Renaissance Man
Director Lasse Hallström spoke to Box Office Mojo about his first full-fledged comedy, the Venetian romp Casanova, starring Heath Ledger as the famous lover, and his career during a telephone interview from New York. Having recently shot Hoax, with Richard Gere, the director of Chocolat, What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules was plainspoken, answering charges that his movies are too sentimental, denouncing the New Puritanism and offering praise for Robert Redford and Tobey Maguire.

His voice may be soft, but in it one hears the sound of an artist who relishes—not agonizes over—the difficult details of making a picture. Some of Hollywood's most evocative, powerful movies in the last 15 years are his and, at 59, the native of Stockholm, who retains a Swedish accent, is clearly focused on creating motion pictures that enlighten, uplift and entertain.

Box Office Mojo: Was Casanova's ebullient hot air balloon scene, with lovers floating above Venice, in the script from the start?

Lasse Hallstrom: Yes, it was. I imagined that would be a sort of emotional moment. Most of it ended up being created by computer. The only thing that was real was the basket and the actors in it. It was really a challenge to get the aerial views because they don't allow you to fly over Venice. There were period problems, too [Casanova takes place in 1753] and some bureaucracy to cut through. It was very hard to make that scene seem realistic.

Box Office Mojo: What's the audience reaction to Casanova?

Hallstrom: I have only seen it with one test audience at the Venice Film Festival, and it was exhilarating. The audience was wonderful. I still don't know how a paying audience would react.

Box Office Mojo: Music is an important part of your movies. Why did you choose Alexandre Desplat for the Casanova score?

Hallstrom: I had liked his score of Girl with a Pearl Earring, and that's really it. I met him, I liked him, and he did some cues in the style of the old master [composers] but he mostly scored from their original music.

Box Office Mojo: Having made a movie based on Annie Proulx's novel, The Shipping News, and with Heath Ledger getting more attention for Proulx's story-based Brokeback Mountain than for Casanova, are you fed up hearing about Brokeback Mountain?

Hallstrom: Not at all. I really, really admire that film, and I admire his work in it. It was such a strong expression and, for me, such an honest way of telling that story. I think it will be good for Casanova to get some spillover from Heath's attention for Brokeback Mountain. I admire that film.

Box Office Mojo: Any thoughts on Christmas Day openings, since Casanova and The Shipping News both opened on Christmas?

Hallstrom: It's hard for me to even get into that. I trust the people who handle these things. I know my partner [producer Leslie Holleran*] is not a big fan of Christmas Day releases.

Box Office Mojo: Shortly before shooting The Shipping News, Judi Dench lost her husband and, later, she reportedly credited you with helping her to work through the grief. What did you say to her?

Hallstrom: I don't remember. At that point, it was good for her to have the distraction. I think I really try to create an atmosphere where actors feel like they can contribute at all levels to the shoot, and then I help create a broad range of choices. The key for me is to see to it that they are comfortable. It's a very vulnerable position to be in, so whatever it takes for them—improvisation if that's needed—to be relaxed. We're all vulnerable and we need a lot of reassurance, and it's important to stay kind and positive and not give up. I am also pretty picky. I keep shooting. It's a combination.

Box Office Mojo: Is it true you were the fourth director on The Cider House Rules?

Hallstrom: Before me, there was a Canadian and there was [director Michael] Winterbottom and—yes, I think I was the fourth. I don't think [the author and screenwriter] John Irving would mind too much if I told you we had collaborated on that script, and [Mr. Hallstrom's producer] Leslie Holleran and I got together with John and changed it radically. Throughout the course of our commitment, it really changed around. It's John Irving's story, but he was helped through collaboration.

Box Office Mojo: What is Leslie Holleran's role in making your movies?

Hallstrom: She is my creative and producing partner and co-polisher of scripts.

Box Office Mojo: How did Holleran contribute to Casanova?

Hallstrom: She polished the script, and she helped find Jeffery Hatcher, the writer. She developed it from something that didn't have much interest to many of us into this. And she's organizer and line producer—she has that range.

Box Office Mojo: How do you respond to the charge that your movies are too sentimental?

Hallstrom: I can see why I get that response. I've been interested in pushing for sentiment and I may have steered into sentimentality—I think I may have gotten a little too influenced by the American acceptance of the symphonic score with The Cider House Rules—but I'm very interested in being able to move an audience. This is key. I refuse to see myself as a sentimentalist. My Life as a Dog was very gently scored. Chocolat is sort of a distant cousin to Casanova. That polished style is something I'm trying to get away from but I admit I'm a bit tidy and I still like the polished look, with camera work that really supports the performance. I've been working with [photography director] Oliver Stapleton and I'm very much in sync with him. I still want to learn the conventional approach. [Mr. Hallstrom's upcoming movie] Hoax [starring Richard Gere] may be an example of a wilder and crazier, less formal approach.

Box Office Mojo: Your pictures have been restricted by arbitrary Motion Picture Association of America standards, which prohibited breasts in The Cider House Rules and gave a 'restricted' rating to Casanova for a suggestive scene. Do you see Puritanism in movies getting worse or better?

Hallstrom: It's getting worse. Had it not been for [singer Janet] Jackson's Super Bowl [incident], we would have had a 'parental guidance' rating [on Casanova] for sure—and it was already getting ridiculous. I remember the ridiculous hours we spent trying to negotiate the number of thrusts in [Charlize Theron's and Tobey Maguire's sex scene in] The Cider House Rules. Generations of American Puritanism have held everybody back.

Box Office Mojo: Why did you move to America?

Hallstrom: For the adventure. In 1987, I think I had the fantasy of becoming an American filmmaker. Doors and possibilities opened for an American adventure. I was hooked. I had kids who went to school here and had roots. And, then, suddenly I had no strong [pangs] for Sweden. We go [to Sweden] for three months of the year and it doesn't feel as dramatic when we have to go back [to the United States]. I may soon become an American citizen with dual citizenship.

Box Office Mojo: Would you work again with Cider House Rules lead Tobey Maguire?

Hallstrom: There is a project I want him to consider. He's a lovely actor. I watched him again in Spider-Man 2—such an expressive man.

Box Office Mojo: An Unfinished Life's Robert Redford?

Hallstrom: Yes, of course. We talk about wanting to do it again. He's a true gentleman. To work with him was such an honor.

Box Office Mojo: Chocolat and Shipping News writer Robert Nelson Jacobs?

Hallstrom: I really loved working with him, too. What he did with Chocolat and especially the rewrite on The Shipping News was great.

Box Office Mojo: With whom would you most want to work?

Hallstrom: Leonardo DiCaprio. I made the mistake of bailing out of a movie I was supposed to do with him, and it was a stupid decision—the movie was Catch Me If You Can—and my only consolation is watching the film and seeing what Steven Spielberg did with it. It's a great film. At the time, I was shooting The Shipping News and [Miramax founder Harvey] Weinstein didn't like the idea of me going off, though I had the contractual right. He bullied me into not doing it.

Box Office Mojo: What was the first movie you saw in theaters?

Hallstrom: It's a blur. There were a lot of Charlie Chaplin films in the late 1940s and 1950s, and he was certainly an idol of mine.

Box Office Mojo: Whose movies have influenced your work?

Hallstrom: Early Chaplin. John Cassevetes. Annie Hall. Milos Forman [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest] and his earlier [European] comedies.

Box Office Mojo: Is there one idea that serves as the standard by which you judge whether to make a movie?

Hallstrom: In the end, I can't see when I will stop caring for character—and I am less interested in plot for some reason than in character-driven movies. It has to have characters that have some life and they have to be characters who are layered that I connect to based on experiences I've had. It's about having true stories with characters or range.

Box Office Mojo: Hoax concerns an author who sells a fake biography about Howard Hughes. Does it have characters you care about?

Hallstrom: They're flawed but I do think they show many sides. They're not stereotypes. The script has an interest in psychology. The dialog is alive and real.

Box Office Mojo: Do you track box office?

Hallstrom: No, though I admit I glanced at the opening weekend for Casanova. I'm just now realizing how easy it is to look it up on the Internet.

Box Office Mojo: What caused An Unfinished Life's theatrical release delay?

Hallstrom: My guess is that they were trying to position it, then they had movies with Leonardo one year. But I don't know why they waited.

Box Office Mojo: Will you be working with the Weinsteins again now that they've formed The Weinstein Company?

Hallstrom: I can imagine working with them again. We have buried the hatchet.

Box Office Mojo: What is your greatest reward in making movies?

Hallstrom: Confirmation, through laughter, that I am not as alone as I thought I was. I started out doing films that confirmed I was not alone in having the emotions of an outsider. I realize I am not as much of an outsider as I thought.

*Producer Leslie Holleran is not related to the author of this article.


• Review - Casanova

• Review - An Unfinished Life

Human Touch - An Interview with Rachel Portman