Exposure: Lasse Hallström
Lasse Hallström is best known in the U.S. for sentimental narrative films, like 1985’s Oscar® – and BAFTA – nominated My Life as a Dog, which won a Golden Globe and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film. But he started his career as ABBA’s official videographer; directing music videos and ABBA: The Movie (1977), which chronicled the band’s weeklong tour of Australia that same year. Since then, Hallström has directed such Academy Award® nominees as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Chocolat (2000), and The Cider House Rules (1999), for which he earned a Best Director Oscar nod.
His newest production is Safe Haven, an adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ best-selling novel. This is his second outing with the author, having directed 2010’s Dear John, based on the novel by the same name. The Swedish director talked with writer Margot Carmichael Lester about his approach to filmmaking, adaptations of books and why he won’t shoot film again.
ICG: Did you always want to be a filmmaker? Hallström: I’m the son of a frustrated filmmaker. His parents wanted him to be a dentist, but he was also a very good 8-millimeter filmmaker. It was before television, and I watched his amateur documentaries—and Charlie Chaplin movies. Those were probably the inspiration for my tragic-comedic approach. I learned his and my father’s films by heart, and by 9 or 10 I was making my own 8-millimeter films without sound, handling the camera and editing them myself.
You began your career filming musical acts. What was the most valuable lesson or technique you learned from that? I came at it all with an open mind for what you can do with a camera. There was a lot of experimenting, of course, and I was pretty wild with that camera. I guess I learned that from editing myself. You see what is possible.
What was your first professional job? Doing film clips for visiting groups like Jimi Hendrix and Swedish ones like ABBA. That was my film school. It started when I did a film on spec with a couple of schoolmates who had a pop group and their attempts to get on the charts. It was a 30-minute documentary that Swedish television bought. There are lots of those old clips I’ve found on YouTube –The Hollies, Hendrix, Eric Burdon and the Animals – 50 years later.
The European tradition has been for cinematographers to operate camera—masters like Sven Nykvist come to mind. How does that impact a director’s creative approach? Well, I operated the camera myself in my first Swedish films, and that was a lot more work! One disadvantage for me is that I use two cameras a lot. A DP who operates is more caught up in handling the A-camera and has less time to pay attention to the B-camera action. I prefer being able to decide how to use both cameras. Operating is too much of a distraction if you’re using two cameras.
Coming from an industry that fosters more personal filmmaking, how would you compare European and American cinema? I’m not too sure it fosters personal filmmaking any more. I got the impression when I was back there that there are certain limitations to that, even in Sweden. There is a lot of commercial fare; personal movies aren’t as common. They’re all making police stories, crime stories. The financials of the movie industry are as shaky in Sweden as in the U.S. And the costs of distributing in theaters are high, too. So they go for a more secure investment. You could probably find a way to make more personal films and find low-budget financing here in the U.S..
Have you been able to retain a personal voice in your studio films? It depends on the project. On most films, with a couple of exceptions, my voice or my touch is still recognizable. At least I hope so. There are thousands of small decisions you make on a movie, and you can see the hand of the director. For instance, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen felt more personal than Dear John, but in Dear John, there was a fascinating challenge to bring a script that was inherently sentimental to a more real, emotional level. You could see my touch in how I handled that script and brought it closer to my taste and instincts. In Salmon Fishing, it was the crossover of several genres, the way I have fun with the language of film. It felt close to my heart as I was free to invent and come up with ideas. My favorite things about that movie are the performances of Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor. But I also like the silly things with the messages and mobile phones and texting – I had some visual fun with that.
For your last two films with Terry Stacey [ASC] you shot on film; for Safe Haven and The Hypnotist (shot in Sweden), it was Alexa. How did you like the switch? I love the [digital] technique of being able to roll for 40 minutes if I want to; to use less light; to create performances that are more authentic with help of natural light, new cameras and the efficient way you can edit in your Avid. The Alexa and Avid are now my favorite tools! I would stick to the digital camera, given a choice. I have now let go of the physical film stock, but it has been a gradual thing.
Has digital technology been the biggest change you’ve seen in your career? Perhaps. But I would also say the eradication of mid-range budget movies that dealt with portraying real people [sighs]. We’ve allowed those mid-range films to vanish. Now the industry is so focused on the big-budget films and small-budget ones. It’s harder to find good material because of those extremes. I would like to see more of that material that was allowed to get the green light 10 years ago and get the audience back for these kinds of movies. That would be my wish.
You’ve made several films based on best-selling books – authors like Nicholas Sparks, John Irving and Annie Proulx. Are there unique challenges adapting popular literary works for the screen? Dramatic-comedy is the genre I’m drawn to most. It’s the most honest telling of life and human relations. It has to be tragic-dramatic and comedic if you want to be truthful in telling the story. I use the characters to inspire observations of human behavior, to get comedy out of real-life situations.
I have a healthy disrespect for any novel I’m going to transfer to the screen [chuckles]. It’s not about translating; you can only use the book for inspiration, for ideas. I have to have a loose attachment to the original so I can tweak it for film. And you can’t ever worry about fans of the book getting upset over changes, or you’re limiting yourself.
Safe Haven is your third film with Terry Stacey. What do you like about the collaboration? Terry is an artist. He has a great eye for the beauty of the place and how to tell the story in a painterly way without making it artificial. The beauty of natural light is what he works with, and that goes hand in hand with my ambition to tell stories realistically, with an almost documentary feel. Terry has a light touch and a great sense of humor; he goes by instinct, like me, and our instincts never clash. We work magically together. It’s like a brother’s soul.
I hear you run a pretty relaxed set. Yes, even if I’m not that conscious of it. It’s all about allowing people to enjoy the process of making a film, especially for the actors. Whatever you can do to avoid slates, to avoid pressures, to allow them to feel free to respond authentically to their own emotions and what they are given from the other actors, you do. The camera is brutally revealing if they’re faking or pushing it. If you tell a realistic story, you have to be very ambitious with trying to get performances right. The only way to do that is to see that actors are completely fearless and relaxed to play around with their characters.
Do you ever fear labeling? Well, I’ve been doing a few romantic stories, and I kind of sense comments from critics that I’m chronically soft hearted. To counter that, I recently went back to Sweden to make a gory thriller [The Hypnotist] to show that I can do that kind of thing, too. It was selected as Sweden’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. I like the idea of trying to be versatile and do not like being labeled as being specialized in anything. As long as there’s a story about people whose lives or emotions or shortcomings I can recognize and relate to – if there’s a story like that, I’ll be drawn to it.
You talked about new how new digital tools like Alexa and Avid have impacted you as a director. Was there anything as revolutionary when you began making movies? When I was starting out, I shot with an Arriflex Iron Blimp, a very heavy camera, and my best friend was the sound engineer. We didn’t have driver’s licenses and couldn’t afford a taxi, so there we were carrying our equipment down to the subway [laughs]. That iron blimp was really heavy, and we had all these cables to connect to pilot the camera and the sound. That was fun. It was 1965, ’66, ’67. Today I love doing the video of the week on my iPhone, shooting behind-the-scenes stuff for the crew. I cut it together with music with certain themes. It is fun to get the comments on it every Monday morning.