Niels Arden Oplev (pictured) the Danish director whose international career took off with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has come back home to direct Speed Walking (Kapgang), shortlisted for the Oscars selection. He spoke to us about the coming of age movie that opened yesterday in Denmark, and his career split between Hollywood and Scandinavia.
Last time you made a film in your native language was in 2008 with Worlds Apart. After your Hollywood movies, why come back now, and for a theme-teenage rites of passage- already explored in your 2006 film We Shall Overcome?
Niels Arden Oplev: It was always my plan to go back and forth between the US and Denmark. As a filmmaker I’ve always wanted to be able to make bigger wider audience Hollywood films and smaller more personal Danish films. After I had finished We Shall Overcome [Drømmen], I felt that the late 60s, early 70s had been covered in urban settings, but not so much in rural areas. I thought it would be interesting to show how the hippy movement and revolution of youth had actually influenced the Danish countryside. With my friend and author Morten Kirkskov, we had discussed the possibility of writing together a film about that. I told Morten about the idea of a mother’s sudden death, leaving behind a family –a father and two boys. He turned pale and said: “wait a minute. You’re telling my own story!!” I said ‘I have to go to Sweden to do the thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but do write this story. So he wrote the novel Kapgang that became a best-seller.
What attracted you to the story of the main character, 14 year-old Martin?
NAO: He’s been hit so hard by destiny that it makes him stronger and more courageous in his choices, including his sexuality. He dares to come out with an attraction both for his best female friend Kristin and male friend Kim. I also felt that the contrast between the boldness of the adults who then believed they could fix everything with sex and booze, and the innocence of the kids was great material for a movie.
How close is the film to your own childhood?
NAO: It’s of course a story very close to Morten Kirkskov, but I grew up in the countryside too. I remember how daring everybody was in the late 60s. There was an enormous competition between kids, as young as 13 or 14, to use their virginity. During test screenings, what was interesting is that older people who remember the times totally agree on how early sexual awakening happened then, but the younger audience at the test-screening were more sceptical about the character’s young age.
How did you cast the young actors Villads Bøe (Martin in the film), who carries the movie with talent and charisma as well as his friends Kim (Frederik Winther Rasmussen) and Kristin (Kraka Donslund Nielsen)?
NAO: I had long conversations with casting director Jette Termann, an expert in working with kids. I wanted the role of Martin not to be acted, the young non-professional actors to be just natural. But we also needed them to be courageous enough to play daring sexual scenes as there is a real triangle attraction between the two boys and the young girl Kristin. We tried to give them the confidence that we would shoot the scenes tastefully. Also, as a director, I wanted the scenes to be emotional, provocative, but not to show naked teenage kids.
You seem to have a family of actors that you like to go back to, with Pilou Asbæk, Anders W. Berthelsen, Jens Jørn Spottag playing some of the adult characters inSpeed Walking?
NAO: One of the joys of coming back to Scandinavia and Denmark is working in your own language with your good friends on each side of the camera. You feel like going back to a family reunion for a big party! In the US it’s totally different as you tend to work with an enormous crew on difficult and often crazy projects. The contrast between the two is very thrilling.
Will you continue to alternate US and Danish projects?
NAO: Yes absolutely. I’m starting a pilot for Cable TV in New York, then my next long feature will be a remake of Flatliners for Sony, about the young medical students who start to explore what’s in the other side of death. I will most probably shoot a Scandinavian feature after that.
Besides The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that was immensely hit worldwide, you’ve also directed several successful Danish TV dramas in the early 2000. Are you pleased to see that the world continues to crave for Scandinavian scripted content both in original and remake versions?
NAO: I have actually been part of the very first shows that sent Scandi TV drama to the world. The series Unit One (Rejseholdet) received an international Emmy in 2002 andThe Eagle won in 2005. Then besides The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I directed the two first episodes of the Millennium TV series that also won an International Emmy in 2011. That’s really cool, because when I started in television in 2001, it was not prestigious for a director to work in TV. It was kind of looked down.
Unit One was the first Danish show to be hugely popular across Scandinavia; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reached a similar level, selling more than three million tickets in the Nordic region which was unheard of before. But other Scandinavian films likeHeadhunters are doing well in more than one country and even outside Scandinavia.
Today, the Scandinavian way of thinking and model of society is being exposed to other cultures in a way I don’t think anyone would have imagined, and seeing the new golden age of filmmaking here more than 100 years after Denmark was among the world’s top film nations, is very exciting. We should be really proud of that achievement and of the vision of the National Film School of Denmark that developed all the talents that are now out there in the world.