Q & A with Director Johan Renck

Director Johan Renck

“Downloading Nancy” Director Johan Renck

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to first time feature director Johan Renck about “Downloading Nancy”, his psycho sexual thriller opening June 5 in New York and L.A. via Strand Releasing.

Directed by Renck, a native of Sweden who’s best known for directing commercials (Nike, Levi’s, Mercedes, Dom Perignon) and music videos (Madonna’s “Hung Up” and Robbie Williams’ “Trippin”), “Nancy”, was written by Pamela Cuming & Lee Ross. It was produced by David Moore, Igor Kovacevich, Cole Payne and Jason Essex and executive produced by Mark Mueller, Adam Batz, Sean McVity, Maddox Pace Clinkscales, Philip H. Clinkscales III and Chris Hanley. Starring are Maria Bello, Jason Patric, Rufus Sewell and Amy Brenneman.

“Nancy’s” dark story revolves around a deeply troubled woman (Bello), who disappears from home after 15 years of marriage to Albert (Sewell), her hard working but dull businessman husband. She leaves behind a note saying she’s gone to see friends. Actually, she’s gone to meet Louis (Patric), a man she’s hooked up with on the Internet and with whom she shares an appetite for perverse sex. Through hundreds of e-mails Nancy’s persuaded the equally twisted Louis to liberate her from her unbearably painful life by killing her as the climax to their sexual fantasies.

Having found “Nancy”, a fascinating and most unusual film, I was happy to have an opportunity recently to talk about the making of the film with Renck, who called from Sweden.

Q: This is definitely an unusual movie. How did it come about?
A: I come from the world of music videos and commercials and since I started directing I’ve been interested in doing film and was reading a bunch of scripts or whatever I could get my hands on over the years. There was something in this script that caught my attention. I wanted to do some kind of graduation test in the world of film and for my first feature to be something that (involved) working closely with actors. I knew I had a lot of knowledge and experience in the other fields of filmmaking, but hadn’t worked closely with actors. So I was looking for something that would be an ensemble piece, almost a little theater play but in film. I knew that I wanted something darker because I’m prone towards darker stuff. There was something about good and bad love that attracted me in the script and that’s why I went ahead and pursued this project.
Q: When did you first see the script?
A: It’s got to be a long time ago. We shot it two years ago and I probably found it, at least, two years (before that so) it’s probably five years ago or something like that. It’s not easy these days to be a first time director with a script for a movie that is pretty much not (with) any kind of commercial (appeal). It’s difficult to piece these things together.
Q: Did you know right away that this was the one for you when you read it?
A: No. It wasn’t a love at first sight thing. It was more that the script interested me. I read it and I put it away and then I read it again a couple of days later and it was something that interested me. I sat down and wrote a bunch of script notes and actually sent (them) to the writers and said, “Look, this is my view on this project. (Please) tell me to get the hell out of here or if this is something you can agree upon.” And they said, “Yeah, we agree with all of that and we think that what you’re saying is interesting.” So we spent six months or something like that discussing and polishing the script and trying to get it more towards what I saw within it (and make it) more nihilistic than it was from the beginning.
Q: Did you have anyone in mind to play these roles?
A: No, I didn’t have anybody in mind immediately. To me, being a complete novice in the landscape of Hollywood actors, it all seemed very unattainable in so many ways. So we started sending the script out. First it went through coverage at ICM and came out with very good grades. I had interest in Holly Hunter because I always liked her persona. There was always a brooding darkness in her and it adds an enormous quality to her acting. We went to her and she accepted it. Then I went to my friend Stellan Skarsgard in Sweden because I liked him and I wanted him in the movie. And he also liked the script and he said yes. And then we went to William Hurt. So that was the first cast we had, which was probably four years ago. All these people said yes and I couldn’t believe it. But then with these kind of things, things occur. Holly Hunter got pregnant and had to jump ship. The whole thing crumbled. The financiers pulled out and all that kind of stuff.
Q: What did you do then?
A: We had to start from the beginning. That’s where we were at four years ago. We were looking for very, very good actors and trying to find people who had what I was looking for in terms of some kind of inert darkness in their person, what they come across as on the screen. We had to gather our forces again. We went to Maria Bello and she read it. I met with her in L.A. and she liked the script so she said yes. And then a producer friend of mine suggested Jason Patric and I really liked that idea because I think he’s brilliant. I really liked the darkness he could convey. So I met with him and I somehow managed to get him on board, as well. And then with those two we started getting the thing together again and we actually went to Canada and started shooting more or less without the (husband’s) character cast because we had some problems with people procrastinating the decision with regard to that.

In Canada I saw the movie “The Illusionist” in which Rufus Sewell is playing this very unsympathetic character. I liked him so much that after that movie I said, “I want him. Let’s try to get him.” So we managed to get him on board and he came to Canada a couple of weeks later. So it all came together pretty nicely. All of a sudden I had a new cast, which was vastly different from the original cast we had, but in very many ways it was, at least, equally if not more interesting. I was enormously happy with who we had when we started shooting.
Q: The Internet is almost a character in the film, as well.
A: Originally in the script the Internet was a bigger character, but I didn’t like that as a device. It felt gimmicky and it felt uninteresting. I wasn’t too keen on having that be a big character because I felt that the Internet is just something we have in our daily life and I actually toned down the importance of the Internet.
Q: It’s interesting though that we don’t see Nancy on her computer looking to meet someone for the encounters she has in mind. Someone else might have shown her sending e-mails and reading responses from different people.
A: What I found interesting with the Internet is the anonymity that you (have there). It’s an interesting factor that niche interests can find their peers on the Internet because (there are) people from everywhere. So (with even) the most marginal weird interest you can find a little club on the Internet. That’s the only reason (the Internet) is still there (in the movie).
Q: Albert, the husband, on the other hand is not very Internet savvy at all.
A: It was so important to show how little interest Albert has in Nancy’s life. There comes a certain point in some people’s life when they realize that this is all that we have and this is what it’s going to be and some kind of fatigue sets in. Albert really possesses that in some weird way. You can totally see that as much as he wants to be the king of his little pathetic world that he’s built, you see the fear in his eyes and you know that he’s just going to slowly fade out doing what he’s doing on an everyday basis for the rest of his life. He wasn’t even capable of understanding what responsibilities and commitments you have when you say that you love somebody and that you have willingly sort of get rid of a significant part of yourself and replace that with somebody else’s needs and desires. So when you make decisions with regard to this other person you don’t make them as a compromise or as a sacrifice, but you make your decisions because you really want the best for this other person because you love this person. When I was doing this movie I was going through a divorce, myself, so I guess a lot of issues surrounding my own divorce surfaced in getting the movie into place.
Q: Where did you shoot?
A: We shot in Regina, Saskatchewan in Canada, which is a completely remote little village in the middle of nowhere.
Q: Why did you shoot there?
A: For a couple of reasons. Ninety-five percent of the film takes place in interior locations and I really felt as long as we can capture some kind of interesting mood within those interiors, I don’t really care where we are. This was an extremely low budget movie and I think the tax breaks, which are vital in terms of figuring out where to produce a movie, were absolutely the best in Regina. I think we got the best deals we could ever get there. So when we started looking into that and people were sending me location scouts from interiors of the houses there, I loved it instantaneously because it felt like a lot of these little places were frozen in time somewhere in 1988 or some weird time like that. It appealed to me the way these places looked.
Q: So it was the right place to shoot.
A: It was in the middle of bloody nowhere and in the middle of winter, which was enormously cold. I mean, it was around 30 or 40 below. It was ridiculous. There were very few exterior scenes. We were frozen to the inner core of ourselves. But we found a lot of warmth and joy in this little remote village. The original plan was that we had 25 or 26 shooting days, but I was gone after 23.
Q: Your background in shooting commercials and music videos had to have been helpful in shooting that quickly.
A: It definitely was. At the same time that this was my first movie, I had hundreds and hundreds of shooting days behind me and actually I’ve been in every conceivable situation you can imagine because of the nature of these projects I’ve been working on. So there was no type of shooting condition or situation or scene that would have unsettled me in any way at all. And Chris Doyle, who shot the movie, and I have worked a lot on commercials and such before and really know each other well. We both have very high energy and we finished even before we should have finished. I said, “I’m happy. I have everything I need.”
Q: Working with actors was new for you. How did you approach that? Did you rehearse?
A: It’s both new and not new to me because in doing what I’ve been doing I’ve been working with actors, but mostly I work with amateurs. So for me in some ways this was (better). For instance, when doing a commercial or a video when you’re working with an amateur you have to use every skill you have to try and trick and manipulate this person into doing something the way you want it to be done. But all of a sudden you’re there with enormously talented actors and to me that just made everything so much easier than what I was used to before.

We did rehearse, but my plan was that we shot all day and then immediately after the shoot we had a half-hour break and then we were on to rehearsals. I wanted to try to rehearse the next day’s scenes the day before because I didn’t want the actors to go to bed with everything they went through over the day because there was some quite heavy stuff. I’d rather have them go to bed with tomorrow’s heavy stuff in their heads. So we rehearsed for an hour or two or three the same evening after the shoot. We had such limited resources so that’s the way we had to do this.
Q: With intense material like this filmmakers sometimes prefer to shoot scenes in sequence because it’s hard to get in and out of where the characters are at various points. Were you able to do that?
A: I really wanted to shoot it in sequence. I said that from the beginning for a lot of reasons, not the least for the fact that my experience was not (in features). That was one of the few things I asked for. I said, “I really want to shoot this in sequence.” There were some nods of yes to that in the beginning of pre-production, but pretty quickly practical matters (like) lack of resources just turned it into being like any movie. We had to shoot in a very non-sequential kind of way. I didn’t mind it when it was happening, but I would have preferred to shoot it (in sequence).
Q: Looking ahead, are you working on a new project?
A: I am. I’m done with dark nihilistic relation dramas. This is my divorce album or whatever you want to call it. I’m working on a couple of things. Nothing that is in production. There’s one project which is a science fiction movie that is my number one priority right now. And there are a couple of other things that I am also looking into. So there’s a bunch of interesting things going on. I’m originally a recording artist. I was a musician and a recording artist during the ’90s and I went from that to directing my own videos and one thing led to another. I never felt as at home as I did when we did this movie and I really look forward to being in that situation again. That’s where I belong and that’s where I want to be.