From Strindberg and Bergman to the gothic gloom of Scandinavian noir, Swedish storytellers have never been known for promoting the feelgood factor. For a good dose of mordant humour perhaps, but hardly for heel-kicking bonhomie. However, there is one man who has been known to buck this trend and his name is – of all things – Moodysson.
Lukas Moodysson first burst on to the cinematic scene in 1998 with Fucking Amal (aka Show Me Love), a bracing evocation of the frustrations of life as an adolescent (and possibly lesbian) girl in a conservative provincial town. His next film was Together (2000), an international art house hit about the heady idealism and vexing realities of life in a 1970s hippy commune. Both were bittersweet yet ultimately life-affirming.
It hasn’t all been good cheer. Lilya 4-Ever (2002) was a devastating account of an Estonian girl’s sale into sexual slavery, and Moodysson followed that with two more experimental films before his English-language debut Mammoth in 2009, an unusually heavy-handed effort about fractured family life in the age of globalisation.
But now he has returned to form with We Are the Best!, an irresistibly effervescent tale (adapted from a graphic novel written by his wife Coco) about two tweenage schoolgirls who in 1982 are swept up by the spirit of punk and inspired to start their own band.
When I meet Moodysson, 45, in London, I wonder whether the emphasis will be on moody or sunny. The figure who greets me is clad from head to toe in black but it isn’t long before he is breaking into an impish grin and a boyish chuckle. He tends to mull over questions carefully before beginning an answer, trailing off and embarking on a new digression. It’s an unruly thought process that is reflected in his directing style.
“I really want to be sitting in my chair and watching things that I don’t control completely,” he tells me. “I’m looking for people who are able to play around a little … The only people I have problems with as actors are the ones who know exactly what to do and are not really interested in improvising.”
This appetite for the unexpected goes some way to explaining his success in working with young actors, demonstrated to great effect in Fucking Amal and in the new film. “I want things to go in different ways,” he says. “And sometimes children or teenagers are better at doing that because they haven’t done it 25 times before. They’re a little bit more open-minded and just let things happen.”
If the runaway energy that Moodysson seeks is not forthcoming, he has some unconventional methods up his sleeve. “There are some scenes where, if you look very carefully, there is candy flying through the air, and that is actually me directing,” he says. “I felt the actors were not jumping enough, so I just started throwing things at them. They were like, ‘What?’ and I said: ‘Just continue acting.’”
This sense of fun shines through in the film, in which the punk ingénues – impetuous Karla and more thoughtful Bobo – are gleefully undeterred by their lack of musical expertise and delight in provoking their uptight elders. Recruiting a Christian classical guitar player along the way – “We have to save her from God” – they compose cacophonous ditties with titles such as “Hate the Sport!” and rail against the oppressive forces of parents, PE teachers and the school’s meathead metallers, Iron Fist.
It is tempting to imagine the film set as one long candy-strewn carnival, but isn’t there ultimately an imperative to stick to the script? “It’s a combination,” Moodysson says. “Quite often I do write a very detailed script and then I forget about it completely when I’m filming.” However, he concedes, this can be for pragmatic, middle-aged reasons. “Partly it’s because I need glasses and I can’t have them on all the time because I get a headache,” he laughs. “So I have an assistant director I rely on to tell me ‘Now we have lost track too much’, because I don’t look at the script at all.”
Such an approach may yield results that delight audiences but could mean shoots that run over schedule and over budget, and anger producers, I suggest. “No, because I’m quite disciplined,” Moodysson says. “The takes are often complete chaos but I know I got one piece there and another piece there, so in the editing sometimes we keep the chaos but put it together in a way that goes back to the script.”
I remark that We Are the Best! reminds me of films from the 1980s of my youth that were often full of youthful rebellion and wish-fulfilment but nevertheless took place in a recognisable and realistic setting – in contrast to the worlds of wizards, vampires and dystopian sci-fi that dominate kids’ films today.
Moodysson agrees that “at the moment there’s too much fantasy”, and says he is being “proud of belonging to the Scandinavian tradition of taking children seriously in literature, film and TV”. But he is also wary of films that are overly earnest. “A lot of films about young people are really serious, heavy movies – my children wouldn’t watch them … Distributors had difficulties with what kind of audience this film was for, but for me it was always a film for young people and for nostalgic grown-ups as well.”
The Moodysson method of organised chaos itself recalls the have-a-go ethos of punk, and the feeling of looseness and spontaneity it achieves is certainly refreshing. But is punk really alive in 2014? “The whole energy of punk is not dead – at least not for me,” he says. “What punk did for me when I was 12 or 13 … that approach of picking up an instrument without knowing how to play a chord – that’s still alive.”
Throwing candy at kids may be a far cry from lobbing beer bottles at the stage but with its irrepressible energy We Are the Best! might just help inspire a new wave of new wavers.
‘We Are the Best!’ is released in the UK on April 18 and in the US on May 30