How 'Triangle of Sadness' Built (and Destroyed) a Luxury Yacht for the Ultra-Rich
Filmmaker Ruben Östlund explains what went into designing and filming on a luxury yacht for this year's buzzy cruise ship satire 'Triangle of Sadness.'
This story contains mild spoilers for Triangle of Sadness.
Most of Triangle of Sadness takes place on a European cruise that's so expensive, only the mega-wealthy can afford a cabin. The Cannes Palme d'Or-winning hit (out now in theaters) follows model/influencer couple Carl and Yaya (Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean) as they're invited for free to wine and dine alongside vacationing billionaires. While the models themselves are of an elite class, able to vacation in exchange for pictures on Instagram, even they find that they're outsiders on the ship, discovering that most other guests gained their supreme wealth by exploiting the system.
Aboard a pristine ship sailing on waters that couldn't be more blue and where there's little else to do but relax, a cruise was simply the perfect setting, according to Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, when he thought of writing and directing a movie about the rich and beautiful. Especially considering how prevalent images of celebrities and influencers lounging on yachts have become on our feeds, the concept was always what he had in mind.
The director wanted the film to be a riotous takedown of the ways in which the wealthy wield power—similar to his past social satires, like how 2014's Force Majeure dealt with self-interest on a family vacation gone wrong and 2017's The Square takedown of the art world. So not only was a cruise the perfect symbol for affluence and class—with its upper and lower decks, and crew catering to every whim of those sunbathing by the pool—it was the perfect recipe for disaster. While Triangle of Sadness ridicules the lack of self-awareness of the voyagers aboard the ship, including Russian oligarchs and British arms dealers, it's also an instant eat-the-rich classic, as one night of choppy waters subjects them to total seasickness-induced debasement and, later, an ouroboros of a shipwreck.
The inspiration for Triangle of Sadness first came from Östlund's wife, Sina Östlund, and her work as a fashion photographer. His curiosity about hierarchies in the fashion industry and hearing about her shoots on yachts made him realize that he "wanted to make a film about beauty as a currency, and that beauty can become a currency that can make you climb in class society, and I got interested in putting these people on a deserted island," he says. What better way to put them there, forcing them to fend for themselves without knowing any sort of survival skills, than making their exclusive ship go down?
In researching the project, Östlund spent 10 days on a Sea Cloud sailing cruise in the Mediterranean, departing from Italy and traveling to Sardinia, Corsica, and Spain. When it came time for production, the intention was always to shoot as much as possible on a yacht. But Östlund didn't look into filming on just any yacht. He sought out one of the most famous in history: Christina O, the nearly 100-meter vessel once owned by Aristotle and Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
"I couldn't help myself," Östlund says, of paying the boat's hefty rental fee for nine days. "Onassis was the richest person in the world during the '70s, and on Christina O was basically where the Western elite gathered. Churchill, Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Maria Callas—basically everyone that were superstars at that time spent time on that yacht. So when we started to do research and look for the yacht [to use], I couldn't help myself of thinking this is symbol value, and how fun it would be to blow it up in the air."
Even before the yacht blows up after a pirate attack, Triangle of Sadness is like watching capitalism capsize in real time. It's constantly working the class dynamics between the crew and the wealthy guests, but it's one scene in particular—actually inspired by an Italian buffet that was served on the cruise Östlund went on in preparation during rough weather and got passengers seasick—when the veneer of luxury is stripped away, turning the austere guests into projectile vomiting, diarrhea-having sacks of flesh.
During the night of the captain's dinner, the Marxist captain (Woody Harrelson) refuses to man the ship as it sails through stormy seas, making guests very sick. To capture the wooziness as the camera itself lolls side-to-side, the director and his collaborator/set designer Josefin Åsberg opted to build a set. "I asked her, 'Do you think it's possible to build a full dining room of a luxury yacht in a studio on a gimbal that we can rock so much that the furniture starts sliding?'" Östlund recalls. "And she is a person that is completely crazy, so she said, 'Yes, let's do this!'"
The space's plush, regal carpet, nautical accents, grand piano, and white table cloths of the dining room seamless fit with the Christina O's grand interior. "Sometimes when you start a project like this, you think, No, I was really crazy when I got the idea," he says, "But if you start to look at the details that are built in that set, it was so beautifully done." That is, until everything gets drenched in vomit and the excrement from exploding toilets, as the captain would rather get into a drunken socialism-vs-capitalism quoting match with a Russian "shit seller" (Zlatko Buric) than commandeer the vessel to safety.
Before the passengers' multi-course dinner gets puked up, the meal featuring oysters, octopus, gelée, and more feels as integral to the cruise's atmosphere as the actual dining room. "We had a good Michelin chef preparing the food for us," Östlund says. "So we said, 'Okay, we want you to make the dishes in a way that would be, What would be the most horrible dish if it came on a plate in front of you and you're sitting and dealing with seasickness?' And he was like, 'Okay, now I know what the target is. No problem!'"
Östlund ensured the dishes were plated to look more questionable than edible, in contrast with the captain's proletariat-approved burger and fries, because he doesn't like fine dining. "I always feel, as soon as you go in these Michelin restaurants, the absurdity of every dish comes in," he says. Coincidentally, Östlund was able to consult his casting director who happens to be well-versed in gourmet restaurants, as her husband runs a Michelin-starred establishment in Stockholm. "She told me it's very often that they have to clean up the toilets because people are throwing up," he says, "people are vomiting because there's so much food."
Beside the detail to the ship's food, its sailing path (and where the guests eventually get shipwrecked) was carefully considered. Not only did a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean feel more posh than an American cruise departing from Florida into the Caribbean, Östlund explains he wanted to look past our typical ideas of tropical deserted islands for where the few that made it off the boat ended up stranded. With a tip from one of the film's Greek producers, they looked into Chiliadou, a beach on the Greek island of Evia.
"The beach is so beautiful and we loved the environment, this dramatic setting, but we had a problem," Östlund says. "There are nudist anarchists that hang out on this beach… How do you convince anarchists to let them move away from the beach and let us shoot there?" With some convincing ("We're comrades! An ally!"), the crew got access to the picturesque, rocky location that looks like the wealthy would otherwise helicopter to and vacation on, were they not castaways.
Aside from bringing his daughters onto the Christina O and watching them order rounds of iced teas, one of Östlund's favorite memories filming on the yacht was seeing Sunnyi Melles and Alicia Eriksson play out the moment in which Melles' wife of a Russian oligarch demands a crew member to enjoy the jacuzzi fully clothed, and, eventually, for the entire staff to go down the waterslide. (The waterslide does in fact belong to the Christina O. "It seems like that's what the rich people want to do when they go on a cruise: They want to go on a waterslide!" Östlund says.)
"When I did research, something that was interesting was it turned out it's not so unusual that [guests] actually ask the crew to go for a swim," he says. "I thought it was a very interesting aspect of abuse of power—instead of pushing someone down, thinking, I'm offering something nice for you. When you look at power structures, we often describe the enjoyable part of power is to control other people, but I think a very enjoyable part of power is the one that is being generous."
That twisted generosity is certainly a punchline of Triangle of Sadness, which itself is never generous to its mostly ultra-privileged characters. In the film, their affluence was always bound to sink.