When 20 minutes or so of footage from Lukas Moodysson's English-language debut Mammoth was screened in Cannes recently, there was a mini stampede among buyers. Sales agent TrustNordisk reported huge interest in the project, which stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Michelle Williams.
International distributors, it was clear, still have faith in Swedish director Moodysson, who was called 'a young master' by Ingmar Bergman a decade ago following his debut feature, Show Me Love. Since then, Moodysson has sometimes exasperated distributors with experimental works such as Container but few have questioned his ability.
The $12m Mammoth is Moodysson's most ambitious project yet. Producer Lars Jonsson's company Memfis is the main financier together with the Swedish Film Institute and regional film fund Film i Vast. The veteran producer has worked on high profile Nordic films including recent box-office hit Leo and Lars von Trier projects such as Dogville and Breaking The Waves. Mammoth has been set up as a co-production with Denmark (Zentropa) and Germany (through Zentropa's German offshoot, Zentropa Berlin), and there are 13 financiers in all.
The film follows a successful New York couple and the turmoil caused when the husband (Bernal), while on a business trip to Thailand, decides to change his life, setting in motion a dramatic chain of events.
'We're trying to create a commercial arthouse film,' Jonsson explains. The challenge, he acknowledges, is to allow Moodysson his usual freedom and control despite the scale of the project, which has been shooting on three continents. Its prime locations include New York City, Thailand, the Philippines and Sweden.
'There has been a big machinery to make that work,' Jonsson says. 'In each place we had to find good local solutions. A lot of care is always put into Lukas' films. He is very engaged in details. He wants his films to be authentic and believable.'
Jonsson tries to finance his work so he and the director retain control. 'The director just has to fight with me, no-one else,' he says. 'All other opinions and demands are filtered through me. There's sometimes a struggle between Lukas and myself, but also a mutual vision and understanding.'
He points out Mammoth is not the first time he and Moodysson have set themselves a mammoth challenge. 'Lilya 4-ever was in some ways even more complex - doing a whole film in the Russian language, without Lukas knowing a word of Russian.'
During Cannes, certain territories were closed on Mammoth, among them Austria (Filmladen), Hungary (Budapest Film), Switzerland (Filmcoopi) and Benelux (A-Film.) However, Jonsson has put the budget together in such a way the producers are under no obligation to pre-sell - they can wait for the film's international premiere at the 2009 Berlinale.
One key question is which US buyer will hunt down Mammoth. Veteran distributor Bob Berney has long been one of Moodysson's most fervent champions but at the time of writing his post-Picturehouse plans are yet to be confirmed. Nonetheless, there is no shortage of US interest.
Jonsson promises the film will 'reach out and touch an audience'. Moodysson, he adds, will 'always make some small and experimental films' on limited budgets but he will 'also keep on making films intended for a large audience - and Mammoth is that'.