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SXSW ’12 | Jonas Akerlund Talks His Busy 2011, Making Bizarro New Feature ‘Small Apartments’ Along with 34 Commercials and 5 Music Videos

SXSW '12 | Jonas Akerlund Talks His Busy 2011, Making Bizarro New Feature 'Small Apartments' Along with 34 Commercials and 5 Music Videos

Swedish director Jonas Akerlund, best known for his innovative videos for the likes of Prodigy (“Smack My Bitch Up”), Lady Gaga (“Telephone” and “Paparazzi”) and Madonna (“Ray of Light”) came to SXSW for the world premiere his third feature “Small Apartments.”  

In “Small Apartments,” Los Angeles is a world full of bold colors and neons.  And on its sexy outskirts lives Franklin Franklin (“Little Britain” actor Matt Lucas, best known in the states as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”), a decidedly unsexy recluse who pines for his hospitalized brother (James Marsden) while he stays inside in his tightie wighties, blowing on his horn (just like the Ricola commercials) dreaming of a life in Sweden.  Mostly due to his penchant for daily horn practice and his pervish spying, Franklin is despised by his neighbors (played by James Caan, Johnny Knoxville, and Juno Temple), from whom he must hide the fact that their landlord died while asking for Franklin’s rent check.

Judging from my conversations with others after this screening, this film is not for everyone.  But for those willing to be taken into a world — and a life — where nothing is to be expected, “Small Apartments” is an absolute treat.

Akerlund, surprisingly relaxed and comfortable with stark straight dyed-black hair, spoke to Indiewire about his latest earlier this week:

What was it about this story that made you realize you wanted to devote the time to making this film?

There’s so many different reasons to do something and all it takes is just one reason to not do it.  To be honest why this really ended up happening is that Ash [R. Shah] my producer really wanted to do it.  I also knew that this script needed integrity, no compromises, basically creative freedom.  If there is such a thing in Hollywood, this is the closest you can get.  The producer, he is that kind of producer, I knew that he was going to give me that.  In all honesty, as much as I loved the script since day one. 

I’m pretty spoiled.  I work a lot.  I go from project to project.  For me, to take a bigger project on like this, I had to be 100% sure.  Once we got started, I gave the script to Matt, that was the second reason there was no looking back.  There was no turning back once I had Matt.  Knowing that I had Matt and Ash and this great script, it was a no-brainer.  The truth is that Matt and Ash are the real reason.  I have a pile of scripts at home that I love.  Some of them are hard to get made.  We have to give up stuff. It’s hard to get movies made.

I would imagine for you it’s especially hard to give up the time because you’re so prolific.  Was it difficult to devote time to a feature?

I also told Ash I’m not going to stop working on other things.  Listen to this figure:  Last year, I did 34 commercials, 5 music videos, and “Small Apartments.”  Usually, that’s not how you do a movie.  You stop and you focus on everything.  My last movie, I spent a good year and a half on.  The documentary I made with Madonna lasted only two years.  “Spun” was different.  I don’t even remember that time, it was so weird.  With this one, I said to him, I’m going to make it very spontaneous.  I’m going to keep the same crew I use for all of my other things and keep working, so that’s what I did.

Do you think it’s too difficult for directors to make the things they want to make, with as much creative control as possible?

Maybe I said it wrong, because I don’t mean to say that everything I do needs to be like that.  Every job is so unique and so different.  I was just saying that for this script, I could not see how this movie would be better if a studio took it on and added two zeros to the budget.  I have no idea what would make this movie better.  That’s why I was very determined that this needs to be done this way.  In my point of view, it was a job worth losing if compromised. 

There are other jobs where there’s way more of a dialogue.  I’m a commercial director; I do some very very commercial stuff in the commercial world.  My music videos are always analyzed.  I need to think about what the audience is going to think.  When you get onto these types of jobs, there’s a little more of an ego trip than I’m used to.  I never get to think about myself when I do films.  I started in advertising, so I always have to think about what my client and my audience things.  If a film doesn’t work, it’s a big failure.  When you do these kinds of movies, it becomes more of a personal journey, and you become more personally attached to it.

So how long was the shoot?

We were in pre-production for awhile while I was shooting commercials.  I also had the chance to ask my crew to help me out.  I said, I’m booking you on all these commercials, can you help me out?  Right after, I booked more commercial.  

This way, I got a really good crew, that on smaller movies you usually wouldn’t get.  That’s another reason working in Los Angeles is great.  Once we were ready, we did pre-production for two or three weeks.  Then the shoot was 20 days.

Everything you do has a stark attention to detail.  What was it like creating this world?

It was a bunch of things.  Number one, I had ideas of how the characters were going to be and how they were going to look.  I had role models for all my actors.  In my head and in the preperation for the script, I had it all planned out.  In the book and in the original script, the mood is very different.  It’s cold and he’s in a different city, and it’s very very different. 

We decided to scout for locations downtown, everywhere, before we found this apartment, that gave such a big part of the film’s look.  it’s gone now.  It’s weird because LA is filled with these areas that are just abandoned.  We could cut through walls and do whatever we want.  We shot basically the whole movie there.  We only went away for a bookstore, bowling alley, and an airplane set. 

We were scouting and scouting and finally figured out in my head that Franklin’s apartment is here, Allspice’s [James Caan’s character] place is here, Tommy Balls [Johnny Knoxville] is here… I was standing with my scout, we needed a swamp for the car scene.  I was pointing at the end of the parking lot and I said to him, “This is so great.  I bet there’s a swamp there.”  And we walked over, and the water and everything was there.  We didn’t need to do anything to it.  It was awesome.

You talked a little about how important attaching Matt was for you, but do you want to talk a little more about casting?

I had in my head my dream list of people.  The way you approach this kind of thing is you shoot in LA and you hope for availability.  You wait for the very last minute.  The casting director on the job, she told me not to worry too much.  We had to wait til the very last minute.  I did have Johnny, I had Matt, and I had James Cann.  So I was good.  In terms of posters, we were good.  I wanted everybody to be strong character actors in this movie.  It was part of what I wanted.  I met Billy [Crystal] and Billy said yes right away. 

And some other actors changed at the very last minute.  Two of the actors in the movie were basically cast the day before.  It’s just the nature of these kinds of movies.  I wasn’t really stressing about it.  It’s way easier to get someone to roll down the hill for a favor or for the afternoon, for them to be a part of something that might be cool (and might not…it doesn’t really matter).  It’s just like it’s cool, let’s do it.  It was that kind of attitude.

Is 2012 shaping up to be just as busy for you?

I’m slowly getting more and more focused on making movies, to be honest.  The truth is, one of the personal reasons I made “Small Apartments” was to test myself.  It sounds a little weird, because I have all of these opportunities and I’m constantly in production.  I work in so many different countries and with so many different clients, I really have to decide on my focus.  After “Small Apartments,” I know what I’m focusing on now.  I’m reading — scripts and in general — a lot more.  I’m having meetings a lot more.

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