Ski bumming to the Oscars: Film director Ruben Östlund´s unusual path to success

Swedish film director Ruben Östlund, 44, grew up with his mother on Styrsö, a small rocky island on the south coast of Sweden with only 1400 inhabitants. He learned to ski in Lapland during regular visits to his grandparents. While Östlund continued windsurfing with his friends in the sea surrounding his home island, skiing soon became a part of his identity. His preferred after-school activity was watching ski movies and his future plans were focused around the sport. Östlund followed his plans after finishing his compulsory education in 1993 and spent the next two seasons skiing in the Alps with his friends.

Östlund had started to film his friends windsurfing before the trips and continued developing his skills in the Alps. In 1995 he found himself directing a Swedish snowboard movie called Toast in Riksgränsen, a resort situated on the tundra in north-western Sweden. A spectacular ski run by one of the local hardcore skiers caught his eye on a chairlift ride and made him question whom he should point his camera at. Östlund´s decision to start shooting Jesper Rönnbäck and his fellow mogul skiers resulted in Free Radicals (1997) and Free Radicals 2 (1998), films that showed proto-new-school tricks and received praise for the strong skiing and bullet-proof landings. Free Radicals skier Janne Aikio´s massive quarter-pipe air even landed a Powder Magazine cover in 1996 with the title “The next big thing”. After the second movie Östlund got tired of ski resorts and decided to apply for the art school in Gothenburg. He was accepted based on his ski movie work.



Jesper Rönnbäck attacking the steeps. Photo: Christoffer Sjöström.


His first non-ski film, Let the others deal with love (2000) was a loving coming-of-age documentary about the group of friends Östlund had skied with in the Alps. He used his skiing knowledge in Force Majeure (2014), a film that takes place in the French Alps and builds around social tensions in a scenario where a family witnesses a massive avalanche while eating lunch at a slope-side restaurant and instead of acting heroically, the father runs off, leaving the family behind.

Östlund´s most recent release, The Square (2017), is an art-world satire that has proved to be his most successful film to date, earning him the prestigious Palm d´Or in the Cannes Film Festival and a nomination for best foreign film in the Oscars. Not willing to rest on his laurels Östlund is already working on a new film.

The idea for the upcoming Triangle Of Sadness, a satire set against the fashion industry and jet set society, came from Östlund´s photographer girlfriend. The film, scheduled to start shooting in 2019, will be partly set on luxury boat run by a Marxist captain and a deserted island where part of the jet set crew finds themselves stranded on, and true to the director´s style, will focus on group dynamics and social hierarchy.  Östlund now lives in Gothenburg and is a professor in the same film school where he once studied and still likes to ski every chance he gets.


From roughing it in ski resorts to the red carpet premiers at movie festivals. Resort photo: Christoffer Sjöström. Portrait: Tobias Henriksson.


I think that skiing became my identity when I was around 12 years old. I thought it was nice to have an identity that not everyone else on Styrsö had. There was something about that which I liked.

I really decided at that age that I wanted to go to the Alps as soon as I was finished with the school and spend a couple of winters skiing. I was completely focused on that goal.

I´ve been watching more ski movies than I have watched any other movies. I wasn´t even interested in the film industry and fiction feature films.

I remember the first ski movie that I ordered through Powder Magazine, it was Carving the White by Real Action Pictures with Eric Pehota and Trevor Petersen. I also watched Greg Stump movies: The Blizzard of Aaahh´s and Licence to Thrill. I never got hold of P-Tex, Lies and Duct Tape, that annoyed me!

There were so many snowboarders who were sponsored (during the late 90´s), it was crazy, and the level of the riders was not always that good. I remember that the skiers were a little bit jealous at the time of the attention.

The runs I witnessed Jesper skiing in Riksgränsen were definitely comparable to the ones I´ve seen Terje Håkonsen doing regarding fluidity and playfulness – it was so impressive.


Jesper Rönnbäck styling it out in the Free Radicals. Photo: Christoffer Sjöström.


One thing that is still and advantage for me is that when we were shooting ski movies we had maybe 100 days of shooting for a 30-minute movie. We were aout shooting every single day from mid-December until April. The stamina that you got during those years is still very important to me now.

I think that all the actors that I am working with understand that I want them to perform or do something extraordinary in front of the camera – not only cover the script. It´s about creating a moment that is worth saving. This comes from the skiing years: to create a spectacular moment that you want to show to others.

When you are watching ski movies, the longer the take, the better the performance is by the skier. If he or she can do a long dynamic run full of tricks, then it´s a great performance. Making a cut is a way of covering mistakes. I think I had this attitude in my first films – I wanted to have long scenes and shots to create a strong feeling of presence.

I felt that if I could make a film that was taking place in a ski resort where you would first think of it as a comedy, because that is the convention, and then make it as an existential drama (Force Majeure, see clip below).





I think that one reason that I wanted to shoot that film was the scene with an avalanche. I had seen a Youtube clip with a group of people standing on an outdoor restaurant filming an avalanche coming down the mountain, thinking first that it´s beautiful and ending up running away shit-scared.   

The gorilla scene in the Square was shot in three days with one day of rehearsal. I think a big part of that scene is the performance by the American actor Terry Notary, who was the motion-capture guy for the Planet of the Apes.





I do a lot of takes, on an average 30-40, when we have been doing up to 25 takes I say: “come on everybody, five takes left!” We try to push in some intensity. This might also come from skiing, I remember how enjoyable it was to film a skier coming down a mountain with no tracks on it: if you miss it, there is no second take. There was such a strong feeling of the presence. I try to create that also in the film sets when I am shooting now.

We use improvisation to investigate the scene – it´s a combination of the script and the things we found out during the improvisation. It´s very important to get away from the feeling of impro, because I think that pure improvisation never portrays anything that feels fantastic – you have to combine it with something precise.



Östlund pushing in some intensity on the set of Force Majeure.



The progression of the ski movies is very impressive, but I have an ambivalent feeling to it in many ways. You can tell that the films are done by a generation that was brought up by Playstation. I strongly believe that human being is an imitating creature, we imitate what we see. This has really changed the sport.

My brother´s son is quite young and he is into actions sports, which is a little bit nerving. There has been some accidents by Swedish skiers recently. As you get a little bit older suddenly you start to think about these things.

When you think about companies like Red Bull who invest so much money into action sports, they create certain kind of pressure with it.

I have never cared about stories in ski movies,I must say that I have never seen a ski movie where I feel someone has managed to tell intellectually a story in a way that would make me feel that I get something out of it – I prefer the action!

I was in the Sundance Film Festival this year and what´s great about the festival is that you get to ski, I spent five days of it skiing.



This story was first published by 

Big thanks for Ruben Östlund for the interview and Christoffer Sjöström for the photos.

You can see more of Sjötröm´s amazing photos by visiting his website

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