My Life As a Dog, Swedish director Lasse Hallström’s debut film in the United States, earned him Oscar nominations for director and adapted screenplay in 1988. But he says the excitement of that experience didn’t match what he felt at the film’s U.S. premiere at the Miami Film Festival.
On that February evening in 1987 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, he remembers first feeling shaken with nerves and then bathed in relief at the reaction of the first American audience to see the film. “I was amazed at the audience responding at the same points as the Swedish audience, only much louder,” he said with a laugh during an interview.
“The Miami audience was much bigger. That was a fantastic experience and experiencing the applause afterwards …” The festival’s founder and director, Nat Chediak, had already established a knack for discovering some of the world cinema’s greatest directors, beginning with the 1983 introduction of Pedro Almodóvar to American audiences with Bad Habits at the festival’s debut. Hallström’s U.S. debut was an important milestone for not only world film but also Hollywood.
The Hypnotist, Hallström’s latest film and his first Swedish-language film in 25 years, will make its Florida premiere at 7 p.m. Sunday as part of this year’s 30th anniversary festival at the Olympia Theater at Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, during which he will receive a career tribute award.
More than a quarter-century after his first experience with the festival, he recognizes its importance in launching his career.
“This was before it was bought by the United States or nominated,” he says of My Life As a Dog, adapted from Reidar Jönsson’s beloved Swedish novel. It marked an esteemed debut for the director of some of Hollywood’s more recognizable dramas. His English-speaking work began in 1991 with the bittersweet drama starring Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfuss, Once Around. Then came What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? That 1993 film helped make a star of Leonardo DiCaprio, who received a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his role as the mentally challenged brother of the titular character played by Johnny Depp.
More work with bigger stars arrived in 1995 for Something to Talk About, with Julia Roberts, Dennis Quaid, Robert Duvall and Kyra Sedgwick, who would earn a Golden Globe nomination for her supporting role. But no film in Hallström’s oeuvre would gain as much acclaim as the seven-time Oscar-nominated The Cider House Rules. The 1999 film won Oscars for supporting actor Michael Caine and writer John Irving, who adapted his novel for the film’s screenplay.
“It was a wonderful time touring parts of the country together with the producer Richard Gladstein and the writer John Irving,” Hallström recalls.
He would continue to work with cinema’s great actors. He reteamed with Depp for the acclaimed Chocolat (2000), which co-starred Juliette Binoche and Judi Dench. Hallström would later work with the late Heath Ledger, who played the title role in the enchanting Casanova (2005). The following year he would direct Richard Gere in The Hoax, the true story of an investigative reporter who faked Howard Hughes’ autobiography in the early 1970s.
Gere and Hallström would reteam for the direct-to-video charmer Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009). Hallström remains baffled by the studio’s refusal to release Hachi in theaters, as it would find almost universal critical redemption on home video. “It ended up doing great in European counties and in Japan,” he says of Hachi. “It did really good business, but in the United States, they never released it. I don’t know the reason.”
Most recently, Hallström’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen found recognition at this year’s Golden Globes with three nominations. “It’s been a long time,” he says of the surprise nominations for lead actor Ewan McGregor and actress Emily Blunt. “I haven’t been part of that game for some time. I’m very proud of that film, so from that standpoint, I am happy it got attention. I like it very much, but considering the fact that it opened already in March, I am happy that they did remember it at the end of the year.”
Idiosyncratic characters with almost naïve ideals often populate Hallström’s cinema. The drama in many of his films comes when these characters clash with their polar opposites, people with cynical outlooks on the world. Sometimes characters embody both these extremes, as they struggle toward a self-actualization. Hallström is the king of intimate drama involving relationships.
“I think it’s the interest in telling stories that has to do with people and real life,” he says of his inspirations. “I’m less interested in fantasy movies or action movies. I’m more interested in relations between people.”
Even The Hypnotist, a murder mystery thriller that opens with one of the more brutal stabbing scenes in movie history, has familial relations at its heart.
“At the core of it is a family drama,” he says — “how those two parents react to the kidnapping of their kid, so it’s not that different from things I have done before. But it’s also much darker than anything else I’ve done.”
He had several reasons for wanting to make the film.
“I longed to come back to Sweden, to work in Sweden,” he says, “and I also liked the idea of making a thriller because I hadn’t tried that before. And it’s a great part for my wife [Lena Olin] and to be able to go back to Stockholm and spend time there again.”
Six weeks after finishing The Hypnotist he returned to the United States to make Safe Haven, his second film after 2010’s Dear John — based on a Nicholas Sparks book. He says his decision to make another film based on a Sparks book was easy thanks to the producer of both films, Marty Bowen, “who I like to work with very much,” Hallström says. “The idea of working with the same group of people really attracted me. As you know, I like telling family-oriented or character-oriented stories, so that was the reason I made that one.”
Beyond relationships, his films also have an almost earthly spirituality, be the solace a sheikh found in salmon fishing or a little boy’s empathy for Laika, the first dog Russia so famously shot into space in 1957.
But Hallström, who comes from one of the world’s most secular countries, stops short of calling his films spiritual. To those characters from Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and My Life As a Dog, respectively, Hallström responds: “That’s an interest in lyricism that comes in the way I like to tell stories. But I don’t think I have a religious interest, really. But there’s maybe a sort of lyrical element I like that they might have in common.”
It remains in the cinema house where Hallström awaits transcendence on a visceral level. His awe at experiencing more than 1,000 people attending his U.S. premiere of My Life As a Dog remains one of the fondest memories of his career.
“I love the fact that it’s the same place where I had this positive shock over My Life as a Dog, the first time I saw it with an American audience,” he says of the career tribute award.
This will mark his first return to Miami since that night in 1987. Though he is in between projects now, and his career in filmmaking is far from over, he could not think of a better place to pause for a respite between directing jobs. “I love the idea of coming back. That was the beginning of my whole American adventure.”