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Triangle of Sadness' producer on working with Ruben Östlund and challenging conventions

18 MAY 2022

Erik Hemmendorff / PHOTO: Annika Pham

Exclusive-​The Swedish producer Erik Hemmendorff opens up about his and Östlund’s long-time partnership and recipe for success.

Hemmendorff has produced all Östlund’s films through their company Plattform Produktion, a film collective set up in 2002 with other filmmakers (including Axel Danielson, Mikel Cee Karlsson) as part of the ‘Göteborg bubble’ creative wave.

After grabbing the Palme d’or in 2017 with The Square, the duo is back in the main competition with Triangle of Sadness.

Could you remind us how you and Ruben first met?
Erik Hemmendorff: We went to film school together in Göteborg. Ruben was one year older and ahead of me. Kalle Boman [legendary Swedish producer of Bo Widerberg, Roy Andersson among others] who had been our teacher insisted we should get together. In the second year of film school, Ruben had received a Guldbagge nomination. Already then, he was standing out.

How did you and Ruben decide to set up Plattform Produktion that revolutionised the way Swedish films were made in the early 2000?
EH: At the time, Ruben and I were inspired by Youtube, the new digital filmmaking techniques that were opening up new ways to create. Instead of doing a film the traditional way, with 35mm, you could go out, shoot something digitally and if it didn’t work you could redo it.

At the time, most Swedish producers didn’t believe in video. For them, it wasn’t ‘real’ film. We felt that they weren’t daring enough, just repeating existing formulas. For us, it was depressing to think that all the best films had already been made. So Plattform was created in opposition to everything that was around. We were interested in creating a new wave.

We then came up with an idea: Plattform would adapt the production to a director’s original idea, rather than put the ideas indifferently, into the same production process. We felt we needed to reinvent the wheels of production.

Today, this is still the core of what we stand for. We also continue to take the full creative decisions, and stick all the way to the original idea, offering potential partners the opportunity to join us in our adventure. We contact financiers and say: ‘this is what we’re doing-do you want to be part of it?

At Plattform, we’re not interested in creating stories, we create ideas. We have always produced ideas and filmmakers, not stories.

It is so interesting that you’re saying this, at a time when storytelling is king, in the streaming era and golden age of TV drama…
EH: I have to be true to what inspires me, and feel that the person I’m working with brings something new into this world. TV series in general are too formulaic and bore me, unless I watch the episodes in the wrong order. Then I can appreciate them. A few series raise the creative bar. Take HBO Max’s Succession for example. Is not about the story, it’s about the casting. They had a brilliant idea and played around it. This is why it’s exciting to watch. One of my other favourite series is Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz. It was long [15 hours] but deep and personal.

A few years ago, you told me that you and Ruben don’t really work with scripts. How do financiers react to this?
EH: Actually, Ruben does write a lot and he is a very good writer. But the writing is a process. We don’t have a finished script, that gets approved, and then we make the film. We have an idea, and use the script to help people understand what we are going to do. It is part of the casting, part of the location scouting etc. Our partners -that have followed us over the years - know that the end result will be true to the original idea. Winning the Palme d’or has reinforced the trust that our partners have in our work.

How is your overall collaboration with Ruben? As a producer, do you challenge him?
EH: We’ve worked together for almost 20 years. I act as a sounding board for him. We make sure we excel in everything, push ourselves. We’re always trying to find solutions to problems, whatever they are. I find this particularly stimulating.

Since we produce the films within our company, we discuss the goals for each film and start production from that point. I make sure we take the right steps, hire the right people for each department -like a casting-and find the financing partners that I believe will get us where we want to be. Meeting Philippe Bober [long-time co-producer and sales agent through The Coproduction Office] was very important for us.

With a €13 million budget, Triangle of Sadness is your biggest project ever. How challenging was it to put it together?
EH: There is a point above €9 million where you run out of money in Europe and need to find co-financiers overseas. This is the trick. How to keep control of the creative and production process, and importantly for us-the casting.

Over a certain budget level, you’re expected to attach bankable names, to lessen the risks for financiers. We don’t believe in this and neither in packaging. Formulas sometimes work, but we’ve seen also many films with big stars that haven’t recouped.

That said, we do work with talent agents to find the right actors, and also scout to find unknown acting talents. The casting process for Triangle of Sadness took almost nine months and we travelled everywhere-from Denmark, the UK, the US to the Philippines to find the right people.

How was it to work with Woody Harrelson?
EH: He was extremely brave in this pandemic to take the chance and come to Sweden. He is laid back on set. It was fun to work with a big star like him. These US stars glow. They add something to everything on the set and everybody has to be better because they are so good.


Triangle of Sadness' producer on working with Ruben Östlund and challenging conventions

Triangle of Sadness, Woody Harrelson, Ruben Östlund / PHOTO: Courtesy of Tobias Henriksson and Plattform Produktion

What were the effects of Covid on the making of the film?
EH: We had one of the biggest sets ever built in Sweden, at Film I Väst, and were in the middle of production when Covid hit. We knew that if we had to take it down, we could never afford to build it again. It was a race against the clock.

Covid was terrible but then, it gave us a few extra weeks, where Ruben could quietly watch the material. Then shooting with Woody became very special, as one of the few shoots going on in the world at the time. We then moved to Greece [the island of Evia], where we worked with my Greek partner Giorgos Karnavas from Heretic, that I had met at ACE Producers. We worked wonderfully in Greece. Ultimately, although Covid was tough on everyone, it turned the making of Triangle of Sadness into a memorable and very special moment in everybody’s lives.

What did you learn from working on your first full English-language project?
EH: I have learnt a lot about European/US financing, and how to bridge the whole of Scandinavia with France, the UK, Greece, the US. But we are not alone in putting the financing puzzle together. We have a strong network of extremely qualified partners-and wonderful human beings- that we rely on.

I also had great line producers in Zahra Waldeck who had worked on bigger budget films, and in Pierre Wallon, whom I had met on Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman’s Island [co-produced by Plattform].

You need that network of people who are better than you in a lot of things. We also prioritise long-term relationships, and have been able to establish one with the US production company Imperative Entertainment and 30West. This is key.

The Ruben Östlund’s touch is to deliver humorous observations of social behaviour, and with Triangle of Sadness he inserts an interesting political edge, through the larger-than-life Marxist captain played by Woody Harrelson. Offering food for thought to cinemagoers is another of your goals, isn’t it?
EH: Marxism was the birth of sociology, a way of looking at the world without prejudice. It’s a way of unmasking reality, a perspective that adds something to your life. Yes we do want people to have something to discuss after coming out of a cinema. Ruben’s films are the opposite to popcorn movies, pure escapism. They are about the world we live in. Our reality. But it can be made in a provocative and entertaining way.

What does it feel to be in Cannes for the 5th time, and the 2nd time in competition?
EH: Cannes is a very important place. It continues to be relevant with the festival’s high-end selection. We have to be on our toes and do our utmost to be selected.

Two other Scandinavian films are running for a Palme d’or. These are exciting times for Scandinavian auteur cinema…
EH: I think Ruben, Ali Abbasi and Tarik Saleh are three directors that have pushed their own ideas very far and are now reaching out to global audiences. They are aware that it’s a luxury to work in Europe, with a strong public funding system. You might not have the biggest budget ever to work with, but a freedom that money cannot buy.

Would you ever consider working for a streamer?
EH: We always think of where we will show the film as part of the idea. We will see what happens. But one thing is sure. When it comes to auteur/filmmakers, I do think that we have something unique in Europe: the indie theatrical distribution system where you can build your career. You find distribution partners who are willing to invest in you because they want to follow you. This is why I’m careful with streamers. They might offer great opportunities, but they are still part of a system, with set rules. Ruben and I would have to embrace that system, but again, we can’t put his ideas into something that doesn’t suit us. It has to be the other way around for us.​


Triangle of Sadness' producer on working with Ruben Östlund and challenging conventions

Ruben Östlund, Erik Hemmendorff / PHOTO: Film I Vast