Jonas Åkerlund, it’s no understatement to say, is the Stanley Kubrick (or Steven Spielberg…or Orson Welles) of the music video world. He’s a living legend in the music industry having directed promos for artists from Madonna and Maroon 5 to Rammstein and Metallica, although he’s perhaps most recognised for his award winning mini-cine epics Paparazzi and Telephone for Lady Gaga. In between making music videos he’s directed countless adverts but Small Apartments marks only his third foray into narrative feature film making – and even this was shot in only 20 days in a year where he also completed five music videos and over 30 commercials.
Small Apartments stars Matt Lucas as Franklin Franklin, a Switzerland-obsessed, alphorn-blowing, trouser-eschewing oddball who we find in a small apartment with his sleazy landlord (Peter Stormare) lying dead on the floor. While Franklin tries to deal with his situation we’re introduced to the building’s other colourful occupants including aspiring stripper Simone (Juno Temple), nosey neighbour Mr Allspice (James Caan) and down-but-not-out punk Tommy Balls (Johnny Knoxville), as well as investigator Burt Walnut (Billy Crystal) — who’s trying to get to the bottom of the whole mess. It really is, top to bottom, an all-star cast — we’ve even yet to mention James Marsden, Dolph Lundgren, Rebel Wilson or Saffron Burrows — but it certainly won’t shake Åkerlund’s reputation for letting his films take a walk on the weird side… but we don’t think he’ll mind that too much!
Talking from his sunny Los Angeles home, Jonas covered everything from the film’s unusual tone and his decision to cast people against type, to his desire to cause an emotional reaction in the audience and even his favourite current Black Metal band…
Hey, how are you?
We’re really good thanks. So, how would you describe Small Apartments? It’s been described as a dark comedy — is that a good description?
Hmm… Yeah… I’m not sure what a “dark comedy” is, but I guess it’s partly comedy and partly drama I would say. It’s a turn in the movie that makes it dramatic because it starts kinda funny, y’know, and then it kinda grabs you a little bit as we go. So I would say ‘comedy-drama’.
We’ve heard that you’ve had this project in mind for a long time. You’d had the book for about 10 years, then eventually got a script and slowly pieced it all together. Can you tell us a bit more about the development process?
Yeah, one big part of it was to find the guy who was brave enough to play Franklin Franklin. There was a bunch of American comedians and actors who wanted to do the role but I didn’t feel they were right for it. It wasn’t until I saw Matt Lucas, like four or five years ago, and the first thing I thought was: Franklin Franklin! That’s the guy! So we went after him and he responded really well to the book. I always loved the book and the script and the whole idea, but I didn’t wanna just do it, I had to make sure it was done the right way… so it was kinda worth waiting for.
What was it that you saw Matt Lucas in that really sold him to you for the part – Little Britain?
Yeah, that’s what I saw him in. I remember seeing the ABBA sketch they did and there was something about his whole appearance that just worked really well for me when I thought about Franklin Franklin.
On IMDb it says that at one point Rob Schneider was attached to star? Was that with you on board?
That was never with me. The writer is really good friends with Rob so I think they talked about it for a long time.
Tonally the film is quite unusual, to say the least, how much of that is in Chris Millis’ novella/screenplay and how much did you bring to it?
(Laughs) Well, you know there’s many ways to execute a script. In this case, Chris and I worked very closely on the re-writes, so I think we can share the blame for the way the movie came out! But, y’know, in making the movie there are so many things you need to take decisions on every day, and one of the big decisions that I took early on was to take the story to Los Angeles instead of where it was originally written for — Boston, I think? Anyway, it was set somewhere else and it was snowy and cold – one of the reasons why Franklin Franklin was in his underwear throughout was because his heater was stuck on and it was so hot in his apartment. So, one of the things I did was moved it here to LA, which changes the tone of the movie and makes it a little different… and then you take these thousands and thousands of decisions and that’s how you create it. It’s an odd character, and an odd little story, but one of the things that I had in mind was that there was something about every person that was involved in this movie that they were kinda doing something that they’d never done before.
We were just about to raise that – Johnny Knoxville generally only gets to play zany characters and Billy Crystal is, again, cast against type. Was that something you really wanted to do, to confound people’s expectations about the actors?
Yeah! Yeah… I’ve done that type of casting before and, you know, this is such a character driven story that I was very keen on having great character actors throughout the whole movie, even for the smaller roles, ‘cos every character has an important part to play within it. It actually started with me having Billy Crystal in mind – he told me that he’d never done an independent movie before in his life!
Yeah, to have had such a huge career and never to have done an independent movie, and Matt’s never done a lead and never done an American accent. It went all the way down to Dolph Lundgren who told me that he hadn’t done a movie in 20 years where he didn’t have a gun and kill people! So everybody kinda did something that they hadn’t done before, which is obviously refreshing and has a surprise element to it. But, also, I think that, in terms of those characters, it kept them surprising and well played.
Did you find it easy to get the cast together? Are you the kind of director that people say, “Oh, I wanna work with Jonas!”?
The good thing, that feels good for me, when you do these types of movies, is that you don’t really have a lot to offer. When you have a lot of money it’s easy because everyone wants to work with you! My hope is that the reason why I got this cast is based on the material and myself, because we didn’t offer them big money and big trailers — you know, the luxuries that most of these actors are used to. And that’s one thing I really appreciate with Hollywood actually, there’s this side of Hollywood that really likes to take risks. Everything is so “Everyone play it safe” and it’s this and that with the studios, but once in a while there’s actually these moments where these great actors – they don’t really need it – but they do it because they love their art; and in this case I’m hoping they loved the script and me, y’know. I’m not the kinda director that talks people into doing stuff – they either feel it or they don’t. I mean, I admit that I did put an effort in to get Billy Crystal, haha, I really really wanted him!
The film premiered at SXSW last year, which is going on right now in Austin, TX – what are your thoughts about the festival, the platform it gives filmmakers and the relationship between rock music and film? Obviously that relationship is a big part of your other work in music videos.
Right, yeah… to be honest, festivals are only really as good as the amount of money that you put into it. We just did a small release with Matt and Johnny Knoxville there with me. We didn’t do a big party, we didn’t do posters all over the city – we kinda kept a low profile there. We just wanted to go there and see whether it worked and see what happened with it. It was our first screening with an audience, so we kinda used the festival as a little test arena for us. We didn’t make a big deal of it.
The film seems to have had quite mixed reviews. There are people who’ve really taken against it and others who’ve got what you were trying to do. Do you think it’s going to be a film that really divides people?
Well, I don’t know whether it’s just the reviews that people have sent me but I’ve seen a lot of good ones! (Laughs) But for me, in everything I do, if I don’t provoke some sort of emotion it doesn’t work for me. So if I upset people and entertain people, or if people like it or don’t like it, to me that’s good. I like that. The one thing I keep hearing about this specific movie, people keep saying it’s a weird movie. Even the good and the bad reviews always have that word weird in there… and I guess it is a little weird. It doesn’t bother me if people have opinions good or bad about the movie. The movie is what it is and it’s very close to what I had in mind when I started this project. I’m very proud of it.
Talking about your relationship to critics, with the commercials and music videos, there’s only the public and fellow professionals that really judge it. If you make a video for Rammstein then it’s only really going to be the fans who decide whether it’s good or not. Is a feature quite a different experience or process, surely you have all sorts of people commenting on your work?
Yes it is, it’s very different. I mean, all the projects are kinda different and unique, and you mentioned Rammstein, which is so specifically for their fans. They have such a huge fan base and we do everything for their fans. With most other artists I work with we’re trying to get more fans and we try to invite new people into their world. But with Rammstein we can be very specific! Obviously when you make a movie, small or big, you wanna reach a big audience, that’s the purpose of it, but if that audience has different opinions, I think that’s natural.
Final question… you started off playing in the Black Metal scene almost 30 years ago now, these days, which do you like blacker – your coffee or your metal?
Definitely metal because I’ve never had coffee in my whole life! I hate the taste of coffee.
Most Swedish people are really into coffee are they not?
Yeah, actually Sweden is the biggest coffee country in the world, but I’ve never drunk coffee in my entire life. But I still do a lot of Black Metal! Haha!
So who’s your favourite band that’s playing at the moment?
In the Black Metal world, I’d say Watain.
Awesome! Well thanks very much for speaking to us, tack så mycket, best of luck with Small Apartments and have a great day!
Tack, thank you!
Written By: Mikey Serpico
Small Apartments is out on Friday 22nd March in selected UK cinemas!
Tags: Billy Crystal, Dolph Lundgren, James Caan, James Marsden, Johnny Knoxville, Jonas Akerlund, Juno Temple, Madonna, Matt Lucas, Peter Stormare, rammstein, Rebel Wilson, Saffron Burrows, Small Apartments, Watain