INTERVIEW: The Truth Meter of Lasse Hallstrom, Director of "Cider House
by Andrea Meyer
(indieWIRE/12.7.99) — Lasse Hallstrom, the Swedish director best known for “My Life as a Dog“
and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?“, has become something of a fixture in
Hollywood. If his 1995 Julia Roberts vehicle “Something to Talk About“
wasn’t enough, he’s now gone as American as apple pie with an adaptation
of “The Cider House Rules” by best-selling author John Irving, who also
adapted his book for the screen. The marriage makes sense, since both
novelist and director are known for quirky stories about quirky
characters. And the film is just that.
Irving’s monster of a book tells the story of an orphan named Homer who
leaves the orphanage and the ether-sniffing Dr. Larch who raised him to
go off and explore the world. Along the way, he deals with hefty issues
like abortion and incest and learns about love, loyalty, and the value
of his unconventional upbringing. While another director might have
turned “Cider House” into a real weepie, Hallstrom used characteristic
restraint. Armed with a talented cast that includes Tobey Maguire,
Michael Caine, Charlize Theron, Delroy Lindo, and Paul Rudd, and what
one of the producers calls “his truth meter,” Hallstrom managed to
create a cinematic bildungsroman that fondles — but does not pull —
indieWIRE spoke with Mr. Hallstrom about what it takes to direct a John
Irving film and how to escape being swallowed by the evil demon of
indieWIRE: What originally drew you to this good old-fashioned,
Lasse Hallstrom: It was a movie that I actually turned down eight, nine
years ago. I liked the script, but I had reservations. I was fearing
collaboration with the writer, John Irving. So, I turned it down, and it
came back to me two years ago.
iW: What were your original reservations?
Hallstrom: It was choppy and condensed in a way that didn’t have any of
the epic scope. I don’t think it even had the love story.
iW: What attracted you to the script you finally committed to?
Hallstrom: I think it was just one scene, when the car drives to the
orphanage and Curly walks up to this woman and says “I’m the best one.”
You get to that moment and feel that there’s a movie. There are moments,
like when Curly says, “Nobody wants me.” “They wanted a girl, Curly.”
“Nobody wants me.” “There’s not anyone good enough for you, Curly.”
“Somebody wanted me?” It’s basically those scenes with Curly that
intrigued me. That dialogue hooked me onto that story. I always need a
couple of highlights to really spark the passion for a project. I’ve
read so many scripts that focus on story, almost sacrificing character
for plot. And this one was an exception. It sort of meandered around the
characters. And it had the tone, the particular John Irving tone, mixing
the bizarre and the comedic and dramatic.
iW: A lot of your films seem to follow that recipe.
Hallstrom: Yeah, it seems like a relative, a sibling, to “My Life as a
iW: Also “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”
Hallstrom: They have something in common. I see them as this group of
pictures that I’m proud of.
iW: I was amazed that you avoided falling prey to sentimentality with
this film, even when dealing with weighty emotional material.
Hallstrom: That makes me very happy and proud to hear. If I managed to
do that, I have accomplished something that was important, because
that’s my deepest fear — to be sentimental and push for emotions. I
think I avoid stepping into sentimentality by trying to be as truthful
as possible with performances. Just being present emotionally in the
scene, truly present emotionally, should be enough to convey what should
be conveyed. I’m talking about really bringing it down to what Tobey
does and what Michael Caine does. There’s something very subtle about
what Tobey does, which is really helpful to the story, and the same with
the kids. You have to avoid the false notes as much as possible. Any
ambition to stylize or heighten performance would, I think, steer the
movie into the sentimental. But if you’re honest, if you just observe in
a way that is as truthful as possible — I don’t really know how to put
it. It’s just about bringing it down to reality, having that ambition.
Then you can go further with sentiment.
iW: The look of the film was also surprisingly understated.
Hallstrom: Oliver [Stapleton] has done a great job of supporting scenes
and character without being flashy with his camerawork. He runs along
with performance because he doesn’t do showy things with the camera, so
his camerawork is supportive of the story and performances.
iW: Charlize Theron was quoted as saying that you are very receptive to
actors’ ideas and that you establish an atmosphere of creative exchange.
Would you agree?
Hallstrom: Charlize said that? I really want to have actors contribute
their own ideas, with phrasings and ideas on all levels. And then of
course you have to have an idea of what you want, you have to be
stubborn about that. It’s all about knowing what you need to get in the
can to make the film work. There are surprises along the way. Things
might be surprisingly different than you expected. I thrive in the kind
of chaos — working with kids, the chaos, ad-libbing, keeping actors on
their toes, having them not know exactly what to say or do until the
very last minute. That’s something I appreciate. It’s sort of nerve
wracking for actors.
iW: How did you take the script and make it your own?
Hallstrom: The script that I committed to is different from the film. It
has more of the epic scope, and the scenes between Candy and Homer are
very different. I think maybe another director would have enjoyed trying
to translate the bizarre elements to the screen, which I didn’t. I think
John Irving would have liked me to try things that I never tried,
because I was so eager to keep things on a real level, not to have
things stand out, to detach an audience. Shock effect for effect only. I
suspected that that was on the page here and there, and I threw it out.
Earlier movies of John Irving, I have a vague memory of them. They’re
different in that they try to translate the bizarre, the spectacular, in
a way that this movie doesn’t. It’s very subdued Irving, despite the
fact that the issues could leave room for cruder moments. But I’ve been
really careful about bringing it down, so I don’t detach the audience by
iW: The film takes a pretty firm stance on some heated issues,
especially abortion. How did you feel about taking on this issue?
Hallstrom: You don’t want to shy away from where the movie stands on the
subject of abortion. I didn’t realize how much of a button that is,
coming from Sweden. It’s just a natural choice for everyone, to accept
the pro-choice standpoint. For me, there was no controversy there. The
early scripts had somewhat more emphasis on the message, so I pulled
back on that.
iW: Why do you think it’s an important story to tell in 1999?
Hallstrom: When it comes to the issue of abortion, it’s a story that has
relevance today. It has to be spelled out today, unfortunately. In those
days, it was illegal. Today it’s just an inflammatory issue, that is
culture shock for me coming here and realizing how militant this group
is. I hope the soft-spoken message here will affect people.