By Andrea Gronvall

The Gronvall Report: Hannes Holm on A MAN CALLED OVE

Recipe for a successful screen adaptation: (1) Option the rights to an immensely popular novel, Fredrik Backman’s “A Man Called Ove,” translated in more than 35 languages, and still on the New York Times bestseller list after 39 weeks. (2) Hire as writer-director Hannes Holm, a commercially astute filmmaker with several award-winning comedies under his belt. (3) Cast in the title role one of Sweden’s most accomplished stage, screen, and TV actors, Rolf Lassgard, who starred in Colin Nutley’s Under the Sun (2000) and Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding (2007), both nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, and he played Henning Mankell’s detective “Wallander for several seasons on Swedish television. (4) Mix well and you get a box office gross of more than $20.5 million in Sweden alone, the third highest gross and largest in that country for 32 years. A Man Called Ove is Sweden’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Enter indie savant Music Box Films, the ambitious, energetic specialty film distributor kicking off the film’s U.S. platform release with openings in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In A Man Called Ove the company has a title with the potential to cross over into the American mainstream (if any subtitled film can), in part because so many of the social issues the main character faces—immigration, economic upheaval, gay rights, ageism, and entrenched bureaucracy—mirror ours this side of the Atlantic. In makeup that makes him look much older than he does in reality, Lassgard, large and burly, carries the weight of a lifetime of mistreatment, missed opportunities, and personal tragedy. Widowed six months, and let go from his job after decades of faithful service, Ove is still vigorous, and stubborn, as he channels boredom, grief, and anger into his tasks of self-appointed local enforcer. As he daily makes the rounds of his gated community, searching for rule breakers and punishing them (leave a bike where you shouldn’t, and Ove will lock it up), he redefines curmudgeon. He longs to rejoin his beloved departed spouse Sonja (Ida Engvoll), but his efforts to shuffle off this mortal coil are continually thwarted by his new neighbors, a family of mixed ethnicity, where the wife, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), is clearly the most sensible (as was Sonja). Slowly, after considerable comic friction, Parvaneh draws Ove out of his bitterness, aided by a fluffy stray cat that’s impervious to his disapproval.

Hannes Holm traveled to Chicago to take part in the Music Box Theatre’s participation in national Art House Theater Day. Were it not for his shock of thick snowy hair, you’d never be able to guess Holm’s age; he is trim and wiry, with the kind of cheekbones the camera loves (he entered the business as an actor in 1981), twinkling blue eyes, and an infectious enthusiasm for new people and new experiences. He believes it’s fundamental that a director should love his actors, and he’s jazzed about shooting his next project in India. In other words, Holm is a 180 degrees from Ove, and slyly funny. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.

I have a question.

You have questions. That’s very good.

Yes, isn’t it? Otherwise I’d be totally wasting your time. In all the Swedish films that have made it to the U.S. or Canada, I haven’t seen anything like the housing development that Ove lives in. Is it suburban? Could you talk a little about the setting?

Yes, it was called the One Million Program [aka, the Million Programme]. In the Sixties and Seventies the Swedish government built so many houses and suburbs, because people really needed them. They built high-rises outside the cities and a lot of these kinds of semi-attached houses as well. But in the Eighties and Nineties when you talked about the One Million Program in Sweden, everyone thought it was a big failure, because in the suburbs when you put so many people from a lower social class [alongside the existing population], problems will occur. But nowadays, where people don’t have anywhere to live, the One Million Program has turned out to be a good thing. In the movie, Ove and Sonja probably bought their semi-attached house in the 70s, with subsidies from the state–as did my family, when we moved to a semi-attached house. And now, the second generation of immigrants is moving into these houses, and they do a thing you never do in Sweden, which is making a present of food to their neighbors.

A welcoming gift.

Exactly. That custom peaked in the 70s, but we never do it anymore. But that gift starts the relationship between Parvaneh and Ove, that grumpy old man. At first I wasn’t interested in filming that story, where the grumpy old man becomes nice, or decent. Was I the guy to do that again? Because so many people had done that story before. But then I realized many things, but one thing is that it’s important to re-tell the classical old stories, at new angles.

Well, it certainly worked in the Pixar movie Up. Perhaps the archetype of the grumpy old man explains part of the appeal of Backman’s novel, which has been on The New York Times bestseller list for over half a year. That’s saying something, because humor doesn’t always travel across national boundaries.

I started out in comedy, which is why I’ve come to Chicago so late in life. Ove is an archetype, as you said. I think the book is a bit funnier than the film. When I met Annica Bellander, the producer, she gave me the book and asked me if I wanted to make the film. But the thing is, I had done so many comedies already, and really wanted to do something else, and the title A Man Called Ove smells like comedy, so I said thanks, but no thanks. The meeting was over, but I’m a poor man, so I kept the free book, and I read it–in one evening, in fact. The next morning, the sun was coming up, and I was crying, and I thought I saw something in it for me as a director. Before, I had been thinking, I’m 53 years old, and reasonably intelligent, and know that you don’t take on a bestseller, because eight out of ten movies based on best-selling books turn out to be failures.

Really? Do you mean in Sweden, or in Europe, or where?

In general. The book’s fans show up at the cinema to see how you are going to massacre their lovely, lovely book. But then I met Freddie Backman. He was a bit grumpy, but he was also smart. He said since he didn’t know anything about screenwriting, I should do the script. I usually write my own stories, so this was a change of pace for me, to adapt another person’s work. I wrote it in two months, quick for me. Then I mailed him the script, and I was nervous about what his response would be. The next day, I got his answer, one word: “Yes.” While I had been writing the script, I had thought about why so many movies based on popular books don’t work. I read the novel 99 times more, and then I gave it to my mother, telling her I don’t want to see it again. And then, basically, I stole the story of the book. It’s like when you read a book, and you tell someone else what it’s about: it’s no longer the author’s story, it becomes your own version of the story. So, after thinking that through, it was quite easy to write the script. Though there was a change the production company wanted: they didn’t want the cat.

They didn’t want the cat?! I love the cat!

I love the cat as well!

But how did you get the cat to do what you wanted it to do? Cats are not known for following direction.

I was shocked when I heard that the production company really didn’t believe in this film. The movie cost $350,000 to make. In Sweden it has now earned $20 million, and one of the big reasons for that, I think, is the cat. We couldn’t afford a digital cat, so we had two live cats. Magic was the more aggressive cat, and Orlando was the lazy cat. But they looked so much alike, that one day we had a near catastrophe on the set, when we gave the cat to Rolf to hold. It started hissing and growling, and we realized we had grabbed Magic by mistake. But the cats did a good job, and so did Rolf with them, because they bonded.

A_Man_Called_Ove_-_2Rolf Lassgard is a terrific actor. And he was so appealing in Under the Sun, a truly memorable love story.

I’d never worked with him before; I met him for the first time doing this film. But everyone in Sweden knows who he is. My first girlfriend was Helena Bergstrom, who would later go on to star with him in Under the Sun. So when I finally met Rolf, I told him this funny story I’d read about an interview Helena had with a very stupid reporter, who asked, “When you do love scenes, how is it? Do you feel something when you kiss an actor?” And Helena was going, oh come on, it’s my job. I have a husband, and children at home, there are a lot of people around on the set, there’s the camera; of course not. But the reporter would not give up on his question, and so finally after ten minutes she said, “Okay, one man.”

I could see that. But you know, before he did Ove, I bet when people approached him on the street they’d call, “Hey, Wallander.”

That’s being the victim of TV, it’s true. When we were thinking about casting, we were going over names of actors known for comedy, but I said, no, I think we need someone who is not known for being funny. And when I called Rolf to ask him to play the part, he said, “But, Hannes, I’m not funny.” But sometimes the best comedies are the films that are not meant to be comedies.

Essentially this is a serious film with overtones of comedy. And the comic overtones are there because, unfortunately, Ove has had much sadness in life.

Yes, it’s a kind of a black comedy.

Do Swedish comedies tend to be a little darker than American comedies? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of many American comedies that are about death and suicide.

A lot of Swedish comedies are not dark, but I think for a Swedish comedy to travel, as you say, it has to be on the dark side. When I gave the script for A Man Called Ove to my wife, Malin, to read, she said, “Too funny.” She started tearing out the funny pages. The thing about humor is that it is a tool; you can’t overuse it. So, I’m learning. Then there’s the other extreme. There’s this guy in Sweden, a director, called Ingmar Bergman. He’s dead now. I hate—no, “hate” is a strong word. But when I saw his films, I couldn’t believe how he could take all the humor out of the room, just vacuum it out. I have an idea to make a film with my DP [Goran Hallberg] about Bergman, actually. Because in the late Fifties and early Sixties Ingmar made some commercials, so I want to write a script imagining the meetings Bergman had with the advertising firms, the clients, and all the stupid stuff you go through when you make commercials, but telling it in the Ingmar Bergman way. It would be a funny contrast, the ad world and Bergman’s style.

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One Response to “The Gronvall Report: Hannes Holm on A MAN CALLED OVE”

  1. John says:

    Amazing how the filmmaker – or maybe your interviewer – take the film to be such a modern tale when it clearly has such ancient roots. j

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