‘Triangle of Sadness’ Helmer Ruben Ostlund: ‘I Think Rich People Are Nice. They Just Don’t Like to Pay Taxes’

Ruben Ostlund, who’s been on a world tour presenting his Palme d’Or winning film “Triangle of Sadness,” made his first trip to Morocco for the Marrakech Film Festival. He was on the ground to deliver a joyful and jam-packed masterclass, following the footsteps of Jim Jarmusch, James Gray, Asghar Farhadi, Leos Carax and Julia Ducournau, who also turned up on the Moroccan stage this year. Ostlund also took the time to chat with Variety in the Pierre Hermé tea house nestled in the lush gardens of La Mamounia palace.

Ostlund, who traveled with his wife and one-year old, said he did not regret having committed to a theatrical distribution strategy with “Triangle of Sadness,” even if the market hasn’t fully recovered from the pandemic. The movie began its global rollout in theaters in late September and has so far grossed approximately $11 million, with many more markets to launch. Neon acquired the title at the Cannes Film Festival.

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As previously reported by Variety, the Swedish director is currently developing “The Entertainment System is Down,” a comedy set set onboard a long-haul flight and inspired by Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel “Brave New World.” The comedy will explore the erratic behaviors of passengers when they have no screens to watch.

How is it to have “Triangle of Sadness” finally playing in theaters? Were you expecting even bigger B.O. numbers?

Yes of course, we have been very loyal to the distributors that we are working with, and they have built a certain kind of audience over the years. So I’m very happy that the film is going well for them and that they’re back post-pandemic and making money distributing movies again.

It’s clearly a crowd-pleaser but many people assume it’s not because they think it’s an arthouse film from a European auteur.

There’s one thing with European cinema that we have a state-funded film industry in Europe, so we are economically safe. I’m very proud of that and I think it’s very important but that means we don’t have to make movies that are punching all the way and reaching the audience. That’s why there’s a huge difference between European cinema and American cinema which doesn’t have any state funding and has done much better at reaching audiences. European arthouse cinema has become like a genre in itself and something that people see as not very enjoyable. It’s as if there had to be a contradiction between entertaining and important content. But since I made “Force Majeure,” I have had a goal of combining the best part of the American cinema, where you’re reaching the audience, with the European cinema, where you’re discussing society and where you are provoking thoughts. And I think that the audience actually is interested in that.

I know you test-screened “Triangle of Sadness” in foreign markets. Now that the movie is out, how do you keep in touch with audiences?

With “Triangle of Sadness” I went to 18 different cinemas in Sweden. And when I do that I get to know my audience and they get to know me. And we can build a common arena where we can make cinema culture vital and and bring energy into it, because that culture is more unique today than it was 20 years ago. Theaters are now the only space where we’re watching images together. TV isn’t. The only thing Swedes are watching together on TV is the Eurovision song contest. The public television in Sweden has less audiences than the biggest influencers who are 14 years old. So I feel very confident because we have a unique selling point and we should stop dreaming about the numbers that theaters were getting in the 1960s and 1970s because they are never coming back. But we have a unique venue and it’s a joy to work with it.

Do you think winning a prize at Cannes puts a stamp on a film that tells people it’s going to be too “auteur”?

That is true. It puts a stamp, but I also hope that “Triangle of Sadness” changes the perception about that stamp.

Do you regret the fact that “Triangle of Sadness” isn’t eligible for an international film Oscar because it’s in English?

Not really. And I want a third Palme d’Or.

But you just won your second!

I want to be humble. It was fantastic to win the first time. I never thought it would happen again. And when you win it the second time, the scary thing is that then you realize it is possible to win a third time. And then I would be the only one in the world. I’m sorry, but these are the kind of fantasies I get. And it’s great to use it to set the bar when you talk to your crew. You tell them, “O.K., the next film has to be so good so it might be possible for us to win the third Palme d’Or. Everybody has to pitch in and give their very best. And then if we don’t succeed, it doesn’t matter. We’ll have pushed our performance.

And you’re still wanting to do the next film in English, right?

Yes, my next film is going to be in English. You know, my wife speaks English, my son is brought up in English, Swedish and German. I live in a world where I speak English. The film is going to take place on an airplane. It is an international setting. So English is the the only language I can approach when it comes to that.

Is it going to be another critique of the ultra-rich?

No, I’m not interested in criticizing the ultra-rich. I think rich people are nice. They just don’t like to pay taxes.

But the fact is that when you have people entering a plane through business class, the risk of air rage goes up by four times. So it says something about our society. What I can advise to all rich people is: Don’t let the poor people see how good you have it because it’s going to make them angry!

So is Woody Harrelson really going to star in it?

I can’t tell you, I’m sorry!

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