Lukas Moodysson, Amateur Punk

Published May 28, 2014

Swedish filmmaker, novelist, and poet Lukas Moodysson, in addition to his myriad projects and raising three kids with his wife, the writer and graphic novelist Coco Moodysson in Malmö, also keeps a healthily updated Tumblr. Listed “interests” (“Rihanna, fountain pens, Marcel Proust, sitting next to Coco when she drives our Volvo”) and “non-interests” (“parties, ballpoint pens, football”) are among photos of Miley Cyrus, Susan Sontag, and his home office, gifs of the Cure’s Robert Smith, brief musings on world events, and screenshots of his new film, We Are The Best!, which opens tomorrow.

Fellow countryman Ingmar Bergman called Moodysson’s film debut, 1998’s paean to coming-of-age sexuality Show Me Love, a “masterpiece” of a “young master.” Throughout his career making movies, Moodysson’s deft handling of the state of adolescence, whether in self-discovery or in extreme strife (as in his searing indictment of the Swedish sex trafficking industry in Lilya 4-Ever, 2002) has become a recurring thread in his work.

We Are The Best! has been received as a return to form for Moodysson, who took a four-year hiatus after his last (and only English language) film, Mammoth. It’s also a return to a certain buoyancy and warm-hearted earnestness of Show Me Love, and the ’70s-set Together (2000), where a mother and her two children escape an alcoholic husband and move into her idealistic brother’s hippie collective. Moodysson is at his most effervescent, and We Are The Best!, which he adapted from Coco’s graphic novel, Never Goodnight (2008), a chronicle of her experiences as a young punk teen in Stockholm in the early ’80s. The film is a joyous and smart take on teenage vulnerability and innocence, when friendships are sacred, and every small victory, at home or in the classroom, underlines a soaring overture to the possibilities of growing up.

A trio of outcasts at school—pragmatic Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), scrappy Klara (Mira Grosin), and measured Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne)—rally around their love of punk, and deal with hopelessly clueless parents, self-absorbed peers, blockheaded P.E. teachers, and in true DIY form, start a band. Their first song, “Hata sport,” a scathing critique of gym class, features lyrics like: “The world is a morgue/But you’re watching Björn Borg!”

When Interview met with Moodysson a few weeks ago in New York, the 45-year-old was wearing two-toned black-and-red Nikes and dealing with a case of jet lag (“I was up eating breakfast at 2 am,” he said).

COLLEEN KELSEY: What were the most important things in your life when you were the same age as Klara, Bobo, and Hedvig?

LUKAS MOODYSSON: It’s quite close. We listened to the same kind of music and wanted to look the same. I feel at home in that world. They’re girls, and I was a boy, but that’s not really a big difference. I always felt more like a girl than a boy, I don’t know. Music was very important to me, movies were not important. I was not dreaming of becoming a film director. A couple of years later, I started to read a lot and write a lot, but not when I was 13. The song, for example, that Klara and Bobo refer to as the “best song ever” [KSMB’s “Sex Noll Två”], that’s really what I felt when I was 12.

KELSEY: How do you feel about it now, looking back?

MOODYSSON: Maybe it’s not the greatest song ever made, but I still like it a lot, and it’s really angry. It’s called “602.” The reason for the title is that the first version was 6:02 in length. But it’s quite unusual for the songs of that time, because it’s poetic and about longing and missing someone, so a strange combination of this tough band that I really like, and they wrote that kind of song. But afterwards, the guy who wrote the song, he said he just put together the stuff and it didn’t mean anything, and it made me so extremely aggravated. I just think he’s lying, actually, and that he’s hiding something there. I’m sure it means a lot to him. He even said he wrote it sort of like a parody, but I know it’s not true.

KELSEY: When did you know that you wanted to work with Coco and adapt her work?

MOODYSSON: One day in the kitchen. That was just it. Well, I don’t want to talk too much about my children, but a friend of one of my children, something really terrible happened to her. I just felt like I had to speak about growing up again, because I felt that there’s no way I can talk about difficulties of life. I had to talk about possibilities. I’m not saying that I made a film to make young people feel great, not such a simple message, but I really felt that I will not go back to do something depressing. I had to make something happy and funny, and show that there are always many ways to continue—even when you’re feeling ugly, or you are forgotten by your parents.

KELSEY: How do you see adolescence and its relationship to your films? I know you have teenage children now. Is it a sense of the freedom or the optimism that draws you to that subject?

MOODYSSON: Optimism I wouldn’t say, because I think a lot of young people today are really pessimistic. I think actually one of the things you learn when you get older is, things change. You get a longer perspective. I was quite depressed when I was young. I had a dark cloud hanging over me. But I always felt “this is not the end.” It’s always changing; it’s going up, it’s going down. Great things will happen. I think today there are so many young people I meet that don’t have that perspective—that things will change.

I think what draws me to young people is there is always this kind of openness that reacts very strongly to things. Sometimes when you get older, you react much less. That’s also a reason why a lot of young people get hurt because if you’re open, you’re more subject to being hurt by things. You see something for the first time, you experience something for the first time, you feel something for the first time, it’s much harder. I think that it’s painful, but at the same time I think it should be the way to experience the world. So I think, as much as possible, I try to be open myself. I think that’s probably something that falls with young people. It’s not because I think young people are smarter, because I don’t think they are. I think young people are quite actually stupid. [laughs]

KELSEY: I’m curious what you learned from the actresses in the film about their experience of being young, and being clued into music and culture, as I’m sure it’s very different than your experience. Especially since the Internet has made discovering music, film, culture, etc., instantaneous.

MOODYSSON: That’s actually the biggest difference I think. Also, an interesting thing is—I’m not sure if it’s the same thing in the US, I mentioned it to a French journalist, and he said that it was absolutely the same in France—the fact that people, they speak much faster, sort of like an inner-stress. Because the ’70s and ’80s in Sweden, the ideal was to be a little bit cool, leaned back, so you could speak slow… [speaking very slow] like this. But today is all about speaking real fast and that’s a big difference. The actresses in the film, they were asked about their impression of the ’80s. For them, the ’80s is not a very big difference from the ’70s and ’60s—way back in time. They liked the idea of less stress. They really feel that the stress today is difficult.

KELSEY: I was especially happy to see a story about women and punk, especially since it’s always been such a macho scene. In the U.S., in the U.K., wherever. And there’s also been a strong lineage of amazing women punk musicians, whether it’s Siouxsie and the Banshees or Bikini Kill. Did it just come from Coco’s experience, to focus the film on young girls?

MOODYSSON: If there was a story about boys playing punk I don’t think I would’ve made it, because it would just be the same, it wouldn’t be interesting enough. That fact that they are girls made it more interesting. I feel the same thing about it as you, that punk is a very masculine thing. At least it was in 1982, especially where I grew up. There were no Swedish punk bands, and there were no British punk bands that were just girls, at least that I knew of. I grew out of punk when I was 14, 15 and started listening to the Cure and things like that, but when I was 12 and 13 years old, the older punk boys, we felt like they were enormous. They wanted to be really tough and destroy things and eat glass. I tried to be like that, but I wasn’t like that at all. I was always scared when I was around them, and scared of violence and drugs. I remember going to some concerts. We were really too young, me and my friend. We were sort of like, “Ok, go sit in the corner.” So we sat in the corner.

KELSEY: Right—away from the mosh pit.

MOODYSSON: I just felt really scared. I felt, “Oh, I want to go home.” The film is sort of like that feeling, that a lot of times when you portray things in retrospect, everything looks much more, I don’t know, sort of like a commercial. Like a cartoon or something, because what really happens is not perfect. In retrospect, punk has always been painted as fantastic. My main feeling is the way you look at everything. I was never happy with the clothes I wore, my haircut. That was something I really wanted in the film.

KELSEY: Do you think punk as an attitude has stayed, or has it become a parody of itself?

MOODYSSON: It depends on what you mean as punk. I don’t want to judge. For me, it’s more of an attitude that’s sort of like, “I’m immature,” and you believe you can do anything, and you can start without learning all of the lessons, starting immediately. As an adult, it’s of course impossible, because it’s impossible to have that attitude all the time. Their first song is about their stupid gym teacher. You cannot really write a song on how you feel about everything, so you have to restrict yourself. Simplify the attitude. I also think that there’s something real dangerous about it, if you stop there, and feel, “Everything I do and touch is golden and fantastic.” So you have to be a very self-critical amateur, I think. That’s what I try to do when I’m directing, try to not understand what I’m doing at all, but at the same time I have to step back and say, “Will it really work out what I’m trying to do?” Otherwise it just turns into stupidity.

KELSEY: Even at this point in your career, you still feel the same way?

MOODYSSON: Even more. I still have to invent a way I work at all times. I’ve been teaching film school, in Finland for some reason, as they’re the only ones who’ll have me. [chuckles] I’ve been trying to convince the Swedish film schools to accept me as a teacher but they’re not really interested. But I was in Finland, and I think in the schools there’s this tendency to show and believe that there’s only one way to do things, but I think that you have to find new ways to do it. There’s not one way to direct a film, there are so many different ways to do it. Everything affects the way it turns out in the end. Even the smallest things. You don’t want to really acknowledge that, because you want to believe that you are the only creative asset as a director. You want to believe you’re the only one. But I really feel that everyone teams up and everybody really affects everything. Actually, it’s the closest I will get to playing in a band.

WE ARE THE BEST! IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE TOMORROW, MAY 30.