Simon Kaijser: Bringing Scandi Noir to the US

October 3, 2018
The Swedish director of Spinning Man on how Guy Pearce, Pierce Brosnan and Minnie Driver saved his ass.

Spinning Man is a philosophical thriller starring Guy Pearce, Pierce Brosnan, Minnie Driver and Odeya Rush. The film is based on the novel by George Harrar, which was inspired by true events.

Guy Pearce plays Evan Birch – a family man and esteemed philosophy professor at a distinguished small-town college. On the surface, Evan’s life is perfect – he has a loving wife (Minnie Driver), two young children and a classroom of admiring students. When Evan becomes the primary suspect in the disappearance of a young girl, this facade begins to unravel. Pierce Brosnan plays Malloy – a weary detective who is determined to prove Evan’s guilt.

Production of Spinning Man originally began in 2016, with Peter Flinth as director and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Greg Kinnear and Emma Roberts in the cast. An overhaul took place in 2017 (due to production delays), and Simon Kaijser was brought on as the new director, followed by a brand new cast.

In Sweden, Kaijser is an acclaimed film and television director, very much a part of the Scandi noir television series explosion. Spinning Man is his second English-language project, after BBC’s Life in Squares. “I came on board Spinning Man quite late,” Kaijser admits. “My manager had worked with one of the producers before, and they brought my attention to the script. I read through it and thought that it was a really good match for me. I really liked the story and the characters.”

In particular, Kaijser loved that the film read as a contemporary film noir that dealt with existential questions. “The film was right up my alley,” he muses. “Although it’s a suspenseful film, it’s actually entirely character driven. There is no action element to it. The plot is driven by the nature of the characters, and I thought that was really refreshing.

“I’m quite interested in questions of what makes people tick – why we get up in the morning. I think one of the themes of this film is the notion that truth and guilt are relative, and I find that idea quite exciting.”

Since he was a child, Kaijser has been particularly interested in exploring complex characters, and he became infatuated with film noir when he was a child in the ‘80s. “At the time, the mainstream movies had heroes that played firmly on the good side of the good-bad spectrum,” he remarks. “Then I saw film noir, once I discovered old movies, and I just loved how complex the characters were. They weren’t necessarily on the good side. They could do good things but be bad people, or vice versa. I think film noir also has a mood that you don’t see in anything else. It’s hard to replicate, but I think the atmosphere can definitely be applied to contemporary filmmaking; so can the complex characters.”

Spinning Man certainly doesn’t lack complex characters. Evan, in particular, raises interesting questions about truth, identity and memory. “It’s hard to reveal too much about Evan without giving things away,” Kaijser says. “Evan is a philosophy professor, so obviously he’s a very philosophical person. He becomes a suspect in an investigation, and it’s all about how he acts in response to this scrutiny. That’s what really interests me about this film – the idea of what happens to a person that is under a certain pressure. Does the pressure change the nature of this person? Do they stay the same? Is there something inside of them that they haven’t really discovered or that they are afraid of? There are lots of sides to the character, and we get to explore these under quite particular circumstances.”

When Kaijser came on board to direct the film, the project didn’t yet have actors attached. “We were basically starting the film from scratch,” he says. “We were so lucky to get Guy Pearce on board – he was absolutely perfect to play Evan. And then to get Pierce Brosnan and Minnie Driver – they are all such great matches for their parts. They all proved to be so spot on in their instincts. They basically saved my ass, because we were shooting to such a tight schedule, and they were so well-prepared and so professional. They were so easy to work with – it was a delight.

“Guy was so prepared for his character. He’s a real thinking actor – the choices he makes aren’t random. We had a really tight schedule, so he had analysed and developed his character before we started shooting. He made my life so much easier.”

Kaijser was also directing in a foreign country and speaking his second language. “In Sweden, we start learning English quite early, so most of us speak English quite fluently. It does take me a day or two to adjust to speaking English though. Once I’m up and running it’s okay. In Swedish, I’m very precise in how I phrase myself, and I think this is slightly dulled when I speak English, which can be frustrating for me, but I don’t think anyone really notices.”

Language wasn’t the only thing Kaijser had to get used to – he also had to adjust to the ways of the American film industry. “In Sweden, films are often financed by film funds. In the US, films don’t just exist to realise the artistic expression of the artists involved. And that’s something I had to be aware of. American films have to work within a market. You can still make artistic films, but they have to function within the industry and you need to convince people to put money behind them. In some ways it’s a harsher reality, but it can also be liberating.”

Kaijser’s main goal as a filmmaker is to find interesting projects, whether they are based in the UK, the US or Sweden. Currently, he is finishing production on a Swedish film, but he hopes to direct more English-language films in the future.

Spinning Man launches on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital on October 3, 2018

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