Hollywood’s affiliation with Sweden goes back to the silent era, with directors like Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller and actresses Anna Q. Nilsson and the inimitable Greta Garbo. The connection continues today with such crossover successes as Stellan, Alexander, and Bill Skarsgård, Max von Sydow, Rebecca Ferguson, and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander.
Working hard to keep that momentum going is B-Reel Films, a 24-year-old independent production company with offices in Stockholm and Los Angeles. B-Reel Films has its highest-profile project to date with Midsommar, the eagerly anticipated second feature from director Ari Aster, who won acclaim with last year’s terrifying supernatural thriller Hereditary. Midsommar, which A24 releases on July 3, follows an American couple (Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor) who participate in a midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village and find the rituals there increasingly strange and sinister.
“It’s pretty wild and a lot of fun,” says B-Reel Films head of production Philip Westgren. “Hereditary just surprised people and they didn’t quite know what to expect. I think this film takes that to another level. A24 is doing a really great job in the way they put their films out. I think it’s smart that as of yet it’s all still pretty mysterious, and hopefully we can keep it like that for a while.”
Westgren explains the genesis of the project: “I have a colleague, a fellow producer at B-Reel Films named Patrik Andersson, who had this concept of doing a horror film that takes place in this specific world which is very Swedish. When he pitched that to me, I was aware of Ari as a writer, and I’d been introduced to him and I thought it could be really interesting for him. Ari at the time had come from AFI and had made some short films, and we thought he was really interesting and talented. And when we sat down with him, he completely jumped on it. He’s not the kind of guy who goes out there looking for assignments—that’s not really the way he operates. Right from the outset, he had a vision for it, and we saw it as our duty to try to empower him as much as possible and embrace his vision, which we fell in love with right away. We were able to immerse Ari into the world of this Swedish midsummer and its pagan history and cultural celebration. We enabled him to do a lot of research and then he completely made it his own. It’s highly cinematic, and I think it’s quite like unlike anything else.”
Ironically, this specifically Swedish tale was shot in Hungary. Westgren explains: “We unfortunately were unable to shoot in Sweden because they just don’t have good tax incentives. But our production designer was Swedish, our costume designer was Swedish, so we were able to bring Sweden to Hungary, if you will. We and Ari especially would have wanted nothing more than to shoot in Sweden … in the same way that unfortunately not a lot of movies are shot in L.A. anymore.”
Next up for B-Reel Films is Kung Fury 2, the feature version of a short film by Swedish director David Sandberg, which begins principal photography on July 29. The cast includes Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Fassbender, and at press time B-Reel Films was hoping to sign “one of the leading comedy actresses,” plus some popular music artists to work on the soundtrack.
“It’s an homage to ’80s action movies, but extremely funny and at the same time visually exciting and original,” says Westgren. “The original short film was crowd funded from 18,000 backers, who raised $630,000. From there it went on to the Cannes Film Festival and became a big viral hit—on YouTube it’s been seen 30 or 40 million times. It’s also been on Netflix and a number of other platforms. An exciting voice is our filmmaker David Sandberg, who stars in the movie because he starred in the original short film. Surrounding him with Arnold and Michael is pretty crazy for a first-time feature director. It’s a really fun, visual effects–driven project and we absolutely believe in the commercial breakout potential of it.”
(Take note: Kung Fury director David Sandberg is not the director of DC Comics smash Shazam!, David F. Sandberg. The two Swedes are actually good friends, Westgren mentions.)
Other upcoming B-Reel Films projects include a TV series with actor Tom Hardy’s company and with director Leonardo Fasoli, creator of the Italian TV series “Gomorrah,” and a feature project with “Patrick Melrose” director Ed Berger.
“What tends to be the through line for all these projects,” Westgren says, “is that we have our roots in Europe and work with the U.S. We really try to bridge the best of those two. Midsommar’s a great example where we had an idea that was European-set and we were able to attract a really exciting filmmaker, an auteur, [who would] explore it in his own way.
“Kung Fury is another good example. Obviously, the director is a Swede and it’s based on a short film that was made in Sweden. But we are now driving the bigger international version. While we’ve brought on bigger financiers, we’ve also raised a lot of money in Europe through the soft money and co-pro funds available, which enabled us to make the bigger, better version of this film. The co-pro world is one that our companies are deeply immersed in—we know how to navigate that, but hopefully we will try to combine that with projects that are creatively exciting … Writers and directors in the U.S., with the way things are driven by the marketplace here, don’t as often [have the opportunity to work on] projects that are original ideas, independently financed but bigger films. Both of these projects are first and foremost filmmaker-driven, but also we’ve been lucky in attracting good casts. The way the marketplace works today, there’s not much of a mid-range anymore. You’re doing very small movies or very big ones. With both of these films, we’re trying to get a little bit more in the middle. I think our European/Scandinavian/U.S. mix enables us to do that.”
B-Reel Films has also produced the documentaries Bergman: A Year in the Life (2018), winner of the European Documentary prize at the European Film Awards, and Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played with Fire, which recently premiered at Sundance. “This is a very exciting time for documentary,” Westgren notes. “There are a number of projects at the moment we’re developing here in the U.S., two in particular in the early production stage that we’re really excited about.”
B-Reel consists of a film/TV production company, a commercial production company, and a creative agency, Westgren explains. “The commercial production company and creative agency were already firmly established here in L.A. and New York and other parts of Europe. But in Sweden particularly, we have a very active film and TV slate. We had five theatrical releases in Sweden last year and a number of TV series. As a producer and in a former management capacity, I was working with a number of filmmakers and I noticed that the good ones tend to work with B-Reel. And so that’s how I got to know them, and that’s what led to me coming aboard to help build out the U.S. slate.”
Born and raised in the Netherlands, with a Swedish father, Westgren attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut and eventually landed a job working for veteran film producer Lawrence Gordon (Die Hard, Field of Dreams, Hellboy), whom Westgren calls “an amazing mentor and good friend still today.”
“From the outset,” Westgren recalls, “I had very much an interest in the international side to our industry. As our industry became even more global in the last 15, 20 years, it became a big priority. So while I was working for Larry, I was able to focus on working with international filmmakers and international I.P., and I increasingly felt that I was finding a specific space in the industry that obviously was influenced by my own international background, but was something that just spoke to me in a very specific way.”
Westgren observes, “Today, someone like Kevin Feige is the best example of a big-studio producer who has done such a great job and managed to define his films on his creative terms. I think for most producers working in the studio system today, if you don’t control I.P.—that is such a difficult thing to do. And for me, that definition of what a producer does is not what draws me to producing. More often than not, today you’re executing what the studio wants you to do. I think it’s more exciting to find filmmakers that have a very strong point of view and try to empower them the best possible way. If you can manage to do that in the independent space, that’s a bit more easily done. A good example being David Sandberg: when you have a filmmaker who has a concept that is so original that you feel it can not only be a great movie but also be built into an I.P., and then help them build the production in a way where it doesn’t become a studio film but something that he controls independently.”
He continues, “At the end of the day, for all of us at B-Reel, it’s about identifying interesting filmmaker voices and then making it our job to make sure that they get to tell a story their way. It’s not always easy, but if you know why you’re doing it, because you believe in a filmmaker, you believe in a project, then it’s worth it.”
Westgren says he believes this is a breakthrough era for international filmmakers. “All of a sudden, Hollywood is becoming so much more global—no longer is globally successful content being defined as English-language in the way that the traditional perception was. The growth is everywhere around the world, and great stories are being told everywhere. To the degree that we as a company have more of an international footprint than most production companies, obviously we are going to try to play our small part in that. It is a benefit that we have that network of filmmakers internationally, but in an ideal scenario it is also about trying to combine that with the best Hollywood has to offer in terms of packaging creatively with actors, and also financing and distribution. The big players in Hollywood are all paying attention to what is happening internationally, so if you manage to navigate both sides as a production company, that’s a good thing. I’m not suggesting we can do that around the world, but specifically in Scandinavia and more generally in Europe, we have a strong footprint.”
Though B-Reel Films is developing projects for both theaters and TV, Westgren continues to value the theatrical experience. “Getting movies made is extremely hard, and there is no more satisfying way of seeing film than in a movie theater. How else do you bring the scope of the ambition of not just the director and the producer, but that an entire crew puts, just everything that goes into making a movie? There’s no better way of experiencing that than with an audience in that big theater. Personally speaking, and I’m sure most producers would agree with me, all of us are a little bit crazy to pursue careers in this industry, but I think it all started with going to a movie theater and falling in love with that experience.”