Søren Stærmose is the award-winning producer from Yellow Bird films, the production and distribution company behind both the original Swedish and Kenneth Branagh versions of Wallander. However, it was with its film adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy that it really hit the big time, with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo becoming not only the biggest Swedish film ever, but a huge international smash as well.
In the UK to promote the DVD release of the third and final film, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest (released April 11th), Søren took the time to sit down with us and have a chat about the books’ adaptation, and the forthcoming English-language version from director David Fincher.
Søren proved to be an incredibly genuine and down-to-earth guy, as evidenced by him ringing me from Stockholm to arrange the interview, and then being incredibly generous with his time – I could have probably sat and chatted to him all afternoon before he complained! Here’s how we got on…
How did you first become involved with the Millennium film series?
We got a rumour from the publisher. Our head of development heard there was something special going on. We got the possibility to read those manuscripts, the books were unpublished…
Is this in 2005?
Yes, because Stieg Larsson, the writer, was already dead. He died on the 9th November 2004, and we got to read the manuscripts, me and my partners at Yellow Bird, in 2005, and we loved them very much. We read all three books in manuscript form before it was published and we liked it. Yellow Bird specialises in doing crime, and that’s our niche.
We were looking to broaden the crime genre from purely main protagonist, and look for other ways, and this was a very interesting couple, and this was a very unorthodox female character on screen together with this investigative, political journalist. They were a very odd couple together.
From our point of view, especially [because of Lisbeth], this was very fresh, so we wanted to be involved. We were not the only ones, of course, because the rumours were there that this was a new writer and something special going on. We were lucky to get the rights in our negotiations, and we started developing and financing in 2006.
Did you have any prior relationship with the publishers to give you the edge in negotiations?
Yeah… I know we were not the company that offered most money, I heard that afterwards, but I know that we got the rights because we had a long experience of doing big international co-productions. We did Wallander, the Henning Mankell books, and also Yellow Bird did the English version.
At this time, however, we were shooting the first block of the Swedish Wallander, and they knew the writer was very satisfied with the way it had been done, and they were sure we could lift this project and get reasonably high financing and get the quality everybody was looking for. As well as our enthusiasm, of course, but the others all had that too, but they told us afterwards that was the reason we got the rights.The books and the films have been big international success stories – you still see people most days on the tube reading a copy…
Yep, still! My housemate is reading it at the moment. Why do you think this has crossed over?
First of all, it’s because of the books that we can cross borders. If we hadn’t had this incredible book success, I don’t think we would have crossed the border with our movie. I think we have made a nice movie, but it is because of the huge sales of the books. And the reason why they have succeeded as much, well that’s probably a mix of a lot of different theories, but first of all because of Lisbeth Salander.
It’s an entertainment novel, that was the purpose of Stiegg Larsson to write, I know that from his brother, to write entertainment, but underneath too there was real political engagement, and he was working in that field very much, he was fighting for the abused men and women of Sweden.
He was a feminist in the 80s, that was not normal, you know, and I think that he’s been in touch with women that have been abused and he helped them, and he was so much involved with them that I think the readers can tell that he’s a writer down here on the ground with the real people, and these details in his way of writing I think maybe is different from other writers who sit a little more above, more distant, not being involved physically like Stieg Larsson, and I think that reflects in the literature.
Did you ever meet him before he died?
No, we never met him. The publisher did of course, but at Yellow Bird unfortunately we never did.
You mentioned Lisbeth, and she’s an incredible character. You had worked with Noomi Rapace before?
Yes, I had worked with her before on another movie, Capricciosa, and that was quite another path you know?
I actually had her in mind, because I went to the theatre in Stockholm, and there was a play by a young British playwright called Sarah Kane who did a play called Blasted, and that play was about the abusing of women in the Balkan War, and unfortunately this very talented British playwright committed suicide [in 1999].
But I saw Noomi onstage in Stockholm in that play, and I had just read all the books and was totally fascinated by her onstage, because that was Lisbeth Salander. I had her as my favourite, but of course, I’m not the director, so I had to present to him. He’s Danish so he didn’t know all the young Swedish actresses, so we had to make a list, and Noomi was our high priority. He went through a lot of girls, and he finally concluded that she was the right one.
So obviously you had all the funding set up for the first film, but then number two and three were originally made for TV?
Yes, it was one feature film and four 90 minute shows – the first book was originally an extended two 90 minute shows as well [before it became a film], but because of the huge success of the first book, there was a demand from the audience that we should also do a theatrical version of the three, so that’s what we did, we did three feature films.
Did you have to cut much out of two and three when turning them into the theatrical versions?
Yeah of course! But they are long feature films, two and a half hours, so maybe we had to take 30mins out of the TV version. But we invested more money in extra shooting and in the post-production, highlighting the sound design, the music and the different effects.
From the beginning, we had a director and a director of photography who had worked together on four feature films, so they were thinking in feature film terms. They hoped from the beginning we would turn it into a film, but of course, he didn’t have the same budget as the first film. It was not developed as a film like the first book, it was afterward we had to construct the dramatic arc for the films.
Is there anything you wished you had done differently?
Today, of course, we would have liked to have more money for film number two and three, and we would have had time to purely develop a feature film script.
Yellow Bird is at the forefront of this, but there is a lot of successful Scandinavian crime fiction, TV and film at the moment, which seems to be crossing over – why is this?
Well, of course, the Millennium series book sales helped, and that opened up the interest in reading other Scandinavian writers in the crime genre. There are a lot of good writers in Scandinavia and especially Sweden, and it’s the influence of Millennium which made people more and more curious. I know in Germany we have had a lot of readers for many, many years.
Our prime financial source comes from Germany. But now other countries are curious. Why? You have to make your own conclusions. There is escapism, and you read a book to go to a new and exciting place…
[At this point, Søren had to take a call, in which he told one of the distributors he was doing an interview with ‘a very important website’. The charmer.]
Also, I think Swedish society, in some ways, has been the ideal society for a lot of people. It’s a strange country, which has succeeded in combining a sort of democratic socialism with a big state and still having a big welfare society, plus a big GDP. So people are curious to see this other side of the society, the dark side.
That’s what you read about. It’s a dark side, but you still have this society that has all these rights and investigative journalists fighting back. So it’s just fiction!I think the environment lends itself well to this kind of fiction. I think visually as well as narratively, the isolation of Scandinavia gives a sense of oppression. It’s so remote from everything. I don’t think The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo would have worked in another country.
Ah, you don’t think so? The feeling of remoteness is so strong in that book at the Vanger mansion. It wouldn’t have worked in another setting? That’s interesting…Speaking about the big success of the films, you have the remake coming up. How did David Fincher become involved?
Well we have a partnership with Scott Rudin, the big US producer, and he had a deal with Columbia, who were already doing The Social Network together. So they approached him and asked if he was interested in directing this book.
He was, and we were very happy about that because he’s a big, big artist and he’s one who takes you out of the comfort zone. He wanted to do his own adaptation, totally his own. It’s not a remake, it’s his own version and he wanted to do it with a backdrop of Sweden, which we very happy about.
He’s a great artist, and he’s going to do a very excellent version, a big US distribution of a quality movie which will go out to all the corners of the world.
Our Swedish movie is still small, despite it being a big success from our point of view, compared to a huge American quality movie. The world is open for Stieg Larsson.
But with the book being so successful, and your film following that, is the English language version necessary? How is it going to be different?
It is necessary, because as I just told you we only cover five percent of the world, and therefore the remaining 95 percent is still there, they don’t know about our movie. It is also a writer who is dead now, he can’t produce anymore. It’s quite interesting that a big director like David Fincher will go to make his adaptation together with the writer Steve Zaillian, and as the books are very thick, he takes other paths through the book, and see things you don’t see in our movies and focus on different things.
Of course in some ways it’s the same, the basic story, but there’s a lot we didn’t tell in our story. It’s going to be very interesting, I’m very happy about it. Rooney Mara was a very interesting choice (for Lisbeth Salander), she’s much younger, she’s more vulnerable and it’s filmed in a way that’s much more touching, and closer to the book.
So how does she compare? Noomi did an almost iconic interpretation…
Noomi was excellent, but she was much stronger. She was much more of a finished person and knew ways to fight back. Rooney Mara is much more vulnerable, and this is very, very exciting to watch. Daniel Craig and her are a very interesting couple. He’s a great actor and when they are together and David Fincher’s directing, it’s incredible. That is something that Stieg’s family are happy for, a different artist doing a different adaptation of the same book.How do you feel about English language remakes in general?
We like it, another possibility to see another adaptation and to get an audience with these interesting rights that Yellow Bird have. As long as you have a talented artist it’s always interesting to see what kind of texture they put into a character, like Kenneth Branagh did with Wallander. In movies too, there’s another context there. It’s a way for us to come out even further in the world with the properties we have.
Is it important for Yellow Bird to have these English language remakes?
For us it is, because we need these networks in order to expand, not to be a big huge company, but just to have new ways of financing our further productions and to get to new markets. It was after the success of the BBC Wallander that TV companies got interested in the Swedish Wallander, they bought it after, we could have never have exported the Swedish language movies to the UK, but because of the BBC version the audience is prepared. It’s a strange logic but it’s a win-win situation for us as now we can sell the Swedish Wallander.
Will the Swedish film industry now just exist to have films remade?
At the moment, there’s Easy Money, which is going to be remade in Hollywood by Warner Bros, which is also within the same crime genre. Let Me In was also done. Every eye is on us, for a certain period I don’t know how long, on Scandinavian property…
Are you happy with it being like that?
Yeah, yeah, we are very happy! It’s once in a lifetime to have that experience. It gives us opportunity. One of our next movies at Yellow Bird is Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters. It’s a big Scandinavian movie that Yellow Bird have done in Norway, and Nesbø is the second best-selling author in the world from Scandinavia after Stieg Larsson.
We have the same distributor in the UK as the Millennium trilogy, and it’s going to have a release this August in Scandinavia. That helps us – everyone [anticipates] what is next from Yellow Bird after Millennium. There was good hype for this. It’s an exciting follow-up.