Transcending Tribeca: Magnus Martens of Jackpot
Tasha Robinson recently visited 2012’s Tribeca Film Festival, which runs in Manhattan from April 19-29. The majority of films screening at Tribeca are independently produced, premièring at Tribeca, and seeking the distribution deals that could bring them to theater, cable, or home video. For this series of film focus features, Tasha spoke with the filmmakers behind her absolute favorite Tribeca premières, the ones she’d most like to see picked up for major release post-Tribeca. Magnus Martens’ Norweigan black-comedy crime thriller Jackpot had its world première on Saturday, April 21. The film opened in Norway in 2011, but is looking for American distribution. The film does have an official site and a Facebook page, though both are in Norwegian.
At a post-screening Q&A for the American première of the Norwegian crime thriller Jackpot, director Magnus Martens and star Henrik Mestad almost seemed at odds. Martens was serious, even grim, as he explained his concerns that many of the verbal gags in his Coen brothers-inspired comedy just weren’t coming across in English. Mestad, who plays a police inspector trying to get to the bottom of a mass murder at a strip club/sex shop on the Norway/Sweden border, laughed off Martens’ concerns, characterized him as “very, very nervous all the time, very pessimistic,” and did an impression of Martens vibrating with sleepless tension, to general hilarity from the audience. When Martens talked about trying to find the rhythm of the film in editing, and tinkering endlessly with the ending, Mestad claimed Martens had once called him at 3 a.m., half in a swoon, to say “Maybe it’s you. Maybe your character was the murderer all along!” (Martens denied this.) And when an audience member asked about specific jokes that didn’t translate, Martens said there turned out to be more than he thought—the audience didn’t laugh at all at the verbal bits he found funniest, which “just went through the window.” Mestad just scolded him: “That’s a bad thing to say to an audience! Tell them it’s even much more funny in English!”
In spite of the differing approaches—Martens took the questioning very seriously, Mestad clowned and joked with the audience about Sweden’s impression of Norway as a stupid but unaccountably rich little brother in need of protection, guidance, and fleecing—both men came across as comfortable old friends. They’d worked together before, on Martens’ previous film, 2003’s United, and they participated together in an improv process to build the characters around a story idea from breakout Norwegian author and screenwriter Jo Nesbø. Mestad’s character starts the film in an interrogation room with Oscar (Kyrre Hellum), who was found in unconscious in the sex shop, clutching a shotgun and surrounded by eight corpses. Under Mestad’s unconventional, sometimes playful, sometimes bizarre questioning, Hellum surrenders an unlikely comic story about the three ex-cons who pulled him into their soccer betting pool, won 1.7 million kroner, then decided to wipe each other out to take the entire pot. Martens describes the Coen brothers as a particular influence on his dark, bloody, hilarious comedy, which features a great deal of tearing around Norway trying to dispose of corpses even before the sex-shop massacre.
In this later interview, without Mestad, Martens was more upbeat and hopeful about the film’s overseas chances; word of mouth has been positive, and even if some of the verbal quirks don’t translate, the dumb-criminals/bad-choices dynamic, familiar from the Coens, Guy Ritchie films, and many others plays perfectly, and Oscar’s haplessness in the middle of his over-the-top situations makes him an endlessly hilarious lead. Tasha spoke to Martens about working in a sex-toy-rich environment, getting funding for a genre picture in Norway, and whether his dark comic thriller has anything in common with United, a romantic comedy revolving around soccer fandom.
The A.V. Club: The production company you were working with, Fantefilm, produced 2006’s Cold Prey, which has been credited with setting off the wave of genre films currently dominating Norwegian cinema. Do you see this film as part of a movement or a scene?
Magnus Martens: In a way, but I think that’s more like a coincidence, ’cause there is a big focus on Norway right now—Scandinavia, perhaps, as well—where we tend to do genre films. But also, we have to deal with our signature, with our heritage, so I don’t think people recognize everything that we do. They just recognize our genre films. I like that we do it a little bit differently, in a way. For Fantefilm, it’s a strong focus on genre, so we made this film, but we didn’t know what genre to call it. I knew I wanted to make a dark comedy, a crime comedy, but that’s an impossible sell in Norwegian cinemas.
AVC: You spoke in the Q&A about your fear that some of the humor doesn’t translate, but so much of the film seems universal: the humor of the dumb criminals, the bad decisions, the over-the-top violence. A really funny, really violent crime comedy should be an easy sell in American cinemas.
MM: Yeah, but you have to remember, it’s a small country. We have about 5 million people there, and selling 152,000 tickets, that’s a big success in Norway. And we were very afraid that we couldn’t sell more than 10,000 tickets if we went out and said, “This is a black comedy.” So we had to sort of find for ourselves just how to sell the film. You can learn from your test screenings. We put on questions toward the end, “What kind of genre do you think this is?” Ninety percent of the audience said, “Action comedy.” I went, “Action?” [Laughs.] But you know, I think it’s the same thing with Snatch and those kinds of films: There’s not much action in them, but they’re regarded as action films. It’s snappy dialogue, everything moves fast, it’s criminals and gangsters, so I think people’s perception is, “Okay, this is an action-comedy,” which is fine for me.
AVC: It did already open in Norway, right?
MM: Yeah, it opened just before Christmas.
AVC: How did it end up doing?
MM: Eh… okay. We hoped for more, really. But I guess it was just a little bit of bad timing, in a way, just before Christmas. And also, I don’t know if you heard about the Utøya thing in Norway. That was last summer, almost a year ago, and that was a big case where 77 young people were killed on an island. So it was kind of difficult because we knew we had violence in our film, we knew we had guns and everything, so we’re not sure or anything, but there was some focus on that. I don’t think it helped us.
AVC: What are the plans at this point for international release? Do you have distributors, or are you still in the process of looking for distributors?
MM: We are looking for distributors. We have a sales agent who’s working really hard, so there’s a lot of interest, but nothing sealed yet. There’s also a lot of interest for remakes, which I personally would like to see. [Laughs.] Just to see how that would happen. But we’re sort of hoping for a sale here in the States, for England, for Australia. But we don’t know if it’s gonna be on cinemas. Headhunters sort of paved the way, and Troll Hunter has paved the way for us, so there is some focus on Norwegian films right now. There’s also Turn Me On, Dammit!, which is a major film, but I don’t know whether it was in cinemas.
AVC: You described your previous film, United, as a “romantic football comedy,” which seems really far from this. Are there things that link that film and this for you as a director, in terms of style or approach?
MM: Comedy-wise, I think, just focusing really hard on the characters and character comedy. I also had Henrik [Mestad] in both films. I think it’s comedy and characters, really.
AVC: How did Jackpot start for you? Where did it first develop?
MM: Everything happened because I came with a story to Martin [Sundland], one of the producers. It was a crime comedy about a bank heist, which he liked very well. But he came to me because Jo Nesbø was blowing up at that time; he was really, really big. And Martin really wanted to buy one of his books and make a film, but he said no to everything, everything. Then Jo came to him with a story called “Twelve” which he wanted to make into a film. It was really just a story he imagined as a film; it’s not published or anything. And it was this story of a scruffy gang of guys who’d won far too much money. [Laughs.] So I immediately started working on that one.
AVC: How did making United in 2003 vs. making this almost 10 years later differ for you in terms of getting funding, or working with the Norwegian film scene? Is it any easier or harder these days?
MM: Funding films in Norway is… It’s hard regardless. I think we make between 20 and 25 films a year. Getting funding from the government is really, really hard. They sort of aim for, I don’t know, quality cinema projects. [Laughs.] Not projects like ours. So we had a hard time getting financing. That goes for more genre films as well. But it was just a matter of going on and don’t give up, really. We got funding from Sweden, and publishing houses. It was easier for me when we first started shooting, because I believed I must look confident and everything. And it’s not that I hadn’t been working for 10 years. I’d been working nonstop. I have been very, very lucky, doing loads and loads and loads of television commercials. So for me, it was a far easier experience.
AVC: The bio described you as “one of the most established commercial directors in Norway, as well as one of the top TV comedy writers and directors working in the country today.” How do you feel about that description?
MM: [Laughs.] I must have written it myself. No, but I guess it’s kind of true, because we do have a good tradition for comedy in Norway. And our humor is closer to English humor, I guess? We always look to England for inspiration. And there’s a lot of comedy on television, and in commercials as well. So in that sense, it’s just an ever-going film school for me. Doing TV. Just keeping writing and keeping directing and getting better at comedy. Just build confidence, because comedy is so hard. I mean, either it’s funny or it’s not, and you have to be analytical about it. Just saying how you have to go for gut feeling So it’s hard, it’s really difficult.
AVC: You talked in the Q&A about tinkering with different ways of cutting the endings to bring out one story or another. In the same way, you could tinker a lot with the comic timing. Some directors talk about finding a film more in the editing room than on the set. Would you describe yourself as doing that?
MM: No, I mean, I guess all films in a way find themselves in the editing room. Perhaps some films find themselves more? [Chuckles.] But this was pretty set. I mean, this story… We couldn’t fuck around too much, because the structure was there, and the way we told the story was there. So we didn’t do many things in altering the story or the storyline at all. It was more just a matter of timing, I guess, and just finding… We really struggled with music, for example, which was so hard to do. Because in a comedy like this, you’re afraid people won’t get the jokes, so you want music to help. So we went in one direction, and people just didn’t laugh at all. Even though the cut was just exactly the same, the music was comedic, and that just irritated people, I think. So the moment we went very, very serious with the music, and just took the characters seriously, and the situation seriously, the jokes and the punchlines and everything fell right in place.
AVC: As set and patterned as the plot is, you’ve still said a lot of the dialogue was improv. What sort of things did the actors bring to the characters, in terms of interpreting them?
MM: Quite a bit. And that’s because I really wanted them in quite early, when I was almost done with the script. I took them in and we just played around with characters, played around with scenes, and I filmed everything, and watched every single second of everything I filmed. Just hours and hours of playing around. I took out stuff and lines and gags and everything that I really liked, and put it back into the script. So in that sense, they really helped me sort of form the characters. And it gave them a sense of trust, and they were very confident about their characters when we started shooting. And something like the interrogations—I knew Henrik was good by that point, and I knew what he’s capable of, so I didn’t make an effort in the script to make any jokes or anything. I just played it very straight, because I knew he was playing it. So the moment he came in and we started rehearsing and doing improv, everything just fell into place, really.
AVC: The look of the film is very sharp-edged, with bright colors and busy design. What were you going for in the look of the film?
MM: We wanted to go for something that didn’t look too Norwegian, in a way. I wanted it to be a universe of its own. Because I’ve seen so many films in Norway that try to mimic real life, how it is actually outside the window. So we wanted to try to do something a little more timeless, so we could give the sense that this story couldn’t have happened 10 years ago, or whatever. I mean, we wanted it to be very gritty, especially at Oscar’s place, yeah. I really do like the colors. I think it could be very easy just to make it sort of grey-ish, but being a comedy, I just felt the need to have some colors in it.
AVC: Was it difficult getting that kind of color saturation in the sex shop, where the lighting level seems very low and there’s a lot of neon? Usually it’s hard to shoot that kind of thing without blowing out the camera.
MM: No, it wasn’t that difficult really. We didn’t do a lot of grading afterwards, because everything is there. All the neon lights, all the colors, they are all set. Because there was so much color there, and we just put in exactly the colors we wanted. So we looked to a lot of sort of ’80s films to catch the neon look, and the sleazy… call it the sleazy L.A. look.
AVC: Was the sex shop an actual place or a set?
MM: We built it from a gas station that had been abandoned. They’d just moved out.
AVC: There’s so much visual humor in that set, where the characters are constantly pushing their way through aisles packed with horrible-looking blow-up dolls and sex toys. What was it like doing the set-dressing?
MM: The first day was just horrible. It was hell. You could not turn around without looking at a vagina or something. It was just hell. But after one day, it was the most normal thing ever. We bought, from a sex shop in Sweden, all the films and everything, because they went bankrupt. So we just bought, very cheaply, loads and loads of films and sex stuff. But also having all these posters of naked girls… [Laughs.] That’s a problem, because there could be copyright issues. If one of those girls actually sees themselves, they could sue us. So we had to make sure that we blurred everything.
AVC: Speaking of set dressing, did you have opportunity for reshoots? On things like the axe scene in particular, cleaning that set afterward for a second take would have been an incredible misery.
MM: [Laughs.] Yeah, they had to do… We were supposed to shoot some scenes there the next day, after the… we called it “the bloodbath.” But there was no other way to do it than just mess up the whole place, really. So people were quite angry with us, because they had to work all night just to get it back to where it was. But this was also a house that we knew we could do whatever we wanted to, because the people who lived there had just moved out, and the house was going to be burned down.
AVC: You spoke during the Q&A about your verbal humor not translating at all, not coming across in the subtitles. Is it hard sitting in the theater when a laugh line comes up in the original language, and nobody reacts?
MM: It was quite hard on the first screening. Tonight, I think it’s going to be easier. Also because I know it’s really, really hard to translate and subtitle. It’s virtually impossible to translate every joke that’s there. But I also think foreign audiences do understand more than I thought, just by context. So I’m cooler now.
AVC: Speaking of things that may not translate, you’ve said that the original title of the film translates to French Toast, but it’s also a pun in Norwegian.
MM: Yes, Arme Riddere, it means “poor knights.” But also French Toast. So in Norway it went well, but obviously we had to find something else here. [Laughs.]
AVC: You started off at London Film School. Why there in particular?
MM: That was just a matter of economy, really, because the Norwegian government are giving loans to students on that school. It’s a private school so it’s quite expensive without having support from the government. So that made it an easy choice, and I wanted to see London, and I liked English films and English comedy.
AVC: You’ve said the Coen brothers are an influence on this, and a lot of people have suggested that it feels like a Quentin Tarantino film as well. Was he an inspiration?
MM: Not directly. I like his writing and I love his films, but I don’t really watch them over and over again. But I think it has something to do with those films. When I went to film school, that was around the time when Pulp Fiction came out, and that blew everyone’s minds. That was mind-blowing. So it’s probably a bigger influence than I was admitting to myself at the time.
AVC: That came in the Q&A of a question specifically about which American filmmakers inspired you. Are you more interested in any other filmmakers who aren’t American?
MM: I have a strange fascination for a Finnish director called Renny Harlin. [Laughs.] But that was more because he was Finnish and he went to the States and did films like [The Adventures Of] Ford Fairlane and Die Hard 2. So basically, I want to be him. And I really did like his earlier action films, like Cliffhanger. It’s been a few years now since he’s made a film I really have enjoyed, but I just love the action films in the beginning of his career.
AVC: So ideally from here, would you like to get out of TV and commercials and just do features? And do like big American action features?
MM: I would love to do an American action comedy. I think that’s where my heart is. I mean, I love comedy, but I also love bringing in another genre. Bringing in a romantic comedy or an action comedy, or a crime whatever. There needs to be some comedy. But an action comedy? That would be a dream.
AVC: For decades, American filmmaking was heavily controlled by a film-industry code that said crime had to be punished at the end of a feature, and criminals shouldn’t be heroes. Movies with endings like this one’s were rare until really just a few decades ago. Does Norway have any equivalent? Would this be an unusual plot for a Norwegian film at all?
MM: No, but you know, we’re a darker set of people, in a way. [Laughs.] So we’re not that dependent on happy endings, or punishing the right people or anything. We are a little bit darker and more twisted, I think. But yeah, I guess you’re talking sort of Ocean’s Eleven and those sorts where you root for the criminals and gangsters? Call Oscar a hero or not, but we need to root for one person, anyway, and this guy is the one who was pushed into a corner. So in that sense, he’s the hero of the film.