Sought after Swedish TV helmer Felix Herngren (Solsidan) is the man behind The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window, released in cinemas today. We spoke to the co-writer/director about pleasing the author Jonas Jonasson, the book’s legion of fans, and the inevitable US remake.
GFW: The book has been an international sensation, so presumably everybody wanted the movie rights? Did you have to fight for them?
Felix Herngren: Initially the book wasn’t the success it is now. When I got the rights three and a half years ago, it had sold maybe half a million copies, not the six or seven million it has sold today, so in that sense it was good for us. Still, we were up against thirty other film production companies to win those rights, so it was kind of a struggle.
What do you think made your take on the material unique and landed you the job?
It’s not like when you’re buying an antique and the highest bidder wins. Since the author gets royalties from the film, it was more important for him to choose a director and company he thinks will make the best film. First of all, I had the actor who plays Allan in mind from the start and he was very keen on doing it. Robert Gustafsson is a very famous comedian in Sweden and Jonas loved that idea. Secondly, since everything is so unrealistic and reliant on coincidence in the book, I told him I really wanted to tone down the aburdism, and do it as a much subtler drama, even though it is in fact a comedy, and Jonas liked that way of seeing the film.
Was Allan always going to be played by a younger actor in old-man make-up? That seemingly has so such much potential to go wrong.
Early on we did tests to see that we could get the hundred-year old look believable before starting anything else on the film. If you can’t get that look right, the whole thing is a waste of time. Luckily we saw results from the first test. That alone was three weeks work, cost £15,000 and took seven hours of preparation on the day. When were shooting on set, every mask for each day cost £5,000. Once you’re done for the day you have to tear it off the actor’s face and it’s destroyed. 55 days with Robert is about £250,000 just on make-up, a huge slab of our budget.
Book fans tend to be very precious and protective; did you feel a lot of pressure in staying faithful to the book and were you nervous about the fans' reaction?
It was Jonas’ approval that really gave me the confidence to take this on and film his masterpiece. Yes, I was nervous about the fan reaction but that’s six million other views on what the film should look like before they’ve seen it. The only way of not disappointing people is to make a film so good that you forget about the pictures you built up in your head while reading the book. If the film is ‘just OK’, during the film the audience will start comparing to their imaginations. They forget what they’re watching and start analysing all the decisions I made.
What did Jonas Jonasson think of the decisions you made?
After I got the rights he didn’t want to read the script and he didn’t watch any of the rough cuts during editing. One week before the premiere, I got a text on my phone from Jonas saying, “I haven’t slept all night. I saw the film three times yesterday and the first time I saw it I was in shock. ‘What did you do to my film?’ So I watched it a second time and thought it was OK and then I saw it a third time in the middle of the night and now I love it.” I couldn’t breathe when I was reading that text.
The challenge of adapting something like this is in the title. One hundred years of one man’s life in two hours. How did you break the book down?
The book gets more and more flashback heavy the further it goes, so we decided quite early on to significantly shorten these and find a way of helping them build the road movie of the present, which is the main focus of the film. Because of this, we spent a year trying to figure out how the importance of flashbacks and how to put them in. Jonas describes Allan’s thoughts, his behaviour and why he does things, but in a film you can’t do that, so we used the flashbacks as a way of describing Allan’s state of mind and just for building his character. When we figured that out, it was a big relief but it also became obvious which flashbacks should be included.
Jonas is happy and fans so far have been happy with your interpretation, but what are you most proud of?
With a lot of the smaller parts I used amateur actors. I wanted everyone to speak the local dialect, Sörmländska from the Malmköping where Allan is born, so we were casting in that part of the country for a long time. It’s always a huge risk using amateurs on a big shoot like this, but if I played it safe all the time, I’m sure it would have been a very safe, boring film.
Have you heard any rumours of an inevitable US remake and is that something you’re involved with?
We are already in discussions with one company about that but aren’t quite sure what to do right now. Something will happen after this film, a remake or sequel and other options I can’t talk about. The main thing is that if we sold it to an American or British company, we would still be allowed to make a Swedish sequel.
'The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window' is released in cinemas on 4 July.