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Director Hannes Holm on Adapting Best-selling Novel 'A Man Called Ove' Into a Hit Film

"A Man Called Ove" movie
Rolf Lassgård in "A Man Called Ove."

Record-breaking box office Swedish film "A Man Called Ove" screened at the fall KCET Cinema Series on Tuesday, September 20. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, the film is about a grouchy man who strikes up an unexpected friendship with his new neighbors. Following the movie, director Hannes Holm participated in a Q&A session with KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond. The film has been selected by the Swedish Film Institute to compete for a foreign language Oscar nomination

The KCET Cinema Series continues its fall season weekly through October 10 at the historic Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. It is generously sponsored by the James and Paula Coburn Foundation. 

Below is an edited portion of the Q&A session with Holm. 

On adapting Fredrik Backman's novel. 

Hannes Holm: If I knew that this film would get in here, I would have said, yes, the first time when I got the offer. But, really, when I got the offer to do it, I really didn't want to do it. 

I just decided that I didn't want to make comedies anymore... It was a best-selling novel. I heard that the author was very like Ove himself... Fredrik Backman. So I didn't want to do this. I was scared. But I did. Now, you're going to say, why?

In the meeting, the producer, she gave me the book and I don't have so many books in my home, I read the book the same night. When the morning came, I was reading the last pages, my pillow was all wet. 

Then I realized that this we could shoot because it was all there — humor, drama, depth, destiny, everything — so then I called her and said, "yes, I really want to do this film." 

I write my own stories. This was kind of a new thing for me, to write a screenplay of some other person's story. I really didn't want to do it, but I read the book. It's a good thing to do, if you want to make a film.

Pete Hammond: How many times did you read the book?

HH: That night and 99 times more. I read it so much. 

Has anybody read this book? Because I'm quite afraid of you. Book lovers are so aggressive when it comes to filmmakers making films on what they love and they often think they're their own books and they go to the cinema to watch the massacre of the book.

When I did the script, I really wanted to reach for the book lovers as well. But I'm not an author, I'm a filmmaker, so I read the book so many times that it got into my veins. I felt like a thief, stealing the story out of the book and made a film out of it. I had one thing that the author didn't have. What was that?

I had a camera. 

I can spare so many words with the camera... This camera is so good when it comes to making films of the books because so many millions of words in just these pictures. 

Pete Hammond and "A Man Called Ove" Director Hannes Holm
Pete Hammond and "A Man Called Ove" director Hannes Holm. | Photo: Photo: Michele Garza

On working with cats.

HH: It's like I said, I'm from Sweden, we don't have so much money. This thing about cats, it's not the cat thing. It's more the problem of the owner of the cat because I don't know why they lie so much. Can the cat follow my actor like this? Yes. Can the actors say meow when I sing? Yes. OK. Can the cat take my car and buy some beer for me? Yes. OK. OK. Thank you very much. That was the situation. 

Here in California, in Los Angeles, you have digital cats because you have seen these problems before and that's why your digital industry is so big. In Sweden, we can't afford that, but we could afford two cats. So, we had two cats in the film. 

PH: Coen Brothers, when they did that movie ["Inside Llewyn Davis"] when he has the cat, Oscar Isaac, they used six cats.

HH: Six cats! We couldn't afford six cats in Sweden.

We have Magic and Orlando. Magic was... the aggressive cat and then Orlando was the sleepy cat. So, we used them. There's an all Swedish crew member. These cats were so similar. Sometimes, we took the wrong cat. We took the aggressive cat to the bed scene. We could afford new sheets instead of the bloody ones.

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 On lead actor Rolf Lassgård.

Rolf Lassgård is one of the best actors in Sweden. 

I worked with a lot of comedy in Sweden before and he's not a comedy guy and the production company didn't want Rolf in the main character because he wasn't so funny. When I started to talk with him, he said, "I'm not that funny." I didn't want to have a funny guy. I wanted to have a really good actor. So, we started to watch other films, for example "About Schmidt," a film about stubborn people. After we finished them and started to release the film, Alexander Payne called him and gave him a big role. 

As soon as I started to write the script, Rolf Lassgård came into my head. The thing is that Rolf Lassgård isn't looking like [Ove]. He has a lot of hair. 

On why Ove looks older than 59.

You know the Swedish climate with winter, it's windy. It's hard to live in Sweden. You look old when you're 59. In the book, it's 59 and we have the line saying its 59 in the film as well, but, in a way, grumpy old man could also be a 20-year-old woman. Or, I don't know, everybody can be grumpy. We didn't want to do it like the age was so important. 

"A Man Called Ove" movie
Bahar Pars and Rolf Lassgård in "A Man Called Ove."

On the budget for the film.

We have a very nice little system in Sweden with state funding. Lots of films are being done. Also, it is hard in another kind of way, but if you really want to make a film, you can do a film in Sweden. 

This film was a best-selling film so the production company... it's a very cheap film in this semi-attached area. They thought it didn't cost so much and it had a very poor budget. I jumped off the project for sometime because I didn't think the people, the production company, had the same thoughts that I had. Then they came up with a little bit more money so that we could come up with his bald hair, for example. They didn't even want to have a cat in the film. I fought for the cat. The budget was very ordinary. It was like $350,000 and it made $20 million. 

On filming a bus crash with a small budget.

We could not afford a big bus crash, so I wrote the script, I'm very used to try and find ideas that don't cost much money. I thought what it would be like if you're on the bus toilet during a bus crash. We built this toilet and then we had this truck who raised the toilet and we put the actor in the truck and made a kind of propeller. He didn't feel so well after that. That was a very mechanical, analog thing to do. 

Pete Hammond and "A Man Called Ove" Director Hannes Holm
Pete Hammond and "A Man Called Ove" director Hannes Holm. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian

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