MIAMI – Whether it’s the brisk climes of his native Sweden or the lush comforts of rural New England, there are any number of landscapes one might associate more immediately with director Lasse Hallström than the balmy shores of Miami. Yet when I meet him, looking suitably relaxed in the retro-chic breakfast room of my hotel, he’s quick to say it’s not just Florida hospitality making him feel at home: Miami, or more specifically the Miami International Film Festival, is where the Oscar-nominated Swede, director of such films as “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Chocolat” and “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” believes his Hollywood career actually began.
26 years ago, the Miami fest – then only in its fourth year of existence – had the savvy to grab the US premiere of “My Life as a Dog,” a modest but beguiling coming-of-age drama from Sweden from a director previously best known for steering “ABBA: The Movie.” The film grew into an unlikely arthouse smash. The director, Hallström, was rewarded not only with two Oscar nominations, but a US career that began with his very next film – and would reap another Best Director nod 12 years later for a glossier tale of innocence lost, “The Cider House Rules.” Such major festivals as Venice, Berlin and Toronto have since come calling, but Miami precedes them.
“That night, when I heard the response to ‘My Life as a Dog’ in the theater here, it was the first time I’d seen the film with an American audience,” the 66-year-old director recalls. “And it blew my mind how warm the response was. I’d thought it was very Swedish in its sensibility, but I guess it dealt with very universal emotions, and it was such a wonderful moment to have that confirmed. I realized that evening that the film would have a long journey, that things wouldn’t be the same.”
They weren’t – and some would say the change hasn’t entirely been for the better. Hallström’s Hollywood career has brought him considerable success, but never the level of critical acclaim that greeted his native breakthrough. Whether handling rose-tinted Miramax prestige fare or, more recently, misty-eyed Nicholas Sparks adaptations, the Swede has established himself in the industry as a safe but soft pair of hands. That’s an impression he’s done his best to overturn with his latest, least typical film “The Hypnotist” (review here), a grisly crime thriller that marks his first Swedish production since “Dog.” Appropriately enough, Miami again stepped forward to showcase this shift in direction.
“It does feel rather like coming full circle,” chuckles Hallström, who upped sticks permanently from Sweden to upstate New York in 1997, accompanied by his wife and compatriot, Oscar-nominated actress Lena Olin. “I’ve experienced different levels of homesickness over the years. It was worst the first five or six years. Then suddenly I rooted, and became more of an American. But I’d always been longing to go back and spend some solid time in Stockholm, where I grew up. It was heavenly just to go back and be there for more than a week. I spent half a year just getting to know the new Stockholm.”
If “The Hypnotist” is a homecoming, though, it seems simultaneously a drastic departure. As an adaptation of Lars Kepler’s bestselling psychological thriller concerning the slaughter of one family and the kidnapping crisis of another, its grim, bloody outlook is new terrain for a man more accustomed to trading in heartwarmers. Why return to Sweden with something so far outside his comfort zone?
“I’d never tried a thriller before, so I was curious to see what I could do with that,” he says matter-of-factly. “But at the core of it is a family drama that moved and intrigued me, so in a way it didn’t feel so unfamiliar to me. And it had a great part for my wife. Combined with this urge of mine to go back to Sweden, it made a lot of sense.”
Taking on a procedural thriller, meanwhile, didn’t strike Hallström as too great a stretch: “I may not have done one before, but I’ve always enjoyed jumping between different genres – and mixing genres within films. I like crossover films that balance drama with comedy: I’m less interested in solid comedies with no dramatic element, or in dramas with no sense of humor.”
Hallström’s catholic genre tastes could hardly be made clearer by the titles sandwiching “The Hypnotist” in his filmography, both polished, star-laden slabs of Hollywood escapism. Last year brought the whimsical enviro-romcom “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” for which Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt recently received Golden Globe nominations. Last month, meanwhile, saw the release of “Safe Haven,” a sudsy romance that marks the director’s second Nicholas Sparks adaptation: “Dear John,” starring Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried, scored him a box office hit in 2010.
The Sparks double-bill hasn’t earned Hallström too many kind words from the critics, but he’s pleasingly forthright about why he made them, and for whom. “They’re commercial romances, sure, but romance still intrigues me,” he says breezily. “On ‘Safe Haven,’ I was able to play with the script a little more, though obviously it’s not a true labor of love – it’s made chiefly for commercial prospects, though that’s no reason not to challenge yourself within that.
“With ‘Dear John,’ it was trying to desentimentalize what was on the page, and make it real. That can keep me going through a project. ‘Safe Haven,’ same thing – and also to tell the progression of a romance in a very low-key tone, and not having to race through it. And bringing a sense of humor to it, which was not in the novel. So I think you can recognize my touch somewhere in there. So, as Steven Soderbergh says, I do one for them, and one for me.”
Does that make “The Hypnotist” – subtitles notwithstanding, a broadly accessible adaptation of a pop novel – one for him, then? He smiles slyly. “Okay, that one’s a bit of a combo. One for us all.”
That was clearly the hope of his compatriots, who selected the film last year as Sweden’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. On the basis of name appeal, it seemed a sound choice, but the film always ran the risk of being too genre-inclined – and too gory – for fainthearted Academy voters, and it failed to make the January shortlist. Hallström was unfazed, though he senses others in the industry were disappointed in it.
“The fact that it was selected as the Swedish Oscar submission was maybe an overestimation of the picture, a little bit,” he says openly. He doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that “The Hypnotist,” despite being picked to represent the industry on such a major international platform, was entirely overlooked at Sweden’s top national film awards, the Guldbaggen. “I think as a punishment, the film was a bit under-recognized: Lena’s performance, which I think is great, was not even nominated. So I think the response to the film has maybe been a bit unfair in different ways.”
It’s one of several occasions in the interview that he doffs his cap to the talents of his wife, whom he first directed in “Chocolat” (for which she received a BAFTA nomination) but hadn’t got to showcase in a lead role until now. As the distraught mother of an abducted teen, Olin is indeed impressive, evidently secure in a collaboration Hallström describes as “not even like working – it’s just the exhilaration of spending time together and watching her flourish.”
When it comes to his own work on the film, however, he’s more critical. “It’s been a bit of an odd ride, the whole ‘Hypnotist’ journey. I like the film, but I wish we’d had one more week of fine-tuning it. We didn’t get to preview the film, which is important with such a complex plot, to see how audiences respond to it and adjust accordingly. After the Swedish premiere, I felt it needed a trim, so I took my computer, and I now have a version that’s 12 minutes shorter and I think flows better. It hasn’t premiered anywhere yet, but I hope it comes out on the DVD.”
Hallström’s so candid about his own work that I’m curious to know if there’s a title in his filmography that he feels is undervalued – one that didn’t get a fair shake from audiences, critics or both. “I think I have two of those,” he says, sounding rather pleased I asked. “One was ‘The Hoax,’ with Richard Gere, which I liked a lot, but it didn’t do much commercially. I thought it was kind of witty and fast-paced and sly, with an ironic tone to it that’s more ‘me’ than anything else I’ve made. And ‘Casanova’ was under-appreciated, I think. It’s a wild mix of bizarre comedy and romance, and Heath Ledger’s such a star in it. I know it didn’t work for everyone, but I still like that film.”
As if to prove his point, later that evening I attend a Miami Film Festival career tribute to Hallström, led by Griffin Dunne (producer of his first American feature, “Once Around”) and preceded by an extensive clip package that runs the gamut from “ABBA: The Movie” to “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” – but features not one frame from either “The Hoax” or “Casanova.”
Next on the agenda, he says, is emphatically ‘one for him’: “It’s not official yet, so I can’t say much, but it’s a small film, very much a labor of love, and will hopefully shoot in the summer.” That’ll be an American production, but he’s not planning to wait another 26 years before returning to work in his homeland: “‘The Hypnotist’ opened a lot of doors to me coming back, so it feels more natural now.”
Hallström’s dream project, meanwhile, remains a reunion with star Leonardo DiCaprio, with whom the director worked 20 years ago on his second US film, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” – for which the then-teenaged DiCaprio scored his first Oscar nod.
“I have this obsession about working again with Leonardo,” he admits, almost bashfully. “He’s so wonderful in ‘Gilbert Grape,’ of course, and I made this awful career move once where I turned down doing ‘Catch Me If You Can,’ because of a phone call from an angry colleague saying, ‘You can’t do that movie! I’ll never work with you again!’ So I was stupid enough to pass on it, with everything signed and ready to go. So now I’m obsessed with reconnecting with Leonardo and doing something that good.”
For a man who’s obsessed, he seems awfully chilled about it, but that might be the Miami effect. In any event, this lucky-charm festival seems the best possible place for Lasse Hallström to make such wishes.