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Norwegian director gets shot at feature comedy

Stewart Oksenhorn

Harald Zwart must have made some pretty good commercials. Pretty funny ones too.

On the strength of a reel of commercial films, the Scandinavian director was picked by Michael Douglas to direct “One Night at McCool’s,” the first project from Douglas’ Furthur Films. For Zwart, it is his first feature film for theatrical release, his first American directorial effort, his first narrative comedy.

“One Night at McCool’s,” starring Liv Tyler, Matt Dillon, John Goodman, Paul Reiser, has its world premiere tonight, Friday, March 2, at 7 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House. It is a special presentation of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival’s Film Discovery Program.

Zwart, a 35-year-old Norwegian, is hardly a filmmaking neophyte. Zwart began making films when he was 8, fooling around with animation and enlisting family and friends to appear in short films. After four years at Amsterdam’s Dutch Film Academy, Zwart embarked on a successful commercial film career. After he completed “Commander Hamilton,” a four-hour television miniseries about the threat raised by Russian nuclear missiles in the post-Soviet era, the producers liked it so much, it was turned into a feature-length film.

In addition to the extensive filmmaking background, Zwart brings a real comic sensibility to “One Night at McCool’s.” That comedic sense, said Zwart, comes from a lifelong immersion in American cultural exports.

“My whole cultural background is all American movies and American television,” said Zwart, who has been living in Los Angeles for the last two years, while working on “One Night at McCool’s.” “I was crazy about MAD magazine and `Sesame Street,’ `Star Wars’ and Indiana Jones. I’m more American than Norwegian in that sense.”

Not that being Norwegian is necessarily a liability when it comes to the comedic touch. Despite the reputation for gloom and doom in its culture, Norway has a strong tradition of comedy in its commercials.

“Norway is known for great tragedy, the whole Bergman tradition,” noted Zwart. “But on the commercial side, we’ve been known for decades for being very funny. With commercials, we don’t have huge budgets, so we rely on humor and try to get great performances out of the actors. And that has an appeal outside the borders of Scandinavia.

“My commercials all have storytelling in them. They’re all stories. They seem to strike a good laugh when people see them.”

Zwart is confident he has found an appropriately American touch of humor for “One Night at McCool’s.” The film, written by Stan Seidel, is set in as close to middle America as one can get, in a St. Louis bar. When a young knockout, played by Liv Tyler, enters the scene, the men – a bartender (Matt Dillon), a lawyer (Paul Reiser) and a detective (Goodman) – begin to swarm, igniting a sequence of lust, mayhem, bingo and more.

Zwart said the role of director doesn’t require making people laugh, so much as being loose enough to allow the actors to be funny.

“I think you’ve got to have a sense of humor, a sense for humor,” said Zwart. “You need to have a light touch on the set. You have to be able to free people up. So every now and then, I try to make a fool of myself.”

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Posted: Friday, March 2, 2001


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