by Joshua Axelrod January 11, 2023
Director Marc Forster, left, and Tom Hanks on the set of the Pittsburgh-shot film “A Man Called Otto.” (Niko Tavernise/Sony Pictures)
Marc Forster knew exactly what kind of city would provide the perfect backdrop for his new feature, “A Man Called Otto.”
“I didn’t feel it should be on either coast,” Forster told the Union Progress. “It felt like it should be in the middle of the country, but somewhere where there’s still a lot of culture.”
Naturally, those parameters led Forster to Pittsburgh. He and his production team spent parts of winter and spring 2022 shooting “A Man Called Otto” in Western Pennsylvania. The second film adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s 2012 novel, “A Man Called Ove,” about an old grump gaining a new lease in life, was finally released in Pittsburgh theaters last week.
The Union Progress recently caught up with Forster to discuss shooting “A Man Called Otto” in the Pittsburgh area, making a movie about neighborliness with the man who once played Mister Rogers, working with Schmagel the cat and more.
Forster is a Swiss filmmaker with an eclectic directorial filmography that includes 2001’s “Monster’s Ball,” 2004’s “Finding Neverland,” 2008’s “Quantum of Solace” and 2013’s “World War Z.” After reading Backman’s novel and watching its 2015 Swedish film adaptation, Forster realized this story would work in any language because “we’re all familiar with Ottos” and decided he wanted to direct a version for American audiences.
He had always wanted to make a movie in Pittsburgh thanks to friends who had done so and came back raving about the city’s film, food and art scenes. So, he decided to set up shop here for “A Man Called Otto,” which follows the titular Otto Anderson (Tom Hanks) as his attempts to commit suicide are continuously foiled by his oddball neighbors who slowly chip away at his crusty exterior and remind him that life is still worth living.
Production designer Barbara Ling stumbled upon the Bellevue cul-de-sac that served as the film’s primary setting on Google Earth, Forster said. The opening scene of “A Man Called Otto” takes place inside the Busy Beaver of Lawrenceville, and another prominent moment occurs at Stangl’s Bakery in Ambridge. Forster explained that a scene where Otto contemplates suicide by train was shot in Lawrenceville on artificially created tracks because the railway they wanted to use was closed for construction.
Forster had nothing but admiration for Pittsburgh as a city and place to shoot a Hollywood movie.
“I loved it,” he said of his time in Pittsburgh. “I would come back any day again. I thought the crew was terrific, the people were amazing. I loved the food. The whole experience was amazing.”
Toward the end of his Monday interview with the Union Progress, producer Renee Wolfe hopped on the line to share her equally glowing review of Pittsburgh. She appreciated the “kindness and sense of community” here, as shown by the neighbors who brought over housewarming gifts during her temporary stay in Shadyside.
“We’re all trying to figure out who we are in America,” Wolfe said. “As we move forward into the next chapter, there’s something about Pittsburgh that has all the right elements. It’s going to be one of the most important cities in the next dialogue we have as Americans.”
“A Man Called Otto” is an unapologetic tearjerker that had me in a glass case of emotions by the time its end credits began rolling. Most of the heavy lifting is done by Hanks, who made his triumphant return to Western Pennsylvania following his Oscar-nominated turn as Fred Rogers in 2019’s Pittsburgh-shot “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Forster credited Hanks for so vividly portraying “all the different shades of grumpiness in Otto.”
“When you work with an actor like this, I think it matters a lot that we both have very similar sensibilities of what we’re going after,” he said. “He has such great talent. As a director, it’s like talking to a great violinist. ‘Play a little faster, play a little slower.’ I gave him direction, and he just did it.”
Just as key to the cinematic alchemy of “A Man Called Otto” was the supporting cast, particularly Mariana Treviño’s Marisol, Otto’s new neighbor who refuses to let him languish in his misery. Forster said that he was blown away by Treviño’s audition tape, which she filmed herself from a hotel room in Spain while playing multiple characters. She was “so good and brilliant” that he no longer had any desire to see anyone else for that role.
Another critical piece of the puzzle was the stray cat that Otto reluctantly adopts. Though some of Otto’s furry companion was crafted via effects and dummies, Forster said that 90% of what viewers see on film was performed by Schmagel, a feline hailing from Columbia County in northeastern Pennsylvania.
“Sometimes he really performed and did things, and sometimes he didn’t,” Forster said. “I’m just relieved that the cat worked out so well.”
The film walks a tonal tightrope between Otto’s very real depression and lighthearted high jinks, a dichotomy Forster thought was important to display on screen “because that’s what life is often like.” He didn’t have Mister Rogers on his mind while shooting a movie about what it means to be a good neighbor in Pittsburgh, but the theme is still prevalent throughout “A Man Called Otto.”
“We live in a very divided world right now,” Forster said. “One of the things that I thought was interesting about this book was that it became so much more relevant in this day and age after the pandemic when loneliness became so much more acute. It’s about this man who has given up on life, and ultimately it becomes this life-affirming journey of this community coming together.”
His final message to the Western Pennsylvania community that helped him bring “A Man Called Otto” to life: “It was just an amazing time there. We’ll never forget it.”
Joshua covers pop culture, media and more at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he’s currently on strike. Contact him at [email protected].