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A Man Called Otto director reveals how Tom Hanks “can do anything”

A Man Called Otto director, Marc Forster, discusses upcoming releases and what it was like working with Hollywood legend Tom Hanks

A Man Called Otto director interview: Otto waving

A Man Called Otto is the latest drama movie to see Tom Hanks shine in a leading role. Based on the 2012 novel, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, the film follows the life of a middle-aged man struggling while living in a suburban neighbourhood in Pittsburgh.

Full of laughs, tears and striking comments about loneliness and depression, it’s a film you won’t forget. We sat with the new movie’s acclaimed director, Marc Forster, to discuss what it was like working with Hanks to bring A Man Called Otto to the big screen.

Forster is no stranger to Hollywood. Previously the director has helmed major features such as the award-winning Finding Neverland, the zombie movie World War Z, Christopher Robin, and the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. The Swiss filmmaker is a BAFTA and Golden Globe nominee, and his experience can easily be seen in the impressively well-made film A Man Called Otto once again.

In our interview with the director, we discussed the ins and outs of the new movie, his Hanks collaboration, got some juicy insights about upcoming projects and learnt how he feels about the upcoming horror movie Winnie The Pooh: Blood and Honey.

This isn’t the first adaptation of A Man Called Otto. It was originally a book, and then it was a Swedish film. I wanted to know, did that film inspire or influence your creative decisions while making your movie?

Marc Forster: You know, I first read the book and loved the book. And then I saw the film and the film was terrific as well. And I felt like the characters in the book, especially Otto, I felt that they were very universal – almost Shakespearean. Like Hamlet, you can do that in any culture, in any country. And I felt very similar here.

And David Magee then wrote the adaptation, and he did a terrific job. And we both looked at the Swedish film, looked at the book, and sort of saw what worked for us in the film and what worked for us with the book and what we wanted to do for the American version.

It all came together very organically. So it wasn’t like we were trying to manufacture anything. That’s the beautiful thing about the book; all the characters are so great. They make you laugh and make you cry. It’s very easy to adapt them into any culture.

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On characters, Tom Hanks is phenomenal in the movie as Otto. And like you suggested, A Man Called Otto is a very character-driven story. What was it like directing Hanks in this clear and focused role?

You know, I feel Tom Hanks is one of the greatest actors of all time. And we, both, our sort of energies and ideas, were always very symbiotic. It was a very symbiotic relationship.

I just love working with Tom and enjoy his comedy skills as well because there’s something very Chaplin-esque about it, especially in the physical comedy.

And, you know, obviously, [Hanks] started with comedy and, then, did more dramatic roles. And here, in A Man Called Otto, he brings his skill sets from both sides – from the drama and to comedy together – which is really just so fun to work together on.

The comedy in A Man Called Otto is quite dark. One of the lines that I loved in the movie was, “you’re really bad at dying.” It was hilarious despite the seriousness of that particular scene. But this brand of comedy isn’t one we see in typical American comedies. How did you go about making the film’s humour accessible to your new audience?

I believe that the comedy is like the silver lining between the dark and the light, almost the end. But, you know, the comedy makes the darkness accessible.

You have a character who sort of gives up on life and finds a new purpose in life, and ultimately, it’s a life-affirming film where a community comes together and gives Otto purpose again. I think what we all need to have a happy life is others.

You need to have a happy a balanced social structure around you. And that’s so important. And I think that this movie is really a story that gives you both. I hope people will see it in the movie theatre because it’s this community, this community experience of laughter, and tears, which alone at home is not as fun.

A Man Called Otto director interview: Otto in a hospital looking at a clown

So, we already discussed how A Man Called Otto is an adaptation. And you’ve worked on plenty of literary adaptations and movies that are based on other literary works before. Your last one was the family movie Christopher Robin, and I want to ask a fun question based on that. What are your feelings about the new Winnie The Pooh-themed horror movie Blood and Honey?

[Laughs] I haven’t seen it yet. I think it’s actually quite funny. I love Winnie the Pooh; I’m such a big fan. And I love Christopher Robin, the movie we made.

I had so many laughs on that movie because I think Winnie The Pooh probably has the best quotes of anything. But I would definitely watch it. I’m looking forward to it. I hope it’s not too serious and too scary because I get scared quite quickly.

[Laughs] Going back to A Man Called Otto, I loved the flashback scenes. To me, flashbacks tend to sometimes feel very disconnected from other films or overly expositional. As a director, how did you avoid those typical trappings when making this movie?

Yeah, I mean, you really pointed it out. I wanted flashbacks not to be basically all that. I wanted them just to tell us enough information about what we need.

Ultimately, I wanted to stay as much as we can with the present-day Otto because, ultimately, these flashbacks can get very nostalgic, but you don’t want to get lost in them. You want to emotionally connect with the audience in the present day.

So a lot of it, it’s in the editing. It’s a silver lining of just telling enough story that you know, what you need to know, but still keeping the mystery alive and still keeping the tension alive and not losing the audience emotionally.

A lot of it is done with sound. If you look at the film, I use the Kate Bush song, for instance. You have Kate Bush playing through the film, cutting through different time periods. So you are connecting with the present day, but also with the past.

A Man Called Otto director interview: Otto in a car looking at a children's drawing

Yeah. I thought it was really well done and really complemented the story. This brings me back to David, who wrote the screenplay. You guys did Finding Neverland together previously. What was it like reuniting and working together again on A Man Called Otto?

You know, we had a wonderful time working together the first time around on Finding Neverland. And it was very joyful. And at this time, it was very similar. David went off and wrote the first draft and came back with a script, and it was really, really strong. It’s very close to what you saw in the final film.

And we just got all very excited about it. And he is just one of those wonderful people who doesn’t have much ego. You talk to him, and you come together, and you walk away inspired by the conversations. He’s just inspiring and lovely. So I, you know, I hope I can work with him many more times, because I just truly enjoy it.

So, does that mean you guys are going with the right foot forward into your Neil Gaiman adaptation of The Graveyard Book, then? I remember it was announced that you were collaborating on that as an upcoming movie for Disney.

Yes! It looks like it.

Can you tell us anything about that? Or is it still very much hush, hush?

[Laughs] It is hush-hush. We are still working on the script.

A Man Called Otto director interview: Otto holding a parking bar

The one thing which I think many people may not realise at first glance with A Man Called Otto is that it may seem quite simple a film at first glance. It’s one location. But with all of the time periods you go through in the movie via flashbacks, you realise, “oh, this actually looks quite tricky to film.” Were there any challenges in making this movie?

Yes! I mean, as you saw, because at first, you think, ‘oh, it’s all in one location [Otto’s neighbourhood].’ And then suddenly, you realise the layers of the film. It’s like an onion. [laughs] Very tricky to keep that together.

You know, the main difficulty was in shooting in Pittsburgh, where we shot the movie. In the morning, it felt like Alaska, and then in the afternoon, it felt like Florida. Literally, you had snow in the morning, and suddenly it melted, and you had the sun come out. And dealing with that when you are shooting on location as a director? That wasn’t easy.

Yeah, I can imagine. All this difficult talk leads me to my next question. Will we ever get that World War Z sequel? And also, is Tom Hanks a worthy addition to the IP?

Regarding World War Z -I don’t think that sequel is coming anytime soon. And what was the second question?

Can we see Tom Hanks hypothetically join the franchise? Because that would be great [laughs]

Oh, yeah! [laughs]. I do think Tom Hanks can do anything. But he could also be a great zombie Hunter.

A Man Called Otto director interview: Otto talking to Marisol

A Man Called Otto is such an emotional film. I think everyone can relate to feeling some kind of form of disconnection and loneliness and grief and loss too. And I wanted to know, as someone who’s made franchise movies, as well as smaller movies like this, what kind of benefit do you think movies like A Man Called Otto offer in a landscape seemingly dominated by blockbusters and franchises?

You know, I think A Man Called Otto is really like a heartwarming and humourous movie, and, hopefully, people will go and experience these themes in a movie theatre because it’s a story about a community coming together. That is what gives Otto purpose and I think in times like this, you can go with your grandmother, with your kids and with your friends.

It used to be that so many of these movies like A Man Called Otto were made, and now they’re less and less, you know? It’s a lot of these big tentpole movies. So, I think it’s a family movie. And it’s also something I feel experiencing it together in a theatre is much more interesting and fun because you’re going through all these emotions versus watching it at home alone.

That’s the whole point of the movie in A Man Called Otto. Otto is a man who is alone, and the community comes around him. It comes together. And I think hopefully that people will see that and we’ll go and see it in theatres.

A Man Called Otto hits theatres on in the UK on January 6 2023, and January 13 in the US. For more brooding fun, here is our guide to the best War movies and best thriller movies of all time.