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

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.”

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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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