Force Majeure Director Ruben Östlund Wonders Whether the Media Is the Problem

In Sweden, Ruben Östlund is using public transportation and considering how the life he experiences off-line contrasts with the digital world. Photo: Ibl/Shutterstock

Things feel quite calm here in Sweden, I must say. Of course, we are concerned about older generations, like my parents, and we are constantly following the numbers, trying to figure out if Sweden is doing things the right way or not. But no one seems to be panicking. There have been some debates in the media. Anders Tegnell, the country’s top epidemiologist, has been criticized — but even though Sweden is considered a little extreme in terms of how they’ve handled the coronavirus, people here seem to mostly trust the government. One thing with Swedes is that as soon as you get good weather outside, the mood changes. We’ve had really good weather for the last three or four weeks, so that really affects our temperament. I have not met anyone who is really nervous or panicking. But then if you look at how things are written about the coronavirus in the media, it’s a different thing; I have to separate these two things when I’m trying to navigate my own life. When I meet my family, my friends, and other people around me, they all seem quite calm.

Live events and things like that are closed. So no cinemas, no concerts. Schools after grade nine are closed. My daughters are in gymnasium [high school], and they are studying from home. In the beginning, they were happy about not having to go to school, but now I think they miss it. It’s boring to be at home. And they’re finding it hard to actually learn anything. But a lot of places are still open, like restaurants. Yesterday I used public transport — a tram, and then a boat — to go to the island where I was brought up. I was visiting my mom. She had to sit behind a glass door, so we talked on the phone through this glass door. On the street, you can see people trying to walk one and a half meters away from each other. Maybe younger people have less respect for this, but older people are following this recommendation. You see a couple of people with masks every day, but not that many; I thought there would be more.

I first started reading about the coronavirus just before we were to start production on my new film — in January or so, when it was in China. As we got closer to our shoot, which started on February 19, you could see that it was getting closer. It was in Iran, and then the first cases in Italy. I started to get concerned because I thought that this was one of the very few things that could force us to stop shooting. I only shoot for around 65 days every three years, and every time I get close to shooting, I start to worry that some kind of catastrophe will interrupt the shoot. Usually I’m not too worried about things going on in the world, but this time I was like, Okay, if there is something that can screw it up for us, it could be the coronavirus. But I didn’t dare to tell anyone because I was so nervous that I would jinx it.

We shot for about 25 days, starting on February 19. Then we basically followed the recommendations from the Swedish state and stopped. We could tell that around the world people were starting to lock down countries, and we were nervous, because we have an international cast and we have some older actors, and we worried that they would not be allowed to come back. No one from our cast and crew has been seriously ill, but one person got tested when he returned home and found out that he had the coronavirus.

What happens in my new film is that some models and billionaires on a luxury yacht hit a storm, and the boat goes under and they all wind up stranded on a deserted island. So suddenly it’s like a postapocalyptic situation, and civilization is gone. When we were shooting in the studio, we built the interior of the yacht, and we were simulating a storm. We put the set on a gimbal, so we could rock it 20 degrees and create these really spectacular shots. So, here I was shooting these actors as they sat in their cabins, and there was all this darkness outside, and you could hear the sound of this big gimbal moving. And meanwhile we were all worried about what was happening in the world outside. It was like we managed in some way to illustrate all this real fear.

The production was already supposed to have a break at this point, and I managed to shoot basically everything that we wanted to shoot in the studio. We’re supposed to resume shooting on a beach in Greece — that was scheduled to happen a week from now, but now I don’t know when we will start again. I basically edit all my films myself first, and then I work together with a Danish editor. He will come in next spring, so right now, I am able to edit the footage we have. So in many ways, my life has continued fairly normally.

But even without a lockdown in Sweden, things have slowed down in pace. Which allows us to embrace the kind of rhythm you find in older movies. I like a lot, and I’ve been using that to look at some classics. The last film I watched was Fassbinder’s Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? It was my first time watching it. I saw Taking Off by Milos Forman on DVD. I’ve also been watching [Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s] The Vietnam War TV series.

When we first ended up in this situation, I was pretty sure that the forces of the market economy and this capitalistic society that we live in would fight much harder to not shut down. I was actually surprised at how easily these big companies accepted the situation. It’s clear that the power of the media today has increased so much. Today, we have an attention economy, where the only way that you can get attention for the ads in your paper or get subscribers is because you’re grabbing the viewer — therefore media is constantly dependent on trying to find a conflict. My film The Square is a little bit about this, actually. When we go on the road and we see a car accident, we know that we will look that way. But if you have another accident that is even worse, on the other side of the street, everybody will look at that side of the street. In order to get attention today, you have to try to build conflict all the time, and you need to find news even if there is no news. And when you talk about it, the more extreme language you use, the more attention you get. Of course, in America, you have the best example of this with your president.

I have started to consider the world that I am experiencing off-line in one way, and the world that I’m experiencing online, in the digital world, in a completely different way. Because my awareness, my fears and everything, are so connected to the digital world. When I see my real life — my off-line life, so to speak — then everything seems so much more normal. So now, I try to keep them separate. It will be interesting, when we look back on this time in a few years, if we will maybe consider the media to have been one of the biggest problems.

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Force Majeure Director Wonders If the Media Is the Problem