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In the hands of Swedish director Mikael Håfström, Stephen King’s horror story, 1408, is more of a psychological drama, a close study of a man who is about to go insane, the director tells Jorn Rossing Jensen.

Evil (Ondskan/2003) was Mikael Håfström’s ticket to Hollywood. The film from Swedish author Jan Guillou’s autobiographical novel of the boy Erik and his difficult life at a boarding school won three Guldbagger (Sweden’s national film awards), including one for Best Film, and went on to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign-Language Feature.

In the US Håfström – whose Swedish credits also include Days Like These (Leva livet/2001), Drowning Ghost (Strandvaskaren/2004) and numerous productions for local television - first directed Derailed (2005), a thriller starring Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston as an adulterous couple exposed to blackmail.

Evil returns in Håfström’s second American outing, 1408, which had its international première on Locarno’s Piazza Grande at the city’s international film festival in August 2007. When launched in the US, it took second position on the charts from gross box office receipts totalling $20.1 million, to become the best opening of a Stephen King film so far.

In the film Martin Enslin (John Cusack), an author, has been obsessed with life after death since his young daughter died. But his research into the paranormal has so far left him with no proof of its existence. Then he checks into the Dolphin Hotel in New York to prepare for a new book project, Ten Nights in Haunted Hotel Rooms.

Enslin is the first person for years to stay in Suite 1408. According to the hotel manager (Samuel L Jackson), who recommends him to choose another room, 56 guests have lost their lives in the suite during the hotel’s 95-year history – ”the first cut his throat, and none of them lasted for more than an hour.”

"from a sceptic to a true believer"

Convinced that there is no more between heaven and earth than he can see with his own two eyes, Enslin ignores the manager’s warnings. However, visiting demons will shortly turn him from a sceptic to a true believer, and make him less and less certain that he will survive the night in Suite 1408.

”We couldn’t use the original ending of King’s short story, so it was really up for discussion, while we worked on different ways to conclude it,” Håfström recalls. ”Also, during the shooting, the film became more emotional than we had thought, so I realised we needed to try several new directions.

”The advantage of working in America is that with bigger resources you can explore more possibilities and do more takes, so we filmed several endings, which we tested with different audiences. We all agreed that our final choice was the most satisfying not only for the audience, but also for the characters and for us.

”When the film is released on DVD it will also come with an alternative endin, which we thought it could be exciting for audiences to watch. King himself saw an almost finished print of the film, and although we had changed a lot and added more to his text we understood that it was very much the heart and soul of his story.

”I read the script before the book, and I was intrigued by the idea of making a drama with one character in a confined room – especially at a hotel. I love hotels both on film and in reality. I also saw it as a very interesting collaboration with an actor, and indeed, we couldn’t have done much without John Cusack and his energy.

”1408 has more visual effects than I have used in any of my previous films, but it was important to me that we never went over the top, but all the time tried to integrate them into the general feeling of the movie. I did not want audiences to be able to say ’oh, there is another visual effects shot.’

"a close study of this man who is about to go insane"

"The film is shot in London, and the Dolphin is situated in New York, so we used CGI for the scenes outside the hotel, which I don’t think people will consider as visual effects. Then we obviously had to construct some ghosts. But it is more of a psychological drama, a close study of this man who is about to go insane.

”We also tried to do as much as we could practically – the water bursting in, the room turning into a ship, the wall cracking ... we cracked it for real. I hope that the audiences will make Enslin’s journey their own journey. I want them to wonder, ’What would happen to me in 1408?’ I also want them to have a good ride,” explains Håfström.

His first Stephen King experience on the screen was US director Brian DePalma’s Carrie, “which really left an impression on me.” Then he started reading him. ”I think that one of his strong points is how he creates great characters with a lot of depth in just a few words. If you read 1408 you know all about Enslin and his past after a couple of pages.”

After Evil had been screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, he started receiving Hollywood offers. He went for Derailed, “an old-fashioned thriller, character-driven, with few special effects,” produced by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the founders of Miramax-Dimension Films.

”Derailed was a good introduction to Hollywood filmmaking, and I had all that with me when I directed 1408 – I felt I had more experience. At the time there was some interest in a US version of Evil; remake rights for Cops (Kopps), which I co-wrote with Josef Fares, had already been sold.

”I also think that somebody had acquired the rights for Drowning Ghost, but I could not imagine anything worse than to do a remake of your own film. If somebody else wants to, go ahead. Anyway, the American studios buy a lot of remake rights for European films, but most of them never get off the ground.”

Through their The Weinstein Company shingle, Harvey and Bob Weinstein also produced 1408. ”Obviously the way it was received in the US means that the majority of the scripts I am reading now are from Hollywood. But of course I would love to make another film in Sweden,” concludes Håfström, who now lives in London, but spends a lot of time in Los Angeles.

Published December 6, 2007

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Mikael Håfström


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