Close-Up: Lasse Hallstrom on 'An Unfinished Life'
After sitting on the Miramax shelf for a long time, it came and went without much notice—director Lasse Hallström's Western ranch tale, An Unfinished Life, starring Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Lopez and Josh Lucas. Mr. Hallstrom talked about this lush September 2005 release, now available on DVD, by telephone from New York.

Box Office Mojo: We learn on the DVD commentary that, during shooting for An Unfinished Life, you played ABBA songs. How did the crew take to the Swedish pop group?

Lasse Hallstrom: They thanked me for it. It was a cold night and we needed distractions. I simply shared some of my past. I don't think I've seen that ABBA video [of performance and music videos Mr. Hallstrom directed].

Box Office Mojo: An Unfinished Life's director of photography, Oliver Stapleton, also started in music videos. Didn't he shoot A-Ha's animation/live action "Take On Me?"

Hallstrom: Yes, I think so. He also did videos for David Bowie and the Rolling Stones.

Box Office Mojo: An Unfinished Life was shot in CinemaScope. Would you be interested in making a movie on a David Lean-type scale?

Hallstrom: I would love to do an epic. I want to branch out. If it's a quality project, I'll do it.

Box Office Mojo: On the DVD, you make reference to a Swedish farmer who inhabited the ranch used in An Unfinished Life. Did that help you to recreate the setting?

Hallstrom: It was just inspiring to me that a Swede had built the barn—we found a Swedish [language] bible—and a Swede had lived there. He had worked on the land and, then, went into town for two years and got drunk. But he came back. I do read and research about a place and we go scouting, but it was an inspiration to know that I was not the first Swede.

Box Office Mojo: Is the movie based on the novel by Mark Spragg?

Hallstrom: [Spragg and his wife] wrote the script and there were several versions of it—and [director] Robert Altman was involved. Later, I got together with the writers and we started polishing the script, but it was a script first. They wrote the novel after that.

Box Office Mojo: Producer Leslie Holleran makes the point on the DVD that the ranch where Robert Redford's character, Einar, lives is not totally removed from society. Why was that important to convey?

Hallstrom: Because he had a life—a social life—and he was able to reconcile. Yes, he was bitter, but he was helped by his granddaughter [played by Becca Gardner] and by [Morgan Freeman's character] Mitch helping him to free himself from the past.

Box Office Mojo: You especially like the character's mumbling?

Hallstrom: [Chuckles] That was just a good character detail. It added some life and charm—and Robert Redford is particularly good in those scenes.

Box Office Mojo: What attracted you to the movie's idea of forgiveness?

Hallstrom: Forgiveness was inherent in the script—the importance of coming to a point where you can forgive and move on with your life. There's that element of the story and I wanted to do something that had a Western feel to it. I'm interested in telling life-affirming stories and I think you have to find a way to forgive and move on and be free. I have to have some kind of positive message. I just don't think I could ever tell a completely dark story.

Box Office Mojo: How did you come to work with Robert Redford—did he approach you?

Hallstrom: We came to him. I knew he had wanted to work with [me]. Someone had called from his company a couple of years before [An Unfinished Life] to work with us. When I got the script, I got to meet him, he was offered the role and we start working on it together. So, creatively, he was very involved—and he is an absolute gentleman. He sticks to the acting gig. I never felt intimidated. He was always focused on his character. I still think he does a great job in the film but his performance has not been recognized as it should have been—he's doing a kind of bitter old man. He hasn't done that before.

Box Office Mojo: Had you seen Mr. Redford's movies?

Hallstrom: Yes—and I had seen Ordinary People, which I love. It was fascinating to hear the stories about how the studio let him make that movie [according to Mr. Redford's vision].

Box Office Mojo: What's your favorite Robert Redford movie?

Hallstrom: [Long pause]. This is tough. As a director, Ordinary People for sure. As an actor, The Sting.

Box Office Mojo: What's your favorite Morgan Freeman movie?

Hallstrom: The Shawshank Redemption—and I like his performance in Million Dollar Baby, which I'd like to point out actually came out after An Unfinished Life was already made.

Box Office Mojo: Did Jennifer Lopez's fame overwhelm the picture?

Hallstrom: No—she was a real professional. We all just had a wonderful time. She was probably having a lot of distractions but it didn't show. I think both Robert Redford and Jennifer Lopez appreciated the remoteness of the shooting location [in Canada].

Box Office Mojo: There's a scene in which you follow the Lopez and Josh Lucas characters through a house in one long take. Why use that technique?

Hallstrom: It helped carry the scene, which was the obligatory romantic scene. This was a way to stay visually interesting—I like the peeling paint on the house—and, where the scene is weak, there is a desperate need for visual [stimulation].

Box Office Mojo: You've said that you have to care about characters based on your own experience? How does that apply to An Unfinished Life?

Hallstrom: [Pauses] The world is so different from any story. But I think I know what it feels like to harden and become harsh from not being able to forgive and forget, though not as well as Einar does. I can relate to that and how that happens.

Box Office Mojo: Do you ride horses?

Hallstrom: I do not. I made another movie called Something to Talk About, which was about jumping horses and I still can't get excited about it. I'm into dogs.

Box Office Mojo: Was anything computer generated in An Unfinished Life?

Hallstrom: I think we replaced the sky for a scene with the bear—no. The attacking bear was real, and Morgan Freeman really was standing in front of the bear in the confrontation. Nothing that I can recall.

Box Office Mojo: In the commentary, you say An Unfinished Life looks particularly dramatic in retrospect. Can you explain your comments?

Lasse Hallstrom: I wanted to convey a strong sentiment and not cross the line. My ambition is to stay away from sentimentality. It's hard to stay on the right side of that line but I still want [to express] something positive. It's a low-key story. It might be slow to some people. But it stays alive and I like the performances—I particularly like Becca [Gardner's performance as the granddaughter]. I am proud of it.

Box Office Mojo: Composer Deborah Lurie's musical score is enchanting. How did you find her?

Hallstrom: She came in late and she came back with a wonderfully subtle and supportive score. That end cue is just wonderful work. I really admire that girl. The way she did it captures forgiveness for me. It so strongly conveys the idea of the film.

Box Office Mojo: An Unfinished Life ends as it begins, with Mitch and Einar on the ranch, but Mitch's health has deteriorated and he talks about being buried. Are we to assume he's going to die?

Hallstrom: I don't think he dies. He has some life left. I think they have a continuous life.


• Review - An Unfinished Life

• 1/18/06 - Renaissance Man: An Interview with Lasse Hallstrom