Expatriate Dreams

One of Lasse Hallström’s favorite directorial techniques is known, in film parlance, as the rolling take. What it means in lay terms is pretty simple: If he doesn’t like a scene, he doesn’t shout “Cut!” Instead, he keeps the cameras rolling, demanding that his cast scramble back into position and do everything all over again, without pausing for a break, without mentally re-preparing. It’s pure guerrilla moviemaking – a tactic that forces everyone, as Kevin Spacey vividly puts it, “to still live in the breath of the last moment.”

As a rule, actors don’t love this technique. “You can see the mild annoyance on their faces,” says Leslie Holleran, Hallström’s producer. “They’re not ready.” But that’s just the point. The trick forces spontaneity, breaks bad habits, subdues overacting. Johnny Depp said everything with the corners of his mouth in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape; in The Cider House Rules, Tobey Maguire conveyed it all with his eyes. Hallström even managed to drum the diva out of Julia Roberts in Something to Talk About, possibly making it the only non-Julia Roberts Julia Roberts movie in history.

“The kinds of performances one sees on television, particularly sitcoms, are slowly seeping over into the movies,” says Hallström in his impeccable, lilting English, still inflected with the singsong cadences of his native Stockholm, though he now lives quietly among us, in the Westchester suburb of Bedford. He’s taking a break from editing The Shipping News, his adaptation of E. Annie Proulx’s 1993 Pulitzer-winning novel, which Miramax will open on Christmas Day.

“There’s more and more of a stylized way of doing things,” he says. “You have to be much more of a policeman these days to see to it that actors stay away from that kind of … dishonesty.”

Hallström is a sweet, judicious man, partial to giant ski sweaters, shy in crowds, gentle and nonconfrontational on the set. But I still ask, just for the hell of it, if he can isolate at least one example of overwrought American comedy that drives him loony.

Ally McBeal,” he answers. “That show is really efficient in conveying everybody’s attitude. And I cannot watch it. I cannot. I have to take a shower afterwards.”

There’s a point in My Life as a Dog, Hallström’s breakthrough 1985 movie, when the young protagonist, Ingemar, observes: “It’s not easy to be left behind.” Ingemar was talking about Laika, the canine the Russians shot into space in 1957 and left to die of starvation, but he could have been talking about the plight of any Hallström hero. Nearly all of the 55-year-old director’s films revolve around the rootless, the abandoned, the outcast, the marooned; almost all of them also take place in remote locales. (When asked if he’d ever made a film in a town of more than 2,000 people, Hallström thinks. “Ah yes! Boston!” he blurts, referring to Once Around, his first American movie.)

The Shipping News is therefore a logical Hallström endeavor. The story – about a battered, unremarkable newsman who finds hope and definition in Newfoundland, the province of his ancestors – is driven by character and atmosphere, rather than wretched excesses of plot. The project has been floating around Hollywood for nearly a decade, but it only saw the light of day after Hallström, Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench, and Cate Blanchett lined up behind it. The film will be the director’s third December release in as many years for Miramax – and, knowing Hallström and knowing Miramax, it will probably be his third Oscar-nominated film in a row. Not bad for a man who started his career directing an Abba documentary.

In fact, as recently as five years ago, Hallström was still struggling to navigate his way through Hollywood Byzantium, even though he’d been in this country on and off since 1987. “In Sweden,” he says, “a yes is a yes and a no is a no and a handshake seals a deal. It wasn’t true in Los Angeles. I have since learned not to believe start dates and verbal promises. I learned to trust lawyers and agents. That took years.” Hallström also spent years not working, tossing scripts aside because they were too plot-heavy and character-lite. Between Something to Talk About in 1995 and The Cider House Rules in 1999, he did almost nothing. “I stayed back in Sweden for three or four years,” he says, “just being a little lazy and not wanting to move back.”

That all changed four years ago, though, after Hallström’s wife, the sumptuous actress Lena Olin, finished filming Night Falls on Manhattan. The couple settled in Westchester with their two children, splitting the difference artistically and geographically between Hollywood and Europe, and giving Hallström a New York anchor for his career. Harvey Weinstein took notice. Since 1998, Hallström has been working for him nonstop.

“But I still regard myself as a Swedish film director living in America, doing American movies,” says Hallström. “I’m not a New Yorker. Or am I?” He thinks it over. “No, I’m not. I’m from Stockholm. I’ve been here for four years.” He goes on to explain that he and Olin still summer on the Swedish coast, still have an apartment in Stockholm. “And we speak Swedish at home,” he says. “So do the kids. Keeps the outsider feel going. Keeps that freshness, I guess.”

By his own reckoning, Hallström was brought up in a household of warmth and creativity. Mom wrote poetry, and dad, a dentist, dabbled in filmmaking. Together, they hosted informal salons where local artists gathered to chat, debate, and watch movies. Young Lasse was always included. Indeed, he was indispensable: He ran the projector.

Yet a sense of sweet estrangement dominates the director’s life and work. “He’s not a good cocktail-party person at all,” says Olin. “When people glide into a room with hats on their heads and their hair all in place and begin making jokes with people they don’t know, he’s like, How can they do that?

“I understand Quoyle,” Hallström agrees, referring to the protagonist of The Shipping News. “Self-confidence is something I constantly have to … reconquer.” He pauses awkwardly, shifts in his leather chair. “Weird, huh? But I understand this guy, yes I do. There’s sort of an unwritten law in Sweden that you shouldn’t grow taller than any other tree. Don’t, uh, reach for too much. Don’t shine. So. It’s sort of rewarded, not sticking out. I think it explains the attraction of staying in the United States.”

Up near the 55th parallel, tucked away on the remote Newfoundland set of The Shipping News (Trinity Bight, pop. 1,200), Hallström was as content as he’d been in a long time – perhaps because he had such a crisp vision for the film, perhaps because the country and climate reminded him so much of Sweden. During scouting, he charged right to the center of a frozen lake, testing its aesthetic possibilities, as his stunned crew watched to see whether he’d sink. During filming, he wandered around in a mere sweater, not realizing until midday he’d forgotten a coat. Sometimes, during a break, he’d phone his wife from a windswept cliff overlooking the ocean. (“An Ibsen character,” says Olin.)

Words desert him when he’s asked to describe the final product. “I’ve been there before, mixing drama and farce, and bizarre elements with lyrical elements,” says Hallström. “But this goes further. This is just wacky.”

Hallström’s early films were small miracles of accumulation, slowly burrowing under the skin. But The Cider House Rules and Chocolat, his more recent efforts, were longer on plot and more overtly emotional, enhanced by soundtracks more likely to induce crying than prevent it. Those who loved these films deemed them beautiful. Those who didn’t declared that Hallström had succumbed to Hollywood sentimentalism – a term that exhausts the director, gives him a rash.

Regardless, he says The Shipping News is more restrained – “a little darker, a little more brooding. I don’t think you’ll find it steering near that line.”

Kevin Spacey remembers a particular scene that Hallström, with uncharacteristic bluntness, made him reshoot. “Quoyle, my character, is a man without malice or irony or glibness,” he says. “But I thought, in this scene, that there was a bit of an opportunity to show a little backbone, where Quoyle al-most” – he deliberately draws out the word – “confronts his aunt. So I came in with what I thought was the most minimal approach. I mean, I did nothing. And Lasse came up to me with this little frown and said, ‘Oh, so aggressive!’ And I said, ‘What? This – this is aggressive?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yes, this is all wrong. Who is this? This is not Quoyle! Maybe later you can do this.’ “

Spacey sighs. “So I squashed my spine and removed my nuts and approached the scene with even less,” he says. “So much less that I was convinced nothing registered. And Lasse seemed quite pleased.”

Some time went by. Spacey waited patiently for his big scene, where he’d finally get to show some resolve, some fire, maybe a flared nostril.

“I thought, When do I get to show this quality? At what point in the film? We only had like a week of shooting left. So I asked Lasse. You know what he said? ‘Your next movie.’ “

Expatriate Dreams