We catch up with the Swedish director about his latest film…
Director Felix Herngren has had a wide and varied career in his native Sweden, from directing commercials to creating and acting in the long running TV show SOLSIDAN. This month, the director’s first feature film since EVERY OTHER WEEK in 2006 – THE 100 YEAR OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT THE WINDOW AND DISAPPEARED – is released in Irish cinemas. We caught up with the director to find out more about the historically sprawling, darkly comic film, and whether he feels this will herald a new age of Swedish comedies at the international box office.
THE 100 YEAR OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT THE WINDOW AND DISAPPEARED is based on a wildly popular book by Jonas Jonasson. What drew you to the story?
Felix Herngren: I read the book some years ago. A friend of mine, who is one of the producers for the film – Henrik Jansson-Schweizer – recommended it to me. I was not so keen when I heard about the story; I thought ‘Oh my god, making a film about a 100 year old man, it doesn’t seem so funny’, but when I read it, it only took me a few pages before I actually laughed out loud. I really loved the humour in the story, the absurdness. When you try to create comedy and make it absurd, it can easily tip over and not be funny, but I think the author really balances on the right side. It’s believable, but it’s also very absurd. I was also fascinated with how the author put the world history of the last 100 years into this funny story. You get kind of curious about what happened in the world in the last 100 years, and I actually asked the author why he wrote the book and he said he wanted to give the 20th century a kick in the ass! [laughs] If he was to do that, he had to have a man who was 100 years old, to be a good witness of history. If he had been in all of these dangerous and nasty situations, he had to be a political idiot to be able to stand his life. I think it’s a genius way of constructing this fun story.
You co-wrote the screenplay, and you talk about Jonas Jonasson finding the balance in the book, was it easy to do the same in the film?
FH: The big part of the comedy in the book lies in the language and how he expresses how things happen. Film is about transforming a story into pictures and sound and faces… I was struggling a bit, but when I read a book or a story and I see pictures in my head and laugh, then it’s a good sign that you can do a film of it. I am very fond of doing test before I do films; I do a lot of test shooting and rehearsals and stuff, so it’s a good way to try to create a tone that you like. It was quite a time consuming job, but it wasn’t really hard. It was tricky to know whether we could make the actor look 100 years old, but I think we found a good solution.
The film could easily have been a tragedy, since the lead character has a tragic young life, and then lives through a violent time in history, but through his simple way of looking at life, Allan lives a content life. How challenging was it to find this balance?
FH: I absolutely wanted to keep the dark side of the story in there, because I think it makes it more interesting, rather than just keeping the fun stuff in. I like films that are a little bit politically incorrect, and have a lot of darkness in them. I think that’s how life is.
There was a lot of competition for the rights to the book. Do you feel this added pressure when you were making the film?
FH: In one way, but when we got the rights to the book it had sold a lot of copies, but it wasn’t that huge success that we see now. It wasn’t that much pressure when we started working on the script and the film. I would rather make a film of a popular book and a great story with high expectations rather than a shoot a film of a book that no-one really cares about, with no expectations. It’s not very often you get to film a great story. Great stories don’t grow on trees; it’s quite seldom you stumble on one. When the premiere was getting closer I was more and more nervous, because then you can’t change anything. I was actually mostly nervous about what Jonas Jonasson would say; it’s his masterpiece and he gave his confidence to me.
…And what did he think?
FH: In making the film I called him several times and asked him if he wanted to read the script or see rushes, but he said ‘No, it’s your film. I wrote the book and now it’s your turn to do it. I will see it when it’s finished’. He saw it only one week before the premiere in Sweden, then he texted me and said ‘Felix, I haven’t slept all night. I saw it for the first time last night and I was in shock. What did you do to my book. Then I saw it again and then I thought it was OK. Now I have seen it a third time, and I really love it’, so in the end he loved the film, but it was quite a shock for him.
The film feels a little like FORREST GUMP in places; did any other films inspire you?
FH: Of course FORREST GUMP is a fantastic movie, and it has some similarities to this story. I wasn’t so inspired by that actually, when making this film – even if it sounds strange – I was more inspired by Guy Ritchie’s LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS and films like that, which tell some parts of the story very rapidly, but still keep it humorous, even though it’s very high tempo. I really like his way of working with film, humour and action.
How did you go about casting Robert Gustafsson to play Allan throughout his adult life?
FH: He’s a very big name in Sweden, and I had worked with him a bit before. Since I wanted this to really be a comedy, I wanted a comedian to play Allan; it’s so important to make sure he is funny in the small gestures. I also wanted to use one actor throughout the whole film if possible, because it’s not a good idea to change actors in the middle of the film; you get thrown out of the fantasy world.
You work as an actor as well, were you ever tempted to cast yourself in the film
FH: [laughs] I am in one scene in the film, I am a Nazi in Germany for three seconds! I’m in the very back! I didn’t want to be in the film; I had to put all the focus on directing, so it would be a very stupid idea to be in the film.
Are you tempted to adapt Jonas Jonasson’s next book The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden for the big screen as well?
FH: It’s a bit more complicated, I think, to make a good film out of that book. He’s a fantastic author but it’s a bit more tricky to make a film out of it. We are looking at making a sequel to THE 100 YEAR OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT THE WINDOW AND DISAPPEARED, so we are discussing that now with Jonas Jonasson.
Outside of Scandanavia, Swedish cinema is arguably best known for producing thrillers like THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, do you hope that a comedy coming out of Sweden will change this perception?
FH: [laughs] I hope so! People think that Sweden is full of mass murderers, with policemen everywhere and killings taking place around every corner and we have a lot of other stuff in this country. We produce a lot of humour on Sweden, but humour doesn’t travel very easily sometimes. Humour tends to be quite local, but I really hope some other Swedish comedies will come to Europe because there are some really great comedy directors in Sweden.
Finally, what’s next for you?
FH: We are shooting a new TV series; I do some TV stuff, which I love to do as well. It’s actually a crime comedy [laughs].
THE 100 YEAR OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT THE WINDOW AND DISAPPEARED is released in Irish cinemas on July 4th 2014
Words: Brogen Hayes