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Scandinavian Filmmakers Grab Global Attention in Cannes and Beyond

Variety logo Variety 5/22/2017 Nick Vivarelli
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That Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s anticipated art-world satire “The Square” is in competition this year is just latest indication that the Scandinavian industry is upping its international game, venturing beyond “Scandi noirs” and becoming a hotbed of innovation at the forefront of the pack in Europe.

“The Square,” Ostlund’s English-language follow up to “Force Majeure,” which scooped Cannes’ Un Certain Regard Jury Prize in 2014, is the first Swedish film in the Cannes competition in 17 years. It stars Danish actor Claes Bang (“The Bridge”) and Elisabeth Moss, in a mighty mix of Nordic and U.S. talents that sees the already hot auteur “elevating himself into a new sphere,” according to Swedish Film Institute chief exec Anna Serner.

The same can be said for the entire film and TV industry in the Nordics, which comprises five countries: Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Finland and Norway.

There is a slew of buzzy English-language pics from the Nordics in the pipeline that combine Scandi and English-language talent, such as Lisa Langseth’s “Euphoria,” starring Alicia Vikander — who is also producing — and Eva Green; Janus Metz Pedersen’s “Borg/McEnroe,” which pairs Sverrir Gudnason with Shia LaBeouf as the two iconic ’70’s tennis rivals; and Per Fly’s political thriller “Backstabbing for Beginners,” toplining Ben Kingsley and Josh Hutcherson, just to name a few.

In addition, Dogma 95 co-founder Lars von Trier is now shooting a decidedly non-dogmatic effects-laden serial killer thriller, “The House That Jack Built,” starring Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman and South Korean star Yu Ji-tae (“Oldboy”).

Meanwhile, Scandinavia is making major inroads into the Chinese film market. Helmer Bille August just wrapped his feature “The Chinese Widow,” featuring Emile Hirsch and Liu Yifei (“Inversion”). It’s the tale of an American pilot saved by Chinese villagers during World War II, jointly produced by August and Chinese film company Zhejiang Roc Pictures.

“A Danish director doing a 90% Chinese film is quite an achievement,” says Rikke Ennis, CEO of TrustNordisk, which has set up a Zentropa China outpost.

After laying the groundwork for several years, Zentropa China will soon be announcing a Chinese director for its Hans Christian Andersen movie, “My Best Friend Andersen,” the first co-production between Denmark and China, which tops a slate geared primarily toward the Chinese market. Denmark and China formally ratified a co-prod treaty in early May.

“It’s been like a ketchup bottle,” says Ennis about her company’s efforts to get traction in China. “It takes a bloody long time, but once it flows, it really flows … once you make the right connections, then things start to happen, and they can happen fast.”

Ennis says the single biggest driver for the Nordic industry is the synergy between its output of feature films and TV dramas, such as “The Killing,” that have been big exports.

Producers, writers and directors are able to jump around between these forms of storytelling, which “has been a huge help to us,” she notes. “And the fact that we are now trying to put an additional layer on the films with English-speaking talents is a natural next step.”

That is echoed by Petri Kemppinen, head of the Oslo-based Nordisk Film & TV Fund, which backs movies and series from all five Nordic countries. “Scandinavia is the region in Europe where directors and writers are transitioning back and forth the most between film and TV.”

He cites Fly as an example, who prior to “Backstabbing for Beginners,” shot two episodes of Danish crimer “Follow the Money.” Two more cases in point are Nicolas Winding Refn, set to helm U.S. series “Too Old to Die Young” for Amazon, and “Everest” director Baltasar Kormákur, who has returned from Hollywood to his native Iceland to set up a studio where he’s shot Icelandic crimer “Trapped” and other TV dramas.

Also, the region’s focus on gender equality and diversity is strong.

“We’ve been clear that we were looking for quality first and foremost and not just movies made by white men,” says the Swedish Film Institute’s Serner, who cites Hanna Skold’s “Granny’s Dancing on the Table,” Pernilla August’s “A Serious Game” and Amanda Kernell’s “Sami Blood,” as examples of Swedish pics by female directors that recently surfaced on the festival circuit. Serner notes that Sweden has already attained the “50-50 by 2020” gender equality goal “in front and behind the camera,” which she champions around the world.

The following is a selection of Scandinavian films at Cannes and in the market:

Becker — Small Town Gangster

Director: Martin Larsson

Producer: Erik Magnusson

Key cast: Henrik Lillér, Sonja Richter, Lars Ranthe

Logline: Thriller/comedy about a self-made business man in a small Swedish town forced to fight for survival

Sales: The Yellow Affair

Beyond Dreams

Director: Rojda Sekersöz

Producer: 2afilm

Key cast: Evin Ahmad, Gizem Erdogan, Malin Persson

Logline: A young woman leads a double life juggling crime and family.

Sales: Pluto Film

The House That Jack Built

Director: Lars von Trier

Producer: Zentropa

Key cast: Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Bruno Ganz, Yu Ji-tae

Logline: 1970s U.S.-set serial killer pic in which each murder is considered a work of art by the protag named Jack

Sales: TrustNordisk

The Square (in competition)

Director: Ruben Östlund

Producer: Erik Hemmendorff

Logline: Art-world satire involving a museum that hires a PR agency to promote an exhibition

Sales: The Coproduction Office

The Quake

Director: John Andreas Andersen

Producer: Fantefilm Produksjon

Key cast: Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp

Logline: Disaster movie set in 1904 Oslo

Sales: TrustNordisk

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