‘The Giant’s’ Johannes Nyholm on Swedish Westerns, Petanque and Imagination

Nyholm’s debut, ‘The Giant,’ has its European premiere at San Sebastian

Johannes Nyholm
Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

SAN SEBASTIAN — It’s typical of Johannes Nyholm that when pitching “The Giant” via a Kickstarter vid campaign, earnestly talking about how he needs $12,500 for VFX, he begins talking to the camera while taking out the trash, then fills up his water bottle from a local Goteborg swimming pool.

Though his work ranges, taking in the eco tragedy of the animated short “Dreams From the Woods,” a daintily drawn 2D tale of a spindly bird and girl in burnt rain-drenched forest, this mix of bathos, low culture and artistic ambition which made Nyholm an Internet name even before his first feature, his preview trailer for “Las Palmas,” “Baby Trashing a Bar,” in which a middle-aged tourist, played by his one-year old daughter, gets wasted in a bar, to the stunned embarrassment of its staff and clients, played by marinate puppets became an internet sensation.

But Las Palmas is also a portrayal of the all too familiar loneliness of a woman who desperately wants to persuade herself and others her life is fun.

Sold by Paris-based Indie Sales, “The Giant,” which Nyholm calls a “surrealistic comedy,” turns on Rickhard, a 30-year-old autistic deformed man, with bulbous flesh covering the right-side of his face, who tries to find his way back to his mother, from whom he was separated at birth, by winning a game of petanque Nordic Championships. He also imagines he’s a 200-foot giant, scrunching across hallucigenic Nordic volcanic landscapes. A lyrical epic of frustrated filial emotions, produced by Maria Dahlin for Sweden’s Garagefilm International  and Morten Kjems Hytten Juhl for Beo Film in Denmark, “The Giant,” which has been currying buzz since it won The Eurimages Co-Production Development Award at Cinemart, now world premieres at Toronto, then segues for its European premiere in competition at the San Sebastian Festival. Variety caught up with Nyholm in the run-up to both events:

The music of “The Giant” is Spaghetti Western score. Rather like the wrongly accused hero of some Spaghetti Westerns, Rickard seem convinced that if he wins the petanque Nordic Championship, proving himself worthy in a bitterly competitive man’s world, then normal human relations will be restored and his mother will take him back. There’s something of the ethos of the Western in this story of an elemental aim, and fundamental human relationships….I wonder if you could comment.

As a kid I watched a lot of westerns, and was especially drawn to the ones by Sergio Leone. There was something with the music, the silences and the vast desolate landscapes. The game of pétanque is also surrounded by an air of the wild west. Instead of pumping out bullets of lead you’re shooting balls of steel. It’s tough, macho and a great deal of precision. Björn Olsson who composed the music has sometimes been called the Ennio Morricone of western Sweden. To me personally though his music is much more than that. I think the western touch is helping to evoke the elevated saga level of the film.

Likewise, you’ve said that the film is an homage to imagination, “showing that imagination can take you far, when nothing else remains.” Could you elaborate?

One of my favourite and most beautiful stories is Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart. What Jonathan gives his dying younger brother is a glimpse of hope in form of a story of the after life. The story is so good and convincing that they can both enter it after their respective deaths.

In a similar way Rikard’s imagination represents his last glimpse of hope and the will to never give up.  I think that the most powerful and rewarding purpose of storytelling is exactly this – to give a glimpse of hope. I guess that is what I’m trying to do.

The film also plays with the extraordinary and ordinary: You find the most common human sentiments in the seemingly extraordinary. The Elephant Man featured Rikard, and the most extraordinary sentiments in players of a seemingly very ordinary sport, petanque: guile, cunning, strategy, violence, hubris. In this sense the film is a plea against discrimination, here of a deformed artist, but also of the other petanque wonks…..

A huge and demanding task when making this film was making the unbelievable believable. First and foremost the character Rikard could well be regarded as too odd to be true. Making him human was crucial. So we decided to make the world around him very naturalistic, and shoot it in a pure documentary fashion. That naturalism then spilled over to him. After creating this “reality” as a platform and stable fundament we could gradually raise the level of fantasy, weaving in classical drama story elements, with nasty villains, over the top extraordinary pétanque shots and ultimately giving birth to a 200 foot giant.

And yes, I guess you could say the film is a plea against discrimination, or a plea for increased tolerance between dissidents. But I try not to get too overtly political.

What inspired you to write and direct “The Giant” as your first feature?

Instead of playing it safe and do something I can and have done before, I very much liked the idea of stepping out of my comfort zone. There are so many people, behind and in front of the camera, so many special and visual effects. So much of everything. In a way it’s a crazy film for me to make as a first feature. I’m not even trained as a director and have had very little experience in working with actors. I’m used to playing with dolls and moving puppets in a frame by frame manner. I like to put myself in an impossible position, losing control, because only then there is a chance of some chaos, some real life pouring in. The main challenge in everything I do is to capture a little pinch of life. If the system is too rigid, controlled and professional, if everyone is too good at what they do, and everything is too well planned to fail, there’s a big risk of killing all life there was.

Where would you situate yourself in Swedish and Nordic cinema. Do you see yourself as part of a new generation filmmakers? If so, what are one or two of its hallmarks.

Not really. But I can see some tendencies. There are more and more directors popping up with other backgrounds than the usual ones. You could say that I for example have a background in art rather than film directing. Therefore unconventional ways of storytelling emerge. Also there has been a lot of focus on a pseudo documentary story telling, a deprecation of the classical Hollywood style. Political and gender issues are highly valued.

Fantasy, fiction and sublimity is frown upon and regarded fake. Then there is a counter-flow, a reaction to this, with vampires, orcs and hobbits running around. Very seldom do these two worlds meet.