Swedish-born poet and novelist Lukas Moodysson made a splash with his film debut, “Show Me Love,” in 1998, and has since then delivered a number of controversial and experimental films. His latest movie, the adventurous romp “We Are the Best!,” is a return to the more optimistic and loose-limbed vibe of his early work. Set in 1982 Stockholm, the film centers on two tomboyish tweens, Boba (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), who impulsively decide to start a punk band, and recruit a classmate who can actually play an instrument, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), to help give their endeavor some shape. Recently, for ShockYa, Brent Simon had a chance to speak to Moodysson one-on-one, about his movie, punk music, religion and being a “self-critical amateur.” The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Your film takes place in 1982. What were your impressions of punk music growing up? Punk is about leaping before looking, but my impression was always that it seemed to attract kids who have a certain level of self-recognition, insofar as they know that they don’t know a bunch of stuff, but they just don’t care. Does that track with your recollections?
Lukas Moodysson: I’m not sure if that’s my recollection from the time, but I think that’s the thing I took away from punk and the spirit that’s still alive for me personally, because I still feel like I’m working like that — especially when I’m directing. I still feel that I don’t really know what I’m doing but I’m doing it anyway. But at the time, when I was 12 or 13 years old, at that time, I’m not sure how I felt about punk music then. One thing about punk that I didn’t like, but couldn’t put into words in those days, was that all the bands were male, so that even though it was supposed to be a movement that was anti-establishment and everything, it still kept a lot of the stereotypes and gender roles of established culture. Boys were still the ones to stand around on stage and jump and scream and do things, and girls were supposed to be in the corner somewhere looking cute. I thought about wanting to make a film about girls making punk music, because it’s a minority, and not always but a lot of the time stories about minorities are more interesting than the majority.
ShockYa: The film is also based on a comic novel short series by your wife — did you immediately spark to the idea of an adaptation of it?
Lukas Moodysson: I don’t know, that’s a very difficult question, because sometimes you don’t know why you do something. Sometimes… there are certain types of food that you like and certain kinds you don’t, so it’s hard to analyze why you might like olives and not potatoes or something. (laughs) For me, it’s always based on instinct. I like olives, for example. (laughs) Or it’s like if you fall in love with someone and you don’t really know exactly why. You can try to analyze it but it doesn’t really make any sense, and you can’t explain everything. I just remember one day in the kitchen, four years after my wife’s book was published, I said, “I have to make this film.” So I asked her if it was okay, and she said it was fine — especially since she felt that I needed to make some more money. I’d spent some years not making films, and writing two novels, which didn’t bring in any money. And we needed to pay our bills. (laughs) So she was happy about it. And what I wanted to do was something that was the opposite of what I’d been doing those last couple years, which was quite sad, and writing about death and human [fragility]. I wanted to do something about how strong we are, and how there is always hope and energy in everything.
ShockYa: Were there a lot of changes from her material, and if so how free was she with those changes, because it’s obviously two different mediums?
Lukas Moodysson: It changed a lot, but it was very truthful to the atmosphere and tone of the book, because … you have to have a lot of freedom. You have to do something that is your own version of things. But she was okay with everything, more or less. She felt that there were some things that she [did] better in the book, and there were some things that she missed. The book is longer, so there’s more room for things, it covers a longer period of time. I had to concentrate it, but also make it a little more jumpy and full of energy. There is a little bit more time for reflection and something poetic in her book, and in the film I just wanted it to keep things going.
ShockYa: One of the amusing things in the movie for me was when Bobo and Clara are talking about Hedvig… saying, “Oh, we’ll influence her away from God,” because it reminded me of the way that kids, whether they’re religious or come from a secular background, exist free from much of the ideological weight of an adult position on religion. They have a different reaction if and when they meet people from different faiths, a lot of time. Did that trigger any specific memories of religious interaction for you as a kid?
Lukas Moodysson: (long pause) I’m not sure if I agree with your analysis regarding young people, though, because, although I’m not an expert, I’m reminded of my own discussions with my son, who’s 18 years old and he hates everything religious and he’s extremely anti-God, and I’m not. So that’s fine. (laughs) But we have a lot of arguments about that. I’m not sure if that’s where it came from in the film, but for me it’s also a scene that’s a bit critical of a lot of political movements that try to be open-minded but are actually not. Regardless of what they say… a lot of people paint the world black-and-white and make it very simplified. For me, I thought it would be a lot of fun to have someone who is very much the opposite of these two punk girls just come in and sort of save them — or they save each other. And also there’s a lot of religion in my films. It’s not the most important thing, but it’s interesting to have a more materialistic versus anti-materialistic discussion in a film like this. And also, the actress who plays Hedvig, Liv LeMoyne, is not religious at all, so she found it interesting to defend religion. I told her that we were making a very religious film, and that made her anxious. (laughs)
ShockYa: What about the casting process, then — I understand it was fairly long and drawn out, right?
Lukas Moodysson: Yes. You just have to make sure that they’re capable of doing many different things. I’m always auditioning based on improvisation — I try to get them going and get a lot of energy in the room. But then, after a while, you realize that you have to make sure that they’re also capable of just sitting down and talking and being sad or silent and things like that. That takes a lot of time.
ShockYa: Was this casting process manifestly different because the main characters are adolescents, or was it roughly the same?
Lukas Moodysson: You meet more people, but it wasn’t that different, honestly. It took a long time to find the grown-up actors, because we had to find the children first, and it was funny — or I don’t know if funny was the word, but interesting at least — we had decided on Mira (Barkhammar), who plays Bobo, we were auditioning women to play her mother. So there was an interesting power structure that all these well-known actresses in Sweden came in, and they knew that the person they had to impress was this 13-year-old girl. They knew that if she said, “No, I don’t like that actress,” then they would be gone. That turned things around a bit.
ShockYa: You touched a little bit on still feeling lost in filmmaking, and this movie is in some ways about the relationship between the artistic process and instinct, and how integral the latter is to the former. Is that still a big part of your directing — what percentage is instinctive versus process-oriented?
Lukas Moodysson: I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t say that process and instinct are opposites, but I would say that careful planning and instinct are opposites, and careful planning is not something that I’m capable of doing at all. Maybe a little bit when I’m writing, but not at all when I’m directing, so I’m trying to always keep my head as open as possible. I typically don’t even know what we’re shooting after lunch, and I’m never doing storyboards. I just try to be very present when we’re filming, and I have an assistant or two that remind me of what lines we have to include and things like that. I never really look at the script when I’m filming, and I never really talk to the cinematographer very much, which creates some frustration, I guess. (laughs) But I just like to play around. It’s very frightening when we’re editing, because then you have those terrible moments where you felt editing was alive and everything was alive in the room and you were just a genius you realize afterward that you weren’t because everything is really stupid and the acting was really bad and you don’t really hear what they’re saying because the sound guy was having a lot of problems. That’s the terrible part of it. (laughs) But directing for me is very much about allowing myself to be surprised by what happens in the moment. …Some days I feel like an amateur, but I think I’m a very self-critical amateur.
NOTE: “We Are the Best!” is in limited release now, expanding nationally throughout June.
Written by: Brent Simon