Like their American youth-movie counterparts, the 20-something guy friends of Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s Reprise spend a lot of time talking about and clumsily pursuing the fairer sex. Only, unlike the cast of, say, American Pie or Animal House, Trier’s characters are as much (or more) concerned with getting published as getting laid, and as likely to cozy up to a reclusive cult novelist as they are to make a pass at a beautiful girl. Thrashing punk music and heady French philosophy — the more obscure the better — are their drugs of choice, intellectual one-upmanship their sometimes violent contact sport.
Nils Vik/Courtesy Miramax Films
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Goofy director? Former skateboarding champion Joachim Trier
“This is how I remember being at that age,” says the 34-year-old Trier, freshly off a plane from New York, as a cover band commits unforgivable transgressions against the Carole King song book in the lobby bar of the Beverly Wilshire hotel. “It was Kierkegaard being debated around a coffee table, then a beautiful girl walks by and everyone goes, ‘Will you go out with me?’”
Since it premiered on the festival circuit in 2006, Trier’s debut feature (he previously directed several award-winning shorts)has garnered admiring praise from critics and audiences alike for its bracingly original portrait of two aspiring writers whose lives unfold on screen as a series of realities and imagined possibilities — what was and what might have been. The conditional tone is established by the first scene, in which best friends Philip (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman-Hoiner) stand astride a mailbox, about to ship copies of their recently completed manuscripts off to potential publishers. When they do, Trier hits the fast-forward button to show us the two characters’ schoolboy flights of fancy about where their imminent literary superstardom will take them. Then it’s back down to Earth, where, six months on, the overnight sensation of Philip’s novel, Phantom Images,has left him an emotional and psychological wreck, while Erik, who remains unpublished, finds himself oddly liberated by failure.
“We were trying to play with that idea we have of ourselves in the future, and that ongoing longing for something in the past that’s been lost,” says Trier, who co-wrote Reprise with his own longtime friend Eskil Vogt. After starting out to write an espionage thriller, the pair soon found themselves abiding by that eternal screenwriter’s credo, “Write what you know,” basing Reprise in part on themselves and their own circle of friends when they were young(er) and out to conquer the world.
“Now that I’ve been traveling with the film in almost 30 countries,” Trier says, “I’ve seen that, in every city, there’s this bunch of guys who think they’re special, that no one is like them. They listen to Joy Division, they read French literature, they want to write novels or become painters. The funny thing is that, by being culturally specific about something in one place, it maybe goes other places.”
The result — an exhilarating mash-up of lowbrow frat-house humor and highbrow literary references (including Proust, Maurice Blanchot and the untranslated Norwegian poet Tor Ulven), male-bonding rituals and tumultuous boy-girl romance, madness and genius — has earned Trier three Norwegian Oscars, as well as prizes at the Toronto, Istanbul and Karlovy Vary film festivals. It also won the enthusiasm of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood producer Scott Rudin, who convinced Miramax to give Reprise an American release and has likened the film to Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
As it happens, this is not Trier’s first brush with flavor-of-the-month status. Although he hails from a filmmaking family (his mother is a documentary filmmaker, his grandfather was noted director Erik Lochen, and, yes, he’s a distant relative of Lars von Trier), Trier achieved national celebrity in his teens as a competitive skateboarding champion — an experience, he says, that “took the edge off of the wish to be famous” once he decided to become a filmmaker. “I was signing autographs and doing skate demos around shopping malls. When I started doing films it was more about something else, about working with people trying to tell a story, and kind of hiding a little bit — not being in the center but letting the film be the center.”
Like fellow skater-turned-filmmaker Spike Jonze, Trier cut his teeth on stylized skateboarding videos in which he honed his mobile, high-energy aesthetic. “My sense of editing, angles, dramatic structure, how I use music, how I pace a scene — all those things were trained through skateboarding,” he says. Trier then went on to study at London’s National Film and Television School, where his instructors included Stephen Frears. Today, he’s collaborating with Vogt on a new screenplay (in English) and pondering, like his onscreen alter egos, where success — and the future — may lead.
“I admire people who manage to have a kind of integrity, and there are few people who do,” he says. “All art is more capitalist-oriented today than it was even 10 years ago; people are judged more on the financial success of their work than ever. I admire those marginal characters who bridge the complete abstract, poetic language of philosophy or theory with fiction. This religious industry of film dramaturgy and how to write the perfect novel … there’s an art in that certainly, but there also needs to be a place for narrative experimentation.”
Reprise is now playing in Los Angeles theaters.