Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland shares a scene from his dark comedy "A Somewhat Gentle Man," which garnered its star Stellan Skarsgard the Best Actor award at last year's Fantastic Fest. Below is the scene, along with Moland's breakdown of how the shoot went. The film hits select theaters this Friday, January 14 courtesy of Strand Releasing.
Ulrik (Stellan Skarsgard) is a somewhat gentle man, as far as gangsters go. Reluctantly back on the streets following a stint in prison, Ulrik's boss greets him with open arms and a plan to settle an old score. With a demented sense of professional pride, Ulrik's boss sets in motion a plan to right the wrong done to his star employee. The problem is Ulrik would rather go about his own business, however mundane, than get involved with his ragtag colleagues again. This dark feel good comedy delivers laughs and gasps in equal measure. [Synopsis courtesy of Strand Releasing]
Setting the tone...
I was rather obsessive about the importance of the beginning of "A Somewhat Gentle Man." I guess I am with all films. Beginnings and endings. I knew I wanted to begin the film with a close up. The close up of Ulrik, alone, and I wanted to end the film in 2 -shot. Between these two shots lies the changes that Ulrik goes through, changes that bring him from a solitary existence to a life connected with humanity again.
The opening scene sets the tone – it should indicate that there is something absurd and wrong in this otherwise very realistic setting as Ulrik is waiting to be let out of prison. A guard comes running and hands him a present, a half bottle of alcohol. An unusual gesture, but not exactly signaling excessively sentimental hopes for the inmate soon to be released. The guard is awkward as he offers a piece of advice, "Look ahead, don´t look back." Ulrik doesn't really know what to think. He's too uptight as he waits for the gate to open. It does, and a bleak endless landscape is unveiled. It clearly frightens him, but after a long moment he gathers up the courage to leave, and begins to walk. But four steps out of the gate he stops, and looks back. The guard waives him on, "Look ahead." This is a portrait of a man who reluctantly leaves prison, who has to be shushed out like a cow onto spring pasture after a winter inside the barn.
The challenge for me with the scene was to hit the tone I wanted. Dead serious, but with each new piece of information unveiling a detail that forces the audience to ask "What's wrong with this picture?" To me the scene is funny. I find it humorous that a man has to be chased out of prison, I like the oddness of a guards gift to an inmate. They are of the same age. The tone between them, and the modest gift indicate they´re not very close; but the guard is concerned for Ulrik´s future. Ulrik seems helpless, so we should be worried as well. And since they are about the same age, the guard knows what awaits a 58 year old ex con on the outside.
We were well into the shooting schedule when we did this scene, so I knew how important it was to strike the right tone for the audience – give them the glasses to view the film through. Because it's the beginning, they won´t know the character. I wouldn't expect people to laugh even if they found something humorous, but they should suspect that there is something funny or odd about this film. Later I would need to confirm their suspicion and give them a situation that clearly says, "Yes, you're actually allowed to laugh."
Shooting in a prison...
We only had a few hours to do the scene and we shot in a maximum-security facility about an hour away from the rest of our locations – the only breach in our pact to shoot this film in the same neighborhood to save travel time. Shooting in a prison involves a lot of security issues that steal time, so we had to shoot in a rush. It was freezing cold and Stellan's costume wasn't very warm, but there was hardly time to warm him between set ups. And the guard, Per Frisch, was in his shirtsleeves.
We had a big challenge; we were not allowed to do any art direction except putting a sign on the large metal gate labeled "Inmates only." We also couldn't shoot out the gate, because the scenery we wanted to reveal wasn't there. The backgrounds inside the prison were unusable for the profile shots so we placed the actors on the outside of the gate for the profile shots, making it appear as if they were inside, and then we used the opposite (normal) directions for the shot when we needed to see the prison yard in the background. Then while shooting Stellan's profile shot I saw a sign behind him, a traffic like symbol of a man walking the opposite direction; intended to show the way out. It was wrong because we had reversed directions, cheating the outside to be the illusion of the inside. We couldn't remove the sign, but in a small way it felt symbolic. It was as if it said: this is a man who’s being dragged ass first into the future. Which is really what the scene is about.