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MIAMI - Whether it's the brisk climes of his native Sweden or the lush comforts of rural New England, there are any number of landscapes one might associate more immediately with director Lasse Hallström than the balmy shores of Miami. Yet when I meet him, looking suitably relaxed in the retro-chic breakfast room of my hotel, he's quick to say it's not just Florida hospitality making him feel at home: Miami, or more specifically the Miami International Film Festival, is where the Oscar-nominated Swede, director of such films as “What's Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Chocolat” and “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” believes his Hollywood career actually began.
26 years ago, the Miami fest – then only in its fourth year of existence – had the savvy to grab the US premiere of “My Life as a Dog,” a modest but beguiling coming-of-age drama from Sweden from a director previously best known for steering “ABBA: The Movie.” The film grew into an unlikely arthouse smash. The director, Hallström, was rewarded not only with two Oscar nominations, but a US career that began with his very next film – and would reap another Best Director nod 12 years later for a glossier tale of innocence lost, “The Cider House Rules.” Such major festivals as Venice, Berlin and Toronto have since come calling, but Miami precedes them.
“That night, when I heard the response to 'My Life as a Dog' in the theater here, it was the first time I'd seen the film with an American audience,” the 66-year-old director recalls. “And it blew my mind how warm the response was. I'd thought it was very Swedish in its sensibility, but I guess it dealt with very universal emotions, and it was such a wonderful moment to have that confirmed. I realized that evening that the film would have a long journey, that things wouldn't be the same.”
They weren't – and some would say the change hasn't entirely been for the better. Hallström's Hollywood career has brought him considerable success, but never the level of critical acclaim that greeted his native breakthrough. Whether handling rose-tinted Miramax prestige fare or, more recently, misty-eyed Nicholas Sparks adaptations, the Swede has established himself in the industry as a safe but soft pair of hands. That's an impression he's done his best to overturn with his latest, least typical film “The Hypnotist” (review here), a grisly crime thriller that marks his first Swedish production since “Dog.” Appropriately enough, Miami again stepped forward to showcase this shift in direction.
“It does feel rather like coming full circle,” chuckles Hallström, who upped sticks permanently from Sweden to upstate New York in 1997, accompanied by his wife and compatriot, Oscar-nominated actress Lena Olin. “I've experienced different levels of homesickness over the years. It was worst the first five or six years. Then suddenly I rooted, and became more of an American. But I'd always been longing to go back and spend some solid time in Stockholm, where I grew up. It was heavenly just to go back and be there for more than a week. I spent half a year just getting to know the new Stockholm.”
If “The Hypnotist” is a homecoming, though, it seems simultaneously a drastic departure. As an adaptation of Lars Kepler's bestselling psychological thriller concerning the slaughter of one family and the kidnapping crisis of another, its grim, bloody outlook is new terrain for a man more accustomed to trading in heartwarmers. Why return to Sweden with something so far outside his comfort zone?
“I'd never tried a thriller before, so I was curious to see what I could do with that,” he says matter-of-factly. “But at the core of it is a family drama that moved and intrigued me, so in a way it didn't feel so unfamiliar to me. And it had a great part for my wife. Combined with this urge of mine to go back to Sweden, it made a lot of sense.”
Taking on a procedural thriller, meanwhile, didn't strike Hallström as too great a stretch: “I may not have done one before, but I've always enjoyed jumping between different genres – and mixing genres within films. I like crossover films that balance drama with comedy: I'm less interested in solid comedies with no dramatic element, or in dramas with no sense of humor.”
Hallström's catholic genre tastes could hardly be made clearer by the titles sandwiching “The Hypnotist” in his filmography, both polished, star-laden slabs of Hollywood escapism. Last year brought the whimsical enviro-romcom “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” for which Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt recently received Golden Globe nominations. Last month, meanwhile, saw the release of “Safe Haven,” a sudsy romance that marks the director's second Nicholas Sparks adaptation: “Dear John,” starring Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried, scored him a box office hit in 2010.
The Sparks double-bill hasn't earned Hallström too many kind words from the critics, but he's pleasingly forthright about why he made them, and for whom. “They're commercial romances, sure, but romance still intrigues me,” he says breezily. “On 'Safe Haven,' I was able to play with the script a little more, though obviously it's not a true labor of love – it's made chiefly for commercial prospects, though that's no reason not to challenge yourself within that.
“With 'Dear John,' it was trying to desentimentalize what was on the page, and make it real. That can keep me going through a project. 'Safe Haven,' same thing – and also to tell the progression of a romance in a very low-key tone, and not having to race through it. And bringing a sense of humor to it, which was not in the novel. So I think you can recognize my touch somewhere in there. So, as Steven Soderbergh says, I do one for them, and one for me.”
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