Growing up I was obsessed with commercials and movies and always wanted to work with it in some way. I first started out as a production assistant at my cousin’s production company in Stockholm painting backdrops and making coffee, and then I started to assist a few directors in Sweden. Eventually, I felt I had to just jump in and shoot something. I’ve always felt learning by doing has always been the best way for me.
My first shoot was a series of spec commercials which I financed and wrote with a friend, and it was basically just three crazy scenarios that I had wanted to get out of my system and put on film. I had no clue what the payoff was going to be. The first spot turned out to be a spec commercial for Chiquita bananas. It was about a guy on a subway train sitting eating a banana and another guy walks up to him with a hypnotic guitar which starts to transfix this guy and at the last moment he sort of escapes being mugged or killed. We thought it was so brilliant! You know, “Why has nobody come up with this idea? This is excellent!’’ So I took this spec commercial to Chiquita and said “I think I’ve made a masterpiece for you guys.” So we put it in the VCR and showed it to these eight executives of Chiquita in Stockholm. They turned to me and said “If you show this anywhere we’ll sue your ass! We’ll come after you! We do not sell drugs. This has nothing to do with bananas or being drugged, and you can’t show this!” I was flabbergasted because I thought if we did something that captivates people why wouldn’t they love it? Years later I came to realize there’s a whole brand message that companies have to protect – that concept clicked late for me [laughs].
Yes, yes. I guess my first shoot was this trilogy, “the Bond trilogy” [laughs]. The second spot I wrote was another spec spot with a couple shagging in the back of a car and death comes up behind the car and starts pushing the car down this slope heading towards a big highway filled with cars. We said “This could be pretty good for Volvo because it’s a safe car! We’ll put some pay off at the end about double air bags! This is brilliant, why hasn’t anybody at Volvo thought of this!” So we went to the ad agency and we said “You can broadcast this thing for free!” And the guy turned to me and was like “Are you nuts? Volvo and sex do not belong together. What the hell are you doing? You can’t show this to anyone! We will sue you!” [laughs].
The third spec spot was for Milk. It was about a masochistic piano teacher who keeps slamming the lid on the student’s hands every time he plays the wrong note. The tagline was “Milk for strong bones”. I’m really proud of the spots because they were so me and so pure as creative expression. I got lucky as I felt they really defined my humor and style. We sent all three spots to Shots magazine, and they actually featured the spots. A lot of great press followed.
Yes. This all happened in the 90’s, so the timing was right. Shots magazine at that time was such an instrumental discovery tool for ad agencies and was really important for directors trying to break into commercials. When our spec spots were featured in Shots I started getting calls from Germany and Italy a few days later. It opened the floodgates, because a lot of those countries were taking chances on new directors at that time. The wackier the better was popular! The absurdity of the humor, the quirkiness of the situation and the casting all seemed to fit a particular style.
I think the most important thing for me personally is my treatment writing. I think I’m one of the last guys who still writes his own treatments [laughs]. I would love for somebody to write them for me, but writing is where I come up with my ideas, and it’s where everything clicks for me. My ritual is to sit down and let the flood of ideas flow, you know just type, type, type, type and not censor it in any way. I think my treatment writing is probably my most important tool actually. Casting is also important because when I feel like I have the right cast the story unravels by itself. I feel the character and his performance informs where to place the camera or how to tell the story. I think when I just started directing commercials I used the actors more or less like puppets and said “lift your hand there” and ”smile with your left side”, but the more experience I had with actors the more I learned to really tune in with them. I learned how to approach the talent in a different way.
Persistence. Every job has its own challenges, so I think new lessons are learned often. There is always something new that you stumble upon and you realize what your strengths or weaknesses are throughout your career no matter how much experience you have.
I’m not much for regrets to be honest with you. I wouldn’t redo anything about my first shoot. There was a reason why the spots were so pure and why they came out the way they did. What I learned from them informed the next project, so I applied that knowledge, and hopefully the next one was slightly better.
I think it’s important to have persistence, a clear vision, and be able to communicate your ideas. Being a little bit stubborn but still being able to consider other people’s ideas and use them when they are good.
There were quite a few. Members of my family and friends have always influenced me and pushed me to do what I believe in. Most of Spielberg’s movies in the 80′s, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver was a huge influence on a filmic level, as well as Roy Anderson’s A Swedish Love Story, Alan Parker’s Midnight Express and Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire.
My wife and kids give me all my energy. Without them I wouldn’t have the energy or desire for the other stuff. My family is extremely important to me ,and my wife and kids are extremely supportive of what I do. When I’m in the middle of a project and I have the blindfolds on, the whole family says “let him be, just let him be by himself” but when I’m not on a project I don’t have a problem shutting off. Some directors are great at juggling multiple projects, but I like fewer projects so I can be more focused. It’s the most fun for me as a director when I can dedicate more time to fewer things.
I think you need all of them together to be honest with you. There are a lot of things that need to collide at the same time. I think the trilogy of commercials that started my career were a combination of me meeting my inspiring producer, in addition to feeling like I have to get this beast out of my system. But then we also were lucky to get into Shots magazine, so luck played a big part of it as well. Maybe in the beginning of your career luck helps you break in, but as you progress in your career, talent and connections will probably help you a bit more.
I definitely think it was easier to break in when I started out as opposed to breaking in now. When I did those spec commercials it was hard because you had to make deals with the labs, get expensive film stock, you know it cost a fortune to do those things. You can make a feature film now for what my first spec spots cost. But there were not as many directors and production companies back then.
First of all work, work, work. You will always learn from what you are doing. It’s important to write your own treatments and scripts. Even if you don’t eventually write the scripts yourself, I think it’s very important to try and write your own ideas, because they will be pure coming straight from you as opposed to waiting for someone else to deliver you ideas. That way you also know what you are good at and what comes from your heart. Trial and error is very important.
The title is The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, and it stars Shia LaBeouf , Evan Rachel Wood, Mads Mikkelsen, John Hurt, Melissa Leo, Rupert Grint , Til Schweiger and Vincent D’Onofrio. The script was circling around for quite a few years and a lot of directors had been trying to get it made. I loved the craziness and the insanity of the script. It reminded me about my own personal journey when I traveled around the world trying to find myself. I was in my early twenties, and I jumped on a plane not having any pure reason other than trying to experience life. So I connected to that part of the story since it was so similar to my own life. I kept track of the project and eventually it became available. They were looking for a director, and I went in to pitch it, and I got the job.
It’s a wild romance about a young, pretty naive guy who jumps on a plane to Bucharest, Romania and sort of stumbles into a love triangle with a local female musician who has a dark past that is following her. The movie is about the pursuit of love even if it might cost you your life.
It definitely felt larger in scope compared to commercials since I was prepping the movie for almost a year and a half. I was very well prepared going into it, and I think that commercials are sometimes so quick and rapid that you don’t have the time to prepare yourself enough. But with the movie I had the time to prepare and cast properly. I went down and did multiple recces in Bucharest and traveled around and did a lot of tests, and you never really get that on commercials. You don’t have the same rehearsal time and stuff like that, and so I probably felt more prepped for the movie than I did on some of my commercial work.
Professionally, my first feature film The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman getting into competition at the Berlin Film Festival has been one of my greatest achievements. Being able to take the time to make a very personal film with amazing talent is something I am very proud of.
Director / MJZ