Lasse Hallstrom's Cider House Rules

Submitted by Bazza on Wed, 03/01/2000 - 03:58

What does a Swedish film director look like? More to the point, what does a Swedish film director whose early work includes Abba: The Movie and a segment for The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour that was dropped from the final edit look like? Bitter, probably.

Waiting to meet Lasse Hallström, then, I'm half expecting a grim Benny Anderson-Bjorn Borg hybrid: wispy beard, blonde hair, good English, bad headband, white flared Elvis-in-Stockholm jumpsuit. 

If you've seen Hallström's later films - notably My Life As A Dog (for which he also earned an Oscar nomination for Best Director) and What's Eating Gilbert Grape? - you won't be surprised that he looks nothing of the sort. Mild-mannered, unassuming and clean-shaven, he has the precise air and imprecise dress sense of a geography teacher at a 1980s secondary modern; kind eyes, too, and a childish delight in his grasp of English idiom.

''I must just go and spend a penny,'' are his first words. It's an image which is in keeping with the Lasse Hallström that dedicated cinemagoers know; the maker of gentle, unsentimental comedies in which children and childhood feature, but which never shy away from the ugly or the unsavoury sides of life. 

Children in Hallström's films tend to be outsiders in one way or another. ''Write what you know'' is the advice given to would-be novelists; is "Film what you've lived" the cinematic equivalent? Hallström, penny spent, rocks back in his seat and laughs loudly.

''I can't go back and label myself as an outcast because I was a pretty well-adjusted kid, but I can certainly relate to the feeling of being an outsider. I was shy and a bit awkward. Yeah, I can relate to that. I was sensible in a way that made me too vulnerable to rough games. I wasn't well-adjusted to the tough world of children.'' 

A little bit like Ingemar, then, the weird, mischievous 12-year-old at the heart of Hallström 's breakthrough film My Life As A Dog, set in 1950s Sweden. His childhood overshadowed by a terminally ill mother, Ingemar retreats into an imaginary world where he develops an obsession with Soviet cosmomutt Laika, the dog which orbited the earth in Sputnik 2 in 1957. 

Such themes of alienation return in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, which has at its heart the most dysfunctional family since the Munsters: Johnny Depp, in the title role, is the dignified loser who must look after retarded younger brother Leonardo DiCaprio as well as an obese mother who hasn't left the house for years. 

Both films have a tragi-comic feel that reflects Hallström's early cinematic influences: as a child he was shown reel after reel of Charlie Chaplin shorts on his father's home projector. 

And so on to The Cider House Rules: the third in a series of films which Hallström sees as being thematically linked. ''This one feels like a relative, like a sibling movie to those ones,'' he says in his near-perfect English. 

''Those three have something in common. It's the bizarre element and the comedic and the dramatic. And childhood. Adapted by John Irving from his bestseller of the same name, the film is set in the early 1940s and stars Michael Caine and the deeply affecting Tobey Maguire alongside a cast which also includes Charlize Theron, Delroy Lindo, r&b star Erykah Badu (in her first acting role) and rapper Heavy D. 

Caine is wayward doctor Wilbur Larch, benevolent overlord of the rambling, isolated St Cloud's orphanage. A force for good, certainly, but a man who has adapted the rules to suit his own belief system. 

''Goodnight you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England,'' he says tenderly as he closes the boys' dorm door and prepares for an evening drugged out of his mind on ether. 

Maguire is Homer Wells, an orphan under Larch's care. As he grows, a father-son relationship develops, to the extent that Wells soon knows as much about gynaecology and paediatrics as his mentor - though he refuses to carry out the illegal abortions which Larch feels are necessary for the well-being of the desperate young women who come to him. 

One such is Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron), who sets in train the events which end with Wells leaving the safety of the orphanage and entering the real world. He gets as far as a nearby apple farm where he lodges in the cider house with a group of black migrant workers headed by the father and daughter team of Delroy Lindo and Erykah Badu. It's here that Wells encounters the piece of paper on which are written the cider house rules. 

''The cider house rules are the metaphor for those rules that you feel you have to oppose because you feel they don't make sense to you,'' says Hallström . ''They're imposed on you by people who know nothing about your circumstances.'' 

Just as Wilbur Larch breaks the law to help his patients, so the cider house rules are bent by people for whom they have no significance - so Homer Wells breaks his own rules to benefit the people he cares about.

There is one other infinitely more taboo-ridden subplot to the film, but it is the abortion theme which brings about two of the most significant moments. It is interesting, then - especially given the film's Oscar successes (Screenplay Adaptation for John Irvine, Supporting Actor awards for Michael Caine plus five nominations) - that there hasn't been more made of this in America. 

''So far there hasn't been any furore, which surprised me,'' says Hallström. ''I thought there'd be a stronger negative response from the pro-life movement. I can't tell why that is because, coming from Sweden and stepping into the story, I guess I was made to think this wouldn't be so much of a controversy. It's just, for me, the natural standard: a woman should be able to decide over her own body.'' 

Once again, Hallström's quirky yet gentle vision betrays a thorny heart. The director says the challenge of filming Irving's script was ''dealing with sentiment without being sentimental. I tried to counter any sentimentality, to tell the story as honestly as possible without manipulation.'' 

Opinion will be divided over whether he has achieved this: despite his claim that the scenes in the orphanage are among the darkest he has ever filmed, there is a constant sense of having wandered into an ad for Gap Kids. Tousled cherubs in colourful knits fire snowballs through sharp winter sunlight and it is only the odd pause for an aborted foetus to be tipped into the incinerator which drags the whole thing back into a different world. 

Like the children under Larch's care, the film of John Irving's novel had a forlorn and troubled early life. The writer had tried for over a decade to bring it to the screen, writing treatments for a succession of directors including Michael Winterbottom and Wayne Wang.

Original director Philip Borsos had died before shooting could begin, and Hallström himself was nervous about working with a script which had been written by an author of Irving's standing.

''When I see him on TV he seems very imposing - he's this literary giant,'' says Hallström with un-auteur-like modesty. ''But the producer assured me that he was a nice man and that really was confirmed.'' So nice, in fact, that Hallström ended up giving him a walk-on part as an avuncular station master. 

Irving wasn't the only one coming to film for the first time: Erykah Badu had never acted before, while Heavy D's previous roles have mostly been limited to playing himself in rapsploitation flicks. That was a deliberate ploy on Hallström 's part. 

''I love mixing amateurs and professionals,'' he says. ''I love improvising. I love involving actors at all levels - and they have to know that I want to hear their contributions, with dialogue, with story suggestions, with script changes, whatever. I really think that helps. And we have to be in synch - I'd rather have actors inhabit the parts.'' 

Hallström is married to Swedish actress Lena Olin and has lived in upstate New York since 1997. But as a European film maker working in the USA, his vision of the country and its people is still inevitably filtered through the cultural weave of his own continent, whether it is the New Wave of Truffaut or the work of countryman Ingmar Bergman. 

But unlike, say, Luc Besson, whose vision of New York in Leon shows a very different city from the one Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese would recognise, Hallström says he has no interest in reinventing the Maine of The Cider House Rules. It's people, not places, which fascinate him. 

''If I recognise behaviour and I recognise inter-relations between people then I am perfectly fine, whatever backdrop these people have,'' he says. 

''If I can recognise and relate to the story - and in my case I prefer character-driven stories and not plot-driven ones - it doesn't create a problem. If it's behaviour I recognise then it's probably universal.''

And finally, what about Abba: The Movie? For Hallström it was his first shot at using helicopters, piloting steadicams and getting to grips with four-track sound equipment; the downside was that for years the film must have looked like a blemish on an otherwise impressive cinematic CV. 

Since the band's cultural rehabilitation, however, hasn't it acquired a certain cachet? He thinks about that for a moment before he answers. ''It's good to have revenge,'' he says. So maybe he does have an Elvis-in-Stockholm jumpsuit after all.