Between the ages of 13 to 16, for two weeks out of every year, my life was a total sham. As a young teenager, it became clear early on that the only way to infiltrate after-parties at Toronto’s annual film festival was to impersonate celebrity offspring—real or otherwise. There was a brief stint as Jake Hoffman, Dustin Hoffman’s son, which ended when, in a series of odd events, we wound up together looking at personal pictures of Eminem on the toilet. Martin Scorsese became my father for a short while, until Pauly Shore confirmed that I’d never actually set foot in Manhattan. This is how, at 16, I came to be Jonas Åkerlund’s son.
Arguably the most prolific director working today, the Swedish purveyor of intoxicating music videos, cult films and medium-defying commercials has worked on over 500 projects in his 42 years. He has been Madonna’s go-to documentarian and director for over a decade now, and has recently teamed up with music stars as diverse as Lady Gaga, the Rolling Stones and Rammstein. Still, he remains relatively unknown in America.
This year’s Horsemen, now available on DVD, centers on teenagers who commit unspeakable crimes using the story of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as their guiding metaphor. Starring Dennis Quaid, Lou Taylor Pucci and Ziyi Zhang—who gives a haunting powerhouse of a performance—it’s a puzzling look at adolescence, and the relationship between a father and his son, which crescendos into a horrific final act. Here, in conversation with his pretend first-born, Åkerlund speaks candidly about his relationship with Madonna, drug abuse and the importance of Sweden’s “boning season.”
When I was 16 years old, I had just seen Spun at the Toronto Film Festival. I was trying to get into all of the after-parties, and in order to do so I told everyone that I was your son. [Laughs.] I remember that. Wasn’t it at a strip club or something? Mickey Rourke was all over everyone. That was a good one.
I figured the doormen wouldn’t know whether or not you even had a child. Many directors—Spike Jonze, Spike Lee and, of course, Woody Allen—become as recognizable as the people in their films. Has that level of fame ever appealed to you? Wow, that’s a tough question. I’ve never seen myself as an in-front-of-the-camera kind of guy. I quit music because I didn’t enjoy being onstage. I don’t think I’ve worked as hard as some of the other directors who brand themselves and make a big deal of everything. Sometimes I’m a little jealous—maybe I should do a little bit more of that. I’m from Sweden and we’re a little humble, and I want my work to speak for itself. I do things for my audience, not for myself.
It’s surprising to hear you describe yourself as humble, because you have such a strong aesthetic vision, and you’ve worked with so many big personalities—from U2 to Madonna. It’s certainly not the career path of a pushover. My Swedish humility speaks more to my attitude in life. When I work, I’m as firm and determined as any Japanese director. But the people I work with are big stars for a reason. I get so inspired when I work with Madonna—she’s done more videos than I have. When I’m with Madonna, I’ve got to listen, simply because of her creativity and all of the experience that comes with it. It’s fucking great.
Do you consider Madonna a close friend? Definitely. We’ve worked together for 12 years. I’m actually shooting a Madonna video next week. Because we haven’t worked too much in the last couple of years, it’s become more of a friendship. I never rush into friendships, and I take everything one step at a time when working with artists. A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have said that we were friends at all. But now I can say we’re really good friends.
What changed? I’m not pushy. My first priority is my job and if the relationship grows into friendship, that’s fine. But that’s not always the case.
Spun explored youth from the perspective of drug addiction, and Horsemen takes an equally tortured look at adolescence. What about that time in people’s lives speaks to you? Horsemen focuses on these kids being pissed off about their lives, their societies and their parents in a very extreme way. And, in a way, Spun has the same message. It’s about people who are unhappy with their lives. I don’t have any drug experiences—I want to say I have, but I really don’t, even though I’ve been in that world and I’ve had friends who have died. I like to observe and dig into these lifestyles. But that doesn’t mean I take drugs.
Did the release of Spun exacerbate this perception of you as a drug addict? I had that problem before because I had done a couple of videos that had censor problems. People think I really like strippers and drugs because of my videos. I don’t know if that’s a compliment to my work, or if people are just stupid. It’s not like they believe that George Lucas lives in space.
Which one of your projects do you wish had gotten more attention? I’ve done over 500 projects—20 jobs this year alone. For some reason, I see most of the work I do as having an expiry date. That’s the big difference between movies and all of the other stuff I do. Movies stay with you forever, whereas you can almost pretend the other stuff never happened. The Madonna documentary I made [2005’s I’m Going to Tell You a Secret] has a lot of my blood, sweat and tears in it. I wish that more people had seen that movie because it’s a really strong piece of art, if you ask me.
I read that you’re also working on a handful of videos with Britney Spears. No, no Britney Spears videos. I just did the new Lady Gaga video for “Paparazzi,” and I’m now working on the new Madonna video. I worked on a ballet with [Mikhail] Baryshnikov that they’re shooting for TV. I’ve been working on that for two years—it’s a pretty grand project. I’m also working in France with Jude Law on Dior’s new men’s fragrance campaign. And I’m hoping to get my next movie going fairly soon called Chemical Pinch. It’s a movie about female bodybuilding in Venice Beach in the ’80s.
A couple of weeks ago, I celebrated Swedish midsummer for the first time in New York. What did you do? We always do the same thing if I’m home: we shove that big penis in the dirt and then dance around it with our children, and then it’s boning season. Everybody gets really piss-drunk and it’s fun.
We didn’t stick a giant penis in the ground. Are you sure?
I don’t think there was a pole in sight. If you Google “Swedish Midsummer,” you’ll see the pole I’m talking about. It’s true. It had two big balls.