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Interview: Headhunters Director Morten Tyldum

Headhunters - Morten Tyldum

When thinking of movies from Norway, generally the first thing that comes to mind is some sort of brooding drama about blank faced emotionless characters lamenting their lot in life. The country isn’t exactly known for darkly comic and harshly violent thrillers with more twists than a Bulk Barn barrel of licorice, but director Morten Tyldum can be thanked for changing that perception. His latest feature Headhunters took a ludicrously successful Scandinavian novel from Jo Nesbø and turned it into a film that wouldn’t feel out of place in the Coen Brothers catalogue.

The film stars Aksel Hennie as Roger Brown, a high profile headhunter by day and art thief/forger by night who likes to pillage his wealthy clients’ collections to support his lavish lifestyle. Of course, that can’t last forever. One ill-conceived theft from a dangerous client forces Roger into a deadly game of cat and mouse packed with plenty of violence and one unfortunate hideout in the unsanitary depths of an outhouse. I’m being vague because you should know as little as possible before entering the theatre. This is a film that thrives on surprise, constantly shifting tones and genres at will.

Headhunters opens in Canada this week after moneybags success in Europe and with an American remake already on the way. We got a chance to chat with filmmaker Morten Tyldum about the motivations and influences behind his breakout hit as well as the challenges of designing proper big screen excrement.

Dork Shelf: What drew you to this material? Did you discover the book first or were you sent the script?

Morten Tyldum: I read the book and was immediately fascinated by the character of Roger Brown. I thought he is such an intense character and I really loved his journey. I think there’s a little bit of Roger Brown in all of us. The insecure arrogant character who has surrounded himself in this armour. He’s sort of made himself into another person. He lives such a fascinating life and right away I thought there was a good movie in there. So I called the publisher asking for the rights and a production company had already picked it up. So I made a call and said, “I just read the book. I know you’re developing it. It’s a fantastic story, I’d love to make a movie out of it and you’d be really stupid if you don’t let me direct it.” We had a meeting in Stockholm, I told them my vision of the movie, they agreed with it, and we went from there.

DS: Did you approach Headhunters any differently than your previous films since it was your first adaptation?

MT: Well, my second movie Fallen Angels was kind of an adaptation, but so loosely that it was more “inspired by” than anything else. I read that script before the book and didn’t think much about the book once we got started. With this, it was a very interesting process. I sat down with Jo Nesbø [the author of the original novel] beforehand and said, “Thank you for allowing me to make a movie out of this great book, but the movie has to be mine. I have to take this story and retell it my way.” He said, “of course.” That’s what he wanted and he was so cool about it. That’s what you have to do. You have to put the book away. You should respect the spirit and the tone of the book and then retell the story in a way that would be the best fit for a movie. If you just go chapter-by-chapter and try to recreate it exactly, I think the movie suffers. It’s a different medium and has to be approached in a different way.

DS: Was it difficult to get a fairly ambitious thriller/action movie off the ground in Norway?

MT: Well, it was a fairly tight budget. The book is so popular in Norway that we probably could have gotten an even bigger budget, but I thought we could make it for what we had. It wasn’t a huge budget, but not a tiny one either. It was about $5.2 million, which isn’t bad. But the problem was that in Norway, we don’t actually have any stuntmen. I had to get all the actors to do the action themselves. So there were lots of challenges there. Also, we were shooting in October and November, which is freezing cold and Aksel Hennie would be covered in shit and blood wading through a river naked. We had to deal with those kinds of things, so there were a lot of physical challenges. But in a way, I think that creativity thrives on restrictions. It forces you to think creatively. We couldn’t do huge stunts or explosions or slo-mo stuff. We couldn’t be a slick Hollywood film and had to shoot it another way. I decided that I wanted things to be very real and gritty and at the same time, I wanted to use dark humor. I wanted people to say, “oh that’s horrible” but not be able to stop laughing.

DS: I really enjoyed the darkly comic tone, was that from the book or something you brought to it?

MT: There’s a bit of that in the book, but more in the movie. The book is slightly more distant in a way and is more about the milieu. The humor is there, but I twisted it a little bit more. For example, I insisted that the dog was white and got speared on the front of the tractor. Jo was like, “what?!” I wanted to have one shot in the movie that had never been done in the history of filmmaking and that’s the one. A guy escaping on a tractor covered in human shit with a dead white dog on the front. That is a unique shot.

DS: Was it difficult to find a balance between all of the genre elements and competing tones in the film?

MT: Very much. That was the hardest thing. We made a conscious choice that we wanted this to be a very severe movie. Roger changes so much and not just physically. He’s constantly changing outfits. First his suit is ruined so he’s wet, then he puts on another uniform, then he’s covered in shit, then he has the car crash and is covered in blood, then he has to shave off his hair. He goes through so many transformations that we decided we wanted the movie to be the same way. Wherever Roger is, that’s where the movie is. So in the beginning he’s in control, or at least thinks he is, so we shot the opening like Ocean’s Eleven. Everything is very slick and elegant. Then he starts losing control and the Coen Brothers come in. Then there’s the car crash and it’s shot completely handheld and in and out of focus. So the style of the movie changes and becomes more absurd and comedic as the things spiral out of control. I always felt that the mood and the genre should change with him to keep viewers off balance. That was a big challenge and I was really worried about pulling it off. I wondered if it would be completely confusing and I had a lot of people telling me it had to be more consistent. But I decided that I had to try it and I’m really happy that I did because that seems to be what people are responding to.

DS: Since you’ve worked with Aksel Hennie before, did your have him in mind for the lead role of Roger from the beginning?

MT: In the first meeting I had about the movie, I said that I wanted Aksel to play the lead. He was the only one I could see doing the part. To me, it’s a really tough part on a few levels and I didn’t think anyone else could do it. Aksel can be really strong and really vulnerable at the same time. Also, he’s playing an asshole and I needed someone in the role who could help me make the audience like this guy. Aksel can be a charming asshole. He’s a phenomenal actor and also very physical. He was the one falling off the tractor and driving all the cars. There were no stunt men. It was always him. He even shaved off his own hair and a lot of the blood in that scene is his own because he cut himself so badly while doing it with a dry razor. He’s the kind of actor who goes all that way and that’s what I wanted and needed.

DS: I heard that there are already plans for an American remake? Will you be involved in any way?

MT: No. Summit Entertainment is doing it. They have the rights and they are a great production company, so it will be very interesting to see what they come up with. I’ve been in meetings with them. They’ve had me read the script, but I don’t think a director should make the same movie twice. So I hope they find a filmmaker who reads the book and is inspired in the same way that I was inspired. That’s my hope. That they come up with something new and different even though they are adapting the same book. If Summit comes up with a script that has a completely different angle, then I might be interested, but I’m not going to remake my own movie. I already made it.

DS: How did you shoot the outhouse scene and what was that day like on the set?

MT: [Laughs] You have no idea how many different opinions people have about how shit should look. There was nothing that we discussed more. “No, it should be lighter, it should be darker, it should be thicker.” Ugh, we had so many discussions about that. Then once we finally found the look, we shot the scene very casually. Aksel went under for like a minute or two breathing for a toilet paper role. His whole body was submerged in this special tank and he just did it like, “yeah whatever.” We were so worried about it and then he jumped in, did it in an hour and we moved on like it was a normal scene. After all that discussion and concern, it was a bit anticlimactic.

DS: You’re currently working on a science fiction movie in America, what can we expect from that?

MT: Yes, it’s called What Happened To Monday? and we’re actually casting that right now. It’s based in a future where overpopulation is a major problem. Siblings aren’t allowed and are actually killed. So, the story is about seven identical brothers who share a life. They are named after the days of the week and take turns living the same life. Then the Monday brother suddenly disappears and they have to find out what happened to him without being caught. Eventually they find out that they are being hunted and it turns into a pretty intense sci-fi thriller. I’m really psyched about it.

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