The Headhunters director discusses the Scandi potboiler boom and why he's willing to embrace Hollywood remakes.
Headhunters is the latest Scandinavian offering to be adapted from a successful novel and the first to be adapted from a story by Swedish author Jo Nesbø. Its director, Morten Tyldum, sat down with LWLies at the BFI London Film Festival to talk us through its development from page to screen and the disagreements he faced over what on screen faeces should look like.
LWLies: How are you enjoying it over here? Good response so far?
Tyldum: Yeah it’s been hectic but it’s been good. The response has been great so far and London’s one of my favourite cities so I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone makes of it.
The film has had quite a quick turnaround from book to screen hasn’t it? When did you get involved?
I read the book in 2008 and I didn’t really think about making a film out of it at first, but I really liked the character of Roger Brown and the journey he goes through and I called the publisher to see who had got the rights for it and Yellow Bird had got it. I contacted them and they were just developing a script.
So it was chance really?
Completely by chance. And I said to them ‘You’re really stupid if you don’t let me do it’. [Laughs]. No, I had a meeting with them in Stockholm and I told them my vision of it and why I wanted to do it. They really liked it and they went with it.
How is it working with Yellow Bird? They’ve built up quite a reputation in the last few years.
Yeah, they’ve been really good and I had a really close relationship Marianne Gray, the producer. From the beginning she’d been very clear on what they wanted and at the same time they gave me a lot of freedom. I really felt like they were supporting my artistic choices and my vision. I believe that those early meetings are really important because you have to find out whether you and the producers share the same vision because if you don’t you know there are going to be clashes along the way in editing or shooting or casting or whatever. We had a few key points that we addressed and we agreed that we wanted to make the same film and they just gave me their blessing and told me to make the film the way I wanted.
Jo Nesbø has been fiercely protective of his books up until now, so why were things different with Headhunters?
First of all Headhunters is a standalone book. He hadn’t said it but I think he was testing the whole process to see how his universe would adapt to the big screen and how that would be. So for him I think it was a case of going one small step at a time and finding out how to go about adapting the other books. Of course, Harry Hole is another thing because it’s sort of his main character, but now they’re doing The Snowman. It’s in pre-production here in London, so that’s going to be the second film based on his work. It’s going to be in English.
What’s his response been to your film?
Really good actually, he’s been great. We had a beer together before I started working on it. I thanked him for letting me do his book and I told him that he had to understand that I had to take his story and make it mine. That’s the way it has to be. I’m very inspired by his story and that inspiration has to lead to something new, something that is not the book. It isn’t going to be the book because that’s not possible. The book is something that is going to be its own piece of art. This has to be something new. It has to be inspired by the book and based on the book. But I think he understood that I shared his sense of humour and wanted to preserve the tone of the book. He was hands-on and we went about adapting it.
We changed lots of things to fit it in to the format of a movie and he read the script and had a few comments. Some of them I agreed on, some of them I didn’t but he was okay with the changes and he wasn’t telling us that we had to change it or he’d take his name out of it or anything. He was always very cool about it. I think as an author that’s the only way it can be. If you try to keep control of the adaptation of your book then it’s going to be horrible and there’s going to be conflict. You’d rather have a director that shares your vision and give him free hands.
You mentioned the comic tone. People have come to expect a very specific style from Scandinavian films recently and Headhunters is very different to the works of Stieg Larsson. Were you drawn to it because of that difference?
It’s a mix.When we were discussing the film that was sort of the challenge because it has everything. It’s a drama, it has thriller elements, it has action and it has humour. I think both Jo and I are very fond of the Coen Brothers’ sense of humour where the sort of stuff that’s going on is horrible but you can’t help but laugh at it and there’s a lot of satire in the book. It’s more satirical than his other books which are maybe darker and maybe more, if not traditional, they’re more typical crime thrillers where Harry Hole investigates gruesome murders and stuff like that. So the humour was already there in the book and I really wanted to bring it out in the film but I wanted people to be laughing one minute and then bang, something happens and it’s brutal and bloody. I wanted it to really keep the audience on its edge. That was a very conscious choice.
Obviously there’s been the recent trend of Swedish films receiving the Hollywood remake treatment. Do you feel there’s more to that than them simply being financial successes?
Most of all I think it’s to do with the characters actually. I think as Scandinavians we’re drawn towards flawed, darker characters. We’re really fascinated by that. All those books that have been adapted have characters that have really dark secrets or they’re not your typical American character who has to be either very good or very bad. We sort of like things to be in between. I think these characters appeal to a lot of people and, based on that, they have very surprising plots. I think that’s why they do remakes. It’s going to be very interesting to see how the American Headhunters is going to turn out.
Is it already in development?
Yeah, it’s in the process already. To me it’s a complement. They made the decision after watching the film in Cannes so to me it’s just a good thing.
Finally, we’ve got to ask, there’s that scene where Roger has to hide in that toilet.
It’s real. We just did it. [Laughs]
But it’s not actual shit surely?
It’s not actual shit but when you see the roll of the tube of toilet paper going up and down, he’s breathing. It’s not a special effect. It’s actually Aksel [Hennie] underneath breathing through it. The stuff’s a mixture of coffee, brownie, oil and dirt. And you have no idea how hard it is to think about how shit should look because everybody has their own view on it. And there’s been a tremendous amount of discussion of ‘it’s too dark’ or ‘it needs to be more fluid.’ Everybody has their own perception of how shit looks.