INDIES: Bent Hamer on O’ Horten

We chat with the director of this award-winning and eccentric Norwegian tale of a man looking for a new place in the world…

Bent Hamer next to 'O' Horten'.

Having dipped his toe in American film-making with 2005’s Charles Bukowski adaptation Factotum (starring Matt Dillon and Marisa Tomei), independent Norwegian film director and writer Bent Hamer returns home for the moment to bring us the self-penned O’ Horten, a tale of an Oslo train driver whose life comes agreeably off the rails when he misses a train himself….

There’s a moment of inattention both in Factotum and O’ Horten that’s very important for each film. Is this a theme or motif you’re developing in your work?

Basically I write my own scripts and produce my own films…Factotum was based on a novel, but yeah, obviously I pick what interests me. I don’t plan it so that it has to contain this or that [laughs]. On one level it also happens during the process of writing – coincidentally.

How autobiographical is O’ Horten, given the cross-over with your own life – for example, the ski-jumping mother?

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When people say that their work and their private life are two separate things, I don’t really believe that. [O’ Horten] isn’t autobiographical, but still some parts of my life…when I grew up, I used to be a ski-jumper. Most of us were. You’d be a football-player in the summertime and you’d ski-jump in the wintertime. It’s different today – before it was, like, ten minutes to the next ski-jump, and they were small ski-jumps around the city I was living in.  Today it’s a more organised sport – you have all the clothes and so on. But that at least is a reference to my own life – and my mother was a ski-jumper as well.  And I also like the symbolic meaning.

Well, the man driving blind, the moment that O’ Horten realises that his train has gone without him and the ski-jump – the idea of ‘taking a chance’ and ‘throwing yourself out there’ seems to be an important theme with your work…?

You can see O’ Horten’s work, the station in the film, but it’s something about the roads in between the stations as well…

Some say that you let the audience guess the emotional heart of your movie instead of spelling it out for them. Is it that you want to leave unimaginative viewers free to see your work as ‘cold’, and the rest to understand what you’re trying to convey?

Not necessarily but maybe it’s a kind of democratic way of presenting a character in a story. I try to find a way to tell the story which fits the character and the story. That’s what it’s all about. If I made another film, an action film or whatever. Directors think that we can make any kind of movie. I don’t know if I can [laughs]. But then I have to do it in another way.

Have you ever been offered an action movie?

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[laughs] Maybe I’d be a little bit into some kind of thriller, but…no, I haven’t.

I’m thinking now about how America is remaking Let The Right One In, which seems crazy to me. How would you feel if Hollywood wanted to remake a movie of yours?

Well, I don’t know if you saw my first film, Eggs, but there are some parallels; Mr Schmidt, I mean [About Schmidt]. My agent in the US also asked me – because I turned down all the scripts, mostly bad scripts, which you find in Europe also, of course  – but when he asked me which films I liked, I mentioned [About Schmidt] and also The Straight Story and films like that.

You feature a central character in O’ Horten who’s old – are you encouraged by Pixar doing Up, which also features a 78 year-old central character? We see very few old people headlining movies…

Yeah, I think the main part of that explanation is that producers and financers, they know that young people are frequenting the cinemas, and usually they see people who are about their own age, perhaps one year ahead maximum [laughs]. My first film, Eggs, dealt also with two old people, two brothers. When I did that one I really thought about it, and I had a lot of references to my grandmother and grandfather, which I spent a lot of time together with and I was very fond of. I hadn’t planned it, and after that I said ‘Okay, this is the last film about old people’ [laughs]. When the idea came to me, I thought of course ‘Why not?’. You don’t ask that question to directors: ‘Oh, so you made another film about young people, another film about middle-aged people’…I mean you don’t ask Hitchcock: ‘Oh, another thriller…’ [laughs].

I’m my own producer and I’m a writer, so I’m in a position to pick the subject I’m interested in. Also I think it’s a very nice climate in Norway to make these kind of films. Of course we are also concerned about the box-office and so on, but still we get a certain amount of government support for quite a number of the films that we do. We can also make so-called ‘quality’ film or interesting films about interesting and important subjects…so this allows us to make these sort of films in Norway. Also I think throughout Europe, maybe.

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When you made Factotum, were there different commercial pressures because of the American cast?

No, not really. Producing that film reminds me very much about how I used to do it in Europe and Norway. We were our own producers and I did all the post-production for Factotum in Norway, so actually we had no-one to blame. The stars knew what kind of production this was, so everybody was working with full knowledge of the circumstances we were working under, so that was actually okay. It was often hard to understand the union requirements, because it’s not [common] for independent films. That’s one thing. And of course you have to get through the filters of these managers and agents, who look like they have another agenda than the actors themselves [laughs].

There were a few different things like that, but generally it was a very nice shoot and a really good crew, and we worked more or less in the same way that I’m used to.

I read a recent interview with you where you talked about a new ‘Christmas project’, and it occurred to me: ‘Christmas’; in Factotum a man is fired; in O’ Horten a man retires…it seems you like to put your characters in ’empty space’. I wondered if you would really like to make a film just set in an everyday office, or with the regular routine of life?

[laughs] I hope so! One day, maybe. But yeah, you’re right. It’s a little bit scary now, because I’ve made a few films, so I’m starting to build up this ‘retrospective’. Looking at the whole thing, you can probably see a lot of the same ideas, just with a little twist in the differences. I do see what you’re saying – I try to avoid a lot of people – I take away people, to try and make it more transparent and focused, in a way. But also I like to think that I can do different films, so if I live long enough [laughs], maybe I’ll surprise myself also.

Can I ask you about the ‘Christmas’ project and other new films you’re planning or would like to make?

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The Christmas one, the working title is Home For Christmas. That’s the one I’m concentrating on right now. We’re going to shoot it in Norway, hopefully before Christmas. It’s based on a short story by a Norwegian writer called Lenny Henrikson. It hits me very well, and people have been trying to make it for several years. This short story takes place on Christmas eve, so it’s like three, four hours in a Christmas eve and people are usually sitting down to eat their Christmas dinner, and they are very different people struggling to connect. So it’s an alternative – it’s not a Disney-family Christmas film, but more of an ‘alternative’ Christmas story.

Do you think the Norwegian film industry is shaped and focused by its limited resources, compared to Hollywood?

There are many reasons. I think we have a very short history of film-making in Norway. If you look to the literature, we have great writers. Often you can see that the subject is lonely people, particularly lonely men – and these are male writers; we also have very good female writers but these are more the male writers I’m talking about. I think that when we make films, it’s a little bit about that, and that again I think is based on the fact that we are very few people with a lot of space around us. We have cold winters and don’t lead the same social life as you do in the more Southern parts of Europe.

People also complain sometimes that it’s the wrong image of Norway [laughs]. People are not like O’ Horten – if you go up to Norway, people are like you, they can socialise and so on. But I think these kind of films actually travel better than the lighter genre films that we make and that do very well in the domestic market. That makes sense, really, and it applies to the rest of Europe as well, not just Norway.

You have English and American-language films which travel better all over even if they’re genre films, but for us it’s hard to compete with those sort of films, with the star-system and the promotion that follows.

O’ Horten has picked up 4 awards at the Cosmorama film festival and it’s getting critical acclaim – this must be very gratifying for you, particularly as you’re so involved in every single aspect of your films…?

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Yeah, I’m very happy! You’re never sure about your next project, if you’ll ‘get away with it’, in a way. I was very lucky that my first film was accepted for Cannes, so I got a kind of flying start. It’s one thing to make personal films, but they have to be universal in some way – you have to recognise something and transfer something from the film to your own life. I don’t think we would be able to get away with our films if it was just the cliché of the lonely man in Norway!

I think from the mid-Nineties also that Norwegian film has been looking in the right direction. I’m often asked if there’s a specific Nordic humour, but when I relate it to some country I always relate it to the under-stated British humour [laughs], which is fantastic. I’d like to think Norwegian humour is intelligent in the same way.

So by putting that into a combination with ‘odd’ characters, I think it’s a good recipe.

Would you consider making a film that was definitely a comedy, rather than one where comedy is just an element, though an important one?

When people say ‘Okay, so you’ve made a comedy’, I always say that I’ve never made a comedy in my life. There’s a lot of humour, and people are laughing, yes, but I still tend to say I haven’t made a comedy…

Bent Hamer, thank you very much!

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O’ Horten opens in the UK on 8th of May.