Berlin: 'Out Stealing Horses' Director on Embracing Nature (and Stellan Skarsgard)

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Hans Petter Moland

Hans Petter Moland speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about his Norwegian drama, a Berlin competition frontrunner, based on the Per Petterson best-seller about a man reflecting on a pivotal moment in his past.

Among a Berlin competition lineup packed with grimy tales of a German serial killer (Fatih Akin's The Golden Glove), an abusive priest (Francois Ozon's By the Grace of God) and an overworked woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown (Marie Kreutzer's The Ground Beneath My Feet), Hans Petter Moland's Out Stealing Horses — with its sumptuous visual style and deeply empathetic take on the human condition — stands out.

Moland's adaptation of the best-selling novel by Per Petterson sees the Norwegian director re-teaming with his Swedish muse, Stellan Skarsgard, who has starred in five of Moland's features —starting with Zero Kelvin back in 1995 and Aberdeen in 2000 and recently including A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010) and In Order of Disappearance (2014), both of which also premiered in Berlin competition.

But for Out Stealing Horses, Moland puts aside the wry humor and brutal on-screen violence of those films — the latter recently remade, by Moland himself, as the Liam Neeson vehicle Cold Pursuit — in favor of a more reflective tone for the tale of a man looking back to a summer 50 years ago that determined the course of his future.

Moland himself was in a reflective mood when he spoke to The Hollywood Reporter in the lobby of Berlin's Adlon Hotel, discussing the challenges of adapting Petterson's “unique and special novel” for the screen, the “emotional shorthand” he enjoys with Skarsgard and a single moment in his own life that changed everything.

Out Stealing Horses was a worldwide best-seller. What do you think it is about this story that spoke to so many people?

I think for the people who have read it, it is something that has made them extremely touched because it is a very unique and special novel. I think it resonates as being extremely true to some aspects of what it is like to be a human. It has an atmosphere and tone that really grabs you as a reader. It's not a clever plot that pulls you in, it's the writing that wonderfully wanders through the mind of a man who remembers, by accident, something from the past. And the book is very tactile in its descriptions of life, of specific aspects of nature, which I used as a roadmap in planning the movie.

It's taken several years to adapt the book, which first came out in 2003 in Norway. How did you finally crack it?

There have been attempts to develop it before, with other directors and other writers, but it is a complex book. I found a way into the material when I decided to allow the structure of the novel to pretty much stay the same. The book, and the film, jump back and forth continually between basically two periods —1999, when we first see Stellan Skarsgard's character as an old man, and 1949, when as a boy he had a pivotal experience. The film breaks the norms of what people are used to seeing in a movie theater. It is structurally unusual in that it tries to move as effortlessly as possible between those two times.

The novel and the film begin with a man who lives out in the woods on a small old tenant farmer house. He wants to live there alone. It is approaching New Year's 2000. He doesn't intend to celebrate. He is just going to get drunk on his own and have it mean nothing. It is a story about a man who has an idea that he can live in isolation and peace. If someone told him "No man is an island," he'd say "Well, I want to be one." And like most people who try that, he fails miserably. He has a neighbor who encroaches on his life, and through that he is reminded of and thrown back to his past, to a specific summer, of 1949, that was a pivotal time in his life.

Nature seems to play a big role in the story and the impact of the environment on the main character.

I was really taking on board the sense of nature and human nature that's in the book and making the physicality of the characters' surroundings as important as what they are doing or saying. There is actually very little dialogue in the film, so you have to pay attention to the physicality of the surroundings, not just using those as backdrop but really paying attention to the details. It has to do with set design and costume, but just as much as what you pay attention to.

There is one example in the film: the young boy — who is Stellan Skarsgard's figure as a 15-year-old, who is mowing tall grass. There is a patch of nettles and he doesn't cut them, telling his father they hurt. His father grabs into the patch and starts pulling up the stinging nettles and says to his son, "We decide for ourselves what will hurt." In that scene, it is the focus on the physical and tactile — on how the nettles hurt the skin, on how the boy watches his father while he tears them up — that makes it most evocative.

This is your fifth film with Stellan Skarsgard. How is it different working with someone on film after film?

We have a shorthand in terms of accessing elements of our craft. If you work with somebody good once, you want to work with them again, to deepen the relationship and find an even greater depth to the performance. And it deepens the fun. But he still needs a director, and I still need an actor who is on his toes. I think part of what we do together is egg each other on to be more daring.

This isn't a war story, but there are echoes of the Nazi occupation of Norway, the Norwegian resistance and how that experience shapes the characters.

It is a little part of the movie, strictly concerning when one of the characters has a moment of what I wouldn't call cowardice but rather a normal human fear of the occupying German soldiers and of how that one moment has a devastating consequence. But the book has a lot of mysteries in it, and I constructed the film a bit like a mystery too. One particular day you are in a war, which had huge consequences with the people of Norway. But it's a mystery I want to leave for the people who watch the film to find out for themselves.

The book elegantly avoids, with two exceptions, the 50 years in between 1949 and 1999. So it allows you to participate in imagining what that life has been filled with. And actually the character, the old man as he jumps back and forth, he's a manifestation of those two years: what he did or didn't make of his life. You don't get to know a lot about the choices he made in between, but you see the consequences, one being that he has chosen to live in isolation.

And it goes back to a choice that is made in the heat of the moment, one that is not intended to have great consequences but does. Like deciding to go left instead of right and walking into a different future.

The story seems to address a bigger question of how we view history: as a grand narrative of decisions and consequences, or as a series of accidents that could have turned out differently.

I think that is interesting, and in terms of history in general — we tend to look at history in several ways, but often in terms of greater movements. Like if you look at our time now, you can look at the specifics of [French right-wing politician] Marie Le Pen or [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban or Trump or whatever, or you can look at it as something which is related to conditions, like globalization, that bring certain things to the surface. The technology that came with computers brought human beings to a radically different place. And I don't think we know what the result will be. Two hundred years from now, somebody can look at it, like we looked at the Industrial Revolution, and say human life was radically altered.

But in history, it's also true that great thoughts come from one source, from one individual, one inspiration. That's why the shooting of [Archduke] Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo has been given such significance in the starting of World War I.

And I know from my own private history this is true. There is a person who is thoroughly unaware of it but who had a profound influence on me as a person and altered my life's path.

She was a girl in my class who suggested I should apply as an exchange student to the United States. She happened to be the coolest girl in my class, and the most beautiful, and the most free-spirited. And I had been kicked out of school. So it was a such a stretch, the whole idea of going to the U.S. as an exchange student. And if hadn't been her saying "Go on, give it a try," I wouldn't have done it. That one impulse of injecting some good faith into someone else's life affected my path.

The odds of me getting picked were small, but it happened. And I lived in the States for a year, lived with wonderful people who gave me new insight into my life. I was in a miserable state before — my parents had just divorced — and things changed afterwards, and changed for the better. It gave me renewed faith in me as a human being, which I had downgraded.

She doesn't know it, to this day. But I remind myself, occasionally, that we do affect other people's lives by how we conduct ourselves.