His Life as a Director

Visiting Minneapolis for just a few hours to chat up his film of John Irving's Cider House Rules, director Lasse Hallström says it was his goal to minimize the novel's "overly bizarre" elements--"to bring it down to a more realistic level." At the same time, Hallström's odd relationship to the project in its early stages bears some resemblance to the book itself--the tale of a grown orphan who inherits the labors of an unhealthy man (played in the movie by Michael Caine). "The first director who was supposed to make the movie, Philip Borsos [Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog], became deathly ill during pre-production," recalls Hallström, "and before he died, when he realized he couldn't do it, he asked me to do it. It's just so rewarding to know that I fulfilled his wish."

Even before Borsos and two subsequent would-be adapters became involved, Irving had expressed his own interest in employing the Swedish-born Hallström, who naturally seemed the perfect choice. After all, the director's much-beloved Swedish movie My Life as a Dog (which brought Hallström to the Twin Cities 12 years ago to promote a marathon run at U Film Society) bears a striking, even uncanny similarity to Cider House: Each observes the tragicomic efforts of a cloistered outsider to fit into two eccentric families, aided by a female who takes a compassionate interest in the protagonist's split personality. "Oh, that's true," gushes Hallström when I note the resilience of his style even on adaptations (Dog is based on the autobiographical novel by Reidar Jönsson). "I've always thought that What's Eating Gilbert Grape and My Life as a Dog were very similar, so I guess [Cider House] must be another sibling in that family."

In light of the filmmaker's sharp focus on family (see also his Something to Talk About and Once Around), it's no surprise to learn that Hallström--who resides with his wife Lena Olin in upstate New York--claims his own Swedish clan as an influence. In Stockholm, his father was a dentist who also happened to direct a series of obscure, distinctive verité documentaries, from which the young, movie-loving Hallström developed a realist aesthetic. In addition, the budding director (who shot his first 8mm opus at age 10) drew inspiration from the hard-edged narrative films of Milos Forman and John Cassavetes, and spent "every weekend" in awe of Charlie Chaplin, whose movies his family screened at home in tattered 16mm prints. "Chaplin was my idol," confesses Hallström, who carries a faint hint of the Little Tramp in his soberly boyish demeanor--at one point fretting that his favorite Swedish joke doesn't translate into English but laughing anyway. "[Chaplin] left a strong imprint with his blend of comedy and tragedy."

Achieving this mix without contrivance has long been Hallström's ambition. In 1987, apropos of the challenges in making My Life as a Dog, he told a San Diego critic that "my main worry was that I have a hang-up for sentimentality in my films, which made this story scary. Because there are real elements of sickness and death which you don't want to take advantage of sentimentally." So too The Cider House Rules could be described as a melodrama that seeks a documentary's distance--although, as the director suggests, achieving this was sometimes forbiddingly difficult. "It has even more sentiment than anything else I've done," he remarks of Cider House. "And that's dangerous territory for me, because I'm terrified of getting too sentimental on the screen. I just hope that my eagerness to find realism fights off any sign of pushing buttons or manipulating the audience. I don't mind sentiment--as long as it's not sentimentality."

Alas, The Cider House Rules too often succumbs to the Miramax formula of maudlin uplift, a condition not helped in the least by a musical score that slathers on the bathos like butter. "I think that 10 or 15 years ago I wouldn't have dared to put music in a movie," says Hallström. "Maybe I have changed throughout the years on this--I'm getting used to the American way of scoring, in a way. I usually favor scores that add a layer or a color or an irony, rather than supporting what you're going to see up there on the screen. I think [the Cider House] music partly does that."

Actually, what the film does far better is to strike a balance between the epic and the claustrophobic, the lush New England landscape and dimly lit interiors respectively approximating the grand sweep of time and the protagonist's stifling social life. Which is another way of saying that Hallström has an eye for humanity, rendering it on a scale that's at once intimate and expansive. Gazing from a top-floor suite at a chapped-looking stretch of Minneapolis under heavy construction, Hallström vividly recalls his first visit to our hamlet 12 years ago, when he felt the strong sense of having come home to Sweden in the midst of a long stateside PR tour. "It was spring and the birches were just...leaving, is that the right word? The leaves were just starting to come, and with all the birch trees and the sloping hills and the lakes, I really understood why the Swedish immigrants settled here."

 
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