feeling to shoot all these vomiting scenes when everybody walked around and was scared about the pandemic and the disease that we really didn't know how dangerous it was.”
The pandemic also made it more challenging to bring everyone together. Film producers spent hours on the phone convincing airlines to allow actors flying from different parts of the world to board planes from the Philippines, South Africa and the United States. The movie ended up being shot in three chunks between lockdowns in 2020: mid-February to late March in Sweden, late June to early July in Sweden, then mid-September to mid-November in Greece.
All of that added to the film’s approximately $11 million budget, which in Sweden was partially subsidized by the Swedish Film Institute to cover extra costs from the pandemic including over 1,200 COVID tests - “all of them were negatives, [so] we were extremely lucky,” the director says.
Different funding attitudes
Östlund attributes his ability to make “Triangle of Sadness” to the way the state funds the film industry in Europe.
“[There’s] something about the state funded system [where] as soon as I get the money, I am economically safe. That's not the case in the US because you have to reach orders, you have to get the orders to pay the ticket and go to the cinema before you are economically safe,” he observes. “So there's two different attitudes when it comes to these two industries.”
But while he doesn’t have the constraints to play it safe with certain genre movies, and can “go for risk-taking projects,” he feels the European film industry lost some connection with its audience. He believes Americans are much better at building an audience culture and getting connected to it.
With this film, he believes he did “something that was in between the American and the European cinema,” that’s why it has been received so well.
A bidding war for the film
Once the movie was presented at Cannes, several companies entered a bidding process to acquire it: A24, Searchlight, Hulu, Focus Films and Sony Pictures Classics. Imperative Entertainment bought the film’s rights for the US market.
“When we [heard] a lot of orders [for] the movie…I felt that I had delivered,” he says. “It's such a joy when you see the people that believed in you, and believed in the project get paid off, it makes me happy.”
Östlund’s next project
Now that this film is done, Östlund says he has “no problem with spoilers,” having told a journalist how “Triangle of Sadness” ended before he started shooting it.
His next movie will take place on a long-haul, possibly a 17-hour flight from London to Sydney, called “The Entertainment System Is Down.” Soon after takeoff, passengers hear the crew announce that the entertainment system is not working and are offered compensation: a sandwich and water, making them furious and unsatisfied.
“So we have these [people with] their iPhones and iPads doomed to this analog reality,” he says. “I think it's going to be very interesting to look at modern human beings when [they] are dealing with that.”