Swedish director Jonas Akerlund’s has a knack for merging music and visuals, having spent the first few decades of his career making videos for artists including Madonna, Beyonce, Ozzy Osbourne and Rammstein.
In 2002 he made his directorial feature debut with “Spun,” a dark comedy featuring Jason Schwartzman and Mena Suvari, and has since continued to dabble in both music and feature films, occasionally combing the two with projects such as 2018’s “Lords of Chaos,” a horror film about Norway’s early 1990s black metal scene. He was also set to direct “Midas Man,” a biopic of The Beatles’ legendary manager Brian Epstein, before parting ways with the production last winter.
Akerlund’s latest project, Netflix limited series “Clark,” is not music-themed, although it’s very much informed by the music and culture of the ‘70s. The show tells the story of notorious Swedish criminal Clark Olofsson (played by “It” star Bill Skarsgård) who terrorized Swedish society throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. Olofsson is perhaps most famous for his involvement in the 1973 Norrmalmstorg robbery in which he and his former cellmate Jan-Erik Olsson spent five days holed up in a Stockholm bank with hostages. To the authorities’ surprise, the hostages ended up bonding with Olofsson and Olsson during the ordeal and refused to testify against them in the subsequent trial, a quirk of fate which coined the term “Stockholm syndrome.”
Akerlund sat down with Variety to talk about making “Clark,” what happened with “Midas Man” and his upcoming projects which, he exclusively reveals, include a Billy Idol documentary.
How did you get involved with “Clark”?
There was a Swedish producer that had just done a documentary about Clark so he and I spoke, and [it was like], there is something in here. You know, his life is incredible. I started to read up on it. I thought I knew everything about him but I didn’t. [There] was so much more to it and from out of that came the idea of making this series.
How famous is Clark in Sweden?
He is very well known. I don’t think there’s anybody over 40 who doesn’t know him. I even remember when this Norrmalmstorg robbery happened, this very famous bank robbery. But it affected the whole country and he’s [since] been the celebrity criminal popstar for everybody.
Was he involved in this project?
Not at all, actually. But we did buy the rights. He wrote a couple of books, and we bought the rights to his books and we kind of used them a little bit. But his stories are very well known [in Sweden]. They’re very well documented in documentaries and books and interviews and all kinds of stuff. So my research came not just from his books, it came from a lot of different sources.
Was that what you wanted, to bring something new to it rather than just regurgitate the stories everybody’s heard before?
I think so. I mean, early on, I felt this is a very dark and tragic story. But at the surface, and in Clark’s head, he always looked at it in a completely different way. I mean, if you speak to him today, he would say that he’s very happy with his life, he doesn’t regret anything, he’s very happy with his career. He’s saying he’s had a great career! And he doesn’t regret anything. That’s from his perspective and the series is seen through his eyes a lot. So I felt like I can get away with a lot of comedy and I can get away with a lot of stuff with that build up but there’s also tragic side to it. And I tried to kind of balance the two, especially with his upbringing, because his upbringing was very dark.
In the first episode his upbringing doesn’t seem too dark: were you portraying it through a child’s eyes?
The series, I know it’s six hours, but it actually builds very much like a movie. So it has like a beginning and then his life. And then it has a very strong ending as well. So it kind of lands in the – without giving away too much – it’s like he doesn’t change, but the times around him change. And then he doesn’t make sense anymore and his humor is not funny anymore. And the way he treats people and women and how he takes advantage of the system and the jail, like all those type things, doesn’t work anymore. So he becomes like more of a pathetic person. In the beginning, he’s like charming and fun and you think, ‘Wow, that’s a cool lifestyle.’ But then at the end, you kind of get it. It’s like, no, that’s not great. You don’t get away with it.
That’s interesting because I saw an essay suggesting the show was glamorizing a criminal. Do you feel that’s what the series does?
Well, I mean, if you look at the whole series with healthy eyes I think it doesn’t at all, but again, like, in his head, and the way I told it through his eyes, it is a glamorous world for him. But if you look at what he’s done, you realise that it’s not. And then of course, he hurt a lot of people on the way. He said, ‘I never killed anybody. I never used violence. I never stole from people, I only stole from banks.’ Well, it’s kind of the same thing: if you hold a gun to a person’s head when you rob a bank, that person is going to be hurt. But I don’t think anybody would look at it and think ‘That’s the lifestyle I want’ or ‘That’s what I should be doing in my life.’
And how do the Swedish public see Clark? Do they seem him as a rockstar or are they judgmental?
They are [judgmental], especially the older audience. When I told my father I was gonna do this he was like, ‘Why would you give that guy time on TV?’ There’s a thing with older people – for all the right reasons – because Clark put fear in the whole country with his tactics. People were scared that he was going to show up. And he was always on the run. He escaped from prison 17 times. 17 times. I mean, take that number in. 17 times he escaped and every time he was on the run people were worried that he would show up in their summer house or like, you know, he took hostages.
But in general, people kind of adore him and he actually had teenage girls putting posters [of him] on the wall. He was that kind of guy. But again, he fucked a lot of people over and there’s got to be a lot of broken hearts out there, too. Not only women, but also his friends.
What was the biggest challenge on this project?
Creatively or practically?
Creatively, you have this, on one hand, it’s this amazing, too-good-to-be-true, real-life person and characters around him. And it’s an amazing era to time-travel back in time and history with everything: that music and wardrobe, like all those things. To me, it invites me to be really creative. And also I start every episode with saying that it’s based on truth and lies. And that’s kind of like giving me a little bit of approval on stretching the reality. I’m not saying this is exactly how it was. I’m saying that this is my take on this story.
On a practical level, I mean, it was the pandemic, but also everything is just big. It’s basically like doing four independent movies at the same time. But I have to say working with Netflix was pretty incredible. They were very open minded, not only on the practical stuff, but also on the creative stuff.
What would be your dream project?
I mean, if you would have asked me three years ago, I would never say ‘Oh, a famous Swedish bank robber.’ So it doesn’t necessarily have to be something you think about or dream about. But I have my projects and I can mention two of them that I love. And one of them is this very famous author [and occultist] called Aleister Crowley. His life story would be an amazing series.
And then on the music [biopic] side, I think it’s so hard because I think being a rock and roller and music lover and growing up with it I look at these films and I see actors with wigs and instruments and I have a hard time getting past that. It’s really hard. But then again, movies like “Almost Famous” that [are] about the music world, but not specifically about the band. And Sharon and Ozzy [Osbourne] would be awesome, I know they’re already talking about it.
You parted ways with “Midas Man” a few weeks into the shoot last November. Are you able to say what happened there?
I’m not supposed to talk about it. The project did not turn out the way I thought it would be, that’s all I can really say.
Now that “Clark” is out, what’s next for you?
I’m working on a few things already. I’m shooting a concert film and I’m doing two documentaries right now, one with Billy Idol, which is his life story. And I’m doing another one which I don’t think I should say… also a big artist. And then I’m reading a lot of scripts and writing a little bit and trying to figure out what my next move is. Right now I’m enjoying “Clark” coming out. It was such a long journey. And the fact that it’s been well received in Scandinavia is incredible.
Akerlund is repped by Casarotto Ramsay & Associates and Anonymous Content.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.