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Nordic thriller 'Headhunters' to premiere in L.A., New York

The Norwegian film based on Jo Nesbo's novel is the bestselling crime writer's first work to be adapted to the screen.

April 27, 2012|By Oliver Gettell, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Norwegian author Jo Nesbo writes international bestsellers.
Norwegian author Jo Nesbo writes international bestsellers. (Hakon Eikesdal )

"Headhunters,"the new Norwegian thriller based on the novel of the same name by Jo Nesbo, tells the story of a wealthy but insecure executive recruiter who moonlights as an art thief to support his posh lifestyle.

Years before "Headhunters" was an international box office success or a bestselling book, Nesbo was living his own double life as a stockbroker at the Oslo Stock Exchange and rock musician with the band Di Derre (translation: "those guys").

"I was seen as this sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," said Nesbo, 52, on the phone from his native Oslo.

Nesbo is best known for his Harry Hole series of detective novels, one of which is currently being adapted for the screen with Martin Scorsese directing, though "Headhunters" is a standalone story. Nesbo said he drew on his experiences both working in finance and composing pop songs to write "Headhunters," which was published in the U.S. by Random House's Vintage Books division in September.

Between the book and the film, which opens Friday in Los Angeles and New York, "Headhunters" could introduce Nesbo to a wider stateside audience.

The story follows Roger Brown (played by Aksel Hennie in the film), a successful headhunter who has expensive tastes, a beautiful wife (Synnøve Macody Lund) and a preoccupation with his own below-average height. To subsidize the lavish life he thinks is key to holding onto his wife, Roger steals and fences fine art, often from the homes of the rich executives he interviews at his day job.

Nesbo called Roger "a mixture of different characters that I met when I worked as a broker. The kind of man who is thinking that everything in life can be translated in terms of money and in terms of material wealth." People like Roger treat life as a competition, "and the competition is that whoever is richest when he dies is the winner."

Roger can't help but see dollar signs when he meets Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, of HBO's"Game of Thrones"), who is both a dream candidate to fill the CEO position at a GPS technology company and the owner of a valuable Rubens painting. Clas, however, is also an ex-mercenary and no easy mark.

Nesbo wrote the novel quickly, in a few months, and likened the process to writing a song.

"Sometimes you have a song that you can write in 20 minutes, and other songs take weeks to write," he said. With "Headhunters," he had the story in his head and just had to put it on paper.

Writing songs also taught Nesbo to trust his readers. Trying to tell a story in a four-minute song means "you have to leave it up to your listeners to fill in the empty gaps," he said. "It's exactly the same, I realized when I started writing novels."

Nesbo wrote his first book, "The Bat," in 1997, while on hiatus from his office job and his band. The novel introduced police inspector Harry Hole, a troubled but talented detective who has appeared in nine books to date. Nesbo's books have been translated into more than 40 languages and sold 14 million copies worldwide.

In addition to being his first standalone novel, "Headhunters" is Nesbo's first book to be made into a film. Though he has received offers over the years to adapt the Harry Hole novels, he has, until very recently, preferred for the detective to exist primarily in readers' heads.

Despite his cautious approach in having his books adapted, Nesbo, a self-described film fan, didn't try to influence "Headhunters" director Morten Tyldum's vision. (The screenplay was adapted by Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg.)

Tyldum recalled, "He said, 'You just go ahead. I'm just glad that you feel you can do so much for my story and my characters.'."

"I don't see the movie as a version of the book," Nesbo said. "I see it as a story on its own, and my novel is just input for a creative director to tell his story."

Nesbo said he would take the same hands-off approach to a planned English-language adaptation of "Headhunters," which Summit Entertainment acquired the rights for in October, and to Scorsese's adaptation of "The Snowman," which is being produced by Working Title Films.

A longtime Scorsese fan — he hung a"Taxi Driver"poster from the local cinema in his room as a student — Nesbo put Scorsese's name atop a short list of directors he would sign off on to bring "The Snowman" to the screen.

Pairing a prominent Hollywood director and an established Scandinavian crime fiction series perhaps invites comparisons to the "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and the other books and films in the Millennium trilogy, and Nesbo has been labeled by some as "the next Stieg Larsson."

But Nesbo said he hasn't paid much attention to the Larsson phenomenon, and he couldn't say why Nordic noir is in vogue.

"Hopefully it has to do with the quality," he said. "But then again, there are written just as many bad crime novels in Scandinavia as anywhere else."

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