Outsiders say there is something dark in the Swedish psyche. For a country known by a number of its regions bathing in perpetual darkness for long spells and its unfortunately high suicide rate, it’s only natural to lean in and blow out the candle from time to time.
For mainstream consumers, Sweden’s evil twin, the one locked up and chained in the attic and intermittently fed scraps, has reared its ugly head in the form of literature and film over the last decade. Stieg Larsson’s super-smash Millennium trilogy and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s grim and gripping novel double whammy of Let The Right One In and Handling The Undead, gave us devilish insights into the national undercurrent in both human and supernatural settings. Beneath blankets of snow, high taxation and relative isolation on the world stage, something else lurks.
Indeed, not long into our conversation and director Daniel Fridell is regaling us with a tale of how a group of friends of his were murdered in a gangland vendetta. Fittingly, it also provided the material for one of his early films.
For a man whose career thus far has ridden the wave of ‘dark drama’, is what Daniel creates and offers to the public a hangover from his country’s collective mental fugue, something deeper within him or, perhaps, a deadly mix of the two?
“I think it’s a mix of the two. One of my first films (The Searchers) came about because some of my best friends were murdered and I thought it was such an important story.
“I used to go to this martial arts club when I was around 14 or 15 years old. Also in that club were a bunch of guys who were not really a part of things. They would rob banks, houses and were involved in other criminal things. They were good guys but just happened to fall on the wrong side of life. When I saw them again a couple of years later they were heavily involved in drugs and on the run from the police.
“When I got talking to them properly with the view to making a film I soon came to realise that there were no real investigations or discussions about Sweden’s criminal or underclasses. So I decided to go ahead and write and shoot the film. But before it was ever released some of my friends were killed in a gang vendetta, which ended up being a big story here in Sweden.”
According to other sources, The Searchers’ main actor Liam Norberg was arrested at the film’s premiere for committing the biggest robbery in Northern Europe. There were accusations made that the film had been financed with some of the 100 million Euros stolen from the bank. Thankfully, nothing stuck and the film went on to #1 at the Swedish box office.
Proving that you can’t keep a good man down, Daniel struggled through adversity before landing on his feet again with his next project. Cry, an urban Romeo & Juliet story, which soon knocked off films like The Lion King from the #1 box office spot. Cry was nominated at the Tokyo Film Festival and went on to win several prizes including Best Youth Film at the Rotterdam Film Festival.
But then what else would you expect from a man with a strong work ethic so deeply ingrained into his psyche? He pulled a stint at the European Filmakademie in Berlin where he studied under Wim Wenders and Jan de Bont in the early 90s, before traveling to LA with de Bont to work on the Hollywood blockbusters Twister and Basic Instinct.
His early features, including Beneath The Surface, Swedish Beauty, Bloodbrothers and Say That You Love Me, all came replete with critical and commercial success, and set Daniel on the path he treads slowly but surely today.
Daniel’s evidently keen eye for a gripping story developed when his grandmother, Saga Sjöberg, bequeathed him a Super 8 camera as a child. Saga also had some notable experience in the field of performance and expression, having done a turn in a number of films and sang in her earlier days.
“I was given a Super 8 camera when I was around six or seven years old and I made two or three small films with it, which was great fun. She went on to play parts in my first two films (The Searchers and Beneath The Surface) but sadly died before the premiere of my third. She was great and was in fact the only person who really offered their support in those early days.”
This early introduction to the possibilities of film and filmmaking coupled with Daniel’s global approach has seen to it that his work is well-rounded, drawing from a number of influences. Splitting his time between Sweden, continental Europe, Los Angeles and Cuba, Daniel also found time to co-write and co-produce Japanese horror flick Apartment 1303. The Japanese approach gave Daniel an insight into how to be more concise in the creation and delivery of his projects, as he explains:
“They have a real strict discipline in Japan, they work very hard and also have much shorter shooting schedules than in the US and Europe. Where in Japan they shoot over 12 days, in Europe and the States it could be anywhere from 20 to 40 days.”
This global panoramic view has taken Daniel away from the slums of the mind and into the wide world of colour, oddness and gripping stories that cover both real life and fiction. In particular, his love affair with the island of Cuba has added Pollock-esque slashes of vibrancy to both his life and his work. A decade of shuttling back and forth to the island has imbued him with a wider scope. It is a stark contrast to his ruthless conversational efficiency, something else he may have learned from the Japanese. Daniel doesn’t waste time beating around the bush when he gives his impressions of the island, nor indeed anything else. It’s a fine trait for a director to have.
Explaining his love for and connection to Cuba, Daniel is typically and thankfully concise. “I’m interested in history and politics, and I think they have a fantastic solution to dealing with both in Cuba,” he says, before laughing and adding “…and of course it’s much warmer than Sweden!”
It was in Cuba that he stumbled upon the mystical El Medico. A doctor by day and would-be hip hop superstar by night, El Medico struggled with the needs and wants of his country’s perpetual Communist revolution, and the wishes of his mother, against the backdrop of his own ambition and chance to make an international music presence. Daniel picks up the thread of this rather unlikely but life-changing series of events:
“I have a friend who is a music producer working for One Music and he found this doctor, who was something of a legend up in the mountains in Sierra Maestra where the revolution started. My friend, Michel, asked if I wanted to make a documentary about *him* but I decided to focus on El Medico instead… mainly because he was more interesting!
“I simply fell in love with this story about Fidel Castro’s doctor who tried to become this gigantic pop star but wasn’t allowed to leave his own country to tour because he was there to serve the revolution. I just couldn’t resist the story. It was so good I couldn’t even turn it into a work of fiction.”
Daniel’s presentation of this wondrous real-life tale of politics, family, ambition and sacrifice was enough to scoop the Best Documentary prize at the 2012 New York International Latino Film Festival.
The biggest and best is yet to come for Daniel though, and his two biggest projects to date are also by far the most exciting. First of all, there’s the upcoming Ephraim Longstocking and the Cannibal Princess on which Daniel is a writer, an overdue revival of the Longstocking franchise centering on her son and that came with the first blessing from the estate of creator Astrid Lindgren for nearly three decades.
“In the year since we made an agreement they’ve gone on to give the go-ahead to make cartoons using the name, but yes before I met them they hadn’t okayed anything for nearly 30 years. I’d got into contact with an explorer who had discovered that Pippi Longstocking probably lived for real in Papua New Guinea. So we both went there and actually found her ancestors and the place where she would have lived at the time. It turns out her father was a Swedish sailor called Carl Petterson so for the most part the story of Pippi Longstocking is true. We made a request to the Astrid Lingdren estate and they allowed us to go ahead and make the film. It wasn’t as simple as it sounds though. We spent two to three years researching and putting all the information together.”
Also on Daniel’s horizon is the sprawling, contentious and controversial A Private Story; a film that promises to have more twists and turns than a spaghetti fight. Telling the story of a father and son, Berth Milton Sr. and Jr., A Private Story details the establishment and growth of Private Films, one of the world’s biggest porn empires. What followed in its wake were feuds, bad blood and assassination attempts.
The project has taken a little while to get off the ground, with some reports from 2012 stating the film would be in the can by the following year. But, as Daniel explains, the film’s gestation stretches back even further than that.
“I screened my first movie at Cannes Festival in 1994. All of the other directors, writers and producers were at some really boring arts seminar with some poet or other from the Czech Republic. Then a rumour spread that Berth Milton Jr. was on the beach with a bunch of his girls, so everybody seemed to sneak out and head to that party instead of being at the boring arts talk. Then Berth walked up to me and asked if I wanted to work for him, but unfortunately it wasn’t possible at that time for me.”
“We next met again in 1999. At that point Private was the biggest porn company in the world. To celebrate his success he held a massive party, which I was invited to. At that time there was a lot about Milton and Private in the Swedish and Scandinavian press, particularly to do with the rumors that his father had hired contract killers to assassinate him. I basically asked him if I could make a movie about it. He told me that I must really be crazy. He was living in a safe house at the time and Europol were guarding him from his father and the hitmen. Given those circumstances he had to turn me down as it was too dangerous to get involved. Then seven years later he calls me up and asks if I want to talk about this story… nd that’s how it all got started!
““The story itself is very much like the Godfather; a family help to create one of the world’s biggest porn empires. It has all of those ingredients and just like the Godfather, it’s a really epic story.”
It certainly is! But where Daniel and Co. may run into trouble is in the fact that, inevitably, there are going to be quite a few opposing opinions on what actually happened. Berth Milton Jr. is on record as saying that A Private Story is going to cause some of the more rich and powerful, as well as criminal, elements of society a few sleepless nights. How do Daniel and his team aim to eliminate those kind of problems?
“It’s an issue that is very emotional; the idea that a father hired killers to take out his own son. That’s the climax of the film, I’m thinking of the inner core of the story, where a son builds up a huge porn empire in order to get love and acceptance from his own father. Instead, the father gets jealous and wanted to kill him. That’s the theme of the film that I will be relaying to the audience.
“I realised that when I took up the project. It might anger some powerful people, and some criminal people, but the story is just too good to not be told, and it’s not up to me to be afraid of anything like that. Maybe some other people will have to be protected or looked after but we’ll be ready for that.”
Daniel is even so bold to say, when put on the spot, that A Private Story is due to be his crowning achievement in film so far. That’s no mean feat for what we came to realize was a staunch perfectionist always looking to squeeze as much as possible from his talent.
“I would actually say A Private Story is my favourite project that I’ve ever done. I’m actually disappointed with all of my previous films, but the one I am the least disappointed with is Beneath The Surface.
“If I ever watch them back I can see all the errors and mistakes I made. I can appreciate certain scenes in my films but with Under Ytan I can appreciate the whole thing… except one scene particular scene where we tried some stupid visual stuff to show off when there was a great story there already. It was a newcomer’s mistake really but it irritates me so much!”
And there you have it. Let it be known that Daniel Fridell is not one to rest on his laurels or even be satisfied with his own work. While we hope he finds peace of mind and real satisfaction one day, let’s pray that he never loses his drive or ambition.