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Although its title alone suggests otherwise, Louder Than Bombs is far from melodramatic and uproarious — instead, its focus is on those conflicts that are left unspoken.

Set in the modern-day suburbs of New York, Joachim Trier’s English-language debut is a richly imaginative and thoughtful story about love, loss and grief. The alluring Isabelle Huppert stars as Isabelle Reed, a celebrated war photographer whose tragic death still haunts her family three years after her passing: Her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne), now balancing both parental roles, struggles to make a connection with his two sons — Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), a new father who has yet to earn that title, and 15-year-old Conrad (Devin Druid), an aspiring writer detached from the world around him.

Trier, the grandson of Erik Løchen and a distant relative of Lars von Trier, made a name for himself with his acclaimed dramas Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. And for his third feature, Louder Than Bombs, the Norwegian writer-director once again proves his merit, picking up top honours at film festivals in Norway and Sweden.

Ahead of the film’s New York and Los Angeles release on Friday, April 8, I had the privilege of speaking with Trier. You can check out the interview below.

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ScreenPicks: I understand that you and your co-writer [Eskil Vogt] had a unique approach to this story: You started writing without a plot in mind and focused on building the characters first. Is this your approach to every story you write together?

Trier: “Yes, exactly. I understand your question. It’s very relevant because we work from the outside in; we don’t start with a plot line or anything. Very often it’s formal ideas via the themes and very much, as you say, the characters that start the process for us. In this case, we had all these formal individual stories that we’re asking while put into the family. We wanted to talk about family dynamics, not the immediacy of grief, as the mother and the family has passed away, but rather the after-effects. And I was kinda curious to explore the idea of three men at different stages of life, trying to develop a relationship to women with the sort of loss of the mother at the back of their mind.”

ScreenPicks: For your English-language film debut, you chose the American suburbs as your setting and this modern middle-class family as the characters. Even if you’re not American, that culture has such a widespread appeal that we have a general idea of what we think American culture is like. And I know that you grew up watching a lot of American films, but how did you immerse yourself into this culture that was foreign to your own?

Trier: “I have friends in New York, and I spend a lot of time there. I wanted to make a film that dealt with universal subjects, really, in terms of parent-child [and] sibling relationships, the ideas of memory and identity. I mean, it’s just in the detailing, the culture. Eskil, my co-writer said to me, ‘Shit, man, too much of our knowledge of American culture [is] The Simpsons. We need to spend more time there.’ (laughs) We went and actually spent time at high schools and met people. I did a lot of research with war photographs, with the mothers and families of photojournalists that deal with conflict areas of the world. So, yeah, research anthropology. If you’re interested in behaviour of people, regardless of whether you shoot a film where you grew up or somewhere else in the world, you still need to do some exploring and to do some research. And I find that a fun part of the process, to be honest with you.”

ScreenPicks: A lot of reviews I’ve read have classified the family in this as a “dysfunctional family,” but I almost feel like that adjective — “dysfuctional” — is an unnecessary filler, since every family has its problems. The family here is trying to fill the void of a wife and a mother. What was your biggest challenge in subverting the dysfunctional family drama, especially since there’s so many films and so many tropes to borrow from.

Trier: “Yeah, I mean, the way I come at it, I don’t compare or think about what’s clear or what’s not; I do what I’m interested in. And I agree with you. I think all families have a sense of complication. This idea of parent-child, the child becoming autonomous and developing a sense of self away from the parent itself is a trauma we all need to deal with. Parents letting go — it’s what we all need to deal with somehow. The idea of dysfunction and there’s functional families is all just judgemental almost because most families have — I think if you lose a parent, and one parent is alone in the role of the carer, that’s the challenge.”

ScreenPicks: The structure of the narrative challenges standards we’ve come to expect from films. Instead of one protagonist, you have multiple characters taking turns in the central role. I also like that you get to see their different perspectives through various flashbacks, dream sequences and thought patterns. And because we have this privilege of seeing through various characters, we may be able to connect with one more than the other. For instance, I personally connected most with the youngest son and the deceased mother. What are the advantages of not being limited to one perspective?

Trier: “Good question. Yes, the idea of the subjectivity of the different roles and how we identify with different characters … It’s a way to use the necessary cinematic language to draw people in a thought pattern. That’s what I’m interested in exploring and, hopefully, to try to be precise about how memories play into our ideas itself. Like, with the older brother, for example, it’s very clear that he ponders about the mother and what her perspective on him was. I think the movie — people are starting to engage with the exterior events, but still try somehow to get the audience involved in their internal world.”

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ScreenPicks: In this film, along with the media image of Isabelle as this public figure, we get the individual family perceptions of her as a wife and a mother. When you put the pieces together, it really gives a rich and complex portrait of this woman. But when you look at the more intimate perspective of the family, we see someone like Conrad who has been kept in the dark about how his mother died. What does this film tell us about subjective perceptions? Can we really know someone that well?

Trier: “Yeah. You’re asking an essential question in the story. It’s hard for me to answer, but what we’re dealing with is the idea that when you lose someone you’re very close to, you have to carry the burden of that relationship and those memories and those events alone, the idea that then they start questioning how well do they really know her. It turns out that she had a lot of secrets, a lot of spaces in their lives that were her own that she didn’t quite share with her family — maybe also because the nature of her work as a war journalist. It created this idea of shielding her family from some of the truths that she was encountering in those other areas of the world. I feel that that is kind of what makes the grief process in the story complicated. But I think an interesting point to also emphasize that the film is dealing with three love stories. It’s also about the father and the two sons trying to meet new women in their lives and how to do that with this sort of strong memory of the mother character being absent.”

ScreenPicks: Of the many themes in this film, grief and communication are the most prominent. Each family member has a different way of dealing with the loss of Isabelle, and it naturally affects the way they communicate with one another. As we’ve discussed, film is such a subjective experience and what one person will take away will be different from the next person. So, personally, which theme or character did you connect with the most throughout this process of making it?

Trier: “Both as I wrote this with Eskil and the way I would love people to perceive it when they see it, I want there to be space for interpretation, right? I identify with elements in all of them; that’s the only way I can write. I almost approach writing a character like an actor. You gotta explore some element of yourself and then put that into the character. So I think I feel quite identified with all of them, and that was kind of fun ’cause they’re very different stages of life. There’s a variety of experiences to draw from in this one.

“The good thing we’ve experienced with Louder Than Bombs is that — I hear during interviews over the last few days and in the past, in Europe, I’d say, it was released there — people take very different things from it: Someone’s identifying with a parent, that there’s a lot of work and doesn’t seem to have enough time at home; another one about how to raise teenagers; another person about being a teenager; or being a young parent like Jesse Eisenberg’s character, who’s just become a father and doesn’t know quite how to find that role in himself. That’s what I’m hoping for this one, that it gives space for contemplation about different aspects of family life.”

(All photos are courtesy of The Orchard.)