Stockholm – Truth really is stranger than fiction

Producer, writer and director Robert Budreau’s Stockholm is based on the absurd but true story of a 1973 bank heist, a strange and darkly comic event where the hostages bonded with their captors and turned against the authorities.

When Jan-Erik Olsson took over the Sveriges Kreditbank in Stockholm where he and Clark Olofsson held four hostages for six days, the Swedish government wouldn’t allow Olsson to leave the bank with the hostages.

Daniel Lang wrote an article in the New Yorker called “The Bank Drama” which was published on November 25, 1974, which lead psychologists to identify the phenomena as the Stockholm Syndrome.

Robert Budreau is an award-winning director, writer and producer based in Toronto and Los Angeles.

“Before this film, I wasn’t aware that the term ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ came from this event. I knew that it had its origins in Stockholm but I thought the Patty Hearst incident, which happened in 1974 was really what put it on the map,” recalls writer/director/producer Robert Budreau.

“What really attracted me to this story was the mix of dark comedy with intense psychological drama. Many of the things that actually happened are unbelieveably absurd and I welcomed the challenge of creating an unorthodox hostage caper film which goes against certain genre expectations. I was also attracted to the politics of the world in 1973 were that of a conservative America under Nixon coming out of Vietnam but Sweden was still very social-democratic. So the politics are slightly reminiscent of what they are today – there’s a certain paranoid 1970s feeling to today’s Trump era.”

The film follows Lars Nystrom, (Hawke) who dons a disguise to raid a central Stockholm bank. He then takes hostages in order to spring his pal Gunnar (Strong) from prison. One of the hostages includes Bianca (Rapace), a wife and mother of two. Negotiations with detectives hits a wall when (at the request of the Prime Minister) the police refuse to let Lars leave in a getaway car with the hostages. As hours turn into days, Lars alternates between threatening the hostages and making them feel comfortable and secure. The hostages develop an uneasy relationship with their captor, which is particularly complex for Bianca, who develops a strong bond with Lars as she witnesses his caring nature. This connection gave rise to the psychological phenomenon known as “Stockholm syndrome”.

Budreau was not only interested in the story of the Swedish bank heist, but was captivated by certain themes.

“For me, doing this film was a way to explore some of the themes that I’ve been exploring in a lot of my films. Lars is this damaged soul. The real life bank robber in the New Yorker article, on which the script is based, is described as a tender brute. Being able to capture this duality of character is what really sucked me in,” says Budreau.

“The idea of making an elevated genre film which has some of the conventions of the bank heist and a thriller but at the end of the day is really a character study and a subversive love story about a crazy, comical criminal and a conservative, married mother and wife – not to mention a psychological drama.This is what really excites me. When I read about all the insane things that actually happened – the robber donned a ridiculous disguise; he made the cops sing songs and he sang songs himself; he played 70s music on the radio; he asked for a Ford Mustang getaway car; he was able to directly call the Prime Minister of Sweden; he got the hostages tampons and put nooses on them after the cops drilled through the floor; he had sex in the vault with one of the hostages, the list goes on – I could never have invented this stuff. Truth really is stranger than fiction and the odd challenge here was making this unbelievable truth both real and meaningful.”

Budreau had the fortunate opportunity of using these bizarre facts from the New Yorker article as a form of research but also spent time in Stockholm going through police reports, the police archives and police museum. He got his hands on photos, documents, and police transcripts from the heist to aid him in writing the script. Ultimately, however, he wanted to make sure he was steering away from a straight documentary – the goal was always to make a darkly comic true-crime thriller.

“Like all real-life adaptations, we combined some characters and changed some names but ultimately all the key plot points of the film are as they were in the actual incident. But we wanted to focus and compress time. The real event took place over six days and in the film it’s over three days. Hopefully some of the choices we’ve made make the story more universal. Even though it’s called Stockholm, it’s important that the story feels universal, covering larger situations,” notes Budreau.

Ethan Hawken in Stockholm

“Robert Budreau and I had just finished the Chet Baker film Born To Be Blue and we had a great time on that. This seemed like a fun way for us to build on a good working relationship,” says Ethan Hawke. “When I read the script, it felt like a string of fire crackers so my hope is the finished film will feel the same way – you won’t have time to think about it too much until it’s over.”

Robert Budreau and Ethan Hawke worked together on Born To Be Blue so Hawke came to mind for the writer/director to play the lead role of Lars. “Because I’d developed a relationship with Ethan from the last film, I brought this to him. I sent him the New Yorker article as I was beginning to write the script, just to put it on his radar. The project ended up coming together very quickly. I sent him a script and he really responded to the character,” recalls Budreau.

“When you’ve been doing this for a while you look for a character you haven’t played before – something that’s going to be challenging,” notes Hawke. “I don’t understand this person – so my brain gets intrigued to play him, to figure out what makes him tick. He’s a great character in a totally weird world.”

“We came up with our own version of this character,” says Budreau. “I wanted Ethan to bring parts of himself into it and also parts of the real life character into it. We talked a lot about the Americanization of it and the Swedishness and what the balance would be. A lot of the character is about disguise, wearing this mask, peeling back the layers, pretending he’s one guy then pretending he’s another guy. So it’s a bit complicated in terms of who he really is and what he really wants.”

“He’s a volatile character. I’ve got to pull off some major mood swings to play him,” says Hawke of his character, Lars. “I think about how scary I can be but still be someone who people are interested in watching. But if he’s not scary enough does the whole thing become too comic? I always imagined Lars’ favorite movie to be Easy Rider – you can see this even with the costume. He wants to look like Dennis Hopper, dress like Peter Fonda and talk like Jack Nicholson.”

Because Budreau and Hawke worked so closely and so well on Born To Be Blue, both a trust and a shorthand developed between them. “The great thing about having worked with Robert recently is that I know the way his brain works and he knows the way that mine works. He trusts me to play and I trust him to keep us from getting lost,” says Hawke. “One person’s job is to dance out there on the edge of what makes sense and the other person’s job is to watch and make sure you stay on target. We have a lot of fun doing that.”

“When I read this script I knew I wanted to do it. I’ve been wanting to work with Ethan for a very long time so Ethan combined with this material was a dream,” says Naomi Rapace. “Bianca is a very interesting woman. She’s old school – she works in a bank, she has two kids, and she’s quite shy. She’s like a brave nerd. The way she comes to life in this story is like an awakening. I think this is a love story and one that has a positive effect on her. It’s an awakening. When she’s on the other side she’ll see the world with different eyes. So even though it’s a trauma it’s also a birth. It’s the birth of Bianca.”

Continues Rapace: “Bianca has a certain bravery to her that is very unique. She goes on with this plan to get shot, which is really scary for her but she does it to save the group. She wants to be brave for her captor as well. She’s one of the most intriguing and complicated character’s I’ve played.”

Being a Swede, Rapace was also valuable in the way that she was able to act as a guide to all things Sweden. “Noomi has been fantastic in this movie. And because she’s Swedish, she’s been our tour guide through the world of Sweden and has taken ownership in helping us define the Swedishness of it all – accent, approach, mentality and culture,” notes Budreau.

Budreau had always been a fan of Mark Strong’s but it was seeing him in London on the stage in Arthur Miller’s ‘A View From The Bridge’ that really made Strong stand out in the writer/director’s mind. “It was one of the best stage performances I’ve ever seen in my life,” recalls Budreau. “In this movie, Mark brings a great intensity. He very much is able to play the straight guy against Ethan’s character.”

“He’s a complicated character because he has a deal with the police. He’s released from prison by Lars, who has taken hostages in order to get him released. So he’s grateful to him for that but then you realize that Lars is incredibly unreliable and not accomplished as a criminal. He makes random choices that aren’t helpful. Because of this Gunnar is constantly having to evaluate where he stands vis-à-vis Lars,” notes Strong. “We came up with a big brother feeling to that relationship. Gunnar has to tolerate Lars but at the same time he needs him. Having said that he’s also made a deal with the police. So throughout the film there is a balance to be struck between how much he’s thinking about his freedom via the deal with the police and how much he’s thinking about freedom with Lars. It’s a win-win situation for him.”