Ruben Östlund interview: ‘Triangle of Sadness’ writer-director
“One problem we have is that we have a really hard time to climb down the ladder. As soon as we have gotten up in a certain position, we are going to fight to keep that position,” reflects Ruben Östlund on why money and privilege often cause people to do such terrible things. Those themes abound in the writer-director’s film “Triangle of Sadness,” a riotously funny and disturbing satire exploring beauty, wealth, and survival. Watch our exclusive video interview above.
“Triangle of Sadness” begins as a character study of two models, Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (the late Charlbi Dean), who have hit some rough waters early on in their relationship, arguing about who should pick up the bill after a lavish dinner. Östlund based this scene on an experience from his own life when he had just started dating his wife. He shares that translating this personal memory felt “very painful to do,” but he felt it worked perfectly to open the film because of how he could bring the movie’s “thematics to a very simple situation.”
In the second part of the film, the writer introduces a host of unforgettable characters when Carl and Yaya embark on a jaunt on a luxury yacht, including a Marxist captain, a Russian oligarch and his family, and a war-profiteering British husband and wife. Despite these diverse backgrounds and some outlandish scenarios, Östlund says, “It’s very important to always treat my characters 100% so I can relate to their behavior. If I can’t relate to their behavior then I’m failing as a director and I would probably not include it in the movie.”
Woody Harrelson stars in the memorable supporting role as the boat’s socialist captain, and it was this character Östlund first imagined when writing this section of the screenplay. “I just was fond of the idea of someone reading from the ‘Communist Manifesto’ through the speaker system out to passengers that are dealing with seasickness and vomiting, at the same time having to hear him ranting about socialism and Communism.”
The scene of seasickness that Östlund alludes to is an outrageous and brilliantly executed pageant of bodily fluids that strikes as almost everyone on the boat suffers from severe nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea when the yacht hits particularly stormy seas during dinner. The director shares that production designer Josefin Åsberg constructed “the interior to a luxury yacht on a gimbal so we could rock it so the furniture starts sliding in the room.” The technically-challenging sequence took 13 eight-hour days to film with constant rocking, so much so that “even the crew got seasick” because “it’s the same effect on you as if you’re on a yacht in a stormy ocean.” The director describes this aspect of the shoot as “chaotic.”
The third part of “Triangle of Sadness” occurs on a deserted island after the yacht is shipwrecked. Carl, Yaya, and a few other guests survive, along with Abigail, a shrewd member of the ship’s crew that Östlund featured in only two short scenes while on the boat. The writer considered including her more in the second part — including a scene in which “Abigail was cleaning up in the gym and Carl was standing there and doing workouts bare-breasted and she was looking at him, gazing at him” — but he decided to keep her role minimal until later in the film. He thought, “It would be interesting if not all of the viewers or the audience have really seen Abigail on the yacht.”
The magnetic Dolly De Leon plays Abigail, who swiftly becomes the leader of the surviving passengers because of her ability to fish and provide food for the group. Östlund knew he had to cast De Leon after seeing her film test from Manila, in which she improvised the scene where Abigail declares herself in charge. “She did it in a way that it was impossible for me to think about another actor to play this role,” admits the director. He said she helped him navigate Abigail’s tricky character development of going from “the bottom to the top” of the hierarchy in just three scenes, calling the actress “extraordinary.”
“Triangle of Sadness” ends ambiguously and on quite a shocking moment. Without revealing too much, Östlund shares that he “wanted half of the audience to say, ‘Kill her’” and the other half “to say, ‘No please drop the stone to the ground.’” Regardless of which side a viewer picks, he “wanted all of the audience to identify with the dilemma Abigail is dealing with,” and credited the German theatre director Thomas Ostmeier with the inspiration to conclude the movie with the character’s predicament.