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TIFF Interview: Axel Petersén and Joel Spira of “Shame on Dry Land”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 21st, 2023

l-r: SHAME ON DRY LAND’s Axel Petersén and Joel Spira at TIFF 2023 ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

In Shame on Dry Land, Swedish director Axel Petersén (The Real Estate) crafts, in his own words, a “Mediterranean noir” set on the island nation of Malta. Starring Joel Spira (Orca) as Dimman, it tells the story of a reformed (or not) con man struggling to repair the damaged relationship with his erstwhile best friend, Fredrik (Christopher Wagelin, Stockholm). It turns out there are a lot of Swedes on Malta, and also a lot of money, courtesy of eGaming.

Film poster: “Shame on Dry Land”

With many narrative twists and turns, double-crosses and more, Petersén weaves an intricate thriller that never fails to engage. The movie premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where I reviewed it. I also had a chance to chat with both Petersén and Spira at the fest, and now here is that interview, edited for length and clarity. Please note that though Petersén and Spira’s speak excellent English, I have occasionally adjusted their expressions to better fit American idioms. 

Christopher Llewellyn Reed: Could you please explain, Axel, your one-liner pitch from the press notes: “Shame on Dry Land is a redemption drama stuck inside a Mediterranean noir.” Why that description? 

Axel Petersén: In the form, it is noir. Straight up. But not first and foremost. I would say that it is a redemption drama. But “noir” is also slightly vague. “Mediterranean noir” is even more vague. It could also be “sunny noir.” 

CLR: Or “Maltese noir!”

AP: Maltese noir! (laughs) That’s very niche. In any case, to me it is. If you ask a noir expert, they would probably say yes, according to this and this and this convention. They would say that we are going according to the form or the plan.

CLR: For me, noir is always more about the visual aesthetic and the double-crossing. And we certainly have both of that here. Now, despite this being a “noir” thriller, you have a lot of moments of playful humor. Among the ones that stuck out to me is when Dimman struggles to get one of those annoying washroom faucets to come on by waving his hands around the sensor.

(Axel Petersén laughs)

CLR: I just had such an experience right before joining you for this interview! You’ve also cast Tommy Nilsson, a well-known heavy-metal singer, as the father-in-law, and at the end you have him singing “Do You Believe in Life After Love?” What was your approach to that kind of tone, shifting from the darker elements to those playful ones?

AP: To me, it has to be a bit of fun. If there would have been more … this particular film could have had even more before tipping over and becoming a straight comedy. I’ve done things in the past where at the time I didn’t think it was that funny—I mean, it was clearly written to be amusing—but rewatching it, it’s like, “My God! This is straight comedy!” In this case, it’s about a pretty heavy character, and to spend 90 minutes with someone like that and having it be tedious or boring or just heavy, I think it needs to be … Like in life, there are funny situations all the time. Maybe even in the most depressing moments something could become absurd and some absurd thing happens and it’s funny and you can laugh about it.

CLR: (to Joel Spira) Did you improvise that sensor moment? I think we probably all kind of hate those faucets …

AP: Well, Dimman has a lot of problems. There are a lot of things that don’t really work.

Joel Spira: Yeah. I think I improvised that thing. Like, “What the f***, not another one!” (laughs)

AP: There’s a scooter that Dimman drives. There was one thing that is not in the film, where the helmet was locked under the seat.

JS: It was the longest take in the movie. I think it went on for 4 or 5 minutes.

AP: He couldn’t get it up! (laughs)

JS: I couldn’t get the lid up to get the helmet on. (laughs) And then someone asked, “Why didn’t you just drive without the helmet?”

AP: (laughs) And then there’s a door slamming that won’t close.

JS: (laughs) Yeah, maybe it’s me and not Dimman.


Joel Spira in SHAME ON DRY LAND. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

CLR: So how did Axel pitch your character to you, Joel?

JS: He came to me very early, many years ago, actually, and pitched the character, and I’ve always been intrigued by Axel’s way of writing, because he keeps the story inside the characters, more than making it plot-driven, which I love. I love it. So he pitched it as it was. It was quite clear what he was after from the get-go.

CLR: How about the rest of the cast? What was that process of casting like? I love your ensemble.

AP: Well, Fredrik, Dimman’s former best friend and business partner, is actually Joel’s best friend in real life, so when we started talking about this role, and I asked Joel if he could think of someone else in his generation, he said, “Christopher. You have to meet him.” And that was that.

But I just want to get back to the comedy and humor aspect. Because, again, it is totally connected to the character in this case. It’s not humor for the sake of humor. This is a character who is socially awkward because he’s confronting a world which he has been avoiding for the past 10 years, so it is someone who is clumsy. He’s not an expert in just being in this new reality.

JS: He doesn’t have a swagger in that way.

AP: I think that’s a good thing for a hero, or an anti-hero, that he’s not just suave and cool. I mean he’s also cool, sometimes. (laughs) And sexy, and dangerous.

CLR: Of course.

AP: But he is also socially awkward.

CLR: He does kill a man with a harpoon gun.

AP: That’s pretty cool!

CLR: Better than James Bond.

JS: Yeah!

Photo from TIFF 2023 ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

CLR: Speaking of awkwardness, I love the tension in that initial scene between you, Joel, and Fredrik, when you show up. I love those moments without dialogue. You’re just so uncomfortable being in the same space. It’s interesting to know that you’re best friends in real life. How did you work on that relationship for the movie?

JS: I think that was one of the things that we didn’t have to work on.

CLR: Because you’re that uncomfortable with each other in real life? (laughs)

JS: No, probably the opposite. (laughs) But that’s what I mean, that we were so comfortable with each other that there’s a lot of things you don’t have to go through when you know each other. But we hadn’t actually worked together before, even though he’s been an actor for as long as I have. Or maybe we had just done one scene or something. So it was so nice to just work with someone where you didn’t have to have all kinds of bullshit. We just jumped into it.

AP: And to me, it’s about an old friendship, about two people who know each other inside out. Fredrik knows this man and what he is. There’s a language between these characters that is beyond words. Actors can act their way through that, however here their relationship came with that language, already.

CLR: So, I confess to now having a little bit of a crush on Jacqueline Ramel after watching your film. She’s amazing. How did you cast her and then also Tommy Nilsson, who is a great casting coup?

AP: Tommy is like the Michael Bolton of Sweden. I’m not a huge fan of his music, but he’s great. I saw him in an interview for a daytime talk show and for the first time, I went, “My God! What a presence! His voice, his face!” It just went straight through. So I called him up and said, “Hey, man, do you want to do a movie?” And he was like, “Yeah! Small role, big check; big role, no check.” (laughs) He’s used to working with his voice, so obviously he knows his instrument, he knows his body. He has the skill set.

And Jacqueline … she hadn’t worked for like 10 years.

CLR: I noticed that in her credits.

AP: And I was intrigued by her. There’s, again, a lot of unsaid things about her, without revealing too much. Her face … she’s almost like a female Richard Harris. Is it Richard? Who played Jackson Pollock?

CLR: Ed Harris.

AP: Oh, Ed Harris! (laughs) Yes, like a female Ed Harris somehow. With these eyes that are cold, Tough.

JS: I love him.

l-r: Jacqueline Ramel and Joel Spira in SHAME ON DRY LAND. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

CLR: Yes, she’s very tough, and I like that about the character. As you said, there’s a lot of history that doesn’t need telling. We can guess. So, are there really 10 to 12 thousand Swedes now on Malta? And how did that happen? And why?

AP: I think that number is still probably more or less accurate. This was written a few years ago. They ended up coming there about 20 years ago. There was one man, and then some others who followed, who had dreams of starting betting and online casino companies. In Sweden, we have a monopoly on that: it’s just the state that can run casinos. They couldn’t do what they wanted to do in Sweden, so they had to find another place. They were sort of pioneers. And along came a lot of other people. And companies started popping up. The single biggest employer of Malta is a Swede who employs live dealers, live croupiers. People who play online want to play with a real croupier. So they have whole hangars of people set up with poker tables or roulettes. And people are doing this on their phones and you’re not really supposed to think about where the money you are losing is going … (laughs) … because that’s not part of the scheme. You just lose, and then play more. But that’s where it ends up.

CLR: The Swedish title of the film is “Syndabocken,” which means “scapegoat,” right? So how did you come up with the English title “Shame on Dry Land”?

AP: “Shame on Dry Land” was also the Swedish title for a while. It’s an old Swedish proverb, from the 16thcentury or so, meaning that the shame is so big that it overflows the land like a river or flood. So it’s something that would be said about something if it is horrible enough: “That’s shame on dry land.” And in English, it just became pure poetry, because it doesn’t mean anything. It’s nonsense. But it was beautiful and it stuck.

And then, “syndabocken” in Swedish has a very nice sort of ‘70s old-flick tone to it, while in English, I feel like there are a lot of things called the “the scapegoat.” So it didn’t have the same ring to it. And in Swedish, that ‘70s vibe really suits the film, because I think it’s more of a flick than a film. I don’t know why, but it when it was done, it just had the feel of an old “flick.” There were all these choices I made along the way, and sure, there were ‘70s references, but … in any case, it’s “Syndabocken” in Swedish, which also points to the protagonist, and it’s doubled.

JS: He was it, and he becomes it again.

AP: And other people are pointing the fingers at him. He’s the bad guy.

JS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

AP: Or it could also be that Dimman is walking around thinking that other people are thinking that he is the bad guy.

CLR: That’s really interesting. Thank you both for talking to me!

AP/JS: Thank you!

l-r: Christopher Lewellyn Reed and SHAME ON DRY LAND’s Axel Petersén and Joel Spira at TIFF 2023 ©Christopher Llewellyn Reed

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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