‘Triangle of Sadness’ Director Ruben Östlund on Getting That Gross-Out Seasick Scene Down to a Science

The “Force Majeure” and “The Square” filmmaker tells The Wrap about the techniques he employed to portray mass vomiting on a bumpy yacht

Triangle of Sadness (Neon)
Sunnyi Melles in "Triangle of Sadness" (Neon)

Champagne, hors d’oeuvres and Michelin-star meals are consumed in Ruben Östlund’s “Triangle of Sadness,” the Swedish filmmaker’s wild comedy set in part aboard a luxury yacht. But when an ocean storm rocks the boat, that cuisine is also regurgitated when the privileged are beset by violent, urgent vomiting.

Östlund, the director of “Force Majeure” and “The Square,” is a modern satirist with a gleeful Monty Python streak. And the seasickness sequence in “Triangle of Sadness” is riotous, stunning and seemingly endless – it runs, in fact, for 18 minutes, nearly three times as long as the Python’s immortally disgusting “Mr. Creosote” scene from 1983’s “The Meaning of Life.”

That’s exactly how Östlund intended it: movie scene as wild, sustained roller coaster ride for adults. The film, which centers on the relationship of two models (played by Harris Dickinson and the late Charlbi Dean) won Östlund his second Palme d’Or at this years Cannes Film Festival, one of the very rare comedies to score the fest’s top prize. And that was in no small part due to the the mass vomiting scene, truly a marvel of technical prowess at the service of gross-out humor.

Rubbing his beard and smiling during an interview with TheWrap, Östlund walked us through the making of the sequence, which was shot on a custom-built yacht set in Sweden, engineered to see-saw up to an angle of 20 degrees.

TheWrap: When you were conceiving and writing the seasick scene, were there any overriding goals you had in mind?

Ruben Östlund: Yeah, the idea of a big audience watching it all together. I had that in mind when I was working on parts of “Force Majeure” and “The Square,” as well, but especially when I was making this. There was a feeling of, like, especially because of the pandemic, the industry was struggling to convince people to leave their screens at home. I was hoping to give adult audiences a really wild time together in a movie theater.

Somehow it’s even wilder and funnier to watch because there’s a certain reality in the vomiting. It doesn’t look fake, which adds a sense of comic danger to the scene.

That was important. I favor quite long, unbroken shots and keeping the camera on the characters. So from the beginning I knew that we couldn’t use the method of just having the actors put something in their mouth and then spit it out. I wanted it to unfold so that they would vomit, then sit in pain, and then vomit again. I mean, that is what being seasick feels like. It is horrible.

What was the technique you employed?

We constructed a tube that would go into the mouth of the actors and we built a special mouthpiece so that the tube would be pointing out of the mouth. During pre-production, we were looking a lot at the direction it would flow and how much would be spreading out of different parts of the mouth. So it was very scientific, technical research work to make it look good.

The mouthpiece was small enough so that is also allowed the actors to talk and have dialogue while the tube was in their mouth. Then this tube led to an air-pressure machine offscreen and we had a technician with a button. They would press the button on cue and then boom, the vomit comes flying out.

How did the actors manage working with these tubes in their mouths?

In a way, for the actors, it really did mimic the feeling of being sick. Because as the tube was filling up with fake vomit, they had a couple seconds of warning that it was coming. That’s what happens in real life as our stomachs are turning around. So they were almost surprised in the same way.

In post-production, were there shots where you had to digitally erase the tubes in the actors’ mouths?

Yeah, it was quite a lot of work in post-production to erase all of those things. But we had a great visual effects team. We tried to do it as discreetly as possible during the filming, because we didn’t want to obsess on hiding the tubes, which could ruin the reality of the scene. So it was a lot of work in post.

We see many characters throw up, but the star of the sequence has to be Sunnyi Melles, who plays the wife of a Russian oligarch. She’s the one who chugs champagne in between vomit jags. Was that a difficult role to cast?

When I was casting the film and I was meeting different actors, I knew that role would be very important for this scene, as the one who vomits the largest. Sunnyi is a truly wonderful actress – and she’s actually the princess of Wittgenstein, a county in Germany, she’s part of that royal family. It was somewhat unexpected that she was so great at fake vomiting, but she’s a very experienced stage actress, where movement is so important. So even though she had assistance with the mouthpiece and tube, Sunnyi really managed to really get the body language just perfect.

Sunnyi Melles in “Triangle of Sadness” (Neon)

She’s also the one who’s sliding back and forth on the bathroom floor, right?

Exactly. And it’s funny, because that was not something I had planned when we shot that day. But after we filmed Sunnyi vomiting in the bathroom, the floor was naturally very slippery with all the fake vomit, and Sunnyi slipped a little bit and we thought, “Oh, yeah, that’s the shot!” Luckily, she agreed with the idea. So within no time we had the camera set up and we filmed her literally hanging onto the toilet as the boat is rocking and she slides across the floor.

We also see people tripping over their feet and falling down the stairs. Was there a large stunt component?

Yes, we needed a bit of that. For falling down the stairs and flopping all over the floor, there were stuntmen and stuntwoman on the set for four or five days. But I don’t think it was very complicated or advanced for them – they made it look very smooth. When they are falling down the stairs they have a lot of padding under their clothes and it’s all done with camera tricks.

Also we should mention that, on top of the vomiting, the toilets also overflow as the sequence goes on.

And you know what’s great: The guy sitting on the stairs and gets the poop wave crashing on him, he’s the film’s producer, Erik Hemmendorff. He asked me, “Hey, can I have a little cameo in the film?” And I thought about it and said, “Erik, I have a great part for you!” And that was the last shot we filmed in the studio. So no, we didn’t need a stuntman for that one.

“Triangle of Sadness” is playing in theaters now.