Interview: Director Joachim Trier on the messy process of creating The Worst Person in the World

A shortlisted title for Best International Feature at next year’s Academy Awards and currently sitting 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, The Worst Person in the World is undoubtedly one of this year’s most celebrated films.  After a successful run at film festivals across the globe, it arrives in Australian cinemas on Boxing Day.

To coincide with the film’s local release (you can read our review here), Peter Gray spoke with the director, Joachim Trier, about the “messy process” of creating the film, the self-deprecating nature of the title, and how it was to break away from his traditionally melancholic material.

I really liked how this film took the basis of a romantic comedy and expanded on that to be this existential pondering of who we are, and specifically who the lead character of Julie is.  Where did the idea for this film come from?

To be honest in answering that question, I’ve written five films with Eskil Vogt and we actually work completely the wrong way around.  A lot of people I admire pitch their movies in a certain way.  We work from the outside in, we work from fragments.  The moment the character arrives is where we know.  It’s not from the plot.  I knew that I wanted to do a “meet cute” type of thing.  What if two people meet at a party? A silly idea like that.  But they’re both in relationships and they don’t want to be unfaithful, but they want to explore the limits of what they can do, and it goes a bit too far.

I also liked the idea of talking about this relationship that had this disbalance of age and experience, but looking at it from (the woman’s) point of view.  It felt like less of a cliche.  And I wanted to show the humanity of both sides.  The idea of bad timing in love was such an interesting concept.  The idea that “would we be great if we met in a different abstract of time?”

That’s where the idea of Julie arrived, and I really wanted to work with Renate Reinsve.  She had one line of dialogue in Oslo, August 31st, a film I made 10 years ago, and I really thought she was great.  No one had cast her in a leading role in a feature film, so I knew that was something because I knew how good she was.  It was a messy process (laughs).

I was going to ask about Renate Reinsve.  So perfectly cast and expertly performed.  Is the character of Julie inspired by anyone in particular?

Not one person.  It’s a mixture of my imagination, of myself, of Eskil…and to some degree Renate came into it (too).  It’s a messy mix, but you have to really know the character.  Writing someone like Aksel was easy because it’s someone familiar.  He’s in his 40’s and has a certain point of view, and he’s not exactly who Eskil and I are, but he’s easy to write.  Julie was tougher.  She’s of a different generation.

One of the things I really loved about her character is that she knows what she doesn’t want to be but she’s unsure of who she wants to be.  I liked that she’s messy and imperfect and we can see ourselves in her character, even if we didn’t want to.  Going off of that, of these three main characters is one, overall, “the worst person in the world”?

I hope none of them are perceived as that.  It’s a Norwegian self-deprecating way of speech to feel that way.  To have that privilege of being Northern European, to have access to free education and health care…we have a lot of options.  You should be successful and if you can’t make a happy life here, who are you? You must be “the worst person in the world”.  It’s a post-protestant way of life.

With the film being broken into the 12 chapters, was that an intentional device from the beginning?

Quiet early on, yeah.  Again, maybe it’s cause we are sloppy screenwriters but it kind of wrote itself because we were moving through time.  The film is a bit more epic in scale than what it seems on the outside.  We’re seeing someone’s life development from their mid-to-late 20’s to their early 30’s, so the chapters let us move forward paradoxically.  It also creates a type of contract with the audience.  It’s a bit like songs on an album, they are short stories that mean something in the bigger picture.

On top of that, Julie, who’s sort of this great dreamer with expectations, I feel like the idea of a voice-over in that novelistic form kind of mirrors her perception of those expectations.  Life is like a novel.  I like her a lot as a character, that dreamy idealism.

This is you essentially approaching comedy for the first time.  Was it difficult to be less melancholic than in your previous works?

That’s a good question.  We started our first film, Reprise, 15 years ago, it was more comedic but still had that melancholic nature.  (The Worst Person in the World) was liberating.  I think the world got even more aggressive and opinionated since I started writing this film.  People haven’t been going to the cinemas as much, and for once I made a warmer, more optimistic movie, and I’m happy I did it now.  To show in this climate to people that are vulnerable that there’s some hope and joy.

The Worst Person in the World is scheduled for a release in Australian theatres from December 26th, 2021.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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