Interview: Smiles on a summer night: Colin Nutley is unknown here, huge in Sweden. Now he's filming in Blackpool. Kevin Jackson met him

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE TROUBLE with the Swedes, Colin Nutley says, is that they just don't understand about Kendal Mint Cake. 'This was carried up Mount Everest in 1953, mate,' he explains, stuffing a generous lump in the hands of a bewildered Swedish sound engineer. 'The English - no, well, I suppose he was from New Zealand, really, wasn't he? - but, anyway, Sir Edmund Hillary took this up Mount Everest with him. Now the Swedes only managed to get up Everest a year ago. Why? Because they didn't have Kendal Mint Cake.' His sound engineer gaves the lump a tentative nibble. 'What do you reckon?' Nutley asks. Awkward pause. 'Umm . . . sweet', comes the diplomatic reply.

Marmite, it seems, is not the only British delicacy to baffle other nations. Still, if mint cake really does have the fortifying properties Nutley alleges, then he's clearly well-advised to be doling it out to his crew this evening, since the weather here in Blackpool is doing its best to live up to another British tradition: it's decidedly chilly and the rain is bucketing down. To explain, however, why an English film director should be shooting his latest feature at the end of Blackpool's north pier, employing not locals but an all-Swedish cast, all-Swedish crew and even an all-Swedish title - Sista Dansen, or The Last Dance - requires more background.

One key detail is that Nutley, while scarcely a name to dangle at cinema parties in Britain as yet, is absolutely huge in Scandinavia. He first went to Sweden in 1975 as assistant director on a children's series, Freewheelers, co- produced by Southern Television and a Swedish network, and then spent the next decade or so hopping backwards and forwards between England and Sweden. His first two features, both Swedish, did very nicely at the country's box office. The first, Nionde kompaniet / Ninth Company (1987), was a satirical farce about national servicemen putting their military equipment to profitable use in agriculture; the second, Blackjack (1990), was about the world of Sweden's travelling dance bands: 'They're a lot like Irish show bands, and they play the kind of music ABBA grew out of. As a matter of fact, I was originally planning to call that film Sista Dansen, too.'

But it was his last feature, Anglagard / House of Angels, which really made Nutley a winner. More than a million Swedes went to see this good-natured comedy about plotting and prejudice in a small rural town, and made it one of the most popular films in Swedish history. It has proved an equally solid export. So far, 18 countries have bought distribution rights, and the film will open in Britain next week. Moreover, it brought him a handsome personal profit, and smoothed the path for whatever movie projects might happen to take his fancy.

Nutley had several ideas in mind, but the first screenplay he completed in the midst of House of Angels's complex, if lucrative, post-production time was the story of two middle-class couples in their late thirties who share a passion for ballroom dancing. 'Now, Blackpool to a ballroom dancer is like Wimbledon to a tennis player - it's the Mecca, it's the home of the world championships, the European championships, whatever. Dancers come here from Russia, from Latvia . . . Just in the last week, our hotel has been packed with ballroom dancers from Japan. I mean, this film isn't really about dancing, it's not a Strictly Ballroom, but I wanted to use something where a dream world destroyed a real world and dancing seemed right. It's a film about the life of two girls, and about jealousy.'

As it happens, the scene Nutley is hoping to shoot tonight - if the rain ever lets up - contains Sista Dansen's climactic jealous outburst. The female leads, Tove (played by Helena Bergstrom, who was the sexy heroine in House of Angels) and Liselott (Ewa Froling), are supposed to run out of their dressing-room, have a furious row, continue scrapping until they come to the rails, and then reach such a frenzy of anger that one of them will shove the other over the side. Or, at any rate, appear to; the stunt woman (going rate: around pounds 400 a fall) and her giant air-cushion won't be showing up until tomorrow.

Until the skies relent a little, though, there isn't much for anyone to do except keep out of the wet - mostly in bright, empty arcades full of one-armed bandits and video games - and let the cinematographer, Jens Fischer, try to relight the end of the pier so that tonight's footage will match the fine weather shooting from the past few days. 'All these neon lights you see over here are ours,' Fischer says, pointing to the glitzy barn at the pier's end, home to the Jim Davidson summer show when there are no Swedish film crews around. 'We brought all these red and white bulbs, the big illuminated Snow White, everything - it has to be a very exaggerated, Las Vegas kind of feel.'

Fischer's English, like that of just about every crew member, is shamingly fluent, though that's not the main reason Nutley hired him. 'Jens is an unbelievably good cameraman, like his father - his dad (Gunnar Fischer) shot all of Bergman's early work, Summer with Monika, The Seventh Seal . . . But then all of this crew is amazingly professional. There's a very high tradition of quality in the Swedish cinema, because there it's always been considered an art. I came up through British television, making arts documentaries, and if I'd ever said to anyone about something I was making 'This is poetic', they'd have thought I was gay.'

After an hour or so of lighting and re-lighting, the rain lets up just enough for Nutley to decide that it's worth trying for a take. The actresses doff their huge anoraks to expose their flimsy ball-gowns to the elements, and run through their moves - or, more exactly, teeter and slide through them, since the pier's wooden planks are now perilously slippery for high heels. Out come the brooms, puddles are swept away and Nutley calls for action.

Takes continue until the drizzle turns back to rain and lacquered coiffures threaten to sag. Nutley seems philosophical: they've been unusually lucky with the weather so far, and if tonight's filming simply has to be called off - and the final decision to quit comes at 1.30am - well, it will be a welcome break for a team beginning to be frazzled by too many consecutive night shoots. In the meantime, he knocks off a few long shots of the pier's end which may prove useful in editing.

Whatever the weather throws at him in the next few days, Nutley is certain about one thing. Just as he edited a fatal car crash in House of Angels to the incongruously cheery notes of 'Mamma Mia' by ABBA, so The Last Dance will be book-ended with two more songs by Sweden's greatest musical export: 'Dancing Queen', at the beginning, and 'The Winner Takes It All'. This may sound like a blatant attempt to win favour in his adopted homeland, but, Nutley says, the case is quite the contrary: even now, most sophisticated Swedes will claim to find Bjorn and Benny's oeuvre, like Kendal Mint Cake, too sweet.

'Bergman would never use ABBA, and most Swedish directors have tried to follow in the auteur style of Bergman, very well-intentioned and soul-searching, and the Swedish public just don't want that. As an outsider in Sweden, you see, I have the liberty to do things that Swedish directors would never be able to do.'

'House of Angels' opens next week

(Photograph omitted)