The kids are all right in Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!, a cheery ‘up yours’ of a movie celebrating the collusive spirit of teenage girls within the context of a proudly crap Swedish punk band.
It’s 1982 in Stockholm and Bobo, Klara and Hedvig form a band because why not, but also because in the two seconds’ worth of thought they give to the idea, it seems like a good way to annoy the boysy blowhards who hog the rehearsal room at the local youth centre. In a very funny and uncorny way, the girls draw strength and generally find purpose in bashing out noises on their borrowed instruments, to accompany their self-penned and vaguely slanderous lyrics about a tyrannical P.E. teacher.
Director Moodysson is no stranger to SBS audiences: his movies Show Me Love (aka Fucking Amal), Together, Lilya 4-Ever and Mammoth are all common fixtures across the network. Like his earlier films, We Are The Best! follows the coming-of-age conventions with an acute sense of what it means to be an awkward outsider and a teenage girl.
He spoke to us from Stockholm on the eve of the movie’s release.
What is it about stories of girls, and particularly their teenage years, that intrigues you?
It intrigues me and it’s also something that I identify with. I think I always felt a problem with masculinity and being ‘masculine’ and I never really felt it. I think also that was a problem with punk for me; I grew up with it and with the music that’s in the film and I wanted to look sort of the same way as the characters in the film. I always felt a problem with ‘male’ punk at least. I never felt at home there. I still feel that when I’m in an all-male group. I really feel very scared; I have a problem with masculinity for some reason. I don’t know why. Probably because I’m physically weak [laughs]. I don’t know.
But it’s not only about teenagers, though – I would really like to make a movie about old ladies because I feel very much like an old lady myself. The problem with that is that I haven’t really been old yet. I’m getting older, of course, but I haven’t been 70 or 80 or 90 yet, whereas I have been 15 and 13 and so on. But my dream is actually to make a movie about old ladies.
Given you’re best known for films that do look back at those crucial teenage years, how ‘nostalgic’ would you say you are?
I’m not sure what other people mean when they say ‘nostalgia’. For me, there are two ways to be nostalgic: One is to feel nostalgic about the past, and have the feeling that things were better then and that you want to go back. That kind of nostalgia I don’t have. But I have a nostalgia that is based on interest. When you feel, think that you want to have a connection with what was in the past. That I have a lot of. I have big interest in who I was when I was 13 years old. I also have a lot of interest in what the world looked like 200 years ago but I am not nostalgic in that other sense of the word. I think that is a dangerous nostalgia when you look at the past in a rosy red kind of way.
With We Are the Best!, you worked with your wife’s source material. How did you manage that process, to create something you could call your own?
The film is completely based on Coco’s book, and even though she took some artistic liberties, it’s completely based on her life. It’s where everything comes from. At some point, I asked her if it was okay if I tried to write a movie script based on it, and she said yes [laughs]. Then I had to try to forget that it was about her because I had to make it my own story. I changed a lot of things but I tried to stay true to the tone and the atmosphere of the book. When I was making the film I almost completely forgot that it was about her and I think that was probably a good thing, for the film at least. It felt a little incestuous to make a film about my wife – it felt like it was not really a great idea… So I tried to pretend that it was not about her. Afterwards, of course, we know that it is, but I had to have a couple of months to pretend that it was about me or someone else.
You mention the tone and the energy, which is so infectious. How did you work with your actresses to make their performances so natural?
It’s a combination of finding very talented actresses who are capable of relaxing and being present in front of the camera. It’s a very strange gift, I guess – to forget about the rest of the world and be very, very present in the moment. Maybe some of it comes from the very long time that it took to audition them. They’d learned already before they got the parts that I didn’t want someone rigid, but rather something that was much more free.
So the shoot had a sense of spontaneity to it as well?
Sometimes I followed the script very closely and got one part in the first take, and then another part in the second take, but then put it all together in the editing. Every take looks like complete chaos and confusion but then we can sort of piece it together afterwards.
Of course, it helps to have some tricks, like throwing candy… You have to find some tricks to get actors to do great things, sometimes it’s a simple thing like: in the middle of a take, I throw things at them, just to make them confused. [Laughs] That’s my advice for filmmakers.
What, ‘Throw things at them’?
Yes. ‘Throw candy at your actresses’.
Great – there’s my lede. Thank you very much.
I think it’s a very strange thing to be able to relax in front of a camera. Some people like myself for example, are quite good actors when there’s no camera around. I mean a lot of people can sort of play around at the dinner table or play with children but as soon as someone picks up a camera and films it, people – including me – get very stiff and don’t know how to behave. But there are some people who lack some sort of inhibition – I don’t know what it is. They just forget that the camera is there. I don’t know is that’s a good thing or a bad thing in general, in life… But when you make a film it’s a very good thing.
We Are The Best! is now in limited release around Australia. See our review here