Norwegian director Magnus Martens had a free hand when he adapted a best-selling novelist’s short story into a crime caper. 
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6 Aug 2012 - 12:08 PM  UPDATED 6 Aug 2012 - 12:08 PM

Jo Nesbø is one of Norway's most successful novelists but his first stab at writing a film script was way off beam. Fortunately for Nesbø, he gave his unpublished novella about a gang of four scruffy guys who'd won a small fortune to experienced producer Martin Sundland, a partner in Fantefilm.

Sundland showed the manuscript to writer-director Magnus Martens, who had been looking for a suitable project since making his debut feature United, a comedy about a couple who have no kids or pets, just a mutual passion for Manchester United, in 2003.

Martens sparked to the premise in Nesbø's story and the result is Jackpot, a slick crime thriller/comedy with echoes of Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects and the works of the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie.

“When Jo wrote the short story called Thirteen, it was his idea of what a film script should look like,” Martens tells SBS Film. “It didn't look like a script. He gave us full freedom to do whatever we liked, but I showed him every draft, He had some really twisted ideas, such as having one character stuck in a tumble-dryer for a couple of days, and we could not use them. He didn't visit the set but he did come to the editing rooms a couple of times.”

Mads Ousdal, Kyrre Hellum, Arthur Berning and Andreas Cappelen play ex-crims who work at a factory producing plastic Christmas trees somewhere between Norway and Sweden. They're inveterate, unsuccessful gamblers whose luck seems to change when they win a 1,739,361 Danish kroner ($A275,066) jackpot in a soccer pool, an amount that can't be neatly divided into four, thus setting off a chain of catastrophic events that result in eight
dead bodies.

Henrik Mestad, who plays a detective who investigates the mass murders at a strip club/sex shop, said in an interview that Martens was “very, very nervous all the time, very pessimistic” during the shoot. The director laughs at that suggestion, observing, “I think he over-reacted a little bit, I need to work on a worst-case scenario. It was hard to do that combination of comedy and crime. You're never quite sure when you are shooting if you got the balance right.”

Martens encouraged his cast to improvise during rehearsals and incorporated a lot of their ad-libs in the final draft. He noted that a long sequence in the sex shop was difficult to capture, given the time constraints of working on a low budget and the distraction of working in a room full of sex toys as props.

The crime caper opened in Norway in December, greeted with a mostly warm reception from the critics and a couple of reviews he described as harsh. He acknowledges the box-office figures were a bit below what he and the producers had hoped for although they were in line with how films in a similar genre usually perform in the territory. One critic speculated that the film's results were affected by the country's mood following the massacre the previous summer, when Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb outside a government building in Oslo then opened fire at a summer camp on the island of Utøya.

Martens isn't sure if that was a factor, declaring, “We did weigh up whether to delay the release or do some re-testing or editing. But the test screenings were very well received and we felt confident it would appeal to audiences. There was no reaction except from that one reviewer.”

International sales agent TrustNordisk sold the title to a bunch of territories including the UK and Germany. Martens doesn't know whether a US distributor has acquired his film but accepts it's tough generally for sub-titled foreign films to break into that market. “It may be too dark for them, I don't know.” he says. “We played at a few US festivals and they really seemed to love the film there. But I think they [meaning some US distributors] look at us as really crazy filmmakers.”

As for the directors who influenced him, Martens says, “I do love the Coen brothers, and Tarantino. There are similarities with The Usual Suspects in that in both films everything is told retrospectively.”

The filmmaker, who makes a good living from TV series and commercials in between features, graduated from the London Film School in 1996, a period he looks back on with mixed emotions. “Basically, I didn't know shit about filmmaking when I started studying in London,” he says. “It was very messy and quite disorganised and frustrating, but I understood afterwards that's exactly how the film business works.”

Martens has been to Sydney to visit his brother, who lives there. Would he like to shoot a film in Australia? ”I would love to,” he says. The director next hopes to make a film in the US, preferably an action crime comedy. His US agent has sent him a few scripts and he's writing a screenplay, but nothing has firmed up yet.