LITTLE ROCK Niels Arden Oplev is best known for directing the popular 2009 Swedish language adaptation of the late Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The movie, which starred Noomi Rapace as a computer hacker who teams with a disgraced journalist to find a missing woman, got Americans to forget their phobia of subtitles and inspired an English-language remake three years later.
Since the release of the film, Oplev, who’s Danish, has been working steadily in the States. He has helmed episodes of the CBS series Unforgettable, about a detective (Poppy Montgomery) who can’t forget anything that has happened to her, and his new movie, Dead Man Down, opens today.
“It’s funny because The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is influenced by American cinema, but in some ways it seems like it has influenced American cinema back,” Oplev says. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is one of the biggest grossing European films in a long, long time. You’d have to go back to La Femme Nikita or something. It made $120 million, or something. Of course, you have a film that functions well and has a good story and has an amazing locomotion to pull it, which is the popularity of the book. It kind of exploded as we were filming. People forget what language it’s in. It was our choice to make it a big, widescreen American film with a The Silence of the Lambs kind of feel to it.”
Dead Man Down is a New York-set thriller written by Fringe mastermind J.H. Wyman about a low-key hit man (Colin Farrell) who is coerced into killing a drunk driver who has disfigured a beautician (Rapace) in an accident. The two main characters “meet” because the windows of their apartments face each other.
The new film reworks some of the visual strategies that Alfred Hitchcock used in Rear Window. Oplev and production designer Niels Sejer, another veteran of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, sought locations that could make scenes believable, but weren’t as immediately recognizable as the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building.
“When we started looking at the Lower East Side, we started looking at a New York that looks unusual. I think that the New York in Dead Man Down - sure, there’s a lot of iconic shots - part of it looks like eastern Europe. Being an immigrant myself, it’s a really cool thing to do,” Oplev says.
“One year and three months ago, I invented something called ‘jogging research’ in New York City. It was really cold, and I was jogging around the East Village and at the same time looking for locations. I wanted [the film] to be more local than New York. Those buildings exist and they’re situated so that you have Wall Street behind one apartment, and on the other side you have the uptown and the East River. After that we shot on a sound stage, but all the stuff in the wider shots is there.”
Oplev giddily recalls reuniting with Rapace, who has since gone on to star in the English-language hits Prometheus and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
“We have a very close relationship working together, kind of like a sister and a brother. I knew that she would give a great eccentricness to that character, that she would take it and do something cool,” Oplev says. “It was also great to work with her on a character that’s quite far away from Lisbeth in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. At the same time, here’s a woman that looks made up and has perfect nails, all fragile, and then shows up with strength and fury and anger in her.”
Through his work in Danish TV, Oplev also discovered other breakout stars. For example, fellow Dane Mads Mikkelsen, who memorably tormented James Bond in Casino Royale, became a star in Europe after playing the lead in Unit 1, a series Oplev directed.
“There has to be a key between the character and that actor that brings out depth and elements like mystery and stuff like that. Not any actor can play any part. Of course, other actors could play the same part, but it would be different. The actor brings some of his or her own inner life into that character. I’m looking for something unpredictable. You never become finished with them. It’s not like what you see is what you get. They keep something to themselves that you can’t get,” Oplev says.
“I knew [Rapace] was a strong actor, but she was so damned good-looking,” he says, laughing. “I did a two hour rehearsal with her and I saw the amazing strength she has and that unpredictableness. It’s like she’s carrying around a hand grenade and somebody took the pin out. You can’t find it. You don’t know when it’s going to explode, and that’s very entertaining. Noomi has that when she’s on the screen.”
Oplev is grateful for the success he has had in Europe and is quick to note that Denmark is exporting a lot of its talent abroad. Oscar-winner Susanne Bier, who directed Things We Lost in the Fire and In a Better World (which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film), is putting the finishing touches on her film Serena, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.
“Danish TV and film is really well respected,” Oplev says. “Every other production gets bought for remakes in America right now. It’s like a golden age for Scandinavian film.”
When contacted for this story, Oplev was in North Carolina shooting the first episode of the television adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome. Steven Spielberg is producing the miniseries about a small town that has become surrounded by a mysterious barrier.
“Scandinavia in general is a hard place to do sci-fi because the budget is not quite for it. We operate on quite a modest budget for film. Science fiction is always kind of expensive. It is a character-driven series with a scifi component. It’s not quite totally visual effects. There’s a lot of that in the first episode because the dome comes down,” he says.
Similarly, Dead Man Down has a finale that is literally explosive and is a bit too elaborate for a European budget. “That’s one of the reasons I came to this country, to do that. It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I’m very proud of those sequences. I had a great team. I said to them, ‘This is a question of honor. I can’t show this film in Scandinavia if these sequences are not awesome.’”
MovieStyle, Pages 38 on 03/08/2013
Print Headline: Danish director at work in U.S.