Premiering at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival en route to a Netflix debut later this year, Small Crimes finds Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Joe Denton, a former police officer released from prison after serving a six-year sentence for attempted murder. Joe wants nothing more than to reconnect with his family, but a raging substance abuse problem and the lingering presence of a corrupt colleague are just a few of the obstacles standing in his way.
Based on the David Zeltserman novel of the same name, Small Crimes was adapted for the screen by Macon Blair and E.L. Katz, the latter of whom also directed the film. During the opening weekend of SXSW, I caught up with the duo and their star for a brief chat about exploring the underlying comedy in Zeltersman’s work.
Nikolaj, most people know you best as Jamie Lannister, this very charming and dashing personality, but in this film you’re playing this character that’s at the opposite end of the spectrum. He certainly thinks of himself as very charming and dashing, but as the film plays out we see that he lacks those qualities.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: Well you know, one of the first scenes I really like is where he goes to the bar, and suddenly this young, beautiful girl appears and seems to be hitting on him. And what I liked about it is he does not see that as surprising at all, he just accepts that of course, this 20-year-old girl is dying to have sex with him, even though he could be her father, more or less. It’s not weird at all, and that’s the kind of guy that he is, he doesn’t see anything wrong with himself.
Was that a key consideration in taking the role? The opportunity to play a character that’s so different than your most well-known role?
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: No, not at all. I liked the script because he was just a human being, and I could actually relate to him. Of course, he’s very extreme in the gap between how he wants to be perceived, and how he actually is perceived, but I think a lot of us have those things in our lives. There’s a gap between how I would love to live my life, and how I actually do, like my relationship with my wife. I would love to always be responsible and nice and caring and loving and not selfish, but it doesn’t always pan out that way. So I thought it was very funny, and something I could relate to.
Evan, this film is based on a very acclaimed crime novel. What was it about that particular story that you and Macon wanted to bring to the screen? What attracted you to that material?
E.L. Katz: Well first of all, it was very cynical. I like that it has that familiar setup of a man fresh out of prison and trying to do good, but then it goes in such a dark direction, and I had never seen something go wrong that quickly for one of these kinds of characters. There’s just something about it, where Joe is like a character that has watched all the redemption movies, but doesn’t have any concept of what redemption really is, beyond just the Hollywood version.
Even the tropes in this, too – like, you could watch some of these movies where the guy gets out of prison and he’s got this cool music playing for him already, he’s being greeted by like American roots rock, and he sleeps with the first girl he meets at the bar and he meets someone like Molly Parker’s character who’s like “I forgive you.” This just seemed like it subverted all of that stuff, and there was also room for us to make it a bit more satirical. The book had a bit more of a serious tone, and I think we saw room to inject some comedy.
I think Macon comes from a place where he’s always telling me “listen, I know this is funny, but let’s really aim for something that’s like serious or scary, and it will still be funny.” We talked a lot about tone, and it was such a tonal experiment getting it from book to page to screen. I think that’s something that’s always a fun challenge, and that’s the stuff I’m most attracted to.
Macon Blair: Evan came to me with the project already underway. It was exactly what he said, just seeing the latent dark comedy in that book. It’s so hilariously grim and ugly at times, and the guy that’s doing all these things is then having these arguments with his parents where he’s giving the whole “you never understand me” speech from a John Hughes movie.
I just loved that juxtaposition of the brutal tough guy genre film with this adolescent rebellion story, only with these horrible consequences attached to them. It’s not about getting to the prom, it’s about “how do I murder the D.A.?” It seemed like a fun project – honestly, if Evan had asked to work with him on anything I probably would have said yes. It just so happened that this particular one was right up my alley.
Was Netflix involved from the very beginning? Or did they acquire the film later?
E.L. Katz: They acquired it based on a sales trailer, when we were still editing the movie. I’m working on the film in the editing room, and the producers are like “Netflix wants to buy it.” So immediately I was like “well, do they need to watch like a rough assembly?” And the answer was “no, they’re good,” and I’m like “um… okay.”
Macon Blair: [laughs]
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: [laughs]
E.L. Katz: So we finished the movie, and then eventually screened them the film they had purchased. And they didn’t really give any notes, aside from “put Netflix at the beginning.” And that was really interesting, because I’ve worked on stuff where it feels like everyone wants to put in as much input as possible, at every stage of the process. This was pretty painless – especially with a dark movie like this. Luckily, our financiers had produced other really cynical dark stuff, like Nightcrawler, so nobody really wanted to fuck it up.
When you’re dealing with a character like Joe, who doesn’t really have a concept of what redemption actually means, and who doesn’t necessarily deserve to be redeemed in light of all the bad choices he’s made – how do you make that character sympathetic, so audiences can still connect to that person?
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: I just try to understand the guy. If there’s a concern that the audience may like the guy, or may not like the guy, that’s their job. [points to E.L. Katz and Macon Blair]
I think when you watch a movie, you don’t necessarily judge in the moment, like “oh, he’s a bad guy, I don’t like him so I shouldn’t be rooting for him.” You’re still rooting for him, even though you know that it’s so fucked up. But it’s also entertaining. And it starts out with this very, very sincere father who wants to reconnect with his children, and we can all sympathize with that. Of course, that’s important for everyone, the kids should know their father.
And we don’t know anything about what he was before, so we’ve kind of already been tricked into rooting for him. He needs to do this, and even though he’s going to do something horrible, it means he can get back to his kids, so it’s okay. So in that way, it’s been set up. And I think it’s just a very entertaining story, and you kind of want to find out how this is going to end. And I kind of like to watch him fall flat on his face and get beaten up, because he’s a dick, but he doesn’t even know that he’s such a dick. It’s unbelievable, he’s so full of himself, and it’s funny.
But it’s also that thing about “when is it funny”? If you try too hard, it just takes that away. All the scenes with the parents, I think there are a lot of very funny moments in there, but we didn’t seek them out. They’re funny because of the situation, because you have a grown man acting like a fucking teenager, and he’s being very serious about it. And his parents are also treating him like a child – they want to believe that he’s a grown man, but they’re still treating him like a kid because they know him, and they know he can’t be trusted.
E.L. Katz: There’s something about Joe, where he’s also the audience in some way, because how he reacts to the world is very human and very funny and expressive. And I think the audience can go along for the ride with him for a little bit. You don’t necessarily have to agree with anything that he’s doing. I think people always try to make characters sympathetic, but I think if we took this movie and tried to make him sympathetic with music and the way we were shooting, that audiences would get very mad at him. So I don’t know if it’s sympathetic, but he’s definitely very watchable.
Small Crimes will premiere April 28th, exclusively on Netflix.