The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Square.
How did the idea of the script develop from the art piece of the square?
Ruben Östlund: The whole idea of the script developed in 2008. I don’t like to talk about it as an art piece but instead of as a humanistic traffic sign, actually. While I was doing research for this film, they built the first gated community ever in Sweden. If you look at the actual gated community’s vision, it’s a very aggressive way of saying, “what’s in the gates is our responsibility and what’s outside is a threat.” I then started to think about social contracts in society. So how do we look at ourselves and other human beings and who is responsible for the public spaces and cities? In this context, we decided to make a symbolic place that should remind ourselves of our role as fellow human beings and remind ourselves that we can trust each other and take responsibility. I had huge problems writing this film because the topic I wanted to tackle was so much wider then my previous films. I tried to collect ideas and talk to people about the social contract from the art piece and from different content ideas. As I was doing this, we were invited to an art museum to make an exhibit about The Square art installation and I ended up basing a lot of the research around that experience.
“I really wanted the film to be about an important topic, yet remain wild and exciting.”
What’s the background of the Public Relations angle for this story?
Östlund: I originally didn’t want to make fun of the PR agency, but as we were casting we found these two fantastic guys. I couldn’t help myself because their look and comical style was inspiring. Their roles ended up being based on versions of themselves. With poking fun at the PR agency, I wanted to point out that we are in a place in the media landscape where the tension is everything and the content is secondary. I was inspired by that because I followed the Swedish election and you can tell it was an extreme right-wing party which is now the third largest party Sweden. They use very controversial and provocative language that got them a lot of exposure.
How did you discover a way to tie in the large ideas of the media with smaller scope personal experiences?
Östlund: I was thinking that trying to tell something about this topic about these humanistic values that have existed since the beginning of man. I thought that I could achieve this on a society level through the PR agency, so it’s a question of why should I share this, if everyone agrees about the conflict? When everyone agrees I can’t position myself within the content, so it becomes unsexy content. On another level, I wanted to confront myself since I believe in these humanistic ideas and I want to promote them. It’s not that I have experienced all of these things, but I’m looking for a situation that I can identify possibility for improvement.
How did the animalistic theme, specifically dealing with interactions between human beings, develop for this film?
Östlund: I think I read the script a few too many times before shooting and I just felt that something was missing. There was something about this feeling that the film was too safe and I really wanted the film to be about an important topic, yet remain wild and exciting. Reading through the first half I didn’t feel that energy, so the producer and I went away for a weekend to think through some of these details. One hour before we headed back, we thought that maybe Elizabeth Moss’ character has a chimpanzee, which fits the monkey theme in the film. I brought the chimpanzee to throw off the social contract with the audience of the film so audiences are on their toes thinking that anything can happen.
For the character of Anne, what inspired you to have her as a journalist?
Östlund: I was interested in the situation where Anne and Christian are at the museum and there’s this unspoken social contract between them after they’ve had sex. She’s using that while he’s afraid of it. I tried out many actresses for the role of Anne, but after meeting Elizabeth, I knew she was perfect. She was so good at pushing me into a corner when I was casting and doing some improvisation with her. For me Elizabeth’s character is someone that likes Christian a lot but doesn’t dare say it, therefore she uses this unspoken rule and social law against him. I was interested in that from a modern perspective where sexuality is of economic value for women.