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‘Swedish mafia’ takes Hollywood

LOS ANGELES During the Toronto International Film Festival, a Hollywood manager, an up-and-coming director and some executives from the Weinstein Co. had gathered for dinner at the city’s Windsor Arms Hotel. It appeared to be a typical movie-business gathering except that most of the people at the table were speaking with Swedish accents.

The diners were celebrating Weinstein’s upcoming U.S. release of “Snabba Cash,” a Swedish crime drama that created a sensation among American distributors when it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this year. The movie is the latest in a wave of commercially minded Scandinavian films suddenly washing into the U.S., including the adaptation series of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” the cult-hit vampire movie “Let the Right One In” and next year’s monster mockumentary “The Troll Hunter.”

Scandinavia has influenced the American art house for decades, from Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman to Dane Lars von Trier and his Dogme 95 movement. But this new wave is decidedly more commercial and contains crime dramas, mysteries and vampire pictures films that are dark but sufficiently populist that Hollywood is eager to remake many of them in English.

“Let the Right One In” has already been redone as “Let Me In,” Zac Efron will star as a cocaine runner in the remake of “Snabba Cash,” and David Fincher’s upcoming remake of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” with Daniel Craig is hotly anticipated for Christmas 2011. Scandinavian actors and directors, meanwhile, are being tapped for major studio pictures.

“We’re a small country, so I guess you’ve got a good percentage of the Swedish mafia here,” joked Daniel Espinosa, the director of “Snabba Cash” (known as “Easy Money” in English), at the Toronto dinner. Already, that film has vaulted Espinosa (Chilean ancestry explains the last name) to Hollywood’s orbit: he’s directing Denzel Washington in the new thriller “Safe House.”

A small group of power players in Los Angeles and Scandinavia is driving the Norse invasion.
Swedish actress Noomi Rapace stars in the 2009 film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s international bestseller “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” (Music Box Films)
Swedish actress Noomi Rapace stars in the 2009 film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s international bestseller “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” (Music Box Films)

Sitting at the same dinner table in Toronto was manager Shelley Browning, who has long represented actresses such as Rachel McAdams and Helena Bonham Carter. Over the last several years, however, Browning has begun traveling to Sweden to court and sign clients such as Espinosa and Joel Kinnaman (the lead actor in “Snabba Cash,” and a finalist for a lead role in superhero movie “Thor”), not to mention Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace, the stars of the Millennium films.

Rapace, who was initially skeptical of an English-language career, wound up taking quickly to Hollywood, and vice versa. On her first U.S. visit this summer, she was in an informal meeting at the office of producer Susan Downey when Downey’s husband, Robert Downey Jr., happened to wander in. Before Rapace knew it, she was cast in “Sherlock Holmes 2.”

“When I started thinking to myself about the next frontier for finding new talent, I thought the window had closed on Britain and Australia. Scandinavia then became very obvious,” Browning said. “Most Scandinavians speak English. And Stieg Larsson has made Americans a lot more aware of the region.”

Entertainment attorney Linda Lichter has been similarly key to Hollywood’s Stockholm syndrome. From her high-rise office at the western end of the Sunset Strip, she is one of the people most responsible for the redo of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” as a big-budget, English-language movie.

“Scandinavians have a dark and funny view of the world that we’re now first coming to in American cinema,” she said. “And they’ve studied of a lot of American film, so they can take some genres to places we’ve not yet begun to take them.”

Over a nearly two-year span a period that began before Larsson’s “Tattoo” novel was even in U.S. bookstores Lichter coordinated with the Swedish producers and elicited offers from almost every major studio for a “Tattoo” remake before brokering a deal with Sony Pictures.

When it came time to sell “Snabba,” the attorney (who, as a Wisconsin native, says she “has a little bit of the Scandinavian worldview in me”) entertained bids from a number of studios. In a hectic few days last spring, the Swedish producers flew to Los Angeles to negotiate with the eager Americans, with a heavy-hitting team of Efron, Warner Bros. and “The Dark Knight” producer Charles Roven winning the rights.

Savvy agents are jumping not just on completed films but on filmmakers from across the region.

This week, the Hollywood mega-agency William Morris Endeavor flew in Norwegian director Andre Ovredal for a meet-and-greet with Hollywood producers and a screening of “The Troll Hunter” at its Beverly Hills offices. Ovredal’s folkloric horror tale, a mockumentary in the vein of “The Blair Witch Project,” has just been bought for U.S. release, and a remake may not be far behind.

A fellow Norwegian, Tommy Wirkola, saw his movie “Dead Snow,” about Nazi zombie hunters (tagline: “Eins, Zwei, Die”), become a minor hit at Sundance in 2009. That landed him representation with Creative Artists Agency and a spot on the Scandinavian hot list. Wirkola is now set to direct a new dark take on the Hansel and Gretel legend (the idea: they grow up to be witch hunters). Will Ferrell is producing the movie, and Jeremy Renner is attached to star in it.

And Adam Berg, a Sweden-based commercials director, has caught the eye of A-list actor Ryan Reynolds on the basis of a short he made for the electronics brand Philips that’s evocative of “The Dark Knight.” Reynolds has tapped Berg as a front-runner to direct his big-budget superhero movie “Deadpool” even though Berg has never directed a feature before.

At a time when Hollywood is being maligned for its lack of creativity, those at the fore of the movement to hire Scandinavian directors and remake their movies see it as an avenue to keep originality alive even if it is originality derived from other countries. “People will go and see a play like ‘Romeo & Juliet’ many times if each time they are given a different take. If we’re doing that, we’re doing our job,” said producer Carl Molinder.

Molinder made “Let the Right One In,” an acclaimed coming-of-age vampire tale, but he was not content for the moody Swedish-language film to be merely a cult hit in the United States. So he set out several years ago to find a company to remake the movie in English. “Let Me In,” from director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield”), came out this fall to glowing reviews, albeit less-than-glowing box office.

The disappointing box office could indicate that translating Scandinavian movies creatively will be easier than translating them commercially.

But, if nothing else, Hollywood likes a good franchise, and many of the Scandinavian properties come with plenty such possibilities. As with Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, there are three “Snabba Cash” novels (and plans to shoot two more Swedish-language films). Working Title, the British-American powerhouse behind hits such as “Atonement,” has just snapped up rights to a novel about a loose-cannon cop titled “The Snowman” from Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo that’s part of an eight-book series.

But ultimately, the Hollywood-Scadinavian nexus, say those involved in it, may be as much about an evolution in American consciousness as it is about anything else. “Americans have been through a lot the last few years,” Lichter said. “I think we’re just a little bit darker ourselves.”

By Steven Zeitchik

(Los Angeles Times)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)