On February 1, 2011, John appeared on the morning talk show Nyhetsmorgon. He and Tilde De Paula mostly discuss John’s short story collection, Låt den gamla drömmarna dö (Let The Old Dreams Die), but they also touch on Människohamn (Harbour).
Photo by Joakim Strömholm
Per Ragnar is the actor who portrayed Håkan, Eli’s creepy and lost companion, in the film Let the Right One In. He has had a long career in television and film stretching back to his graduation from The Royal Dramatic Theatre School in 1965. In 1966 he became an assistant to Ingmar Bergman, and he had both his first film and television roles in 1968. He is also renowned for his one man show, Hitlers bordssamtal (Hitler’s table talks). In the interim, he has found the time to write almost two dozen books.
How did this part come to you?
Tomas Alfredsson called me. We had previously worked together on a movie for television called, “A little film about death”, where I played a twisted TV producer – together with the Ingmar Bergeman actor Erland Josephson.
Had you read the novel before filming? Have you read it since?
No, either before or after. I know from experience that the book and the screenplay are never the same. It is “dangerous” to commit to a book character as the movie script is different. I had heard that in the book my character is a teacher, an alcoholic and a pedophile. Thus, a completely different person than I portray in the movie …
If so, were there any scenes with Håkan from the novel that you wish you could have shot?
See answer to previous question.
What was the shooting schedule like for you? Did you have to go up to Luleå?
Ten days of shooting at night in Luleå with 35 degress, terriblly cold and tough.
In the novel Håkan’s motivations are made all too clear, but in the film Håkan is more of an enigma. What motivates your Håkan’s devotion to Eli?
I see Håkan, if I disregard the vampire theme, as an extremely lonely little man who is crying out for love and acknowledgement. By him “working” for the girl, providing her with the nutrition she requires, he may be part of a small sense of community and gets a little sense of family. When he can’t cope anymore, he gives his life for her … Christ more than the Devil, that is.
What was it like working for Tomas? Did he know exactly what he wanted his Håkan to be, or did he expect you to fill out the character?
Since he chose me, he knew what he could get out of me. He is an extraordinarily prepared director, knows exactly what he wants. He had also seen me in one of my major roles, over many years, portraying Adolf Hitler in a one and half-hour monologue at the theater, Hitler’s table talks, an authentic material.
What was it like working with Lina? Have you worked much with young actors?
Lina was a nice and easy absurdly funny little girl. Yes, I have played in many Astrid Lindgren plays with children.
In many of your scenes, you are basically acting by yourself; in the woods, on the metro, and disposing of Jocke’s body. Is it more difficult to act without another actor to play off of?
No, not if you trust the director and he knows what he wants. And Tomas Alfredsson knew what he wanted!
In the scene where Eli touches Håkan’s cheek, it seems as though a bargain is being struck. Håkan will get blood if Eli will stay away from Oskar. What interpretation were you portraying in that scene?
He “knows” that it’s time for Eli to take over in the eternal succession, the vampire girls living course is forever, not her “donors”.
In the scene where Håkan is caught, he seems immediately resigned to his fate. I have seen many fans claim that Håkan wanted to get caught. Was it a part of what you were portraying in that scene that Håkan was relieved to be getting caught?
Exactly, he cannot go on with this eternal killing in the cold and darkness to enable her to live.
In the shot where Håkan dumps Jocke’s body into the water, it looks as though you could easily have gone tumbling into the icy water after him. Was that shot as dangerous as it looks onscreen?
Yes, it was unpleasant to do, it was cold and slippery on the tree branch.
Can you tell me about Håkan’s hat? It is rather… unique.
Yes. I bought it in Moscow when I was there with the Royal Dramatic Theatre School and studied their stage school and theater for three weeks. We were Ingmar Bergman’s students and all artistic doors opened for us. I bought it in the square outside the Kremlin. This was 1964!
You have been working continuously as a film and TV actor for, well, quite a while. How has the success of Let The Right One In impacted your career?
I have worked in film, theater and television for 50 years. I’m glad to be part of a world success. I did a test shooting for Milleniumfilmen, but Skarsgård (of course) got the part. (Stellan Skarsgård is to play Martin Vanger in David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo-Ed.) Then I got another request from another American casting company, it was some forthcoming film with Sean Penn …
In a few days we premiere with the film Psalm 21 where I play yet another evil man. Preliminary reviews are talking about the best Swedish horror film ever made …
Thank you very much Per, for answering my questions and for providing fans of Let the Right One In with an insight into your character.
You may discuss this interview with other fans in here.
Johan Söderqvist is the composer who created the marvelous score for the film Let the Right One In. Starting in 1991, he began scoring films and he has worked on literally dozens of films since then (you can you see the complete and ever-growing list on his web site, www.johansoderqvist.com). I have always felt that Let the Right One In was the result of planets aligning; a beautiful screenplay, an incredible director, talented young actors, and an amazing cinematographer all came to together to create a film without equal. Another planet that in this alignment was the score. The story of the film was told in stark, unsentimental visuals, leaving it to the music to carry on the emotional dialogue with the audience. The score manages to move from the delicate hopefulness of first love, to brittle, chilly sounds matching the film’s setting in Swedish winter. From full blown romantic love to heartbreak and loss.
Johan was very friendly and accommodating when I contacted him. He was kind enough to answer questions that I had about his experiences working on the score for this film.
Your web site mentions that you have performed playing both jazz and folk music. Are these your primary musical influences?
I would say that maybe the most important thing for me as a film composer is that I come from improvised music, because it gives me the ability to improvise to a picture to find the musical feeling in the scenes.
But having said that, I think I’m really into any “sincere” music, no matter in what style.
Which of your influences are most apparent in this soundtrack (LTROI)?
I don’t know really. It’s a mixture of my ambient worlds combined with melodic themes. When Tomas (Alfredson) wanted to show me in what direction he thought the music should go, he was very open. He could show me some “cold” music & sounds – and even some big band stuff from the 60′s – only to give the right emotional direction. I really enjoyed this open approach towards the music.
Can you suggest some other music for people who would like hear pieces that represent the influences in this soundtrack?
I don’t really remember – sorry.
What I do remember is that they put my “old” film music into the film as temp while editing, and as I said earlier I do remember the Gil Evans piece from the 60′s.
I notice from your CV that you have been involved in more than half a dozen projects since Let the Right One In. Also, you had already been a busy and successful artist for years. Has the international success of LTROI had an impact on your career?
Yes it definitely has. It’s very rare that a Scandinavian film gets such an impact as LTROI got. So I’ve had many offers to go to different countries outside of Scandinavia to work since. Unfortunately I’ve had to say no to many because I’ve already been booked on films. I also think that some of the attention that I’ve got the last couple of years come from the fact that Susanne Bier, with whom I’ve worked for nearly 20 years, has been really successful with her last 3 films (Brothers, After the Wedding, & Things We Lost in the Fire). And her new film In A Better World that I also scored, will premiere at Toronto film festival later this year!
So you have now worked on a new Susanne Bier film? Is this your only current project or do you often have more than one project at the same time?
I try to have one at a time, but sometimes they do overlap.
How long does it take you to complete a typical soundtrack? How long for this one?
That is different from film to film. I would say that the optimal time would be 10-12 weeks but sometimes you have to do it in 4 weeks (and one of the films that I’ve made was made in 18 days). LTROI was really perfect. It was made from Sept. to Nov. 2007, in about 12 weeks. It’s about having the time to really get into the film in order to be able to get the right musical world to that specific film.
Are there some new directions that you would like to try in the future?
I always strive to find new directions and new “musical worlds” with every new film. Sometimes you succeed really well in doing this and sometimes not as well. The last 2 films – Susanne Bier’s In A Better World and Maria Sødahl’s Limbo – I’ve worked a lot with rhythm. And that feels new and interesting to me!
How did you get this job (LTROI)? Had you worked with Tomas Alfredson or EFTI before?
No, I had not worked with either Tomas or EFTI, but I think they liked my work on other films that I’d made, especially After the Wedding.
Had you read the novel before you wrote this score? If not, have you read it since?
I read it as soon as I knew that I was writing the score. And I loved it!! It’s such a great book.
How did the story come to you? Were you given a script, or did Tomas show you clips of the scenes where he wanted music, or did you have access to a finished cut? From the impeccable timing of some of the tracks with what is going on onscreen, I would guess that you at least had clips to view while you worked.
I always work very close to the film, so yes I had a finished cut to work to (It was one of these great times when the film was ready when I started working, so that I had a long time with the actual “locked” cut). I then see the movie a couple of times and then I try to not see it for a while, but just write themes and make sounds from the feeling that I remember from the film. It’s often good to not start to early to write directly against the film, but to try to grasp the underlying feeling of the pictures. So we (Tomas & I) spent some time just talking about the feeling of the film and trying out some of the sounds and themes that I’d made. And then later as we felt that we’d found a direction where we should go sound-wise, I started to fit the themes to the film and to write more scene after scene. The hard thing in film music is to be able to create a specific musical world that is really integrated into that film’s universe. Therefore we also worked very close with the sound designer Per Sundström (who’s made a fantastic sound for the film) to really integrate music and sound into one thing.
How closely did you work with Tomas? Did you come up with the musical phrases and run them by him before fleshing them out? Or did you go to him with mostly finished tracks?
Tomas and I worked pretty close. He would come out to my studio in the countryside of Stockholm for music meetings, and we talked about the film and the cues. I prepared songs and sketches that I would play for him, and then we talked about if they were ok or if they needed some changes. He was really inspiring to work with!
Tomas has mentioned in interviews that he had specific works of music that he would listen to that inspired his work on this film. He wouldn’t divulge to the interviewers what those works were (and I can respect that), but I’m wondering: Did he share those works with you in order to describe what he was looking for?
I don’t remember any specific music, but I do remember that he would find really cool ways to describe a musical feeling. Like the absence of sound in falling snow or the warmth in a Gil Evans big band song …
The soundscape of this film seems to place a great importance on the silence between sounds. My impression is that somehow your score manages to leave room for those silences even while it is playing. Am I interpreting it correctly? Is that something that you intentionally tried to achieve?
I feel that to give space and silence within or after a piece of music is often a strong emotional statement. Sometimes the space is more strong than the music itself.
How did you choose your palette of instruments (guitar and piano seem to figure prominently)? Did Tomas have a certain sound in mind that he wanted, or did you think they suited what you knew of the story?
For me, finding a films musical palette is one of the most important things in film music. Finding the film’s “sound”. I think that the most important sounds that I found for LTROI was the Bass waterphone. It has a very significant sound that’s both Icy and scary. I also made a lot of ambient sounds based on an electric guitar played with a bow, and loads of other sounds. Tomas wanted to get a balance between the “cold & scary” music and a more warm music. I think the piano and the guitar and the string orchestra add a lot of warmth to the score .
How did you come to choose the Bratislava Slovak National Symphony Orchestra to record this score? Had you worked with them before?
When I recorded LTROI I had just been in Bratislava once, recording a film by Tomas Vinterberg. But now (2010) I’ve made 8 films there! It’s a great place to record and a great orchestra.
Tomas has said, “…we, Johan Söderqvist and I, discussed that the music should emphasize the romantic parts of the film rather than the scary parts.” Did he express to you what emotions he wanted the music to portray for each scene? Or did he tell you, “Here is what is going on for the characters in this scene” and leave it you to decide on the emotional palette? Or did he just leave it all completely up to you?
We would talk about the scenes and the emotion of the scenes, and then I wrote songs for the different scenes that he often liked as they where, but sometimes wanted to change a bit.
How much did the visual imagery of the film impact your compositions? Were there any images in particular that affected you?
I think the pictures are fantastic in LTROI – it made it really easy to write music to the film. Hoyte [van Hoytema - the Director of Photography] & Tomas have made a stunning work! I have a separate strong visual memory for each of the songs in the film – but maybe the scene where Håkan drags the corpse in the snow, or maybe the scene when Eli climbs in to Oscar in his bedroom, or the picnic on the ice with the school class …
Based on the titles, the tracks on the CD seem divided between themes for situations and themes for characters. Which came first? Did you write themes for certain scenes and then the character themes evolved from them? Or was it the other way around?
That’s a tricky question that I really can’t answer … It kind of happens all at the same time once you’ve found the “musical world” of the film. So one thing leads to another …
There are at least two specific tracks that users at web site want me to ask about, and in fact I have some to add. Can you please comment on what your inspiration was and what emotions you were trying to convey in each piece?
“Oskar Strikes Back” – Tomas has said of this track “…it’s one of the few moments in the film where the music is really narrating the action rather than counteracting.” Was this a guiding principle for you – counteracting the action?
Again I have some problems to tell what I thought, because I really work hard NOT to think when I write music, just to do. I think that Tomas is right on the spot – the music in this scene is following the action in a way that most of the songs don’t do in the rest of the film.
“Eli’s Theme” – At least one user on my site has commented upon how most of the character themes start out with uncrowded arrangements, while Eli’s theme is fully fleshed out almost immediately at with a broad orchestral sound. Does this consciously represent a contrasting of the Eli character versus the other characters?
The theme comes in after Eli has killed Lacke, and at this point in the film it felt right to give it a warmer and bigger dress. The theme is also connected to the guitar theme “The Father”, that we’ve heard before in the film.
“The Father” – This track seems to convey a sense of sorrow or poignancy; the slow guitar duet with initially no backing accompaniment. Yet it is the character theme associated with Oskar’s father and it is used behind scenes that seem happy for Oskar. Am I correctly interpreting this track? Is this sort of emotional dissonance the ‘counteracting’ that Tomas had intended?
I think that the music often plays more on a deeper emotional level. I don’t think so much about characters but more about the pictures and the light and colours and so on. I also think the happiness in these scenes is “bittersweet”. He is a lonely boy …
“Oskar In Love” & “Then We Are Together” – I think of these pieces as sort of being Oskar’s theme. You are credited on the CD as being the pianist for these tracks. Did you choose the piano for these tracks because you identified with Oskar, or because you felt these were important enough that they required a familiar hand on a very familiar instrument?
I don’t remember specifically but what I do remember is the feeling I got when I played the piano and found the theme. It felt instantly right and Tomas loved it directly. It’s a very simple but pure theme. It’s also in one of my favourite scenes in the film, the scene where Oscar and Eli lay in the bed and he asks her if they can be a couple.
“Death of Håkan” – This track uses an altered form of the piano phrase from “Oskar In Love” and “Then We Are Together”. Were you specifically trying to draw a parallel between Håkan and Oskar? Did Tomas ask for such a parallel?
Once again – I don’t know. It’s all about intuition and emotion. In some way it maybe binds the characters together Eli,Oscar and Håkan… Tomas liked it, but he didn’t ask for it.
Were there any scenes that you wrote something for that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film?
Not much, only a theme that originally was when Oscar comes to Eli’s apartment and she tells him that she’s a vampire.
Are there any scenes in the film that you would also like to have written something for?
No, I really think the music is in the right places now. It’s a well balanced soundtrack (ie sounds & music). Sometimes it’s really quiet (falling snow) and sometimes it’s loud and scary music +fx, so the sound in the film is really dynamic.
It seems like much has been made of your use of the bass waterphone in this soundtrack. It almost seems as though many people have found that to be the most interesting thing about it. Do you think too much has been made of that? Would this soundtrack have been possible without the waterphone?
Yes, definitely, I could have chosen other metallic or glassy sounds, to obtain the icy, cold feeling. Having said that, I think it was really fantastic to record and sample the Bass waterphone and also that Tomas liked it instantly.
In the musical world of LTROI there’s a balance and struggle between the warm, melodic & beautiful music and the icy, cold and scary (but still often kind of beautiful) music.
Thank you very much Johan, for putting up with my pestering and for providing fans of Let The Right One In with an insight into your marvelous score.
For those who wish to know more about Johan’s work and methods, there is an excellent interview with him at the Main Titles film music community web site. Also, you may discuss this score with other fans in here.
Introduction and text by Rob Vaux. This interview was originally published on the now-defunct Flipside Movie Emporium in October, 2008. Rob has kindly granted me permission to publish it here.
Director Tomas Alfredson is little known outside of his native Sweden, where he has been directing movies and television programs for well over a decade. This year marks his foray into horror movies, with the quiet, chilling, and surprisingly sweet Let the Right One In. The film has earned plenty of notice in the U.S. and the inevitable Hollywood remake is scheduled for 2010 with Cloverfield director Matt Reeves at the helm. Prior to the North American release of Let the Right One In, Alfredson sat down with the press to talk about it.
Question: What governed the decision to set the film in the 1980s? Why not set it in the present?
Tomas Alfredson: Because it’s autobiographical… except for the vampire stuff, of course. John Ajvide Lindqvist, the author of the book and the screenplay, was twelve or thirteen back then and we wanted to preserve that.
Q: How closely did you work with Lindqvist on the adaptation?
TA: Well, it’s a fairly long book. It’s about 360 pages, and contains a lot of subplots. For example, Eli’s blood supplier, Håkan [Per Ragner] is an outspoken pedophile in the book, which I couldn’t handle properly on screen. It would be too large, too complicated to bring to this story. We had to pick one track to go with, and that was the love story.
Q: Did you stick to script with the shooting, or were the kids allowed to ad lib?
TA: We didn’t really have the space to do that. The shooting was so complicated and there were a number of special effects, though not all of them were obvious. So it was a very tight schedule and it didn’t allow for very much ad libbing.
But there was one sequence, involving some of the bullies, that involved something unplanned. One of the actors playing the tormentors had been bullied himself. There’s a scene in the film when they’re hitting Oskar over his legs. One of the boys starts crying in the midst of it. That was a surprise: it wasn’t planned that way. He got very emotional over the scene because of his own experiences. We kept it in because it was very strong and we felt it added a lot of nuance to the situation.
Q: What drew you to the project?
TA: I think it was the story of the bullied boy: the very unsentimental attack on this complicated young person. I had some times when I was a kid like that, being bullied. That was the thing that struck me the hardest.
The producer brought the script to me, and I normally don’t think you should do films of good books. You have so much more time and space to tell a story in a book than in a film. It’s seldom that you see a good book turning into a good movie. Somehow, this felt like one of those exceptions, and I fell in love with it.
Q: The look of the film is very striking. Did you have an aesthetic model for it?
TA: Winter hits very hard in Sweden, of course. It’s like you push a “pause” button on everything. Everything stops and all life becomes artificial. Artificially heated, artificially powered, and outside it’s all motionless. Also, after any heavy snowfall, there is a very special kind of silence. You can hear your own heartbeat, your own breathing, even your own eyelids moving. I wanted to capture that emotion.
As far as specific influences, I actually don’t think I had seen any vampire films at all before I made this. Maybe a few on television when I was a kid. Bela Lugosi and the like. But the photographer and I studied Renaissance painters very closely. When it comes to lighting, to colors, and to characters–that very strange sort of eye contact that Renaissance paintings have–those works were very helpful. There is one painter in particular named Hans Holbein, who did some really creepy work. Music too. I was listening to Mahler and similar dark, Romantic music to inspire me: to help find the lighter elements in this dark story.
Q: How did you find the two leads?
TA: It was very long process; it took us nearly a year. We don’t have professional child actors in Sweden, so we had to have open castings. That was very tough. I always thought of these two children as the same character: two sides of the same character. So it wasn’t just finding the right boy and the right girl, but matching them up to the same character, with her as the dark side and he as the light.
Q: What are the challenges of shooting in Sweden in the winter? There’s weather conditions, but in that part of the world, there’s also lighting conditions. What did you find the most difficult?
TA: It’s very touch to capture “cold” on film. If the temperatures go up even by one or two degrees, you won’t see it. So you must shoot in very extreme temperatures, which we had. It was about minus 30 degrees Celsius. I don’t know what that is in Fahrenheit [about 22 below 0], but it was very, very cold. The cameras were stopping all the time, and I got frostbite in two of my fingers. At the same time, it’s very beautiful and very crisp, and it has a strange kind of poetry to it. The light is so white, it’s like knives. And there wasn’t much daylight, which was helpful. We did this in the very north of Sweden to get the cold and the snow, and up there in January or February, you only get one or two hours a day of light. That let us get night shooting done almost anytime, which made scheduling much easier.
Q: The sound is very meticulous here, very technical. Did you pick that up naturally, or did you have to dub it in later?
TA: The sound process was very complicated because visually, it’s very important to have a dialogue with the audience. Most entertainment today is monologues coming out of the screen at you. A lot of films are overloaded with too much sound and effects and images. But if you leave out things or deliberately omit things visually, you always keep the audience interested. You make visual suggestions to the audience that help engage them. The same is true with sound. If you choose to have a lot of silence in your movie, it will really draw attention to the things you do hear. For instance, if you have a shot of a big city with a lot of cars and people, and all you hear on the soundtrack is a bird, your eyes will immediately start scanning the screen for the bird. It keeps you very active as an audience member.
We did end up dubbing Lina Leandersson, who plays Eli the vampire. She has a very high-pitched voice and I wanted her to be more… what’s the English word? Not female…
TA: Yes, androgynous. More boyish. So we had another girl with a lower pitch to her voice dubbing the dialogue.
Q: You did your own editing on this. When you’re planning the film, do you factor that into account as a way of minimizing time and expense?
TA: Oh yes. I started out as an editor when I was young, so I can do, say, three shots of a scene and know where the various lines of dialogue go in each shot. That’s helpful when you’re actually shooting because you know whether you got the shot you need or not. It cuts down on wasted time considerably.
Q: You just won the Woodstock award, and the Best Narrative Award at the Tribeca Film Festival.
TA: The American audiences I’ve shown this film too really seem to understand it, and that rarely happens with Swedish films over here. It’s very encouraging.
Q: What’s your take on the enduring popularity of vampire stories? Even after hundreds of years, people still find new things to say with them.
TA: These kind of tales, they come and they go. Every twenty years or so, a new cycle starts. I suppose they touch things in our personalities that have to do with the animal inside us. The instinctive side, the side that demands survival at all costs. We may be a little more aware of that in Sweden. Maybe we have suppressed the animal part of ourselves a little more than elsewhere; we don’t always notice that side of humanity as much.
Lina Leandersson is interviewed by Anders Rosen on the Swedish TV Show Eftersnack, broadcast in November, 2008.
Lina Leandersson is interviewed by Lotta Olin Perrson of Dalarna TV4, January 27, 2009.