'Cold Pursuit' Director on Neeson Controversy: "I Know Liam Is Not a Racist"

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'Cold Pursuit' director Hans Petter Moland

Director Hans Petter Moland is in Berlin with his latest film, the Norwegian drama 'Out Stealing Horses.'

Hans Petter Moland is really in Berlin to talk about Out Stealing Horses, his new film starring Stellan Skarsgard, which premieres Saturday in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival. But first, he knows, he has to say something about Liam Neeson.

Neeson's recent comments — made during the promotion campaign for the Moland-directed Cold Pursuit — recalling wanting to "unleash physical violence" against a random African-American man have sparked an online firestorm and public backlash. "I know Liam is not a racist," Moland told The Hollywood Reporter. "From my experience though he is extremely honest — even at his own expense."

In an interview with The Independent, Neeson told a reporter that 40 years ago he was consumed with a desire for revenge after a close friend revealed she had been brutally raped and told Neeson her assailant was black. Neeson has said he was horrified by his own “medieval” reaction at the time. Moland noted that Cold Pursuit — a U.S. adaptation of his own Norwegian movie An Order of Disappearance — "is actually a cautionary tale about the futility of revenge" which uses "irreverent humor to point fun at and ridicule bigotry and misogyny and gangster mythology and macho swagger."

Berlin is abuzz with discussion of Neeson and his comments, in part because the 66-year-old Oscar-nominated actor is something like the public face of the festival, his wryly smirking visage staring down from posters of the Berlinale's official media partner, German channel ZDF. The channel, which told THR the campaign was tied to its planned broadcast of three Liam Neeson films this spring, declined comment.

"It's troubling ... when the first thing you see when you open the Berlinale program is his picture. I don’t think that was the festival's goal or the goal of the director of the film," said Asmund Hasli, a Norwegian film executive.

Neeson is also a looming presence at the European Film Market, with several of his projects making the rounds with buyers, including HanWay's comedy Made in Italy, which co-stars Neeson's real-life son Micheal Richardson; and Bankside's romantic drama The Normal People with Lesley Manville. But despite the online firestorm, few industry professionals expect the current controversy to impact sales of future Neeson films, or the box office performance of Cold Pursuit.

"We are delighted with the film," noted Adolfo Blanco, whose A Contracorriente will bow the movie in Spain. Noted a veteran European buyer: "Audiences won't really care [about the scandal]. The film will succeed or fail on its own merits."

Dasha Bezjak and Jennifer Green contributed to this report.