Swedish director, producer and journalist Tarik Saleh got his start in the early 1990s as one of his country’s most prominent graffiti artists. Since then, Saleh has gone on to co-direct documentaries including 2001’s “Sacrificio – Who Betrayed Che Guevara” and “Gitmo – The New Rules of War” in 2005. “Metropia,” the animated feature Saleh directed in 2009, premiered as the opening film at the critic week in Venice. Saleh is also a co-founder of the Swedish production company Atmo. His current thriller, “Tommy,” starring Ola Rapace and Lykke Li, switches gears as Saleh transitions from the docu format to fiction. Based on actual events, “Tommy” tells the story of a robbery at an airport and offers a more in-depth portrayal of the women in Sweden’s crime world. The flick will close the Goteborg Int’l film festival and bows in Swedish theaters in March.  Variety talked to Saleh during the festival.

What drew you to this film?

The scriptwriter (Anton Hagwall) is a childhood friend of mine who I grew up with. We grew up in the western suburbs of Stockholm where a lot of our friends became part of a generation; it was a wave of big robberies going on in the 90s in Stockholm. It eventually became a problem with currency, with money, because there were so many robberies. They had these armed vehicles that take money from the bank to the vaults, and there was such a wave of robberies against them so that it even became a problem with delivering money to banks. A lot of these guys who did that were our childhood friends we went to school with and who we grew up with. My friend who I grew up with, Anton Hagwall, the guy who wrote the script, he came to me – the week after “Metropia” had premiered here – he came to me and said, “You know, Tarik, we should do a film about the girls.” We started to talk about the girls – our first girlfriends, our first loves basically – and that they now were married and had children with these guys. Specifically, there were a couple of girls that had played a more major role in their husbands’ rise in the criminal world. Some of those girls had to try to do things on their own, so what I did was that I did documentary interviews with them, interviews that I couldn’t show anyone of course because they’re extremely sensitive. But at the same time, he wrote a script that was very compelling and exciting and true. I felt right away this is exactly how these characters act and how they deal with things. Fortunately for me, that original script AB Svensk, which is the closest you get in Sweden to a studio, they felt that “Wow, this has commercial potential.” So they were willing to help us to green light the film. This is a $4 million film. In Sweden, it’s kind of hard to get that sort of money for an original script. I worked a lot with the casting because as a director it’s basically what you do as a director – cast it in an interesting way. Some of the characters that I casted are people like Ewa Fröling, who plays the mother of Estelle, the main character. She is the protagonist in “Fanny and Alexander,” the Bergman film. So I managed to convince some the greatest actors and actresses to participate. They loved the script. It’s been a wonderful experience in a sense because it’s rare for you as a director to be able to have the sort of integrity that this project has had. A lot of times when you do film with a lot of private investment and with a studio, people are nervous and people want to make sure that they get their money back and so forth. But with this, I think that everybody felt that this can become something really, really good. I’ve had the chance to actually work under very good circumstances with this film.

Having spoken to these real women must have given you an idea of how you wanted to steer the film.

Oh yeah. To me it’s so important that, when you do a film, it needs to be true. I come from a documentary background. I did two feature documentaries before I did “Metropia.” People a lot of times misunderstand and think that there is a big difference between documentary and fiction, but really both of them have to be true on some level. The fiction film needs to be true on an emotional level and for me as a director it was so important that when you buy the ticket to this film, I want to be able to step into the shoes of these women. They’re extremely fascinating. They’re so charismatic and so strong in a way that is much more interesting than the guys and, at the same time, very dangerous. A lot of times in films, they’ve been described as victims or the typical Elvira in “Scarface” sort of style. But this is much more Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Traffic,” where you basically have women who are in control and who know this world better than anyone. They have seen it from the inside, so they know how to play their cards. For example, mythology in the criminal world is very strong. Their reputation is everything. It basically reflects our world. You can say, for example, about the United States that the image of the United States in the world is very important and we perceive the United States as the strongest country in the world. Right after 9/11, there was a question mark – can the United States defend itself? And it becomes almost like a question mark that makes the world very unstable. It’s the same thing in the criminal world. If the king is dead, or if there’s a question mark whether the king is dead, there will be a lot of turmoil, turbulence. We’ve had that situation here in Sweden, or Stockholm to be specific, where in the crime world we’ll have kings who – basically there were assassination attempts. Just two days ago, one of the crime lords in Stockholm was killed basically exactly the way the crime lord in “Tommy” is killed – executed in his car, in his head. Right after, there is speculation – Who is going to take over? Who’s going to take control? In that turbulent situation, it becomes extremely interesting. If you’re a woman in that world, if you’re the queen of that world and your king is possibly dead, what will you do? How will you maintain control in a world where you don’t have an equality plan? In the crime world they’re not trying to get equality between sexes, for example, like in our society. It’s very conservative.

You’ve described “Tommy” as “Stockholm myth,” partially involving the Stockholm syndrome. What does that mean?

Stockholm mythology is, of course, not really known yet to the rest of the world. I think that people have now seen “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Snabba Cash,” but this is a more sort of realistic film in the sense that we draw more from real events. In Stockholm, everybody knows certain myths about criminal characters, basically, that have done spectacular crimes. It’s almost like in the States probably Charles Manson. There (is) mythology around these people. What I mean is that this film is basically one of those myths that we have basically explored. Also, one inspiration that I had –because of course it’s always more difficult to finance a film with a female lead in a thriller, unfortunately it’s kind of difficult – I’m a huge boxing film fanatic. I love boxing films. I thought of “Million Dollar Baby,” how f—— great that film is. She’s the perfect underdog. I sort of had that as an inspiration for “Tommy.” I love that idea. What would make the biggest underdog in this world? Who would have the strongest odds against her? It would be a woman, a mother. That was very compelling to me. I was drawn to it in a way, and then that the real women of that world were so fascinating and charismatic.

Was the strong female lead in the film, played by Moa Gammel, inspired by Stieg Larsson’s fictional character Lisbeth Salander from “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?” Is there any connection between the two?

Not at all. Lisbeth Salander is a very fascinating character and I think that Noomi Rapace is a fantastic actress who played her really well. But this woman is much more – she’s not a punk woman at all, or a Goth – if we would meet her in the street, we would probably think that she was a posh, almost upper-class woman with expensive shoes, expensive bag, expensive coat, with all the brands. But behind that mask is a Lisbeth Salander. Then of course Ola Rapace, who is Noomi’s ex-husband, he was essential for me because he is, in my opinion, one of Sweden’s absolutely best actors. He’s not yet famous outside of the United States. He was in “Skyfall,” but people don’t know him yet more than that he is the husband of Noomi Rapace. But he is a fantastic actor and I think people will see that in “Tommy.” So it was Lisbeth Salander so much, but more the real women of that world.

“Tommy” is pop star Lykke Li’s film debut. What do you think of her performance as an actress?

I was blown away. I know Lykke well from directing her videos, so I knew that she had a total presence in front of the camera. I knew that. She’s been acting a little bit in Terrence Malick’s new film that hasn’t come out yet, with Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara and Fassbender. We were talking about collaborating in this film, and then I test screened her and she blew the competition out of the water. I don’t want to say who she competed against, but we had some amazing actresses that are known even outside of the United States. But she blew them out of the water. She was so good. For me, it was just incredible to see her transformation because she is not playing herself. She is not the typical pop star gone acting. This is not Justin Bieber – this is f—— great. I’m blown away by her performance. For me, of course there’s always a risk when you take someone who has not been in a film before, but she gave an energy to the whole film. Moa Gammel, who plays Estelle, did a phenomenal job and it was a very tough physical experience because she is put under enormous pressure. They drag her out in the woods – there are some horrific scenes in “Tommy.” But the sort of relationship between them as sisters, it was great to see them work together. I think that Lykke, she’s a 100% person. I know that her music career is what’s most important to her, so I was a little bit wary that she would not give me her full 100%. But when she was committed to the project it was incredible. The rest of the cast is very experienced. Even Johan Rabaeus, who plays Steve, he’s a huge star here in Sweden. He’s our big dramatic. He is on the same level here in Sweden as Stellan Skarsgård, but he’s not known outside of Sweden. But I think that that might also change with this because he is really phenomenal, too, I think – diabolic in a good way. So Lykke was surrounded by very experienced people, and they were so impressed with her. So that was great. I felt lucky.

That must have been a great experience for her as well, to work with such an experienced cast and work with you and make her film debut under such circumstances.

Lykke and me are very close, as we have worked together. I’m going to work with her next week – I’m going to shoot her new video. We always work in a very cinematic fashion. We did a video with Stellan Skarsgård and her where Stellan told me, he took me to the side and said “This girl can act. You need to put her in a film.” To me, you get very spoiled right now in Sweden. It starts to become where it’s almost ridiculous. My friends are making such fantastic journeys right now with their stuff and it’s great to see. I’m so happy…next week with “Robocop,” it’s fantastic. You’ve seen them struggle for years and now it all of a sudden happens and they all deserve in a great way. I think it’s fantastic.

Why did you decide to make the switch from documentaries to a more commercial project?

People ask me “How do I get into the film industry? How do I make a film?” and I always ask them “Do you have to make it?” If they say “No, I just want to make it,” (then) no, don’t do it. If you don’t have to do it, don’t do it because you need to sacrifice everything. As a director, you are the captain of the ship and you’re the last person to leave it. With “Tommy,” it was such a compelling story, compelling world to step into and the world that I knew. So I felt that you couldn’t do a documentary about it, you couldn’t do it any other way. You had to basically do a film with actors – basically a fiction film. It was very important for me to sort of almost think in an old school way. The film is shot on 35. The editors of the film are Dino Jonsäter, who edited “Let the Right One In” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” and Theis Schmidt, who edited the “Snabba Cash” series. I thought that I wanted to surround myself with people who are cinema people, not just a generic thriller Swedish cop series. We have had thousands of cop films in Sweden, but there are just 10 or 15 films that describe the other side of the coin. For me, it was extremely important to set the very high standard for the people that surrounded me, because as a director you stand and fall with the people you surround yourself with. I don’t speculate in audience and in markets and in target groups and so forth. I leave that to the people that sell the film. For me, it’s just important to make a great film. It’s so important as a director to just stand by your vision and believe in it and that’s hard enough. For example, I have American projects that I fell in love with and that I feel the only place you can do them is in the United States, but I wouldn’t do just a generic, boring film in the States – never. Life is too short. It takes two years to do a film. You want to lend two years to do a sequel or prequel? No f—— way. I would rather do a small film in that sense. But there are films out here that are fantastic, that need to be done, and this film needed to be done. We needed money and we needed to be backed up by a distributor who had some muscle. But at the same time, I knew that that means I have to be stronger in my integrity as a director because people get more nervous.  The more money that’s involved, the more nervous people are, and that’s understandable. I understand that, but my job is to tell the story and to be true to the story. You always have to cross your fingers. You can’t predict the future for this film and so forth, but what I feel is that the integrity of the film is totally intact, and that feels great. I also think –just one thing –I’ve been in the festival circuit. “Metropia,” it was incredible in the sense that we opened the critic week in Venice, I went to over 70 festivals, it was like that whole art house scene. But I’m very skeptical as a movie lover, as a guy who basically feels that film saved my life when I was a kid, to go to the cinema and sit there and dream about other worlds. I’m very sad that we live in an extreme time where the art house films are out on one side and the commercial films are on another side. I feel that there is a landing strip between them that I miss and that I always want to go for. I get so happy when I see “12 Years Years a Slave” or “The Wolf of Wall Street” or “American Hustle,” that those kinds of films can be made and they can also have audiences. That’s our art. Not everything can be Haneke on one side and then “Transformers” on the other. That’s like an extremist world. I know that, for example, probably “Tommy” – you won’t be seeing it in Rotterdam or in Karlovy Vary. I don’t think so. I mean, who am I to judge, but I don’t think so because it is younger. It is the film that I wanted to see when I was 17 years old and that I still want to see.

You mentioned that film saved your life when you were young. How so?

Film is the poor man’s ticket to travel. You buy a ticket for – at that time it was five dollars – and you travel somewhere, to the Caribbean on a pirate ship or to the future in “A Clockwork Orange.” That expanded my world because I came from a background where you couldn’t go to the Caribbean on a plane. You could go to the cinema and see it. For me, that dream is something that I feel very passionate about. I feel that we as filmmakers can expand people’s lives and experiences with our films and I think that keeps dreams alive. If somebody would have told me when I was 16 years old that one day you will do a film and people will go and pay to see it and they will travel somewhere, I would just tell them “Get the f— out of here. But now it’s true. That to me captures why, for example, Hollywood is such a magical place in the sense that you get to travel somewhere, and not only travel somewhere (but) to be someone else for two hours – to make someone else’s choices. I think it’s a fantastic art form and that’s why I’m devoted to it. In Sweden we had tradition. Tradition was realism, and a sort of gray realism, but all we wanted was to go somewhere else. One detail I can tell you about “Tommy” is that it plays out two weeks before Christmas in a snowy Stockholm. One of the biggest challenges was the weather – to get snow. Last year was the coldest winter in 30 years, so I was like “Thank God.” So that was fantastic.