Interview: Director Hannes Holm Meets ‘A Man Called Ove’

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CHICAGO – In 2012, Fredrik Backman released his Swedish novel called “En man som heter Ove.” It was published in English in 2013, and became a best seller. The book that delved into the life of a cranky old man is now a major Swedish movie, distributed in the U.S. by Chicago’s Music Box Films, and directed by Hannes Holm.

Holms is a veteran film director from Sweden, who started out as a comic actor on Swedish television. His third film, “Adam & Eva,” broke into European markets, but “A Man Called Ove” is his first worldwide release. The film is also Sweden’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the upcoming Oscars – which Holms calls “a lottery.” He spoke to last weekend, in anticipation of the U.S. release of the film on September 30th, 2016.

Bahar Pars and Rolf Lassgard in ‘A Man Called Ove’
Photo credit: Music Box Films You’ve spent a lot of your film career telling stories of ordinary lives put into a new circumstance, often outside their control. What was it about Fredrik Backman’s novel that seemed like it fit into your philosophy of storytelling?

Hannes Holm: At my first meeting to decide whether to direct the film, I said ‘it’s about a grumpy old man who meets a immigrant, who is very immigrant-ish, correct?’ When they confirmed that, I wasn’t interested at all in the story. And because it was a best selling book, I thought it was stupid to take something like that on at this point in my career – and people who love the book also are difficult critics. I turned it down.

But I read my free copy of the novel – I like free copies – and found myself crying over it and found elements that really interested me. The grumpy old man is an archetype, but in this story we could go into his brain, and discover where the grumpiness comes from. That’s when I got very interested in the project. What element caught you in particular?

Holm: It’s strange, but when I was reading, and my mind started traveling. I could see myself as a boy on a rainy day, rifling through my parent’s old record albums. It reminded me of their lives before they had me and my siblings, when they were so much in love, but their past remained silent to me through those albums and old photos.

When I read the book, and absorbed the flashbacks in it, suddenly I had words for that silence. We lived in similar semi-detached housing as Ove, and I saw the neighbors there again, sitting in our living room. It was a time when people interacted within those housing tracts, and it was very relatable for me. It didn’t matter whether they liked each other or not, they lived as neighbors. One of the major themes in the film is ‘…life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’ How does Ove’s life fit within that saying, and how do we learn from it?

Holm: First, there wasn’t anything, to him, in his life before his wife Sonja. And then, alone as an old man, there wasn’t anything in his life after Sonja. That is the conflict that he faces, and love becomes destructive to him. Love can become overused, and Ove can’t cope with it in his solitary life. When he meets his Iranian neighbor, totally unexpectedly, she teaches him to balance himself again, even though he was making ‘other plans.’

Ida Engvoll as Sonja in ‘A Man Called Ove’
Photo credit: Music Box Films Ove grew up in a emotionless household, without a mother. How do you think that affected his worldview as he got older, within the context of the novel and the film?

Holm: In Sweden, we have what is called ‘The Finnish Disease.’ It consists of not talking much, or at all. Ove’s father definitely had it, and that’s all he had after his mother died. He’s very ‘stone age’ when it comes to his own feelings. His wife Sonja brings him out of this emotional shell – that’s why is worldview began and ended with her. One of the traits that Ove had was to get things done perfectly in an imperfect world. What fascinates you about personalities like that, and where do you think it best suited Ove?

Holm: Actually, I’m impressed with people who think like that, and have their own way – everybody has something to learn from those types of people. This is why the novel was a classic story. In life, new thoughts and ideas always clash with the old world order and habits. When an immigrant comes into Ove’s life, who has no idea of what his world has become, does things like bring food to him, she doesn’t know that you never do that in Sweden. It was important to highlight this conflict. How did you know that Rolf Lassgard was your Ove, and what did he give the performance that was even more than you expected?

Holm: I started in comedy on television in the 1980s, and then I started to do films. I often use humor as a tool in my writing, and sometimes that works and sometimes it sits alone just as a funny line. Rolf is a dramatic actor, one of Sweden’s acting legends, and I had no idea if comedy that I added would work for him.

When I brought him on, I thought he could help me not just write funny lines, and I could help him be more comedic. It was a kind of balance. He was nervous about one scene – reading a book to children. I asked him, ‘you have three kids why is that difficult?’ But then I figured it out – the scene was funny. That wasn’t in his comfort zone. We helped each other. Everyone cast in the film seemed to have a grounding in their characters that made the story seem authentic. At what point in your filmmaking process as a director do you feel that the actors discover this truth?

Holm: The longer I’ve been a director, the less I have to ‘direct.’ The job is done in your casting. During that process, the best moment is when I don’t have to say that much, because I have met the man or woman who is right for the part. I bring them in, and talk to them, I don’t ‘direct’ them. I did direct Rolf Lassgard a bit in our initial casting sessions, to connect with him, but after that he knew what to do. Sonja [Ida Engvoll] was hard to cast, because she didn’t have much screen time, but had to be so important. The actor had her tools taken from her in a sense, but she did a perfect job. What other films of yours have been distributed in theaters in the United States, and how is Ove different from the others as far as breaking through to audiences beyond Sweden?

Hannes Holm in Chicago, Music Box Theatre
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Holm: Since I came from comedy, and did my first films based on that, I consider myself ‘local’ in Sweden, [laughs] so this is all pretty new. But my third film, ‘Adam & Eva,’ traveled a bit, and was very popular in Spain. It was even remade in Germany. But this film has exceeded everything, and I’m mature enough to consider it a bonus in my life. [laughs] There is a documentary coming to the Chicago International Film Festival called ‘The Swedish Theory of Love,’ which opines that a theory of life and human independence propagated by the government has now caused too ‘aloneness’ in Sweden. Is that theory within the novel and the film, in your opinion?

Holm: Yes. When I presented this film in Sweden, I actually referred to the documentary. It is a similar kind of story, that isolation, and I see it getting worse in the digital age. But I’m an optimist, and since I’m sitting here in America, at the Music Box Theatre, I feel like I’ve made a connection. It’s a proof of cosmic connection. What is the first thing you talk about when you talk about your love of filmmaking, and how does that love express itself in your finished films?

Holm: I got into film in an odd way – when I was 17 years old I participated in a Swedish film as an actor. I think every person at that age should get a role in a film, because during that time you want acceptance, and when you have a role in a film you become an important person. I think about that now, and that was my fantastic starting point. How did that play into your later career as a film director?

Holm: From that origin, I love filmmaking because it’s like harvesting as a farmer. I have a idea, I get the financing, I write the script and then cast and shoot and edit. Then there is opening night, and after that I get another idea. When I was younger, I didn’t like shooting part, because I was more of a writer and didn’t like being the center of it all. But sometime about 15 years ago I was in the shower before a shoot, dreading it as usual, but then I thought no one is pointing a gun at my head – I realized it was my own decision to do this. That is what I think about when I think about my love for filmmaking.

“A Man Called Ove” has a limited release, including Chicago, on September 30th. Featuring Rolf Lassgard, Bahar Pars, Tobias Aimborg, Fredrik Evers and Ida Engvoll. Screenplay adapted by Hannes Holm, from a novel by Fredrik Backman. Directed by Hannes Holm. Rated “PG-13” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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