Norwegian director Morten Tyldum Blends Mystery and Humor in Headhunters
The film is based on a book of the same name by Jo Nesbo, Norway’s No. 1 mystery writer, who has developed an avid fan base in the United States as well. After breaking all-time box-office records in its native country, Headhunters recently opened in Los Angeles and New York City and is now being rolled out around the United States. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures, it is also available on video-on-demand cable services.
The movie’s plot plays on the double meaning of the title: Suave but unsavory, Roger Brown, deftly portrayed by Aksel Hennie, is one of Oslo’s top corporate headhunters, recruiting key executives for large corporations. Living a lifestyle beyond his means in order to maintain the affections of his demanding statuesque blonde wife, he has a second career as an art thief who fences the paintings to add to his wealth. He takes a big risk trying to steal a valuable Rubens painting from the home of a client whom he has been trying to recruit, who turns out to be a well-armed former mercenary. From this point on, it’s Roger’s head that is ruthlessly hunted.
Norway has a small but sophisticated film industry. “We all know each other very well – it’s very intimate and you work with people you trust,” says Tyldum. “That gives me a comfort level when I start a movie.” Nearly all of the production crew and many of the actors have worked with the director on previous films, most notably Buddy (2003), which won an Amanda Award (Norway’s equivalent of the Oscar) and was his breakthrough film, and Fallen Angels, (2008), nominated for best direction.
On Headhunters, the production keys include: director of photography John Andreas Andersen; production designer Nina Bjerch-Andres; editor Vidar Flataukan, and costume designer Karen Fabritius Gram. Also, Tormod Ringnes did the sound design; and Trond Bjerknaes and Jeppe Kaas composed the original music.
Andersen’s cinematography is tight and versatile, with a range of realistic looks that vividly capture the action without calling attention to the camerawork. The production design efficiently conveys a number of settings from the Scandinavian modern corporate offices at the beginning of the picture, to the richly decorated homes involved in several art heists and then to more rough-hewn interiors and exteriors as the film opens up.
The pursuit includes a number of close escapes that are suspenseful and also appalling. There is a dramatic auto chase and accident and a violent bare knuckles fight. In addition there’s a now notorious scene that makes an audience simultaneously squirm and giggle when the main character, in order to hide from his pursuer and his menacing dog, dives into an all-too-realistic pool of excrement that is the effluent from an outhouse.Tyldum calls parts of Headhunters “totally over the top” and acknowledges he has been influenced by the Coen Brothers. “I’m a huge fan of theirs,” he says, citing Fargo as his favorite film. “I like the way they portray violence, making it painful and gritty but also funny. I also try to find a way to push a scene emotionally and physically, and I also like to add humor. I want the audience to find a scene to be horrible, but then find they can’t stop laughing.”
Headhunters was lensed in a compact 40-day shoot that took place during the winter months in and around Oslo, which can be brutal. Hennie was also called upon to do many of his own stunts. “We don’t have a professional stunt industry here, so when we are doing action scenes it’s up to the actors and me to pull them off,” says the director. “Aksel is not only a great actor, he’s also such a physical talent. He was pretty beaten up and he had cuts and bruises all over after several scenes.”
One way Tyldum handles a tight shooting schedule is to ask for thorough preparation from the actors. “Extended rehearsals are very important to me,” says the director, who asks the cast to rehearse for three or four weeks. “There are scenes you want to choreograph in advance so everyone knows exactly what they’re doing before I arrive on the set.”Though most of his career has been centered in Norway, he is familiar with American films and filmmakers. At 19 he came to this country and for three years he attended the School of Visual Arts in New York. “I was young, and felt I got a lifetime of experience, not so much from going to film school but from living in Manhattan with all its richness.”
Headhunters is the first Nesbo book to be made into a movie. “He’s very restrictive,” observes Tyldum. “But once he approved, he was hands-off. He was not involved in the script at all. ‘It is now my story to tell,’ I said to him and he accepted that.” The novel is unique in that it’s the only one by the author that doesn’t include his signature detective Harry Hole. Director Martin Scorsese is reportedly adapting for his next film another Nesbo best-seller, Snowman, which does include Hole.
The buzz generated by Headhunters has propelled Tyldum’s career. He is directing his first English-language movie, What Happened to Monday? Currently in prep, it is set to start shooting in a few weeks at locations including New York, Canada and Europe. The dystopian thriller is about a set of septuplets struggling to stay underground in an overpopulated world where a one-child policy makes siblings illegal. The producer is Philippe Rousselot’s Vendome Pictures.
And Tyldum, also prominent as a director of commercials in Norway, recently signed with Bully Pictures, representing a number of top ad directors, to be his exclusive representative in the United States. Tyldum has won two Bronze Lion awards at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity.