Exclusive interview; Anders Banke, director of Frostbite
3rd Dec 06
It was going to take a strong movie to follow del Toro's Pan’s Labyrinth and Hatchet at this year’s opening night of Frightfest back in August, but thankfully a Swedish vampire movie, Frostbite, stepped up to the plate and was more than able to stand up to the task.
Billed as a horror / comedy, Frostbite comes complete with a cool World War Two opening sequence, talking Rottweilers, glowing pills, scares, laughs and vampires aplenty and we were Frostbiten (to use the original Swedish title) at first bite.
The film screened again recently in October at Dublin’s Horrorthon where the director Anders Banke and his producer Magnus Paulsson were both in attendance to introduce the film.
Seizing our chance, eatmybrains plied the Swedes with enough pints of Guinness over the four days of the festival to finally convince them we weren’t just some two-bit part-time fan-run obsessive website (God knows how we did it!) and got them to agree to an interview.
On the final day, still bleary-eyed and hungover from the previous night’s revelry, we sat down with Anders for a quiet 25-minute chat to find out more about the making of his debut film Frostbite (released in UK cinemas on Friday 15th December from Soda Pictures) and why it just might turn out to be a revolutionary landmark for the Swedish film industry...
(ps – In real life, Anders is quiet, intelligent and very friendly – not at all like his picture above, which quite frankly makes him look pretty darn scary).
EMB: Anders, great to meet you. Congratulations on your film Frostbite. This is your debut feature film, so tell us, coming from Sweden, how did you get involved in films?
Anders Banke: I started off making some films when I was about nine or ten; it was a major interest even back then. But I never really thought you could be a director - it was like a dream job. It was not something I thought you could realistically be.
EMB: Did you go to film school?
AB: Yeah, I went to film school, almost by accident. At that time I was in my early twenties and I sort of came to the conclusion that film was what I really wanted to do. I mean I was also very interested in art and music, and films combined everything I was interested in up to a point, so I see that as the ultimate art form. But even then I didn’t think it would be realistic. Maybe, maybe you know, in ten years time I would be a filmmaker.
For some reason I was studying Russian as part of the language course I took and I ended up in Moscow for eleven weeks. There, quite by accident, I got acquainted with a guy at a film studio – the biggest and oldest film school - and he showed me around.
I thought ‘Ok’, and the next day I came back and asked if it was possible to study there and he said “Yes” and I thought ‘right’. So I came back to Sweden, applied, and got in. And I stayed there for four and half years.
EMB: Frostbite is a vampire movie, so is horror ‘your thing’? You obviously made short films while at film school. Were they genre-orientated?
AB: Fantasy is my kind of thing. The fantastic, and horror is part of that. Horror, science fiction and fantasy, fairytales, that sort of thing. When I was little, because I had a vivid imagination and was easily scared, I didn’t watch horror films because they were too scary. But then there was this film that someone gave to me – a pirated VHS copy – which was Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste.
I saw that and I realised that could be a lot of fun. That was one of the films that really inspired me. Also it was an inspiration to become a filmmaker because it showed that even on a low budget and not being in Hollywood, you could still make films. So that was a big turning point I suppose, and it was one of the things that made me want to make films.
No, I’m always interested in a lot of genres, I mean I’m working on about seven or eight projects right now; some are straight horror, one is a ghost film, there’s a fantasy piece, one is science-fiction and there’s a comedy, but they all have fantastical elements. Because to me - life is good, life is interesting - but everyday life we have every day, and I’m not interested in making a film about that. Films are the perfect place to explore these fantastical places.
EMB: How did you get involved in Frostbite?
AB: Well, we got sent a script back in 1999 by this guy (Daniel Ojanlatva) in Kiruna, which is as far north in Sweden as you can get. It’s the sort of northern-most city in Sweden. And it was a vampire script, about teenage vampires and it had, what we call a very good concept, which was having vampires in a place where you have a month of perpetual darkness in the winter.
We also like the concept of the red blood against white snow, but what really got us interested was that there were two or three scenes in this script that were really, really funny and they made me laugh out loud when I read them, which is quite unusual.
There were some things we didn’t like about the script so basically, I mean we get a lot of scripts – we try to keep a low profile, but we still get a lot of scripts sent to us, and most of it, 98%, is just crap, but sometimes there is something interesting. So what I then do is write back, which is what I did in this case, saying “this, this and this is good, and this character is great, but this, this and this maybe isn’t so good, this you should throw out, blah, blah”.
That’s the way I think it works constructively, but a lot of people don’t see it like that, so we honestly didn’t expect to get any reply back. But after a few months we got a new draft back, and he had listened to what we were saying and had come up with a lot of new ideas, and we thought ‘Ok, this is a guy we can work with’.
So then we made an option, contract, whatever and we worked on it. My producer Magnus Paulsson is a very creative producer. I mean I’m very heavily involved in the production, and he’s very involved in the creative side, so we ended up making 14 drafts of the script, but the interesting thing is that those three scenes that first caught our interest, they’re still in the film more or less unchanged, even though everything else around them has changed.
EMB: What were those three scenes? Without giving too much away to people who haven’t seen the film yet…
AB: Well, there’s the dinner scene. That was there. There’s also a scene outside and inside the jail cell, and there’s also the scene involving a lamppost and a small dog. So those three scenes were there, almost unchanged. I need to go back actually, and I’m going to have a look at the first draft and see.
EMB: Let’s talk a little bit about the filming of Frostbite. It opens with 10-15 opening sequence set in the wartime, which is a terrific action sequence. How enjoyable or difficult was that to shoot, because it seems to be set far out in the snowy wilderness.
AB: Yeah, that was really interesting, because it was a really tough shoot in many ways, and this, the first war sequence was actually the thing we feared the most because we knew we had limited resources. And with the weather and everything else, and the short time we had to shoot we thought that this was going to be the most difficult sequence of them all. And it turned out it wasn’t.
We all knew this had to be good, and we all knew we only had a short time to do it, so everyone was a little bit on edge, but it all worked out really well. And that was two of the best shooting days on the entire film, and then other scenes that we thought would not be a problem, turned out to be a lot more problematic.
So that whole first sequence, we got feedback and a lot of people liked it and wanted to carry on the film in that vein, so maybe I’ll do pure war horror film at some point.
EMB: Yes please!
AB: Well, we have plans for such a product, we’ll see. Well, one of the reasons that the films starts of as it does is that we needed… You know the film is set in Sweden which is one of the more secular, and maybe not as fun and exciting places in the world. Also, we’re making a film in Swedish, about Sweden, and to make it work there haven’t been many films like this - there hasn’t been any films life this before. And part of the reason you get is ‘Oh, that could never happen in Sweden’ and you get all this bullshit, because in any Hollywood film, most of that stuff never happens in the US, but somehow it is accepted and in Sweden it’s not.
So what we needed was a plausible explanation as to why there were vampires, or this main vampire, in the north of Sweden. The second reason why we made that opening scene was that we wanted... The film is a horror comedy, but the first ten or fifteen minutes are quite serious, and that’s partly to confuse the audience. We wanted the reaction where they had paid to see a teenage vampire horror comedy and they end up coming in to a war film. We wanted the reaction; ‘Ok, am I in the right screening room?’
And I think we succeeded with that although word spreads more quickly over the Internet than you think, so that effect wasn’t there for a lot of people, especially the fans as they know what the start’s going to be. But still, it works, I think.
EMB: Did you encounter any problems trying to fund Frostbite?
AB: Ah, we could write a book about financing problems. The first problem we had was that the prevalent attitude amongst so many, not just the film institute but some of the producers, filmmakers and financers also, was that you can’t do this sort of film in Sweden, because we haven’t done it, so you can’t do it, so we shouldn’t do it, because we haven’t done it and the Americans do it so much better anyway, so why should we even try.
There are many reasons for that. A large part of that is that Sweden has a very strange language. No one else understands, it’s a small market. So for most films here you need some sort of Government support, and they support cultural films. And there’s hegemony of people, most of them who got in during the 60s and are still there, a lot of them are good people, but they’re not very open-minded. They have a very narrow-mind about what good culture is.
The ironic thing about so many of these people is that call themselves progressive, and they’re not. But they’re the ones calling the cards, and that’s why.
Just for example, Frostbite was by far the biggest selling Swedish film internationally. It did ok in Sweden, it’s doing very well on DVD, but internationally it’s sold well. And the Swedish Film Institute for Cannes this year put out this trailer DVD with all the Swedish films available on the market, and I had a look on the back on the titles, and the genres were listed; drama, drama, drama, drama, drama, drama, drama, drama, drama, road movie, drama, drama, drama, vampire movie.
So, it all makes it a bit difficult, and actually getting back to the ‘having to prove that we could do it’, we put together a test film. Because it was my first feature film, it was my producer’s first feature film, so we needed to prove that we could pull the production together, we could shoot it so that it looks good, that I could handle the actors and especially that the special effects were good. And we got some money from the Swedish Film Institute, which was pretty surprising.
So we got the money and made a test film, and proved to the distributor and everyone else that we could actually do it and that really helped a lot. It convinced people.
EMB: The film features a very strong cast. How well known are they in Sweden and did you have any difficulty attracting them to a genre product?
AB: Well, the adult female lead (Annika played by Petra Nielsen), she’s very famous in Sweden as a TV series actress and she’s big on the musical scene. She’s sort of our biggest name. Most of the kids are unknown. Grete Havnesköld who plays Saga, she used to be a child star. She was in a few Astrid Lindgren films. I think she has a fan club in Japan (laughs). But for the others we more or less had open casting calls and found most of them. All the adult supporting roles are good or well-known actors,
The interesting thing was that most of the co-producers and everyone that was with us at the time all agreed that we only need one name person, the story is the important thing, the genre’s the important thing, and you don’t need to have the standard Swedish star actors, because it wasn’t that kind of film.
Actually getting them and attracting them, almost all of them had the same story when we met them. They said they were all quite surprised to be called up by some unknown production company from the south of Sweden saying that we’d like them to become part of our vampire film. They thought that was the silliest thing they’d ever heard. But we talked them all into reading the script and they all started reading and saying ‘oh, this is really good, this is different, I want to be in this’.
As I said, there are very few films like this in Sweden, so long before casting I was thinking of who could play this role of Annika, and Petra Nielsen was really my only choice. She’s like number one, top of the list. And then I made another list with three well-known established actresses, and we contacted them and they all read it and wanted to do it, but thankfully I got the person I really wanted for the role.
EMB: Do you have a favourite scene in the movie? I mean for me the dinner scene where the boy goes to meet his girl’s parent is hilarious.
AB: Well, what I like about it is that many people have different favourite scenes, and that means to me that the film works. But most people I’d say, like that scene the most. I like the scene outside of the prison cell, partly because the policeman telling that story is quite a famous Swedish comedian. This is his first film role. I’ve always been a fan of his, I think he’s one of the funniest guys ever and he does a really good job there.
The other scene I really like is the morgue scene because it has everything about Frostbite in it. It’s sort of scary and it’s deadpan funny, and it has some interesting special effects. And you never really know where that scene is going – whether to laugh or be scared – so that’s why. And we shot it in a real morgue, which was quite interesting and a bit shocking for the guy who was playing the coroner. The make-up effects were so well done that he got a bit of a shock, especially in the middle of one of the takes, when we had an electrical failure in one of the lighting rigs and it went ‘shsshskkkk’ and that all spooked us.
EMB: The Special effects in the film are very impressive – a blend of CGI and actual effects. Did you use a local Swedish special effects company?
AB: Yes, well there were two of them actually. One of them was doing all the physical effects and then there was the one doing all the 3D, all the character animation was a company called Fido Film in Stockholm and they are more or less the best in Scandinavia. And because the job was bigger than anything they had done, they took in people from Norway and England.
But unfortunately because they have some of the best people, these people are headhunted, so there were a few people that were supposed to be working on Frostbite, but they got kidnapped by Peter Jackson for King Kong (laughs). But they turned out right anyway.
So with the amount of effects on such a scale by Swedish standards we had to use a Russian company that did a lot of the effects you don’t really see. They did the whole sequence from down in the cellar where we track back up into the sky for example, and all the glowing pills, and a lot of other things.
Our aim for the special effects was that they were not to be like, ‘Ooh, there’s a special effect, isn’t that cool!’, but that they had to go with the story, and keep it subtle, and just let them do the thing that they were supposed to do, because we didn’t have the money to do that anyway, and I think that worked out pretty well.
EMB: How do you feel now that you’ve have made a successful, commercial comedy horror film in Sweden? Do you think this will change anything about the Swedish film industry?
AB: Yes, it will. I’ve noticed it already. The people who said that we can’t do this because we haven’t done it, that sort of thing, is now gone. It’s one less argument for the cultural fascists as I say. So we’re hearing of products popping up and there’s actually a new Swedish vampire film on the way based on a very, very good book. I’m really looking forward to that because it’s serious, it doesn’t have much humour, it’s a serious and quite nasty book.
My hope is that they make a proper horror film out of it and not try and make it like a horror-drama. Because in Sweden everything is a drama; comedy is not usually funny enough, so they call it a comedy-drama. Thriller-drama etc. So less drama, more horror please.
The biggest TV production coming out now is this historical matinee adventure thing that you couldn’t dream of seeing just ten years ago, so things are really changing, because there’s a new generation coming up that wants to make this sort of material, and I hope we will all be able to make it in Sweden, and not have to move to the U.S.
EMB: Final question, what have you got lined up for the future?
AB: Well, there are seven or eight projects that we’re developing right now that are all fantastic in some way, so we’ll just see what takes off. And also I’m set to do a Russian remake next summer of the Hong Kong action film, Breaking News (Daai si gin) by Johnny To. It’s about media manipulation, which is an interesting subject for Russia because there’s a few bad things going on over there.
It was the Russian distributor of Frostbite who asked me to do it, and actually Frostbite’s doing really well in Russia. It’s like number one in the independent theatrical charts there, which is quite surprising and it got massive positive press which is even more amazing, because Russian film critics generally don’t like horror films. Maybe it helped that I studied film there (laughs), I don’t know, but it’s been doing very well for such a comparatively limited release – Iess than 20 prints.
So this remake is more or less half-financed and we’re casting it right now, I think it’s going to be really interesting.
EMB: Great. Well thank you very much for your time. Frostbite is indeed a fantastic film and we wish you all the best for the upcoming UK and other international release.
Frostbite will be released in UK cinemas on December 15th 2006 from Soda Pictures.