TIFF 2023 Interview: Axel Petersén and Joel Spira on Making a Different Kind of Getaway in “Shame on Dry Land”

“I need you to forgive me,” Dimman (Joel Spira) says at the start of “Shame on Dry Land,” rehearsing how he’ll finally say these words to his former business partner Fredrik (Christopher Wagelin), who he’s tracked down in Malta after the two parted ways in Sweden years earlier on the occasion of his wedding. Somehow this is what’s weighing most on Dimman’s mind, in spite of still being a couple months away from the end of his parole for the financial fraud that ended his relationship with Fredrik, making a potential reunion perhaps the most romantic gesture that can occur the weekend of Axel Petersén’s thriller when in seeing Fredrik, he runs the risk of being thrown back in prison or worse being found out by some of the people he once swindled amongst the large Scandinavian ex-pat community that has taken up residence in the sun-soaked coastal paradise.

When composer Baba Stiltz seems to nod to Miles Davis’ fragmentary score for “Elevator to the Gallows,” the film joins a tradition of noirs interested in shining a light onto larger questions of human nature than criminal behavior as Dimman finds himself pulled in all directions and largely unwanted by everyone in his orbit, unwelcome by Fredrik, who’d wish to put his past behind him, but beholden to Kicki (Jacqueline Ramel), a wealthy benefactor of questionable means who has helped him maintain his freedom and now asks him to keep an eye on an investigator while he’s busy trying to make amends around Malta. Even when he’s safely tucked into a crawlspace of a boat at the beginning of “Shame on Dry Land,” he always seems to be in hot water as he runs around town as both the hunter and the hunted, trying to understand what the person tracking Kicki may be up to while making sure his own tracks are covered.

Spira, who was asked to give chase twice before in the “Easy Money” series, is more conspicuous than his character, never letting audiences see him sweat as Dimman, but convincingly stressed out as he improvises ways to play one side against another to achieve a sense of peace before he’s able to move on with his own life. While anxiety pervades “Shame on Dry Land,” Petersén turns the film into a breezy entertainment, making use of the natural beauty that has lured so many to the vacation spot and coming to question the shady characters that can afford to take up residence there full-time. With the film recently premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, the director and star spoke about their collaboration, the inherent physicality of the put-upon character at the center of the story and how the environment they filmed in brought the best out of them.

How did this come about?

Axel Petersen: The situation with the Swedish colony in Malta is very real. There is around 10,000 Swedes, working in the e-gaming industry, and it’s an interesting group, and it’s an interesting island, historically and contemporarily, so it’s a lot of stories from old friends combined. It’s about my generation, my friends, or some of them that left Sweden a long time ago, not wanting to come back for one reason or another, [ultimately] informing that character that is played by Joel in the film.

Joel, what got you excited about this?

Joel Spira: A lot of different things. [Axel and I] talked many years ago when he started developing the script, and when I finally got the script, I was really intrigued because he wrote such a beautiful character, who has this inner motor [that’s always] pushing forward, but [the film itself] is not so plot-driven really. Things just happen to him.

I was impressed with the sheer amount of locations in this. Was it wild getting through the schedule?

Axel Petersen: It wasn’t a lot… [Joel shakes his head]

Maybe Joel is the better person to ask.

Joel Spira: It was a lot of different locations, but that was perfect for the movie. Never a standstill, but there was also never a hard shift. We had a really great crew, and it was really nice being an actor in that when you’re in the right environment.

Axel Petersen: They have a fantastic film industry [in Malta], so technically it was a great group, but on an emotional level, I would say there’s friends for life within that group.

Joel, this is hardly the first very physical role that you’ve done, but was tapping into the physicality of the character helpful to play this guy on the run?

Joel Spira: Yeah, it was a good thing because I felt his issues and this idea of redemption bearing the weight of needing to be forgiven became so big that it became physical for him, so that gave me [the engine] to play this. I still had to prepare a lot and I lost a lot of weight. I needed to tan a lot and waxed my my back — that was probably the hardest preparation actually.

Axel Petersen: It hurts so much. But it was written [in the script] almost how he was physically.

Axel, what was it like building a cast around Joel?

Axel Petersen: It’s a mix, but I think most of the people who ended up in the film were part of this since 2018. Some characters changed along the way and some stayed the same, but we’ve been talking about this for some time. [And then someone like] Pierre, who plays the wedding planner, he’s not an actor, he’s a singer. And then the villain, I would say is maybe more of a comedian, very strange, like a drag artist, so it’s a good mix.

Was there a particularly crazy day of filming on this?

Axel Petersen: Anything in or on water. It’s somewhat crazy. There’s not much you can do.

Joel Spira: And I know how to swim, but that’s as far as it goes, so there’s marine professionals [to help].

Axel Petersen: It was a lot of water, and the jellyfish were an issue. There could also be wind, but everything that has to do with water [was difficult].

Joel Spira: Yeah, a lot of speedboats [too] and getting far out in the ocean. You do these things and it’s hard and you’re a bit scared because you’re not used to it, [with] these hundred feet cliffs. But then when we went back one day, we actually had wild dolphins following us and then it’s like you know everything’s worth it. It’s beautiful, so I actually never felt that it was really hard. You’re working really hard but the whole crew just created [an excellent atmosphere] and I was very happy when I did it.

“Shame on Dry Land” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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