In 1998, a young Swedish director named Lukas Moodysson delivered what might be the best coming-of-age film of the past couple of decades with the provocatively titled Fucking Amal (released in the U.S. as Show Me Love). It was a tender, vérité-influenced portrait of two young girls — one an outcast, the other a popular girl — falling in love, accompanied by a spot-on pop soundtrack that seemed to be its own character in the film. Moodysson followed that with the similarly impressive Together, a funny, sharply observed look at the travails of a lefty commune in the 1970s. After those two breakthrough films, Moodysson became a major international figure, with films like Lilya-4-Ever (a devastating look at a young Russian girl's descent into the underworld) and Mammoth, a we're-all-connected drama starring Gael García Bernal and Michelle Williams. Now Moodysson has returned to the world of the coming-of-age film with We Are the Best!, an exuberant tale of three young girls starting a punk band and discovering the joys of art, friendship, and atonal rage. It's an explosive, colorful, and occasionally even angry return to form for the director. He sat down with us during a recent visit to New York and talked about working with kids, the perils of parenting, and that time he flicked off the Swedish film industry.
The performances of the three girls in We Are the Best! are incredible. These girls are newcomers, and they’re young. How did you work with them?
I think I’m good at building a team around me that can take care of people. Building a whole universe around a film set is important — making sure that people get enough sleep and get enough to drink and things like that. I think that’s a really underrated thing, especially when you’re working with children. I have three kids myself, and if I would let them go be part of a film set, I would be very, very careful. It’s a big thing to have a child working. So I try to make sure I’m putting a lot of effort into creating an almost cozy atmosphere, a safe environment where everyone feels at home and all of that. And that sort of like, hopefully, gives me back something – which is that I can then push them harder. That’s a really big part of it: remembering that they are children outside of the filming, but when we’re filming, just really treating them like adults.
In the U.S., as you know, there are lots of rules about how you work with children. Do you have similar things in Sweden?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. It’s very restricted. And you have to follow the rules very strictly. But actually the one rule that we never really told the children about is that, if they’re under a certain age, they can never, under any circumstances, be forced to work. Which means that they can, in the middle of a scene, just say, “I’m going now. I’m gonna get a hamburger. Bye.” So they didn’t know it, but they really had this whole production in their hands. Two days before we stopped filming, they could have said, “I don’t want to be part of this film any longer.” A contract doesn’t matter, because the law says that you can never force them to work.
That would have been very punk-rock of them, to just step away from the movie and say, “We’re not doing this anymore!”
Yeah. They never really turned into divas. But they did get in a lot of fights, actually. Can I say that? I don’t think that’s secret. Not physical fights, but arguments. We had to have a lot of peace talks. [Laughs.] If you think about it, they didn’t know each other before, and now they were forced to be together the whole time for a month and a half, away from everything. And they just wanted to go home sometimes. But in general, it was one of the nicest film shoots that I’ve ever done.
We Are the Best! seems to harken back to the style of Fucking Amal (Show Me Love) and Together. Would you agree?
It is a return. But every time you return and you have spent some years somewhere else, the thing you return to has also changed. So, it’s like going back to where you grew up or something. It’s like a spiral. I have so many different voices, or so many different approaches to life, that I can’t just go on one straight line, I have to go back sometimes. For me it’s not problematic that I went back to something else or something earlier. I think there was something that I missed in those first two films that I made, something I felt I wanted to develop further. And it has not so much to do with the story, but more like the tone or the atmosphere.
Fucking Amal felt a lot darker. Here it felt like joy was this film’s engine, even though there was a lot of anger in it.
My intention behind the film is very much about joy, and how there are always small possibilities of joy and hope and happiness. And I think it was also a film that came out of … well, sometimes there are things that happen to you in life, but you can’t talk about them because it’s someone else’s experience. But there was a time when someone I knew a little bit had had a terrible experience. It was a friend of one of my children, and I just thought, Life is so difficult for young people. So in a strange way, the idea for the film is borne a little bit out of frustration and anger, and feeling that I had to do something that was uplifting. It’s weird, because some of the darker things I’ve written have been made during really happy circumstances, and the opposite. So Hole in My Heart, for example, I remember writing part of it while I was on vacation with my family and my newborn daughter. I was in a great place in Greece, with nice family bonding, and then at the same time I was able to sort of write these terrible, terrible scenes. So often, things are sort of born out of their opposite.
Are there times in your life when you feel like a political filmmaker at all?
A long time ago, actually. I don’t feel very political at the moment. I’m quite skeptical about politics, maybe because I’m older, and as I get older I’m maybe a little bit smarter and find it more and more difficult to come up with good or easy answers for things. At the same time, I think it is a very political statement in general to make a film that takes young people seriously and takes girls seriously, because it’s a male-dominated world. But I don’t really believe in strict ideologies. They usually go wrong. I’m getting more and more skeptical about ideologies that sort of try to explain the whole world with one system.
Together is a wonderful expression of that. And I find that the most committed directors of the left are also the ones who seem the most skeptical of Leftism and ideology.
Yeah. And this is not really a big subject in this film, but there is sort of a left-wing criticism against the left wing. The parents’ generation in this film is very liberated – they’re very “cool” – but their kids feel neglected. I have a feeling that the left sometimes has this tendency to be more interested in people far away, and forgetting the people close to you, while the right is actually the opposite, caring only about immediate family, the ones within the walls, and not the people far away. So sometimes I think maybe the right-wing approach to children is better. In the left, I see so many self-obsessed parents forgetting about the children. I think a lot of it has to do with skepticism of authority, so you don’t want to take that responsibility of being an authority yourself. I see so many young people around me whose only support in life is other kids. And I hear lots of people of my generation say, “Yeah, she’s 14 now, but she’s okay, she’s taking care of herself.” And I don’t believe in that.
Great. So now I’m the reactionary father. [Laughs.]
You’re Christian, too.
You’ve talked about your faith in the past. And you’re also still a man of the left. Do you find it interesting how in the U.S., religion and the right wing seem so much closer? It’s very different than in Europe.
Yeah, my son, for example, my oldest — wow, I’m talking a lot about my children, but I’m sure they don’t mind — he’s very, very anti-religious. That’s sort of a big thing for him. But his idea about Christianity comes very much from the internet, the things he reads about. He talks a lot about prejudice and anti-gay and anti-this and how terrible Christianity is. But really, have you met a lot of Christians? Or have you just read about them on the internet? And he says, “I haven’t truly met them, but I know what they are.” So, I think from a Swedish perspective, it’s sort of different. The religion of the Swedish church, the major church in Sweden, is very, very liberal and not right-wing at all.
Is it true you flicked off the Swedish film industry at an awards show once?
Yeah, but it’s not as serious as it sounds. It was more like a reaction, it was more sort of like [flips the bird casually]. I was just angry at something.
Well, the girls do it at the end of this movie.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, it felt like that. No, I made a speech at an awards show, and it was just a really stupid and childish speech about things that were on my mind, and then there were a few people who started booing. So, then I just felt like, You can all go … You know. But it turned out to be a big thing, actually. I don’t think I truly expected that. I didn’t think about the fact that people were watching this on television. I just felt like I was in a room of stupid colleagues. [Laughs] I think for some weeks – or for some days, at least – I was the most hated person in Sweden.
So your relationship with the industry has changed, it seems?
Well, it would be stupid of me to say that I’m any kind of outsider. I’m very established and I get to make the films I make. So, I don’t feel sorry for myself or anything like that. But I’ve never really been interested in a lot of other people who make films. But, for example, it doesn’t really matter for me, but at the same awards thing this year, the actresses in the film, they were not even nominated for anything. Nothing. I mean, how did they find some other actors in Swedish films that year that were better than these three?
Music plays such an important part in your films. Do you know the songs you’ll use when you’re writing the film beforehand?
Some. For example, in this film, I knew that I wanted to use that song “Hang God.” Because I wanted a discussion about hanging God, if that’s possible to do if you don’t believe in him. And then I wanted that song “602,” because I wanted her to play that on the acoustic guitar. But it’s a combination. Some were added afterwards. But it’s really like a greatest-hits film, greatest-hits collection for me, because these are really the songs that I grew up with and that I listened to when I was young. So “602,” for example, was really the song that I felt was the best song ever back then.
How has your taste in music changed over the years?
It actually changed quite soon after 13, when I moved from the sort of angry, punk music to the more melancholy, post-punk thing with the Cure and things like that. So when I was 14, I wasn’t really listening to punk any longer so it changed somewhere there. But music has always been very important for me. I listen to a lot, but I can also be very monotone, so at some points I can just listen to one song or one artist. And it means a lot to me to be able to remember the songs, still listening to the songs that I grew up with and not to forget that part of me, but at the same time be able to change and listen to new things and so on. For this film I had to go back to 12 and 13. But that kind of music is part of what created you, and how you turned out to be, so it’s important not to forget that.
It’s a connection we have with artists and with authors, too. I think when you’re a teenager and you discover certain artists — musicians or authors or whatever — it’s like they’re speaking to you. In a way, that’s sort of what this movie is about, isn’t it? The idea of connecting with a kind of art form at a time in your life when you need it.
That’s nice to hear. I mean, in the book, they actually take one step more, but there wasn’t room for that in the film. There is a moment where someone has actually brought home a Cure record, and they’re like, “This is strange. It’s not really punk, but yeah, well, should we listen to this? Okay.”
Would you ever do a follow-up to this movie?
Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It’s my wife’s story, and I know what happened to her, and I know a little bit about what happened to her friends from that time, so it’s very tempting to do a film about our generation. But I don’t think I will do it just now.
What about going back to the kind of ambitious, international filmmaking of a film like Mammoth? Does it even seem like a different kind of filmmaking to you?
Yeah, it feels like a different kind of filmmaking, and it feels like a project that was too big for me in many ways. I think I feel much more at home when I can focus on details and smaller things. For me, it was a problem of quantity rather than quality. It took too much time. I couldn’t focus the whole time. But I really enjoyed some parts of it. I enjoyed very much working with Michelle Williams, for example, and some of the other actors. But I couldn’t just keep focused the whole time. One thing that felt really nice with this film was to go back to my own language. Because we Swedes sometimes believe that we speak better English than we do, and we sort of believe that we understand the nuances better than we do, and it’s not true. It was a wonderful relief to understand all the small, subtle nuances of all the words. Making a film in English feels a bit like playing the piano with big gloves on your hands and you’re clumsy, you know?