Just how does one make sense of a career that began with short television programs on Jimi Hendrix and abba and ended up in the big-budget world of Hollywood? "Don't even try," Lasse Hallström says with a soft chuckle.
The 55-year-old director's work has uprooted him from his native Stockholm and planted him firmly in filmmaking's élite. My Life as a Dog (1985) first introduced Hollywood to Hallström, but it was The Cider House Rules in 1999, followed by Chocolat in 2000, that cemented his reputation as a master of literary adaptation. Now he's back with another star-studded film, The Shipping News , perhaps his most challenging book-to-big-screen project yet.
Hallström grew up on film in the 1950s. In that time "before television," he watched Charlie Chaplin flicks and documentaries by his father, an amateur filmmaker. At 10, he made his first movie, The Ghost Thief, a three-minute thriller on 8-mm film. As a teen, he took his camera everywhere, and his precocity later landed him work in TV, which "was my film school," he says. "I worked the cameras and I edited," mostly on music shorts for Swedish television. Gradually, Hallström shifted his focus from the small screen to the big. But few people saw his first feature, a boy-meets-girl tale, or his second, ABBA: The Movie, about the group's 1977 Australian tour. Real recognition didn't come until My Life as a Dog, which won top Swedish honors and two Oscar nominations.
It was his first literary adaptation, a "genre" that has become his specialty. His two Swedish Pippi Longstocking films and his best-known English-language features What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Cider House Rules and Chocolat all began as books. He can't explain why so much of his work has been book-based but says he likes material "that isn't linear, that goes with characters."
By that standard, The Shipping News was perfect. Hallström was set to direct after wrapping 1995's Something to Talk About, which starred Julia Roberts. But the densely layered storytelling in E. Annie Proulx's celebrated book about Quoyle, a widower who moves to his ancestral hometown in Canada, proved difficult to translate to screen. Unhappy with the script, Hallström quit. The project went through four writers, two other directors and two leading men (John Travolta and Billy Bob Thornton) before a more experienced Hallström agreed to try again.
Such projects usually become pariahs. No one wants to work on them because everyone doubts they'll ever make it to the cinema. But Hallström pushed, getting Robert Nelson Jacobs (Chocolat) to pen a new script and recruiting an A-list cast. Kevin Spacey, who plays Quoyle, said Hallström was "the right kind of director to capture what was very difficult to put on film." Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore, who signed on as Quoyle's love interests, both praised the freedom Hallström gives actors. "I don't impose performances," he says. If he's displeased, "he'll coax," says producer Leslie Holleran. "He doesn't want to be negative and deconstruct." Instead Hallström says he just tries "whatever it takes improvisation, lots of takes" to get the job done.
In this case, it also took on-location filming in windswept, fogbound Newfoundland and some post-production fiddling. Hallström gripes a little about the tweaks done in response to test screenings: "With this one, which was meant to be crooked, you can't straighten it out too much," he says. Nonetheless, he's "very proud" of the end result, which is "mysterious and ambiguous and moody."
He's also tired. After making three movies in three years, he says, "I'd like to have a little break." He has two projects in development Cinderella Man, the story of a Depression-era boxer, set to star Russell Crowe, and A Conspiracy of Paper, an adaptation of David Liss's murder mystery but neither will begin shooting before autumn.
This may be the time for another project: a move from New York, where he has lived for the past few years, back to Stockholm. Johan, his 24-year-old son from his first marriage, still lives in Sweden, and Hallström and his wife, actress Lena Olin, want their other children her son August, 15, and their daughter Tora, 6 to grow up Swedish, not American. He also would like to work on a film in his native language. In the U.S.,"I have this feeling of being a visitor who is having an adventure," he says. It has been quite a ride, but it's time to go home.