Thursday, April 19, 2012


The Devil’s In The Details:

An EXCLUSIVE interview with

By Stephen SPAZ Schnee

     Inspired by real life events, The King Of Devil’s Island tells the story of the Bastoy Island correctional facility in Norway, which was home to troubled boys in the early part of the 20th century. Filled with everything from petty thieves to lost souls, the island seemed like a good alternative to prison with its promises of rehabilitation and hope. That is, until you got there…
     When Erling (Benjamin Helstad) and Ivar (Magnus Langlete) arrive together on the island, it becomes painfully obvious that Bastoy is more than a glorified summer camp. Under the heavy hand of the facility’s governor (Stellan Skarsgard), the boys are shoe-horned into the system, stripped of their names and given numbers and soon discover the realities of the situation: manual labor, rigid discipline and the threat of harsh punishment. It is then that Erling begins to stand up against the system, inspiring those around him to look deep within themselves and take control of their own lives.
     While the film’s premise is based around the incidents leading up to the boys revolting against the regime, it is the transformation of each character that makes The King Of Devil’s Island compelling. At center stage is Skarsgard, the always great Swedish actor, who shares the screen with some brilliant young talent. Helstad is great as the rebellious Erling, while newcomer Trond Nilsson gives an outstanding performance as Olav. Kristoffer Joner’s portrayal of the sexually abusive Brathen is both chilling and oddly sympathetic.
     Directed by Marius Holst, The King Of Devil’s Island is a film that masterfully exposes the many layers of the human psyche while also offering hope for the human spirit. It is a dark and atmospheric film that never hides the fact that there is sunshine just beyond the clouds. The film does not tell a happy tale, yet it offers hope for the hopeless and faith for the faithless. .
     Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to have a chat with star and co-producer Stellan Skarsgard, who offered some insight into the film and his career thus far…

SPAZ: The King Of Devil’s Island is finally being released in the U.S. How are you feeling about this project and the reaction it has received so far?
STELLAN SKARSGARD: It’s been very well received, but it’s like all foreign language films: it takes time and it’s hard to get them out there and the release is never very big. It’s a strong film. I co-produced it and even put money into it: I wanted it to be made. I’m quite proud of it…. Especially of the boys, who are all amateurs.

SPAZ: What attracted you to this project in the first place? Where you already aware of the history of the island and the correctional facility?
STELLAN: I wasn’t familiar with the history because it’s a Norwegian story and I’m Swedish. But I knew the director from 10 years back or so and I wanted to work with him in one way or another. He has been talking about this project for years. When he started the casting process of the boys, he went out and found boys that were amateurs with troubled backgrounds and difficult lives. He created workshop camps with them where he worked with them to see if they could function in front of the camera. That part of the project really attracted me because you can’t get a well-groomed 19 year old kid to truly do what these kids can do. Because when you look them in the eye, you see the hard surface of somebody who is trying to protect himself against the world and at the same time, you see the wounded child inside. I thought it would be so thrilling if we could get that through.

SPAZ: You worked with a largely young cast of incredible actors. Did you spend a lot of time off camera with them? Did you offer advice?
STELLAN: An amateur can be fantastic and much better than a professional actor sometimes. It’s quite a challenge to work with them: not because they are not professionals, but because it’s the absolute truth you are standing in front of. You can’t use any of your technique or do any shortcuts. You have to really be there with them and I thought that would be a really great challenge. I didn’t give them advice, other than in my behavior on the set. They sort of saw how you behave on the set. The boy who plays the second lead, Trond, he has a very troubled background and he said to the director after the shoot, “This is the first thing in my life that I have completed.” That was, of course, a shocking statement but that’s where he came from. The interesting thing is, on the film set, everybody worked so hard and the discipline was hard, but the tolerance and generosity was immense. Many of those boys, for the first time in their life, they had absolute demands on them but they also had people that had absolute faith in them and respected them. Trond, for instance, instead of ending up in jail, he continued to do films and he’s doing well now. He’s done three more films after this one. Some of the kids went back to where they came from, but to many of them, it was a way to find a key to enter the world again and behave like adults and see that they are worth something.

SPAZ: It’s hard to believe that these boys were amateurs…
STELLAN: Yeah, it is. But they are truthful. Marius Holst is a very good director and he was very good with working with the kids. His demands on them were very high, but you work in a slightly different way. You work your way to the point where it becomes truthful. You make them secure so that they are allowed to show feelings, which they’ve never been before. And that’s a totally new experience for them.

SPAZ: Was it difficult to play this character that is torn between good and evil, right and wrong, sympathy and callousness? He never seems to be at peace with himself…
STELLAN: It’s an interesting challenge. The role has to be the oppressor in the film. My first reaction when I read an earlier draft was “Oh, another fucking bad guy!” (laughs) I don’t like to see the world divided by good buys and bad guys. It has the stupidity of George W. Bush and I don’t want to be stupid. (laughs). So we started writing extra scenes for him, explaining more. Then we saw that that tilted the balance of the film, because he still had to have the function of being an oppressor. So, then we went back and reduced the role again and made it smaller, but we brought with it the knowledge of a richer life within him. And that made it very interesting because there’s no text to the scene that says I’m torn, there’s no text that says I don’t know what to do. I never explain it so I had to play that and still have scenes written as if he was just a horrible leader. That’s great fun for an actor.

SPAZ: Most of the characters make a pretty significant transformation throughout the course of the film. Were you initially drawn to the strength of your character and his inner struggles and ultimate downfall?
STELLAN: Yes, of course. At that time, we still had capital punishment, still had physical punishment in Scandinavia. It wasn’t the peaceful, angelic society we have today. So, I decided to make him a man who, for his time, was very radical and liberal and he failed. And failed merely because his cowardice. It was such a taboo that there would be any sexual abuse under his wings that he couldn’t face society and admit it, so he didn’t stand up for the boys at that point. That became his downfall because then he started to despise himself and he couldn’t live with that.

SPAZ: Some write-ups on the film have mentioned a ‘brutal regime’ in regards to the authority figures. Did you ever see them as being brutal?
STELLAN: It was a brutal society and jails back then were brutal. In many places in the world, they still are brutal. Children today are treated worse than this. It was a brutal regime because at that time, children weren’t looked at as full and worthy human beings that should be respected. The power structures are corrupting in themselves. If you have power over other peoples’ lives, it is hard not to make mistakes.

SPAZ: You really bring that emotional depth to your roles. Is it that ‘real’ human side of the characters that attracts you to a role?
STELLAN: Yes, it is. I’m fascinated by human beings and I know that they are capable of anything: everything good and everything bad. I see every person as multi-layered. You cannot divide people into good guys and bad guys. I always try to find the contradictions within each character. As human beings, we’re incredibly complex and we’re full of contradictions. We think we have control but we don’t have as much control of ourselves as we’d like. But I’m also socially and politically interested in the roles, too, so I was also interested in describing this society with an oppressive structure that corrupted everybody that was working in it.

SPAZ: What do you want people to walk away with after viewing this film? Instead of feeling a sense of hopelessness, I was more intrigued by the power of the human spirit…
STELLAN: I think that, too. I think it’s hopeful in that sense. You see a lot of those boys, you see them grow as human beings, as moral beings, during the film. Especially the part that Trond plays, he is definitely another person at the end of the film than he was at the beginning, where he was really trying to adapt to the system and by following every rule, he sold out for his freedom. But he grew…

SPAZ: You’ve played an incredibly wide array of characters during your career. Is there a type of role you are still eager to play?
STELLAN: A short, black woman.

SPAZ: Do you prefer working within the independent film community or the big-budget studios? Or is it the strength of the script that draws you into the project?
STELLAN: its two different jobs in a way. Industry film-making is where the bankers have a lot of influence, which gives less freedom to the director and makes them less originally usually, but not always. But at the same time, many of those films are great fun to work on. When I worked with Gore Verbinski on the Pirate films, he had the same freedom that you had on an independent film and it was amazing. I worked with (David) Fincher on a $100 million film and it was fantastic. You try to fight for your integrity against all the executives when you work on big studio movies. When you work on independent film, usually, but not always, the material can be more daring because there is not so much money involved. And the power of the director is bigger. Most good films are, in a sense, very subjective. You can see the stamp of the director. It’s his view of the world that makes them personal and makes them strong. If you take a Fincher film and then, halfway through the shoot, put in another director, it wouldn’t be the same film. These aren’t generic directors shooting only what the studio wants them to shoot; they are people who have a personal voice.

SPAZ: What’s next for Stellan Skarsgard?
STELLAN: Next, I’m going to do a film in Edinburgh called The Railway Man. It’s with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, both of whom I’ve worked with before and I like very much. It’s very well-written and I think I’ll have fun with that one.

SPAZ: What do you currently have spinning on your CD and DVD players?
STELLAN: The last thing I listened to was actually Beethoven’s Last Piano Concerto. The last thing I watched was an episode of 30 Rock.

Thanks to Stellan Skarsgard
Special thanks to Courtney Jones, Meghan Wurtz, Rebeca Conget, Claire Weingarten and Lauren Watt,

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