Photography by ChiChi Ubina
Filmmaking with the Lasse Hallstrom, Lena Olin and Tora Hallstrom and their latest movie, Hilma
We are delighted to bring you a behind-the-scenes interview with the Hallstrom family about moviemaking and the story behind their film, Hilma. Lasse Hallstrom (Director, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, My Life as a Dog, Chocolat) wrote and directed Hilma. His wife, Academy Award nominated actress, Lena Olin played the role of older Hilma and their daughter, Tora made her starring debut as young Hilma.
The movie is a tribute to the life of innovative Swedish artist, Hilma af Klint. Hilma began painting large abstract canvases in the late 19th century – before the time of Kandinsky and Mondrian (who are credited with the invention of the style). Hilma was motivated by mysticism and the metaphysical world and claimed that her art was inspired by the spirits. She was a pioneer in the world of women artists and the Hallstroms depict that in this wonderful homage. This beautiful film took 10 weeks to produce and was filmed in Stockholm, an archipelago outside of Stockholm, and in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Lasse, How did you come up with the idea for the movie, Hilma?
In 2017, I was doing research for a film about UFOs, and found strong connections to the idea of a world of spirits, something I hadn’t really believed in before. When Lena recapped the story of a film she had seen that mentioned a Swedish mystery painter, Hilma af Klint, I got curious. I Googled her, bought all the books about her and was hooked, obsessed! Not so much by her paintings to start with, more by her claim that she had painted guided by the spirits. It seemed real!
You developed and interest in mysticism through Hilma’s work. How has it changed you?
Lasse: It has changed my view on life completely, I now believe in afterlife, in reincarnation, in the eternal life of the soul. I believe in most of the convictions that Hilma had, I find comfort in her circles and spirals. “We are one,” as Hilma says in the film.
Lena: I still find it too difficult to talk about all the mysterious things in our relationship with the spirits and our guidance from the other side. I simply cannot make myself talk about it, not even with Lasse.
Lasse, When you produced the idea of writing Hilma – did you write the parts thinking about Lena and Tora?
I wrote it for the two of them, this was a chance to make that family movie I had dreamt about.
You must be so proud of Tora…tell us about her development as an actor in the role of Hilma – it was an amazing opportunity for her.
Lasse: Tora originally wanted to do something very different from our line of work. She got into finance, and with the Princeton business background, she was accepted at Goldman Sachs and worked there as an analyst for a while. When this idea surfaced to do a feature about Hilma’s life, we saw the opportunity to “save her from finance world” to give her a more creative career option. We knew she had artistic, creative talents, the talent for writing and acting, (dancing, singing in school musicals). She had won screenplay writing awards at Princeton and I had cast her in smaller parts in my earlier films.
And she blew me away…to my eye she seemed to incarnate Hilma on screen, completely authentic in every moment!
Tora, tell us about getting cast in Hilma, your first feature film and how you got into an acting career.
I have been in a couple of one-line roles in two of my dad’s films, when I was 13 and 17. It was purely for fun, and I didn’t think about it as a real career option. This is my first big role and I have taken a leap to pursue this as my career. I grew up dancing and doing musical theater, and I studied screenwriting at Princeton and fell in love with it. I wrote my college thesis about wanting to be an actress. Somewhere along the way at Princeton, I fell into the finance track and my dreams of doing something creative took a backseat. I was working in New York when my parents first started talking about Hilma. I was immediately intrigued by Hilma Klint as a person and artist. Being on a different career path at the time, I didn’t seriously consider that I could play the part. Though my parents insisted that if the film got made, I could play her. I’m so grateful for their aspirational thinking!
Around Christmas time in 2019, I stumbled upon a book called The Actor’s Art and Craft, by William Esper, who explains Sanford Meisner’s technique on how to become a creative actor. While reading it, I heard a voice in me say, “you need to be in that room.” A couple of months later, in March 2020 (when the world stopped), I moved home to Bedford from San Francisco and started doing a lot of work on myself. I adopted this crazy morning routine that included meditation, journaling and reading. I had felt like I was coasting through life, flowing with the inertia of my own and my peers’ careers. I wasn’t fulfilled or happy and needed a change. At the same time, my dad had finished a draft of the Hilma script, and my parents and I started workshopping it multiple times a week for hours at a time at our kitchen table.
After a few weeks, I had developed a new life plan: I was going to apply to The William Esper Studio and then audition for Hilma after I had completed my two-year training there. The studio kept pushing back their start date, and I continued working from home until suddenly Viaplay (a Swedish streaming service) came to us in early 2021 and said they would finance the whole film and they were going to take a chance on me playing Hilma. It was such a blessing! So, I quit my job and decided that I would start at the William Esper Studio after we shot the movie, and that’s where I am now!
How was working together as a family on set?
Lasse: Working on a film set is paradise…when you have a good relationship with cast and crew. We got along, we were inspired, in seventh heaven, all three of us…as on a perfect, dreamy family vacation! It’s so stimulating to make a film, to become an extended family of collaborators, for those ten weeks of shooting.
Tora: In his personal life, my dad’s attitude is very laid back, and my mom and I are both fiery, passionate, and opinionated (my mom is probably more so, but as I grow up, I feel like I’m starting to resemble her more and more). On set, my dad has a different persona. I have always loved seeing my dad on set, because he has this clear yet relaxed authority and control over the situation that I don’t get to see at home. It was even cooler to experience it firsthand working with him. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the way he works. He creates the space for actors to have complete freedom, but still sees and has control over every little detail. Everyone loves him, and the entire cast and crew became a big family.
Tora, What did you learn about film making while working on the set?
It’s HARD WORK. You work long hours, it’s emotionally draining, you’re often uncomfortable working in cold temperatures or weird spaces, and things move fast so you must constantly be aware of how you can help the team do their jobs as efficiently as possible. Then, when the camera starts rolling you have to put all of that aside and just be in the moment.
Tora, When did you realize you were going to follow in your mother’s footsteps?
There have been a lot of mini realizations along the way, but it didn’t really hit me until after our first week of shooting Hilma in Stockholm. I was happy and challenged on a level that I didn’t know was possible being on set. I felt like I was unlocking parts of myself that I had neglected for a long time, and when Friday came around, I didn’t want it to be the weekend. That’s when I realized that unfortunately there was no going back to a job that didn’t fulfill me the way acting did.
Lena, Do you work with Tora to coach her in acting?
I believe that growing up with parents who are actors is a lifelong coaching experience. The way of viewing life and your fellow humans is very different for an actor. There’s a curiosity about people around us, of understanding us humans. There is a desire to recognize what lies beneath. I got that from my parents and that’s the way I live my life and view the world. I think Tora has developed the same passion, the same curiosity. And studying life is the best coaching for an actor.
Tora, How has it been growing up with a movie star mom and director dad?
It’s been both rocky and extremely fun. When they were working, they were away for long periods of time and I stayed at home with various Swedish au pairs, which was like having a fun young aunt around all the time, but I missed my parents a lot. When they were home, they were HOME and not working on anything but being individuals and parents, so I felt like they were present during those times. It gave me both independence and a deeply close relationship with them. Artists stay close to their inner child, from my experience, so there was never a dull moment at home. I was surrounded by beautiful chaos, fun, and love.
Tora: Do you think you’d ever be interested in directing films?
I would absolutely love to be a screenwriter. But directing, no. From what I have seen, I think that good directors need to be in control of everything but create the illusion that they aren’t controlling anything. If I was in control, I would probably micromanage everything, so I don’t think I would be very good at it.
What projects are you currently working on and plans for the future?
Lena: I have two films coming out soon. One is a comedy called Upgraded, for Amazon. The other is a film is called One Life about Sir Nicholas Winton, a British man who saved hundreds of Jewish children from Prague before the war and Hitler got into Prague. He arranged for the kids to go to England and be taken care of by British families. I had the privilege of working with Anthony Hopkins on this. Such a dream! I am now starting to work on a beautiful crime show. That sounds like an anomaly, but it’s true. It’s based on three books by the Icelandic writer Ragnar Jonasson. I’m very much looking forward to that!
Lasse: I am working on a story about interactions/collaborations between life here and “life on the other side,” and while waiting to get that going, Lena and I will go to Iceland this fall to make a TV series based on crime stories by the Icelandic writer Ragnar Jonason. Lena will play a detective, and I will direct.
Tora: I’m excited! But I’m leaping into the unknown! It’s a hard business and I am so fortunate to be able to work in the industry, thanks to my parents. I hope to continue working in film and television in some capacity. I have a long-term dream of writing my own TV show, probably a comedy, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge did with Fleabag, which I thought was absolutely brilliant, or Lena Dunham did with Girls. I’m taking it day by day, continuing to work on improving as an actress and writer, and having the faith that I can keep doing this with gratitude for what I’ve already done in Hilma.