We should probably start with the muscular, shirtless man perched on a banquet table, shrieking like an animal and terrorizing folks at a $5,000-a-plate dinner.
There will be many scenes in The Square, the new pitch-black comedy from Swedish director Ruben Östlund about a museum director in moral free-fall and which hits theaters this weekend, that will provoke, push buttons and provide postscreening argument fodder: a man with Tourette’s screaming obscenities during a Q&A; a social media team’s viral video that goes way, way overboard; Elisabeth Moss and Danish actor Claes Bang vigorously fighting over a used condom. But the sequence that will almost assuredly cause the most commotion, the one that really sticks with you after seeing this extraordinary satire of social mores and the snooty high-art scene that won the top prize at Cannes last spring, is the donor event.
A performance artist is invited to showcase “a piece” for the amusement and delight of a museum’s wealthy, well-dressed contributors. His forte is to pretend to be an ape, complete with metal arm extensions that let him replicate a a simian gait. He is extremely dedicated to this predatory primate act. And for over 10 minutes, viewers watch this “savage” knock glasses out of people’s hands, go after bystanders and [gulp] look for a mate while a crowd in formalwear try to remain as still as possible. To say that the showstopping set piece is nerve-racking would be putting it mildly.
“You’d be surprised what you can find when you Google ‘monkey imitation,'” Östlund says, crossing his legs and glancing over at Terry Notary. The two are sitting in a hotel room the day after their movie screened at the Toronto Film Festival; the latter is a motion-capture artist best known for his work on the Planet of the Apes films. “The original idea was to make the performance artist some sort of G.G. Allin-like figure, which seemed a bit extreme. But I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of people acting like animals. So I went online and ended up finding Terry’s demo reel, where he’s demonstrating the difference between an ape, a gorilla, a chimpanzee, an orangutan. That was when I thought: Ok, this internationally recognized artist is pretending to be a wild beast. What happens when he enters a room full of people in tuxedos?”
The director and Notary decided the character, named Oleg, would take on the characteristics of a chimpanzee (not unlike the real chimp that also appears in the film; more on him in a second) and that, other than a few objectives, nothing would be scripted ahead of time. “We didn’t really knowing what we were doing until we got there,” Notary says. The two “jammed on some ideas” during a day of rehearsal; once 300 extras came in and filled the dining hall, the actor would start spontaneously reacting to people around him, switching things up take after take after take over three days. He knew he had to “remove the alpha male in the room.” He also knew that most of the other actors would sit silently and stare at their laps even if he attacked someone – a phenomenon known as the “bystander effect.” Everything else was fair game.
“You never look an animal in the eye,” Notary says. “If an extra was staring at me too long – there were going to be consequences. Or if an actor sort of signaled to me, ‘Here’s our moment,’ I’d purposefully look away. Then I’d sort of come back and surprise them. The idea was to respond to whatever happened in the moment, and to keep it fresh and unique with each take. And then apologize to people who’d I’d thrown water on or scared the shit out of.
“It wasn’t that different from the stuff I did on Apes, actually,” he adds, glancing over at his director. “I had my shirt off instead of a performance capture shirt. That was it, really.”
“You were supposed to do the whole thing naked,” Östlund notes. “Maybe that would have been too distracting.”
“It was naked enough,” Notary replies.
The fact that this extraordinary scene starts out politely, devolves into a stand-off between an aggressive figure and a passive audience and then ends in mass violence is merely the most outrageous example, Östlund explains, of what The Square is trying to explore at length – the thin, gossamer-like veneer of civilized behavior that’s often only one slippery slope away from disappearing entirely. “Everyone can say, ‘Yes, we have equal rights and we need to take care of each other,'” the director says. “The question becomes, what happens when all of that is challenged? What do you really do then? How do your values hold up when things get a little harsh?”
This concept of an ideology or stance in theory versus the reality of what goes down when the rubber hits the road is something of a recurring theme for the 43-year-old filmmaker. It’s there in his latest film, when the museum director Christian (played by Bang), a man touting a project of peace and tolerance, finds himself being conned and pickpocketed – at which point he becomes obsessed with payback. It’s in Östlund’s 2014 breakthrough movie Force Majeure, when a middle-class dad instinctively abandons his family during a ski-trip disaster and is forced to reckon with his paternal failure. And it’s there in his earlier works like 2011’s Play, his chilly case study of teen-on-teen crime based on a real slate of mall robberies that happened in Sweden.
It was that last movie, in fact, that planted the seed for what would become the foundation of The Square. “I was looking over the court transcripts of the crimes of those kids in shopping malls,” Östlund says, “and there were adults sitting 10, 15 feet away as these robberies were happening. None of the victims asked for any help; none of the grown-ups offered any. It was like two separate worlds, right next to each other.” He remembered a story his father had told him about playing in Stockholm as a boy back in the 1950s, with a sign around his neck stating his name and address in case he got lost, and how the idea of looking out for your fellow man had fallen by the wayside somewhat.
So Östlund and a friend of his proposed the idea of “The Square,” an exhibition project with the the Vandorlum Museum centered around a small delineated space in a public setting. The outdoor site would serve as “a symbolic place where you’re reminded of our common responsibility and the social contract – a humanistic traffic sign.” Once you stepped inside the designated, area, you had to act in the name of the greater good and, per a press release, “passerby were obliged to try to help” those in need. The first one in the city of Värnamo became a permanent fixture; four more of these high-concept pockets of utopia have opened in other locations since then, Östlund notes.
Still, he says, “I had conflicted feelings about the art world. They were the ones that supported this idea of ours and made it happen. But those same institutions can, you know, put any object in a museum and hope it inspires thoughts and feelings, and then call it art … it can get lazy. Also, I work as a film professor at a university with a fine arts department, so I am familiar with that corporate art theory bullshit.” Östlund laughs before pointing out a pretentious speech in The Square about the “exhibition/non-exhibition” idea of curating. “I stole that whole thing from one of my colleagues in that department.”
From there, the filmmaker began to gather a number of incidents and anecdotes, as well as pilfering his own experiences with the “Square” project and within the art world, and fashion a movie that would expand on the ideas of “what you say and what you actually do.” Though Östlund hadn’t planned on making his first English-language film, his agents pushed him to consider English-speaking actors; while in London, he met with Elisabeth Moss and the two did what he calls “extended improvisations” that used the script as a jumping-off point. He originally read West for the part of Christian, but because Östlund wanted the cast to be “a bit of a Euro-pudding,” he opted instead for the Danish Bang for the lead. The Wire actor ended up with the part of a visiting big-wig artist who suffers through an onstage interview continually interrupted by a man uncontrollably shouting obscenities. (The incident was inspired by a similar situation the director witnessed during a play; should anyone wonder if the blustery sculptor is based on any real-life art-world luminaries, they might want to speculate about the character’s name.)
And, in addition to his main trio of actors, Östlund sought out Notary for the role of the Man Who Would Be a Dangerous Chimpanzee. Then, for good measure, he decided to insert an actual chimpanzee into the mix as well, just to see what would happen.
“Wait, is the monkey here in Toronto? He’s not in this hotel, is he?” Claes Bang asks this question with such gravity that it’s tough to tell if he’s being serious. (The handsome actor, who looks a bit like a pleasantly off-brand Kyle Chandler, has a killer deadpan, stone-face expression.) Then he smiles and goes, “Oh good, so we can say whatever we want about him.”
Elisabeth Moss, sitting directly to his right, leans forward in her chair and whispers conspiratorially: “That monkey was a fucking asshole.”
In an adjoining suite to the director’s room, the two actors are gamely going through their experiences on the set of The Square in the manner of soldiers discussing past campaigns they’ve survived. There was the frustration of enduring endless takes of a discussion that Moss’s character, a journalist named Anne, has with Christian over whether he remembers her name after the two have slept together. There was the scene in which the two get into a long tug-of-war match with a freshly postcoital prophylactic, another stand-out moment based on a real-life incident. (That bit came courtesy of an anecdote from a friend of Ruben’s, Bang points out. “Right, so that’s never happened to you?” Moss counters, mock-skeptically.)
And then there’s the live chimpanzee, which Anne apparently keeps around her apartment as a pet, and which Östlund decided to add to one scene as a livewire element. As Christian sits on the edge of a bed, he watches this diaper-clad animal clamber out into the living room, perch on the couch and then stare back at him. It sounds simple enough, right?
“What you’re not seeing,” Bang notes, “are the three gentleman standing in the corners behind those walls, people that knew the monkey and were completely ready to get it in case something did happen. I was scared shitless of it.”
“There are a lot of rules,” Moss adds. “You can’t look the monkey in the eye, you couldn’t talk around it, you couldn’t dance, you couldn’t yell … you had to be really quiet and really, really careful.”
“It’s a wild animal,” Bang says, eyes wide. “It’s fucking dangerous.”
“They asked me if I wanted to meet the monkey,” Moss claims, her voice rising. “And it’s like, No! You literally just told me all of this stuff I’m not allowed to do around the monkey, and now you want me to shake the monkey’s hand? You have made me nervous. I thought the monkey was great. Now I’m nervous.”
“You have never heard a film set so quiet,” Bang sighs.
Both actors were keen to work with Östlund, they admit, after respectively seeing Force Majeure. Both figured that, after that movie raised the filmmaker’s profile substantially, he could have his choice of actors from Hollywood to Holland and they didn’t have a shot in hell. (Even Moss, who’s a star in her own right, said she left her first meeting and thought: Why me?) They also knew that, once they were picked, the process would be arduous. In addition to making movies that can seem pitiless in their look at the lesser qualities of our species, the director has a habit of trying different permutations of a scene until he comes across something that resonates with the bigger picture. The idea that a simple line reading might require 50 takes, you’d assume, would be maddening to performers.
“You say it like it’s a bad thing,” Moss replies, and Bang nods. “That was part of the appeal. ‘Oh hell, what am I getting myself into – but yes, throw it at me!’ The chance to try every single avenue is incredible. You’re frustrated, you think ‘I can’t fucking do this,’ then suddenly, you come across something, you look to Ruben … “
“… Then the room is on fire, and you want to do it again and again,” Bang finishes. “Take the condom sequence. We did it so many ways: me getting the condom, you getting the condom, the condom breaking.”
“The condom ending up on the wall, me trying to pull the condom out of your mouth at one point,” Moss adds. “I didn’t know which one he’d end up using until I saw the premiere of the movie at Cannes. But I love the unpredictability of it, how he sets those situations up and wants to see how things play out. That what makes him such an exciting director. Take the dinner scene: Everyone thinks they would act a certain way, that they would not let someone jumping up on tables act like that, that when he starts to grab that woman, they would step in. And every single person in that scene sits on their hands! It’s such a great way of saying that this is how quickly humanity can just shift.”
“That was a big reason I wanted Christian to be a ‘nice’ guy,” Bang says. “I don’t care about playing sympathetic characters – but it was important that he was sympathetic. He couldn’t be the cliché of an arrogant museum director. Because then he’s an asshole who becomes a bigger asshole, and who cares? It’s more interesting if you can relate to him, and when he makes the decision to find out who [stole his wallet], you see how easy it is to go down that rabbit hole.
“There was a question in Cannes that began with this woman saying she
thought he was totally empty,” he adds, “and my thought was, Well, no,
he’s just a normal human being. He’s just trying to to live his life.
That’s what’s scary.”