Niels Arden Oplev: Film Director

Meet the man who brought Stieg Larssons' best-selling novel to the screen

Outselling James Bond and Harry Potter at Scandinavian box offices and grossing more than US$100m at international box offices – before it was even released in the States – ‘Men Who Hate Women’ was the fifth feature film from Niels Arden Oplev. Based on the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s novel ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ (the first of his cult Millennium trilogy), the movie opened in America last month, after its screening in the 27th Miami Film Festival. We meet during his much-needed family break on Mallorca, staying at CCA Andratx. In the centre’s airy café, farmer’s son Niels tells me he grew up in North Jutland: “Not exactly the kind of place where film directors came from.” With no TV at home until he was about 11, going to the cinema was magical: “If my parents said on a Wednesday that we were going on Friday, I couldn’t sleep for two days!”

They saw films by the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer – the influential Scandinavian director who worked from the silent movie era through to the 1960s, and whose 1928 film ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ has been voted one of cinema history’s 10 best. Niels believes that, despite today’s proliferation of media, film’s a very powerful story-telling medium: “It hits us with a lot of different arts packed into one experience. It can engage us emotionally and make us identify with people whose lives are very different to our own.”

He graduated from the renowned state-funded Danish film school, enjoying its “enormous resources” for four years and, whilst there, secured work experience on a Max Von Sydow shoot in Copenhagen.“In film school you think you’re God’s gift to mankind,” the youthful-looking 48-year-old laughs. “I was able to follow Max closely, so I also gave him some advice! He took it very nicely and then I asked if he’d act in my final school film. He spent 11 days on the shoot in Copenhagen, for just 100 dollars a day, plus room and board!” Film school had taught Niels a lot: “I almost had too many tools and wanted to use them all. I could tell Max about three generations of his character’s background and he kind of politely said he really didn’t need all of that. I guess it’s a bit like sex, you can talk it to death!” Max also taught him to rely on his instincts as much as his tools.

That final film won several prizes, including best feature film at the Film School Festival in Mexico City, as well as nominations for best picture, in Montreal, and a student Academy Award in LA. In January, there was even greater award success for Niels: in the 2009 Guldbagge (Golden Beetle) Awards (the Swedish ‘Oscars’), ‘Men Who Hate Women’ won both Best Picture of the Year and The Audience Award; the movie’s Noomi Rapace won Best Actress in a Leading Role. Not bad for a movie made for $6.5M, rather than the $50-60M typically spent by a Hollywood studio.

Niels didn’t know the Stieg Larsson books when production company Yellow Bird first approached him, while he was making his fourth film, ‘Worlds Apart’ (about Jehovah’s Witnesses in present-day Scandinavia). “Sweden’s home of an enormous amount of made-for-TV thrillers that have done well on TV but been mediocre in the cinema,” he explains. “I had no interest in going to Sweden to make what I thought would be a kind of TV film, so I said I didn’t have the time.” Six months later, they asked again. The catalyst was a conversation with some neighbours: “I said that these Swedish producers were haunting me with this Stieg Larsson.” The wife grinned, saying she’d just read the book and it was fabulous. After reading it, Niels agreed.

He called the producers, saying it was “nothing like a normal Swedish thriller and had a lot of potential and direction.” But the script was terrible: “I even called and asked if they were sure it was based on the book, because everything I loved in that had gone.”He knew that, to compete internationally, the film would have to be on a par with films like ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ or ‘Nikita’, yet on a lesser budget. His previous films and TV series ‘Unit One’ and International Emmy winner ‘The Eagle’ boosted his bargaining power. The existing script was “in the garbage”; he wanted his own Scandinavian specialist writers of thriller-dramas, not just thrillers, “because that’s the key to Larsson’s universe”, and control of the script, casting and key functions. And the film would be two-and-a-half hours long – not the proposed 90 minutes. “I told them they’d have to pay me dearly, and I wanted final cut. And if they couldn’t live with me having total artistic control, they were welcome to go elsewhere. They accepted everything – and later they regretted it!” He roars with laughter, prompting a few glances in our direction.

The movie’s major success has created an interesting and strange situation: “If I now shoot a Danish film that sells 250,000 tickets – which would normally be extremely good – it would be a major let down in comparison.” He’s always wanted to make an English language film and, for the past two years, has had agents in London, New York and Los Angeles (his wife Florence is American and they spend some of their time in New Jersey). “My aim is to do some big European films and flex between those and smaller Danish films. That’s my dream scenario, my vision,” he states.

He tells me he loves Mallorca’s natural beauty, the beaches and mountains, and thinks the food’s great. “And coming from Scandinavia, the weather’s fantastic! I hope I become successful enough to buy a house here.” And filming here? “My films are rooted in dark Nordic melancholy, bad behaviour or tight claustrophobic drama,” he says. “It seems that life in Mallorca is quite the opposite. Filming? I don’t know – but living, holidaying and writing? Absolutely!”