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Ruben Ostlund on his film 'Triangle of Sadness' that won the top prize at Cannes


Think "The Love Boat" meets "Lord Of The Flies." A couple of model influencers, a Russian oligarch - a manure millionaire, in fact - a British arms dealer, and an American captain who spouts Marx are on a cruise aboard a superyacht when a storm whips up and changes their destinations in all ways. Ruben Ostlund's new film, "Triangle Of Sadness," is his English language debut. It won the Palme d'Or prize and received an eight-minute standing ovation. The film stars Harris Dickinson, the late Charlbi Dean, Dolly De Leon and Woody Harrelson as the Marxist captain of the yacht. And Ruben Ostlund, the celebrated Swedish director, joins us now from London. Mr. Ostlund, thanks so much for being with us.

RUBEN OSTLUND: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What made you want to put all these characters together in the same story?

OSTLUND: Well, I think that the first initial idea was that I wanted to do something that is dealing with beauty as a currency. The idea started eight years ago when I met my wife. She's a fashion photographer, and she told me quite much about the male models. And she told me about a male model friend that was working as a car mechanic, and two years later, he's one - was one of the best-paid male models in the industry. So he was, like, really evelating (ph) in the society because of his beauty.

SIMON: The influencers are played by Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean. And we should notice, alas, Charlbi Dean died in August. She was just 32.

OSTLUND: Yeah. It was a tragedy, first of all, for her family and her fiance, Luke. But it was also, of course, very sad for the people that was working with the production. And I hope there's a way of, like, trying to make the audience look at her performance and try to pay tribute to her performance.

SIMON: Woody Harrelson, as we note, is the ship's captain. And on a fateful night, he and Dimitry, the Russian manure merchant...

OSTLUND: Yeah, that fertilizer billionaire.

SIMON: Fertilizer billionaire, I beg your pardon. They get into a drinking contest and start throwing the Marxist zingers back and forth.


SIMON: Are these two guys talking Marx instead of football? Or how deep-seated are their convictions?

OSTLUND: Exactly. That's exactly how I look at it. They are sharing for two different ideologies almost like that they are football fans. And for me, it was quite fun to go back to my upbringing in the '80s when the world was looking at the Western perspective as a liberal, capitalistic perspective and then the Eastern perspective as a socialist and communist perspective. And I was going in to look on the different quotes that, for example, Reagan and Thatcher had and what Marx and Lenin - what counterquotes they had. Like, one thing that was obvious was that Reagan was a great performer. He delivered his quotes in such an entertaining and fun way. It was, like, a little bit of a nostalgic trip to go back to look at these quotes.

SIMON: I've got to note, as a lot of the reviews have, there is an awful lot of regurgitation and evacuation in this movie - one especially long sequence that makes the vomiting sequence in "Bridesmaids" look short. So let me approach this technically first. Did you have a vomit coordinator on set?

OSTLUND: Yes, we had a special effects team that was the one that was working with the vomiting. And actually, the actors had a tube going into their mouth and then...


OSTLUND: ...Pointing outwards. And rose hip soap works really well to use as fake vomit. And...

SIMON: I'll remember that the next time I need it. But, yes.

OSTLUND: Yeah. And then, we also had an actress, Sunnyi Melles, that could provoke vomiting herself. So that was also a great help.

SIMON: Is this sequence there as comic relief or to say something about the contents of the lives the passengers are bringing forth, let me put it that way?

OSTLUND: You know what? I'm very interested in when we can't live up to the social contract. You know, if you go to a captain's dinner, it's fine dining. And if you do it when the weather gets rough and the boat starts rocking, you are going to fight a little bit with the fear of being seasick and maybe will be seasick. I have always been interested in, like, when - these kind of awkward situations when we don't know really how to deal with.

SIMON: The passengers wind up getting stranded on an island, and the social hierarchy begins to shift, doesn't it? Suddenly, oligarchs and arms dealers aren't as valuable to their new society as a member of the yacht's crew, beautifully played by Dolly De Leon. What happens?

OSTLUND: I was interested in starting the film in the fashion world, and there's very strong hierarchies in the fashion world. And on a luxury yacht, it's very strong hierarchies. And on the bottom of the hierarchy, you could say that the Filipino crew members are - they are lowest on the payroll. I was interested in to take away all these hierarchies and put some of the passengers on the yacht and some of the crew members on the yacht on the deserted island. And all of a sudden, like, money is not really a currency that you can use. Beauty is not the currency you can use in the same way as in their previous worlds. But the know-how, how to survive, becomes the strongest currency. There is a cleaning lady that Dolly De Leon plays called Abigail that knows how to fish and make fire. So slowly, she's ending up in the top of the hierarchy. And I thought it was interesting to look at, yeah, what happens when you are turning the pyramid upside down?

SIMON: I should note, beauty is still some kind of currency because she takes a lover.

OSTLUND: (Laughter) Exactly. That's something that I thought was fun to play around with. Like, they call the young male model...

SIMON: Yeah.

OSTLUND: ...When he is in the fashion world - and his girlfriend, Yaya. His girlfriend is saying, I'm going to be a trophy wife. And he's like, but what about love? But then, when they end up on the deserted island and everybody's, in fact (ph), very, very hungry - and Abigail is a woman, and she's older - then he starts to understand, I can use my beauty and my sexuality in order to get more fish.

SIMON: I have to ask, when this film received the prolonged ovation at Cannes, were some of the very people that you take pleasure in satirizing on their feet to acclaim the film?

OSTLUND: I understand what you mean, but I also feel that me and myself are connected to that social group that is in Cannes. And I feel connected to the privileged people in our society. So I think that I'm trying to challenge myself when I make my films. I try to corner myself when I make my films. I think that art is something that we can use to ask ourselves questions, to put up dilemmas for ourselves, and ask ourselves, how do we create a better society? So I don't feel there's a contradiction in that, but I think you're right. I think there was a lot of people in that room that are the target for the content of the film.

SIMON: Ruben Ostlund, his new film, "Triangle Of Sadness." Thank you so much for being with us.

OSTLUND: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREAS FRANCK'S "MAKE YOUR OWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.