By Milene Larsson
Photo By Emma Engkvist
Roy Andersson is one of the most original and important living Swedish filmmakers who, despite 40 years in the industry, has only made four feature films. Not because he didn’t want to make more but because he refused to follow up his commercially successful debut
A Swedish Love Story
and was, ironically enough, punished with a 25 year sentence of directing commercials. He served his time well, reinvented advertising and became so rich and famous that he can now make unconventional big budget movies and pay for them out of his own pocket. His partially unbearable films
Songs from the Second Floor
You, the Living
balance on a thin line between tragedy and comedy and deliberately leave you with a discomforting aftertaste of disgust, like having a spoonful of reverse psychology forced into your mouth to cure your indifference. His 70s debut
A Swedish Love Story
on the other hand, was more like a cutesy love potion. Its highly infatuating substances: pretty kids in leather jackets, beautiful Swedish sceneries drenched in soft pinkish midnight sun andfluffy first-love, swept the world off its feet. Forty years later it’s still on the “most popular films” shelf in Swedish video stores. Even all the non-Swedes we know are totally enamored.
Vice: For this issue our Italian photo editor shot a fashion story inspired by your film A Swedish Love Story. He’s been obsessing over it ever since he first saw it.
I’m happy because that film seems as current to young people today as when I first made it. I guess it’s because themes like dreams and disappointment are timeless.
What inspired you to make the movie?
I got the idea when I was assistant director at the set of Bo Wideberg’s
. At the hotel I found a women’s magazine with a picture of a 13-year-old girl wearing a knitted sweater. It radiated innocence and life optimism and I wanted to convey that onto film, and contrast it with the adult generation’s broken dreams. For the young generation in
A Swedish Love Story
—Pär and Annika—it’s about finding somebody to like. But the film is also about loneliness, which is most apparent in the portraits of Pär’s grandfather and Annika’s aunt.
That contrast works, you feel almost ill at ease watching it.
That’s because you witness people humiliating themselves and each other. Humiliation is a subject I keep coming back to in all my films and it exists in every social group. What I essentially want to show is the vulnerability of the human being.
But A Swedish Love Story is also an idyllic portrait of first love. Who was your first love?
In first grade I was in love with a classmate, her name was Mona. But she never knew.
Are you a romantic person?
Still you made a film that left me all starry-eyed and the imagery is beautiful. But it’s almost scary how Swedish it feels.
That’s funny because at the time I was actually influenced by the Czech New Wave. Films like
Loves of a Blonde
Closely Watched Trains
were being shown at Swedish cinemas in the 60s and I was fascinated by how directors like Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel and Ewald Schorm managed to make the non-peculiar things in everyday life seem special by using a tender and humoristic tone. I wanted to recreate that ambience by using backlight and high focal lengths but towards the end I stepped away from that and closer to the imagery I use today.
Yeah, your style is very different now.
My current aesthetic is inspired by expressionist and symbolist paintings, with the background depicted as carefully as the foreground. I find wide motifs more interesting than close-ups as they’re in depth and tell the story of people’s situations. It fuels my imagination and, by using such images, it becomes a film about human conditions, captured with a fixed easel or in my case a camera.
How did the idea of becoming a filmmaker come about?
When I was 12, they showed Vittorio de Sica’s neorealist
The Bicycle Thief
at my youth centre. I think it’s the most empathic, human and intelligent film ever made. I was so moved by the fact that there were people out there who had taken upon them to make a film, told with such warmth and love of humanity, about socially unimportant people, like an unemployed family father being robbed of the bike he needs to get a job. It definitely influenced me to become a filmmaker.
Do you think growing up in the 50s or the “armchair decade” as you call it, made you socially aware?
I grew up next to Gothenburg’s three big boat yards and, as I remember, they were never inactive. All I ever saw was hard working people and, with Europe having been bombed to pieces, business was good. But even though the welfare state was expanding and everyone had great faith in the future, there were still many injustices. I was impatient and wanted the process of equal rights and possibilities for everyone to go faster.
How come you only made two films in the 70s and then it took you 25 years until the next?
My second film
was a real fiasco, both audience and critique wise, and in addition to that, it had exceeded budget. I became the scapegoat and was left out in the cold. Only ad agencies would still get in touch, so I started making commercials in order to survive.
And now you’re one of the most renowned Swedish commercial directors. But considering you’re somewhat of a social activist, aren’t commercials against your principles?
I’ve often been criticized for doing commercials but in my eyes, as long as you accept some kind of market, which I do, you also have to accept advertising. My commercials often take place in ordinary environments with ordinary people and with a splash of humor and distance. I work as meticulously on them as on my feature films.
Has that affected the way you make films?
Doing commercials has allowed me to develop my aesthetic. Above all, it has taught me that a fixed image with no cuts communicates more effectively than a panning camera and hysterical editing. The latter is often a result of ill-considered or badly planned scenery. My commercials have been successful and have made it possible for me to build up my own production company and a studio with all the necessary equipment. I can now make movies again and this time irrespective of other producers.
It must take ages and cost loads to build up your distinctive settings.
Yes, and to people who aren’t involved there’s a lot that seems crazy. When we built a full size train station for the recording of
Songs From the Second Floor
, a couple passing by looked into the humongous hangar and asked what went on. When they heard we went through all that trouble only to record a single movie scene, they couldn’t understand why we didn’t just use a real station instead. They got the answer that this would look much better. They were quiet for a while and then the man asked what would happen in the scene that required such a huge construction. When the answer was that it would feature a man squeezing his finger in the door, the couple left without a word.
That’s pretty funny. What makes you laugh?
I’m amused by children’s or animals’ unadulterated behavior, but also by people’s odd character traits and ingenious formulations. I’m also very fond of practical jokes but my best one was never carried through.
What was it?
When we recorded
, Bo Wideberg used his valuable Matisse collection as props in the setting for a factory owner’s mansion. One day we filmed at another location and a school class was given permission to visit the mansion, as it had historic value. The idea was to take the graphic sheets out of the Matisse frames, copy them and draw on the copies with crayons and write thank you’s from the children. I still wonder how he would have taken it, that Matisse collection was the apple of his eye.
Your comedies make fun of people’s desperation. Do you ever get a bad conscience?
You might find them cruel at times but beneath the surface lies a very sad heart. Behind it, there is responsibility and love. It’s a protest.
Has that ever been misunderstood?
Songs From the Second Floor
was shown in Stockholm, it was quite common that people in the audience rushed up to the ticket office and bawled at the staff about such a film being shown at all.
So it works then, you trigger people.
I wouldn’t want an indifferent audience. Elie Wiesel said it best, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
Rumors say Ingmar Bergman told you to never make another film after Giliap, I thought that’s why you didn’t make films for so long.
That’s not true, but he did threaten me once when I was in film school. He was an inspector there and disliked left wing filmmakers, a field I felt I belonged to, mainly because of the unjust Vietnam War. I had filmed anti-war demonstrations with my yearly film quota and was called into Ingmar Bergman’s office. He told me that if I continued with that I would never get to do feature films.
But it’s well known that you two disliked each other.
Let’s just say that I was never invited to his Fårö estate, which many other students were, and that I had no respect for him. To me, his aloofness was unacceptable. This was when the old authoritarian society was falling apart all over the world and Europe was loosing their colonies due to growing resistance movements. Still, Bergman was making apolitical films.
MoMA just put on a retrospective of your work.
Yes! And I even agreed to let them show my school films that I don’t like that much.
What don’t you like about them?
Back then I was more interested in focusing on a tone than on having a story. But the curator told me that New York is full of young dreaming filmmakers and that it’s inspiring for them to see how established filmmakers have evolved.
I read somewhere that you’ve decided to surrender and stop making films.
I’ve actually decided to make another film. It will be a dynamic film with abrupt emotional turns called
A Dove Sat on a Branch—and Thought About Existence
. I’m in the midst of writing the manuscript. It’ll be about what doves are probably thinking about: “What is it that they’re doing, the humans?”
For more information, visit royandersson.com