THE SQUARE director Ruben Östlund about the monkey business that goes on in the art world

24. October 2017

Ruben Östlund won the Golden Palme at Cannes with his movie THE SQUARE. We interviewed the Swede when he came to Zurich to present the film at the ZFF. A chat about the monkey business that goes on in the art world – and a monkey on the film set.

Mr Östlund, what is the most amusing thing about the art world?

Ruben Östlund (Photo: Lukas Maeder)

Ruben Östlund: (laughs.) Let me think… I can tell you what I find the most unsettling: Many artists are unable to accept being criticised, and their knee-jerk reaction is to shout “right-wing populism!” An artist in Sweden even accused my film of propagating Trumpian rhetoric. Which leaves me thinking: “Take a look at yourselves in the mirror! Don’t you think you’re sometimes sitting a bit too dumb and comfortable?” They constantly take reference to Duchamp …

… who scandalously presented a urinal in an exhibition some one hundred years ago…    

At that time it was enterprising, but now I think that the art world is just stuck in a rut. You go into a museum and see a pile of car tyres, or whatever, and you’re left standing there as a viewer without a single sensible thought in your head. When taken out of the museum environment, these objects have nothing to offer beyond their original function, which makes their effect in a museum equally banal. The art world, I think, has become repetitive and lost a certain amount of contact with the outside world.

But THE SQUARE is a work of art, correct?

The ‘Square’ exists, that’s correct. The idea came to me while I was working on my feature film ‘Play’, which was inspired by a true story.  It was about teenagers who robbed other teenagers. The robberies took place in a large shopping centre, and hardly anybody did anything to help. It highlighted the so-called ‘bystander effect’…  

… where people are less likely to help a victim if other onlookers are present, and the more onlookers present, the less likely anybody will help.

Exactly, and on top of that, the teenage victims rarely ever cried for help. It was as though the adult world and the teenage world were completely separate. My father told me that his parents put an address label around his neck before sending him to play in the street. At that time they thought if anything happened, other adults would help the kid. Today, people see other adults as a threat to their child. Anyway, a friend and me came up with the idea of creating a symbolic place called ‘The Square’. The concept was simple: if somebody steps into the square, then it’s our duty to help them.

So it’s not an art installation in the classical sense, but …

… more something like a pedestrian crossing, only it’s not about a driver’s duty to look out for pedestrians. The ‘Square’ is more like a traffic sign that reminds us of our mutual responsibilities.    

Did it work?

We set up the ‘Square’ in four cities: two in Sweden and two in Norway. An actual movement was borne out of the first ‘Square’ in Värnamo, Sweden. I went to the second anniversary of the first ‘Square’ in April. There was live music and a seminar. It was clear too that it was actually working: when the state stopped handing out social benefits to a group of disabled people, protestors gathered in the ‘Square’ to demonstrate, attracting the attention of newspaper journalists. The ‘Square’ has also played host to demonstrations against violence. But it takes time – it took a lot of convincing people to make the pedestrian crossing work. It’s not that easy to persuade society to accept a new rule.      

Why do you make films?

Out of my love for the moving image. I’m not a cineaste, nor a film fanatic, and I had little interest in the history of cinema when I was growing up. It was the video camera, plain and simple, that got me interested in film. I started by making films about skiing; I was a ski fan. I eventually lost interest in skiing and enrolled at a film school. I set about looking for my theme and found it in human behaviour.           

Do you come from a creative family home?

Both my parents were teachers, but my mother also painted and my father tried his hand at photography. One of my grandmothers was an opera singer. You could say I come from an academic home with an artistic streak.   

Ruben Östlund and 'Tippy'

Screenwriter and director Aaron Sorkin, who was also a guest at the ZFF, told us how he worked with David Fincher on ‘The Social Network’. Fincher apparently liked to re-shoot the same scene up to a hundred times. Mr Östlund, are you Sweden’s answer to David Fincher?

(Laughs.) It’s true; I always do lots of takes. But I think there is one major difference: I heard that Fincher does hundreds of takes, for example, of a person putting down a key on a shelf … with me, my close-ups are usually quite wide, the camera is fixed and everything takes place organically in front of it, without any interference from me. That’s why it makes sense to do lots of takes – plus it creates a certain energy on set.      

And how was it to work with a monkey?

Great! But there were lots of restrictions. For example, we weren’t allowed to laugh, or look her – she’s actually called Tippy – in the eye. She always followed my instructions exactly though.

How many takes did you do in the scenes with Tippy?

Not so many, maybe fifteen takes per scene. Tippy couldn’t be allowed to get bored – otherwise she would have just gone.

THE SQUARE hits cinemas October 26.