In the late ‘90s, a small Swedish coming-of-age film called Show Me Love turned up in a handful of independent cinemas. It had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it season, and would have sunk into forgetability like so many other pleasant-enough movies, except it wasn’t just pleasant enough. Show Me Love was brilliant. Titled Fucking Åmål in its homeland, the film depicted teenagers with an honesty that few films have ever managed.
That movie, with its sweet lesbian love story, turned its director into something of a sensation. But Lukas Moodysson’s celebrity didn’t seem to sit well with him, as proven when he gave the finger to the entire Swedish film industry at its major awards night.
Since his debut, Moodysson’s career has veered from the similarly sweet and human Together to the harrowing sex-slave drama Lilya 4 Ever, to avant garde experiments and Hollywood misfires (Mammoth). For his newest film, Moodysson has returned to form by turning his attention back to school girls, this time to realise an autobiographical graphic novel by his wife, Coco.
In telling the story of three misfits who form a punk band right around the time punk stops being cool in the early ‘80s, Moodysson again takes us straight back to the awkwardness of our own early teenage years. From a man in his forties, it’s an impressive feat. “It’s based on Coco’s graphic novel which is very autobiographical, but it wasn’t difficult for me to remember that time in my own life,” he explains by phone from his home in Sweden.
“My wife is much better at remembering small details, but I think we both have a pretty good memory of feelings, and what it felt like to be in school. I always felt it was easy to find those emotional memories.”
With three kids of his own (including one he cast in a minor role), does he draw on their lives for inspiration?
“My daughter just walked into the room, so difficult to answer,” Moodysson deadpans. “But there are a lot of writers who steal things from their children’s life, so I tried not to do that. If my daughter came home from school and told me about her day, and I turned that into a film, she’d probably get angry. There’s actually a funny story about a Swedish children’s book writer who has a son who felt she’d stolen stories from him, so he came home and made up a story about being in love with a girl, and sure enough, she used the same story, with the names he invented, in her next book.”
We Are The Best! had its Australian debut at the Melbourne International Film Festival, where it garnered the same rave it’s been receiving all over the world. When I enthuse about his film, Moodysson artfuly deflects the praise. “A film belongs not only to the director, but to the audience,” he says. “If someone tells me what they thought about a film of mine I never say, ‘no, the film’s not about that’. I feel that whatever someone takes away or finds in this film, is fine.”
“The most important thing for me is not what I or other people think, but the process. Building it, putting it together,” he continues. “One thing I’ve enjoyed in the past year is teaching directing, and something that surprises students is how practical my approach is. Things like making sure you have coffee with the actors in the morning when they arrive, these aspects are very important for me. The foundation of a film is the people you work with and what their roles are, on to all the technical things, such as the size of the camera. There’s a big difference between working with a physically big and small camera – all these aspects are important to the project. For example, if I want to film something in a room and I build that room in a studio, I will build a complete room, even if I’m filming in only one direction and I don’t actually need four walls. I want actors to feel they’re in a magic universe. Even though it costs money and the audience will never see it, I want it to feel real for the actors. The only other people on set who understand this are the painters,” he says. “They don’t want to make half a room. The photographers and the producers must find it frustrating, but that’s how I work.”
We Are The Best! is playing at selected cinemas now.