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Triangle of Sadness not only marks producer Erik Hemmendorff’s first Oscar nomination, but it is also his first English-language feature film. Alongside producing partner Ruben Östlund, who wrote and directed the satire, Hemmendorff set out to cast international actors like Harris Dickinson, Woody Harrelson and Charlbi Dean (who died three months after the film premiered at Cannes), to pair with the global theme of the fashion industry.
Hemmendorff recently spoke with THR about what the Oscar nominations mean for the Swedish film industry, the legacy Dean left before her death in August at age 32 due to bacterial sepsis and the challenges they faced during production.
What does the Academy’s recognition mean to you?
From my point of view, we already won. I’m really proud that the film has made a name for itself, and it means a lot because in the Swedish context, it’s already historical. The last time anything like this happened was in 1974 [when Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers earned five noms]. It also says something about where Nordic films are at the moment. When Ruben and I were at film school, all producers wanted to remake successes, and the feeling you had was that the best days of cinema had been [in the past]. Ruben and I just looked at each other and said, “We want this to be the most exciting time in cinema history.”
This is your first English-language feature film. Why was Triangle of Sadness the one for that?
This is our sixth that we did together, and it’s been a steady climb. The first film we made, The Guitar Mongoloid, had a little over 3,000 people at the Swedish cinemas, but we were really determined to take a step to do something new. With the three last films, Force Majeure, The Square and Triangle of Sadness, I feel that they are connected, and it was liberating when we started to think about casting the film. We felt like if we only do castings in Sweden, we really haven’t done our job. We need to go to Norway. We need to go to Denmark. Ruben always uses meetings with actors as a way of developing the film because he also really loves to discuss the material with them. The art world is international, and I live in Stockholm, so on a daily basis, I speak to someone in English. It’s really reflecting the world. What it comes back to was that we really felt that we didn’t do our job if we didn’t try to meet the best people.
You have an incredible cast. Walk me through who joined first and the process behind finding everyone.
Harris was quite early, and he was a bit younger than we had originally thought of, but he made such an impression. But we couldn’t really give anyone the part until we had met them all. Like a job interview, all over the world. And with Dolly [de Leon], [casting director] Pauline [Hansson] and I were sitting in the office in Stockholm, and first we met with all the Filipino actresses who lived in Sweden. But we hadn’t found someone who has some uniqueness [to] them. Finally Pauline said, “I think I need to go to the Philippines to really meet someone.” I think it was down to two or three, but Dolly immediately had something which caught our eyes. We found her basically on our first try in the Philippines, so we were quite lucky there. She stood out.
Charlbi Dean, sadly, died before she could see the film take off globally. What was it like working with her?
She was a trouper, a very easygoing, cool person. We were all talking about who this character could be, and then someone said, “That sounds like Charlbi.”
So we got ahold of her and asked her, “Would you come to Sweden for two days because we are not going to give you a role if you don’t do a real casting with Ruben at our office.” And she just did it. She flew over, and I mean, it was there immediately. We have a very specific way of shooting and working. There are hierarchies, but we really work with people who will enjoy working hard in that type of creative environment. And she was just one of those people who made everyone feel great always. You could do as many takes as you want. She was always ready for the next one, a professional. The nicest, most easygoing person, very hardworking. She was one of a kind.
Ruben told me a lot of money was spent on the yacht. Was there ever any other yacht in consideration?
We had booked another yacht for the shoot. Booking yachts is very tricky. They’re very expensive. Our idea was that the people who own yachts, they have so much money, maybe they will just let us have it for free, which is absolutely not the case. You have to spend an enormous amount of money. Initially, we had booked another yacht. And when COVID came, everything was prolonged, so we needed to change dates. And when we had new dates, and when there was a possibility to start up production again, it was very hard to reach this manager for the boat. Whatever we asked him, he could never really come back with a commitment on a date. So, finally, I had to put him in the corner and say, “This is not going to work.” What had happened was that the Saudi Arabian king had rented a whole fleet from this yacht firm, and the guy said, “This is the king of Saudi Arabia. I cannot tell them that I need to go somewhere else.” I was really angry because he led us on for ages. [The yacht] Christina O had been one of the boats that we originally looked at. Christina O was in Greece, and it turned out that we could rent it. She was the one.
How did you find the setting for the island part of the film?
Originally, we had an idea that we would shoot in Thailand, but in the end, it felt like it was too far away. It was also an obvious choice, that that’s where people go when you want to shoot paradise, and we really wanted to make some kind of uncertainty, a uniqueness of where this place is. I met a producing colleague in Berlin, Giorgos Karnavas, and he asked me what I was doing and he told me that there was a Greek cash rebate that was just going to start, and I asked him if he could do some location [scouting]. He really gave us some amazing footage. And what we really liked was that this place looked a bit … you couldn’t really place it, it didn’t look like the Greek islands, at least from the Nordics. It was also green, so you couldn’t tell if it was Asia or where it was. And for us, you know, it was closer to home, closer for everybody in the crew.
But no one had made that type of big film on this island called Evia (or Euboea) before. This is a super small place. It’s famous because it has a famous nudist beach, and it’s one of the few places where you can camp, so people have been building houses there and stay there for, like, 30 years. It’s a community living there. That’s how we ended up in this place, but we also fell in love with it. The road leads to nowhere else, so we could actually have a whole little town for ourselves. That was so good during COVID — I mean, everybody in this town was more or less in quarantine.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a Feb. stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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