It was a thrill to get a chance to talk to one of my favorite directors, Lasse Hallström of “Chocolat,” “The Cider House Rules,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” and this week’s release, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.” It is the story of a government fisheries expert and an aide to a wealthy sheik who must work together on a highly improbable project — to build a salmon fishery in the Yemeni desert. Hellström’s challenge was almost as difficult — he had to create the fishery for the film, and without the sheik’s unlimited budget.
I had the same thought in watching this movie that I did in with “Fitzcarraldo,” — the near-impossible project undertaken by the characters on screen had to be a metaphor for the project you took on in making a movie about it.
Yes, it was daunting to get in on budget and on time. It was quite a challenge.
My favorite character in the film is the press secretary to the Prime Minister, played by Kristen Scott Thomas. Tell me about casting that role.
She hadn’t done much comedy but what she did in “Gosford Park” was so wonderfully funny in a dry, understated way that I figured she’d be perfect for the part. She has such great delivery.
You came to the project when it was already underway. How did that happen?
Bill Condon had been involved before me but he took off to do the last two “Twilight” movies, and it came to me when I’d just had a movie fall apart and this was the best script I had read in a decade. I really enjoyed the wit, the human drama, the comedy, the love story — it was very original and it was not limited to one genre. It is hard to define what it really is. The American label “an inspirational comedy” seems to be the best definition so far.
There are two things that especially fascinate me about your work. The first is that you seem to understand so many different settings. You’ve made movies set in Newfoundland, France, the American west, your native Sweden, and now England and Yemen and you always create such a distinctive sense of place. How do you do that so evocatively?
It’s all about wanting to help create performances that are alive and authentic and real no matter what the genre is. If it’s a comedy I don’t want the actor to push for comedy; I want the actor to be as real as it can be. In doing that, the backdrop of where we shoot and what the culture is is less important. It’s all about universal experiences and feelings. If I find a script that deals with that, I don’t worry about where it is set. It doesn’t become foreign to me.
The second thing I always appreciate in your work is the generosity of it. You always locate the humanity in even your most flawed characters.
It’s an interest in finding the moments that are not expected or formula, the moments we recognize and can relate to. I also involve actors also on many levels to contribute with their own ideas and personality and experiences. You don’t want to create a black and white character. You want to shade it and add layers, just as you don’t want to stick to one genre, you want look at the world with the eyes to find the fun moments, the tragic moments, the horrific moments. If the performance rings true you can cross over genres pretty freely.
What was the biggest challenge that you had in making this film?
It was more the producer’s challenge in finding a way to do this on time and on budget because it was quite an undertaking. The set with the fish tanks — we built all that in the desert and it was all swept away by two storms, two floodings. We actually used the second flooding in the film. When you see the aftermath — that was real.
When did you first think about being a filmmaker?
My earliest inspiration was my father’s films. He made documentaries about life in Stockholm and the archipelago. And we had Charlie Chaplin films on 8 millimeter. We showed that at home and Chaplin was my earliest inspiration, and then Milos Foreman and his early comedies and John Cassavetes, too.
What’s your next project?
A romance set in North Carolina called “Safe Haven.” We might start in May.
And what’s your favorite kind of movie?
You have it right here. This was a labor of love. An unpredictable movie, hard to label, I love all that. It has this mysterious attraction of being multi-layered. It mixes different genres and I like that mix.