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Lasse Hallström

Lasse Hallström

Articles - Directing

Ever since Anna Q. Nilsson starred in the 1911 production
of Molly Pitcher, there has been some degree of Scandinavian
presence in American cinema. The most conspicuous representation
has been among actors, specifically three Swedish performers—Greta
Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Max von Sydow—who, between them, describe
the full arc of the Hollywood sound film. Scandinavian directors
have also had the rare opportunity to show off their talents in
the America. Helsinki-born Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjostrom of
Stockholm (who directed Lon Chaney, Lillian Gish and Garbo) had
varying degrees of success in the first half of the 20th century.
They, together with director
Alf Kjellin, who turned out a string of B pictures in ’50s and ’60s,
and Finland’s Renny Harlin, who has made several big-budget action
pictures, represent nearly the entire spectrum of Scandinavian directing
within the U.S. movie industry. Except, that is, for Lasse Hallström.

Little about the history of Scandinavians in Hollywood
could have predicted Hallström. For one thing, the 57-year-old Stockholm
native has, at least until recently, rarely shown an interest in
any form other than comedy. And, except for Chocolat, he
most often sought his material in novels of an American pedigree,
never feeling restricted by Hollywood’s cultural barriers. In fact,
apart from the nationality of the director, there is nothing immediately
“European” about films such as Once Around, What’s Eating
Gilbert Grape
, Something to Talk About, The Cider
House Rules
or The Shipping News.

About the only thing more eclectic than his source
material has been his casts, a melange of screen venerables (Robert
Duvall, Michael Caine, Gena Rowlands), bankable stars (Julia Roberts,
Leonardo Di Caprio), flavors of the year (Tobey Maguire, Charlize
Theron, Cate Blanchett), celebrated risk-takers (Kevin Spacey, Johnny
Depp) and European professionals (wife Lena Olin, Dame Judi Dench,
Juliette Binoche). On top of all that, try to fit in Jennifer Lopez,
the star of his latest production, An Unfinished Life.

Hallström is the first to admit that all this is a
long way from his maiden moviemaking adventures of the 1970s, when
he was identified with a documentary feature on pop band ABBA, then
with the their music videos. What brought him his first serious
attention as a moviemaker (and his first Oscar nomination) was his
1985 adaptation of Reidar Jönsson’s autobiographical novel My
Life as a Dog
, a film saluted by both European and American
critics as a persuasive look at the seriocomic struggles of a  12-year
old boy. That character, too, had to deal with adaptation issues.
As Hallström prepares for An Unfinished Life, he took a look
back on a career that spans 30 years, 15 films and three Oscar nominations.

Donald Dewey (MM): In a way, your career
in the United States has contradicted that of earlier Scandinavians
in your apparent ease with American subjects.

Lasse Hallström (LH): It’s not just good for
the exotic?

MM: Exactly. How much do you think you’ve
been helped by an increasing cultural anonymity where, thanks to
all kinds of social and economic forces, cultural distinctions aren’t
quite as sharp as they were, say, in Garbo’s day.

LH: Very much so—for good or bad. And I don’t
think it’s just me being able to direct with relative ease in America.
I think it’s also a question of what American audiences will now
accept. They have gotten used to the rhythms of European filmmakers.
I myself find it increasingly difficult to define what an “American
movie” is as opposed to what a “European movie” is. The range has
gotten so wide from both sides that they have all but merged into
one another.

MM: Some people trace it back to the 1960s,
when Sergio Leone was making his spaghetti westerns. Even in France,
you had a picture like
The Sicilian Clan, a Hollywood film
in absolutely every respect except the fact that it was completely
French, with Jean Gabin and Alain Delon.

LH: That’s certainly the period I would lean
toward. For example, Bonnie and Clyde had an enormous influence
across Europe. It wasn’t just the violence; it was the rhythms that
[Arthur] Penn had in that picture.

Top to Bottom: Hallström’s filmography
includes such celebrated works as Chocolat (2000), What’s
Eating Gilbert Grape
(1993), My Life as a Dog (1985)
and The Shipping News (2001).

MM: What about from the other direction,
in American receptivity to European moviemakers?

LH: Well, the one that seems to me to express
the problem best was Milos Forman’s Taking Off. I was shocked
to hear that it was not much of a success when it was released in
America. It was the perfect example to me of a European-paced picture,
and I think if it had been released a couple of years later it would
have been an enormous hit. Because by then American audiences would
have been used to, say, the movies of Woody Allen.

MM: You’re talking about the drollness of Taking Off?

LH: Drollness. Subtlety. It just came out a
little bit too early. But for sure the greater sophistication of
American audiences since then—and by that I mean their exposure
to European rhythms of filmmaking—has made it much easier for me
to work in the United States.

MM: I gather your father was your very first
influence as a moviemaker.

LH: Very much so. He was a dentist, but he
spent every spare hour making films. When we had any kind of social
event at home, the centerpiece was almost always projecting his
latest film. That was our idea of evening’s entertainment, much
more than television.

MM: What kind of films were they?

LH: Real documentaries; they weren’t just family
album kinds of things. He won many prizes for his film work. He
had always wanted to be a filmmaker, but he was persuaded by his
family to make a “serious” living, so that’s why he went into dentistry.
And the other thing was, when he wasn’t showing us his work, he
would project a Chaplin comedy or something of the kind. It was
really a thorough education, beginning at a very young age.

MM: Was there ever a moment as a kid when,
instead of saying to yourself ‘I would like to be a filmmaker,’
you said ‘I have to make films’?

LH: No, I don’t think so. You see, the equipment
was always there. [It’s] odd when you think about it, I suppose,
but practically everybody seemed to assume I would make movies the
way other families think their son is going to be a lawyer or a
doctor. I don’t mean my father was aggressive about it, just subtle
hints of encouragement all the time. I think he was always frustrated
that he didn’t go against his own parents’ wishes and become a full-time
filmmaker himself. It was his passion.

MM: Were there any specific films, aside
from Chaplin’s, that you remember seeing and learning from?

LH: Yes. Maybe most of all the pictures of
John Cassavetes—Shadows, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under
the Influence
. Then there was Milos Forman, especially with Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball.

MM: They’re not exactly filmmakers you would
think of as twins.

LH: No, but only because most people don’t
think of Cassavetes’ movies as comedies essentially, and I always
have. To me those two directors share a documentary approach to
comedy. Something like Minnie and Moskowitz never pushes,
never distracts you with some fancy stylization. It’s simply there,
observing reality. Woody Allen, especially in his earlier work,
falls into that category, too. You have these characters. Now sit
back and watch them without forcing the issue.

MM: And character is all?

LH: Absolutely. I’ve never been all that interested
in plots. For a project to interest me, it has to be character-driven.

MM: With Cassavetes and Allen, though, we’re
talking about movie­makers who generally worked with original screenplays.
You, on the other hand, seem to have found these character-driven
projects mostly in novels. Are you saying that original screenplays
aren’t what they used to be?

LH: I think that’s just a coincidence of the
last few years. Once Around, my first film in America, was an original
screenplay. But that said, I don’t think there’s any question that
the overwhelming majority of the original screenplays you read are
more plot-driven than character-driven. The Gimmick. The Big Idea.
That kind of thing.

MM: Have you encountered any unexpected
problems in adapting novels?

LH: There are always challenges. On the one
hand, you want to remain true to your source, or what’s the point
of having the book to begin with? On the other hand, you’re working
in motion pictures, an entirely different medium than that envisioned
by the novelist. You’re always making choices, and sometimes that
means characters are not always going to have the same space on
the screen as they had on the page.

MM: One character that struck me in that
way was the mother of the boy in
Chocolat, the one played
by Carrie-Anne Moss. She seemed to have so many layers to her in
all her different relationships, but more suggested than shown,
as though a lot of her character was left on the editing room floor.

LH: Well, you’re always going to have that
problem with a multi-character story like Chocolat. But I
was satisfied that all the characters were represented proportionally
on the screen the way they had been portrayed in the book. The biggest
change we made was in making that back story about chocolate’s relationship
with witch­craft so central.

MM: You seem to attract an awful lot of
people bent on finding a common denominator in all your projects.
Even your wife, Lena, has been quoted as saying that they have all
shared a theme of yearning

LH: [laughs] Is that what she said?

MM: Are you ever conscious of there being
some continuous line in what you’re doing?

LH: Only to the degree that we’ve already said.
First of all, that the material be a comedy—I’m not the one you
want for a cowboy or war film. Then, it has to be character-driven
comedy, based on observation and what’s funny about rational human

MM: You don’t see yourself doing anything

LH: Well, as a matter of fact, I’ve begun to
notice in the last couple of my films that I’ve picked up a tendency
to do broader comedy. It was there in Chocolat and even
more in The Shipping News. I’m not completely sure where
it came from, but there’s no question it’s there.

“You’re always making choices,
and sometimes that means characters are not always going to
have the same space on the screen as they had
on the page.” —Hallström

MM: Like Alfred Molina going through the
window near the end of

LH: Exactly. A pratfall you might have found
in an old Chaplin film.

MM: Do you think you’d like to aim for that
more often?

LH: No, not aim for. I’d still shy away from
that, as I always have. But there’s no question it’s beginning to
pop up recently without me being completely ready for it. Maybe
the best comparison is a Woody Allen film where you have all this
laid back comedy and suddenly, in the middle of everything, there
are these seconds of him clouting this person off a parapet or damaging
a car by helping some driver back into a parking place. Like blackout
skits; they’re over before you realize they’ve begun.

MM: You don’t sound completely at ease with
this development.

LH: No, I suppose I’m not. You like to know
where your inspiration is coming from. And sometimes I think this
broadness may be some influence I’ve picked up unconsciously from
television sitcoms. There are better places to pick up influences.
Let’s just say I’m still suspicious of it.

MM: There seems to be a rather long incubation
period for most of your projects.

LH: That was certainly true of The Shipping
. It was around for years before it came to me. First John
Travolta was supposed to do it. Then there was [Billy Bob] Thornton,
who was going to direct it or star in it or do both, I don’t remember.
Spacey himself had been campaigning for years to play the protagonist. The Cider House Rules took even longer to get going. I myself
turned it down eight or nine years before I agreed to do it.

MM: Why’d you turn it down originally?

LH: There was nothing remotely epic about it.
It didn’t really have even the love story. The draft I saw was all
choppy. Then when I saw another version years later, I was taken
by the meandering way it had about dealing with the characters.
I thought it was very faithful to the John Irving novel.

MM: You’ve directed quite an array of actors.
Some are the kind who seem to sink into a role and simply radiate

LH: Yes, like Michael Caine.

MM: And others, while equally deserving
to be called ‘professionals,’ seem a lot more glib about what they’re
doing. They remain on the outside…

LH: [laughs] No names, please.

MM: No names. But how do you deal with a
cast that’s a little bit of the first kind and a little bit of the
second kind?

LH: The camera has to tell you how to deal
with it. All actors are equal before the lens. Myself, despite any
kind of stylization that may have crept into my work—especially
in the last couple of years—I have always preferred the actor who
works from the inside to the one who works from the outside and
becomes something of a commentator on his own role. Even as a director,
it can be exciting to watch some of these internal actors use whatever
comes to hand, whatever catches their eye. [Robert] Duvall in Something
to Talk About
, for instance. He used absolutely everything on
the set to do a scene.

Hallström with Julianne Moore and Kevin
Spacey on the set of The Shipping News.

MM: There’s a line in Chocolat about
“knowing one’s place in the scheme of things.” Does Lasse Hallström
know his place in the scheme of things right now?

LH: God, no. I can’t even make up my mind about
what country to live in. Lena and the children and I moved to New
York with the intention of staying here for two years, then going
back to Sweden. That was five years ago! To tell you the truth,
I’m in total confusion about my place in the scheme of things. [laughs]

MM: Professionally, too?

LH: Well, there was a project that seemed like
it was going to happen, but now that too has been postponed for
at least a year. So I’ll be spending the spring in Canada shooting An Unfinished Life.

MM: Another comedy?

LH: Not really. It’s a family drama about an
unhappy woman who moves in with her estranged father-in-law to take
care of her daughter. Jennifer Lopez will be playing the woman.

MM: It doesn’t sound very “Hallström.”

LH: No, maybe not. It’s even based on an original
screenplay by Virginia and Mark Spragg. But The Shipping News was hardly a comedy, either. The essential thing is that they
are character-driven stories. Once you have human beings, you can
find comedy in the oddest places! MM

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