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Q&A: Ronnie Sandahl, ‘Underdog’ Director, on Shifting Sweden/Norway Relationship

A novelist, journalist and filmmaker who turned 30 only last year, Swedish director Ronnie Sandahl makes the jump from short films with his feature directorial debut, “Underdog.” The film follows 23-year-old Dino (Bianca Kronlof) in the wake of the 2009 financial crisis, as she’s forced to leave her native Sweden to try and find work of any kind in Norway. It’s a story that’s becoming increasingly common in Sandahl’s home country, and he talked to Variety about how the shifting relationship between the two neighboring nations inspired his first full-length film.

Variety: What was the inspiration for the film’s narrative?

Sweden has always been the self-righteous big brother of Scandinavia, and Norway the poor little brother. But during the last 20 years, after Norway finding oil and Sweden suffering one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in Europe, the power balance has completely shifted. Now the Norwegians call us the ”paki-swedes” or the ”the new poles,” the immigrant workers. I come from a small working class town, and many of the people I grew up with left for Oslo during the financial crisis. Some Swedish towns actually payed the bus tickets for their unemployed 20-year-olds in order to get rid of them. But the weird thing is that even though it is the biggest Swedish emigration in modern time – bigger than the boats to America in the late 1800’s – you don’t hear about it on the news, you don’t read about it. So I decided to make this film about a Swedish girl, trying to make a new life for herself in Oslo.

Why did you want to tell a story of this global financial crisis through the personal, individual lens of Dino?

I always want to write about the society through individuals. I hate it when filmmakers just tell a story that is politically relevant but not emotionally true. I wanted to make a film that is both funny and brutal, both tender and wild. Just like life. To me the emotional truth of the characters is priority number one, two and three. I love directors like Derek Cianfrance and Alejandro Inarritu, who always tell me something about myself that I didn’t know. And I strongly believe that through capturing what people are longing for, you say a lot about the society they live in. And my generation in Sweden is the first one in a hundred years that has worse chances than their parents to get a future, a job and a home.

How has the shifting Sweden/Norway relationship affected your storytelling and how you interact with your films?

I am very interested in portraying power. So the Swedish community in the nouveau-riche Oslo became a perfect venue for what I want to investigate as a director. By placing Dino as a housekeeper in a Norwegian middle class family I had the chance to not only portray the shifted power balance between Sweden and Norway, but also between employers and employees. Not to mention, the two different environments and types of people that I’m familiar with – people from the working class town that I come from and people from the urban, cultural middle-class that I am a part of today. That clash was a lot of fun to work with.

Dino is played by Bianca Kronlof, known for comedy, and the character goes beyond your average female archetypes; how did you and Bianca craft the character to be different from what audiences normally see?

I knew already on the early script stage that Dino was the best character I’ve ever written. So I was desperate to find an actress who would match my demands in terms of bravery, skill and imagination. When I found Bianca we worked for half a year together with the character. Changing her way of talking, her way of walking, creating all these weird secrets that she carried around on set. Even though we had a very low budget, I demanded two full weeks of rehearsals with the actors. We improvised a lot, experimented, talked. And then I re-wrote big parts of the script one week before shooting, because we found so many beautiful and true moments that I wanted for my story.

Since your first novel you’ve proved a distinct Swedish voice, and your latest film is just another example; how much importance do you place on articulating Swedish stories and putting them forward on the world stage?

I’m writing about what I see and what I know. But I would say that I’m more interested in human behavior than the locations where the films take place geographically. I am not even sure my stories are particularly Swedish – I think our festival run has proved that people from very different countries can see themselves in these characters. In the future I think I will probably want to make films both in Sweden and abroad, depending on the story and character. To be honest, I can film on the moon if the right story and the right actor is there.

This was your first full-length feature film; what challenges did you face in the transition from short films to full length?

The biggest step I’ve taken so far was when I went from being a novelist to becoming a filmmaker. For me it was very important to not only be a writer who directs – I wanted to go the distance, make sure I could be confident in calling myself a director. So these past seven years have been an intense learning process. And when I started out I was lucky to have great mentors in Tomas Alfredson and Daniel Espinosa. Making shorts was something I had to do in order to learn the craft, and though it filled its purpose, I dont think the form really fits me – the same way that I am a better novelist than short story writer. Honestly, I think my short films have been too conceptual, too far from the truth. With ”Underdog,” it is actually the first time I can really see myself and my own voice in the finished film. It is a very personal film to me.

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m the screenwriter on a slightly bigger Swedish-American bio-pic that I am not supposed to direct myself. And then, later this spring, I will start writing on my next film as a writer-director. It’s a Swedish-Italian art house drama in an environment no one has ever seen on film. But it’s still a bit of a secret.

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