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Jackpot - Magnus Martens interview (exclusive)

Jackpot, Magnus Martens

Interview by Rob Carnevale

NORWEGIAN director Magnus Martens talks about some of the challenges of making Jackpot and why he enjoyed working with Jo Nesbo and paying homage to the Coen brothers.

He also discusses the recent success of Norwegian cinema, studying at the London Film School and his forthcoming television series, which is based on a popular Icelandic show and film.

Q. What was the biggest challenge of making Jackpot, given how much it twists and turns? I’d image finding the right tone was one of them?
Magnus Martens: Definitely! It was really hard trying to find the balance between what was funny, what was creepy and the crime element of it. It wasn’t as hard while writing but it was quite tricky while shooting, especially when it came to doing the comedy because it can be so easy to get carried away when doing the jokes. When you’re doing more serious things, you have to stay a little bit more focused. The even harder part, though, was during the editing and trying to find the balance again based on what footage you had. So, basically that was more about throwing away jokes and making it less funny. It was also kind of hard being a story that’s told retrospectively because everything had to fit all the way through to the ending. And we shot two or three different endings, so they all had to resonate.

Q. How did you choose which ending to go with? Did you find yourself ever second-guessing yourself?
Magnus Martens: We did test screenings, basically. Obviously, there is also a gut feeling as well. But the different endings were more about how clear the ending should be regarding what had happened in the film and who was guilty and who was not. I had a coupe that were even clearer and also one that was very open. But this ending, I think, is satisfying because some people think they understand everything that happened and others don’t have a clue… and I like that about it [laughs].

Q. How was working with Jo Nesbo?
Magnus Martens: Very good. He basically let me do more or less what I wanted to do with the story. But he was there all the time in the shadows and he helped me and offered suggestions and gave some tips and ideas. He also has a cruel sense of comedy, which I think fitted very well with my sense of humour. I think he just wanted to make sure that everything felt like a Jo Nesbo story but beyond that I could do what I wanted.

Q. Were you a fan of his prior to working with him?
Magnus Martens: To be honest, I hadn’t read that many of his books! Whereas, most other people in Norway had read almost everything he’d done by that point. But I think perhaps that was good in a way because in order to make the film I needed to make the material feel like it was mine. So, it was good to have a certain distance.

Q. And while it does retain a lot of Jo Nesbo elements, it’s also deliberately evocative of other films, such as the work of the Coen brothers. Is that fair to say?
Magnus Martens: Absolutely! That was very deliberate. There are a couple of homages to the Coens in there and I’m not ashamed to say that at all [laughs]. They have been such a big influence on what I do and what I regard as funny and good characters and funny characters. Basically, they have forged my taste as a filmmaker. I’m a big fan of all their work. In fact, I’m probably one of the few people who really, really like Burn After Reading, which I think perhaps people don’t find that funny. I think it’s great.

Q. I love it too… I mean the ‘scene’ between Brad Pitt and George Clooney is genius!
Magnus Martens: Right [laughs].

Q. Is there perhaps elements of Guy Ritchie in Jackpot too?
Magnus Martens: Well, obviously, he has done something really good and great and correct but, to be honest, I’m not his biggest fan. But the comparisons come from the nature of the criminals in Jackpot, and their appearance and the way they have that same kind of sensibility. The pacing and speed of the movie is also similar to works of his such as Snatch… as well as the use of these ‘stupid’ criminals. In fact, when we did test screenings, we asked people what kind of genre they thought the film was and a lot of people said ‘action comedy’. We never treated it that way, but if you look on IMDB then Snatch is also regarded as an action comedy and that’s basically because of the kind of characters and the pacing of it. It feels like action. But if you look at Snatch, there’s not that much action. It’s people moving fast and talking fast… a lot like Jackpot.

Q. Of the cast members on Jackpot, you’ve previously worked with Henrik Mestad, who plays the police inspector, on United. Did that help to create a nice short-hand?
Magnus Martens: Well, I knew he was very good at doing deadpan, quirky comedy. He’s a very serious actor normally. I think when I was doing United with him that was his first really comedic role. But his sensibility is such that he treats comedic roles the same way he does serious roles. He spends a lot of time finding the character. In this case, it was so important for him to find the right coat for the detective [laughs]! We spent ages trying to get the right coat for him. It was also very important for him to have a very small earring, which I don’t think you can even see in the film! We tried so many different rings. But he’s a very methodical actor and he has exceptionally good timing, which when it come to doing comedy is crucial.

Q. Talk about your main character, Oscar. Would you describe him as a hero?
Magnus Martens: [Smiles] Yes and no. As long as you trust him, he is the hero. It was a hard role for Kyrre Hellum to play and it was a hard role to write. But I absolutely regard him as a hero because the story is told through him. Obviously, we did try to play with the notion of having moments where we absolutely trust him and moments where we’re more unsure of whether he telling the truth or not. But that’s part of the fun.

Q. And the dynamic between Kyrre and Henrik had a Usual Suspects kind of vibe about it…
Magnus Martens: Those comparisons were kind of inevitable because of the way we use the interview and retrospectively let the story unfold through the viewpoint of Oscar. So, I knew that people might say, ‘it’s The Usual Suspects all over again’. But I just put that film away from my mind and tried to do things own way. I just tried to forget about Keyser Soze!


Q. Would you like to see Jackpot re-made for an American audience?
Magnus Martens: I would probably go and watch it but I would not have anything to do with it. It would be interesting to see what people would do with it. The premise of the story is pretty clear and it’s obviously a story that could go in so many directions. So, from that point of view it would be interesting to see what someone did with it.

Q. Would you like to make a film in America?
Magnus Martens: Absolutely! I was born and raised on American films… and British ones. There are some things cooking at the moment but I’m taking it slowly and seeing what happens.

Q. Isn’t it true that you studied at the London Film School? How come?
Magnus Martens: Yeah, I was at the London Film School in the ‘90s, basically because it was so easy to get into that school [laughs]. We didn’t have a film school in Norway at that point and the funding system was quite difficult for Norwegian films at that time. Whereas the London Film School was private at the time, so I think they let anybody in who had money… and we had money from the government [laughs]. I’m still paying it back [laughs again]. But it was frustrating at times because not everybody really wanted to work in films… some of the students just seemed to feel it was cool to study film and weren’t that serious. But I learned a lot about how things work while being there and, also, being there meant being part of the London scene and watching endless hours of films. So, it was a good time for me.

Q. You’ve just completed making a new television series with Troll Hunter’s leading man, Otto Jesperson. Can you talk about that?
Magnus Martens: It’s called Nattskiftet and it’s based on an Icelandic series which was hugely popular there. I think it went on for three seasons and was also made into a feature. The Icelandic do have a really strange sense of humour, so we had to re-write everything from scratch more or less. In fact, it became so popular over there that when the film came out it sold more tickets than Avatar. The series is about three people who are working at a petrol station at night, where nothing happens. But then a lot of things happen. It’s very quirky and very dark and sometimes a bit cruel. I have no idea how this will be received in Norway when it comes out. But I like it!

Q. Norwegian cinema is having a boom period based on the success of films like Troll Hunter and Headhunters – s this something you’ve noticed and does it make it easier to get films made and seen by wider audiences?
Magnus Martens: Yeah, Scandinavian cinema in general has had a lot of attention lately because of the films of Stieg Larsson and the likes of Headhunters and Troll Hunter, so I think we’re very lucky with the timing of this film. I feel there is a bigger following of Scandinavian films now, which is fantastic – and not only crime films…. we do make quite good films from time to time despite having a small film industry. Whereas in the past we might have been known for more personal films, the success of films like Headhunters has made it easier to finance more genre films and that, in turn, makes Norwegian cinema more accessible to audiences abroad. So, it’s a great time for us.

Read our review of Jackpot

Jackpot is released in UK cinemas on Friday, August 10, 2012