‘Twelve years of kicking down doors’: How a US filmmaker made it in Sweden

Schiaffino Musarra spent a decade trying to make his TV dark comedy about trying to solve the Olof Palme murder. The Local spoke to him about the battle foreign creatives face breaking through in Sweden.

'Twelve years of kicking down doors': How a US filmmaker made it in Sweden
Schiaffino Musarra as George English in We Got This. Photo: SVT

The real-life murder of a Swedish prime minister isn't an obvious subject for a comedy series, but that's exactly the concept of dark comedy We Got This, about an American expat in Sweden who tries to solve the country's best known cold case. 

Schiaffino Musarra, the 47-year-old American actor and screenwriter behind the show, has managed to make it in Sweden's TV scene despite breaking the number one rule of success in Sweden: 'learn the language'. This is reflected in the show's protagonist George English, who insists on speaking English throughout — even though his family and all the other characters speak to him almost exclusively in Swedish. 

“The whole goal was to present that as if it were normal, right? Because for me, it is normal,” Musarra tells The Local. “I'm a lot like the character in the show, in that I understand about 90 percent of the speech that is coming at me. But I just can't find the words in my head to reply in Swedish.”


Musarra has been living in Sweden for 14 years, but has never mastered the language. Despite this, He managed to raise 40m kronor (€4 million) to get We Got This made.

The show follows English's attempt to solve the murder of former prime minister Olof Palme, who in 1986 was shot dead in central Stockholm by an unknown gunman after visiting the cinema. In real life, the case was formally closed earlier this year, with police naming a now-deceased man as the likely killer.

Musarra's show coincidentally aired around the same time as the much-anticipated prosecutors' announcement. He says this timing helped it perform well and sell internationally, but he sees getting the show made in the first place as his biggest achievement.  

“For me, the viewing numbers are kind of irrelevant,” he says. “Because, you know, having made a show that for the better part of a decade I was being told couldn't be made, and then to turn around and make it, and sell it to the rest of the world, I'm already dining out on that press release.” 

According to Schiaffino Musarra, the series is also about a foreigner struggling to adjust to Sweden. Photo: Private 

The show depicts the struggles foreigners face adapting to Sweden while also gently poking fun at Swedes themselves, making it likely to strike a chord with international residents. 

“If you strip away all of the kind of weirdness that's happening related to how crazy the Palme case can be, ultimately, it's a story about a guy who's having a hard time acclimatising to living in Sweden, despite the fact that he's lived here for over a decade,” Musarra says. 
“For a lot of people who move here, I think Sweden is not an easy place. I feel happy to be here. But I don't think I've ever felt like I was at home. Obviously you can say a lot of bad things about America, but we do have this kind of imaginary line, where once you've managed to tick a few boxes here and there, you know what, you're an American, you're one of us. 
“And in Sweden, that is never going to happen. If modern medicine were to make it possible for me to stay alive for even 2,000 years, even after that, I don't think anybody would consider me to be Swedish.”
Musarra had the idea for the story when he learned of the 50 million Swedish kronor reward offered to anyone who gave a tip that led to it being solved.
“I'd be lying if I didn't say I went through, a brief period where I was like, 'what if I solve it? Like, that would be amazing',  because for me, like, from an outsider's perspective, the idea of solving the Palme case didn't just solve my money problems, but I kind of felt like it would solve my outsider problem as well. Like, 'you solved the Palme case!?' And then I thought, Sweden would suddenly accept me, you know what I mean?”
Schiaffino Musarra's character George English becomes obsessed with solving the Palme case. Photo: SVT 
But once he had the idea sketched out, Musarra immediately hit a brick wall. 
“The biggest problem that I had was this kind of somewhat ubiquitous attitude that the Palme case was off-limits,” he remembers. “There's only a handful of people who are really allowed to talk about on the case in a particular way.” 
“But I was confident the whole time that you could tell this story in a dark, comedic way because the murder part is never the funny part, right? It's all the private detectives and conspiracy theories. I would explain to production companies what I wanted to do, but it was just not a risk they were willing to take.” 
In the end, Musarra decided to make a trailer for the film so that production companies could see what he was planning.  
“The main actors, Anki Larsson, Olle Sarri, and Alexander Karim, have been good friends of mine for a long time, So, you know, I basically said to everyone, 'look, I want to shoot this trailer. I can't pay any of you. The only thing I can promise is a job if it actually turns into a real project.'” 
The trailer made all the difference. 
“I knew pretty quickly once I saw the actual trailer. I was like, 'wow, this turned out so much better than I had anticipated'. You still don't really know how people are gonna react to it, but the reaction by and large was a complete game changer. It went from a project that nobody would touch with a 10 foot pole to one that like people were like 'fuck yeah'.”
Soon, the project won over Jarowskij, which made Welcome to Sweden in 2014. But even then, Musarra had to make some patient adjustments to Swedish sensibilities. One scene that was cut featured him and another actor standing at Palme's grave, planning to dig up the former prime minister's body.

The official trailer for We Got This does not feature the near-exhumation of Sweden's former prime minister. Photo: SVT

When the show broadcast in April, the Swedish press debated once again whether it was appropriate to make fun of the Palme case. 
But Musarra hopes the audience understand that We Got This is poking fun at the American protagonist rather than the Palme murder itself: “You know, an American who, who thinks that the most unsolvable murder case in the history of mankind is just not a difficult thing to do.”
Since the show broadcast, he's been enjoying the minor celebrity it's given him. But he still doesn't feel he's made it in Sweden's film and TV world.
“I think, when you're an outsider, no matter what you do, I think when you come around to the next project, you're kind of starting over from zero again,” he says. “Since making We Got This, not a single production company has called me to say, 'oh, wow, that was cool. Do you have any other interesting ideas?'”
The storyboard for the second series has been written but so far no decision has been taken. 
One of the main things Musarra has had to learn since coming to Sweden is that different approaches are taken in the film and TV industries compared to the US.
“That kind of 'New York hustle' does not really go over well here. You do have to adapt. I would say that's one of the things that that was a slow-moving game changer: learning to understand the psyche of Swedish people.” 
Schiaffino Musarra (left), with his co-stars Anki Larsson, Olle Sarri, and Alexander Karim. Photo: Peter Cederlund/SVT

That's not his only advice for creative people trying to break through in Sweden. 
“I do think you have to try twice as hard. I think you have to believe in yourself. I think you have to surround yourself with people who believe in you,” he says. 
“Despite the fact that most people in this country are only now learning of my existence, behind that story is a good twelve years of kicking down doors, meeting people, making friends, making connections, teaming up with people that that are in higher positions than you are.”

“I think the most important thing to remember is that nobody owes you anything. So if you're sitting around waiting for a favour, you're wasting your time. You just have to lower your head and plough through the wall and keep going.” 

Without friends like actors Olle Sarri and Alexander Karim, he would never have been able to get We Got This made, he admits. 
“A lot of the doors that I couldn't kick in myself, these guys kind of helped me to open along the way. You can't do it alone, for sure.” 
As for not speaking Swedish, Musarra concedes it made the process more difficult. 
“I can't sit here and tell you that it hasn't held me back,” he says. “That's even more clear after having made the show, because there are some PR opportunities that weren't available to me because I wouldn't do the interviews in Swedish.” 

“When I moved here, my wife was seven months pregnant. Somebody had to work. So I started working as a substitute teacher at an English school, and with SFI (Swedish for immigrants), if you miss more than three classes, they throw you out. So, I'd get thrown out and go back to the beginning, and after about a year of doing that, I was just like, 'you know what, fuck this',” he says.

He does speak Swedish in his latest acting role however, as hotel manager Ronny Hazelwood in the upcoming Swedish children's film LasseMaja, which will air on Sweden's Cmore/TV4 channels around Christmas. 

“It takes me twice as long to prepare for a role in Swedish. I can do it, but it just takes more time for me to get it right. But nobody's calling me because they think I'm gonna pass as a Swede. The only reason somebody wants me to speak Swedish is for comedic purposes.”



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What irritates Swedes the most about the Swedish language?

A new study shows that more than one in five Swedes is irritated by the pronoun "hen", and the same number can't stand it when compound words are split up. Here's a rundown of the main offenders.

What irritates Swedes the most about the Swedish language?

One in five Swedes dislike the gender-neutral pronoun hen

In the study, carried out by Novus on behalf of language magazine Språktidningen, 22 percent of Swedes said that the pronoun hen was the most irritating aspect of the Swedish language. 

The first reported use of the gender-neutral pronoun, to be used instead of han (he) or hon (she), was in the 1950s, when it was used by language professor Karl-Hampus Dahlstedt, but it didn’t appear in writing until linguist Rolf Dunås wrote a newspaper article in 1966 proposing the introduction of the new pronoun.

After that, use of the pronoun was mostly limited to those within the LGBT community until 2012, when a children’s book sparked debate and media attention thanks to the exclusive use of hen to refer to its characters.

In 2015, hen entered the Swedish dictionary, a move which made it more difficult for critics to argue that it wasn’t an established or accepted alternative to han or hon.

As Språktidningen’s editor-in-chief Anders Svensson points out in this article, the pronoun hen has had an ideological and political dimension since debate took off in 2012, and this is still clearly visible today.

Although 22 percent of the survey’s respondents listed hen as the most irritating aspect of the Swedish language, this number rose to a whopping 50 percent amongst respondents who identified with the Sweden Democrats.

On the other side of the political spectrum, those sympathising with the Left Party, the Greens, the Liberals or the Centre Party were least likely to find hen irritating, with a mere 5 to 7 percent of these groups putting it in first place.

Torbjörn Sjöström, CEO of polling company Novus, told Språktidningen that these results didn’t surprise him.

“The fact that hen is irritating for Sweden Democrat sympathisers more than others is not surprising. People join that party because they want things to be like they were in the past. A new word which is gender-neutral symbolises a lot of the developments these people are against,” he explained.

One in five against särskrivning

The same amount, 22 percent, stated that särskrivningar – writing compound words incorrectly as two separate words – annoyed them the most.

This may sound like a minor error, but särskrivningar (literally: “separate writing”) can lead to major misunderstandings. Just look at these amusing examples of särskrivning gone wrong:

En rödhårig kvinna: “a red-haired woman”

En röd hårig kvinna: a red, hairy woman

Kassapersonalen: “checkout workers”

Kassa personalen: “useless employees”

Barnunderkläder: “children’s underwear”

Barn under kläder: “child under clothes”

In contrast to debates over the use of the word hen, debates over särskrivning have raged since the 1800s, where they were often considered to be major mistakes if featured in a text. One reason for this, Svensson notes, is that order in itself was seen as beautiful at this time.

Maria Bylin, language advisor at the Swedish Language Council (Språkrådet), told Språktidningen that she recognises this argument in modern debate on särskrivningar.

“You associate developments in the language with the country and with society,” she explained. “So whatever changes you can see in the language, you think it will happen in society, too.”

One popular scapegoat for this increase in särskrivning is the influence of English on the Swedish language. In English, we have fewer compound words than in Swedish, although they do still exist: a few examples are postbox, doorknob and blackberry. It is, however, harder to form compounds than in Swedish.

To return to the examples above, it would look strange to write “redhairedgirl”, “checkoutworker” or “childrensunderwear” as compounds in English.

So, is the rise of English to blame for mistakes in Swedish? Not according to linguist Katharina Hallencreutz, who noted when studying high school students’ English essays that they had no issues writing English compound loan words such as makeup or popcorn. 

This also wouldn’t explain the large amount of särskrivningar seen in historical texts in Sweden: they feature heavily in laws dating back to the 1200s, as well as Gustav Vasa’s Swedish bible translation, which was published in 1541.

One surprising result of the survey was the fact that young people were more likely than older people to find särskrivningar irritating:

“That surprised me a bit,” Svensson told public broadcaster SVT. “Often you hear the argument that older people think young people write carelessly and särskriver too much.”

Svensson wasn’t sure why this was, but did have a theory: “I suppose those who have recently finished school – most of them have learnt when words should be written as one word, and when they should be separate,” he told SVT.

English loanwords

The influence of English on the Swedish language was a major bugbear for a number of respondents, though. As many as 15 percent of those in Novus’ survey answered that “unnecessary English loanwords” were the most irritating thing about modern Swedish.

English loanwords were most irritating amongst Swedes over 65, where 29 percent stated they were the number one source of irritation, a number which was much lower in other age groups.

Lena Lind Palicki, a Swedish lecturer at Stockholm University, said that this could be to do with comprehensibility. She noted that irritation over English loanwords was especially high amongst older respondents who had left school at 16.

“We can assume that these people have a lower level of English, and then it’s a democratic problem, if English loanwords are used which can be difficult for many people to understand,” she told Språktidningen.

Palicki can’t imagine that English will remain as large a source of annoyance in the future as it is now, though.

“The irritation over English loanwords may have gone out of date in twenty years. Today’s youth will not start to be irritated by the same things as today’s elderly, but they’ll probably start making a symbolic issue of things they struggle with in school today,” she told the magazine.