Text by Matthew Lee, Photos: Joachim Lundgren
We’re 30 seconds into the 15th take of the final scene to be shot on the new Roy Andersson movie and the director isn’t happy. The 70-year-old Swede sighs, stomps his foot, yells “Cut!” and mutters a complaint about the actors’ timing. They’re opening doors too quickly, walking too slowly. He turns away from the camera and calls for a break. “Sooner or later we’ll get there,” he says with a smile. “Filmmaking is a question of patience.”
This hardly comes as news to Andersson’s fans. His new movie, En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Dove Sitting on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) is only a fifth feature in a career spanning 45 years, and the final part of a trilogy almost two decades in the making. When the trilogy’s opening chapter, Sånger från andra våningen (Songs from the Second Floor) won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2000, the industry hailed a late-career blossoming of a director who’d seemingly abandoned filmmaking after the ruinous failure of his second movie in 1975. Of course, any Swede who’d turned on a television set in those intervening years could have told you that Andersson had » never gone away. He’s made close to 400 commercials, some of which are so well-regarded they were presented alongside his features and shorts in a 2009 career retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Today we’re at Andersson’s Stockholm studio where he’s putting the final touches to En duva, another collection of strange, poetic and often laugh-out-loud-funny vignettes exploring the absurdities of the human condition. With their loosely connected scenes and offbeat non-sequiturs, his recent films feel more like sketch comedies than conventional movies. His team has been working on En duva since 2010, and when we join them for chicken and potatoes in a room full of awards and film posters, they banter like a group who’ve eaten countless meals together. The director himself eats in the adjacent office; the door’s open but our view of him is obscured by the toppling piles of paper on his desk. Is this the same perfectionist aesthete who moments earlier had terminated a scene because an actor had been an inch out of position?
This is the studio that advertising made. By making commercials for companies such as insurance firm Trygg-Hansa – featuring increasingly bizarre and slapstick accidents – along with Volvo, Air France, Citroën and, bizarrely, Clearasil, he was able to purchase Studio 24 in leafy, upmarket Östermalm in 1981. It’s an incongruous setting for a director renowned for his bleakly comic depictions of working class life, and indeed when we return to the set after dinner I notice Andersson’s shirt and trousers are the same colour as the crumpled tracksuits worn by his actors: grey. Nearly all his characters exist in a muted, jaundiced world; today’s scene takes place in the corridor of a hostel for alcoholics and drug addicts. The actors are middle-aged everymen with rounded bellies and rounded faces, painted white to anonymise them even further.
The 16th take pans out much like the first 15. Eight staff stand around the camera but there’s no doubt who’s in charge. Andersson mouths along to every word spoken on set and chuckles each time he hears the punchline, even though he wrote it himself and must have heard it at least 30 times already today. A make-up artist whispers to me that 40 takes is pretty normal, but today we’re lucky – it’s all wrapped up by take 25. By Roy Andersson standards, this scene was simple.
Andersson takes me to the editing suite to show me a scene that’s anything but simple, a set piece so ambitious the crew travelled to Oslo to find a studio big enough. It depicts a group of African slaves, near-naked and chained together by their necks, forced to enter a bizarre torture contraption covered in trumpet horns. After this hellish machine is set ablaze and the music begins playing, the camera settles on a party of European aristocrats clinking champagne glasses. It’s a scene that involves everything Andersson is renowned for – the dark and absurd humour, the distrust of authority and aristocracy, the lengthy fixed-camera takes, the jarring juxtaposition of joyless images and cheerful music – but raises things to the next level. Andersson then shows me another scene from En duva featuring an improbable number of horses and a dig at the monarchy. “I have an aversion to the upper classes and I want to undermine their status,” he explains. “They are terrible things and I want to subvert them.” He says that when he was young he was a radical but that over time his views have mellowed. “Perhaps there’s time for me to be radical again,” he adds with a laugh.
For a man who makes commercials and comedies, Andersson is quite the provocateur. In the second part of the trilogy, 2007’s Du levande (You, The Living), a construction worker is sent to the electric chair after a tablecloth trick at a posh party results in an expensive vase breaking. The sight of everything smashing on the floor is hilarious but also shocking – there are swastikas carved onto the Swedish aristocrats’ table, an unsubtle reminder that some elites collaborated with the Nazis.
Even more shocking is the conclusion to Någonting har hänt (Something Has Happened), a 1987 short film commissioned by Sweden’s National Board of Health and Welfare to draw attention to the growing AIDS crisis. With his trademark deadpan humour, Andersson argues that the virus’s origin theory is based upon racist Western assumptions about Africa and the disease was probably created by the US government, a Soviet conspiracy theory later widely discredited. The film was never shown in schools as intended.
When I sit down with Andersson at his cluttered desk the following afternoon, I ask about the roots of his radicalism. He tells me that his working class Gothenburg childhood wasn’t dissimilar to the grey world of misfits and drop-outs he creates in his movies. “The scene we filmed yesterday is from my memory of growing up,” he says. “I knew many people who weren’t respectfully cared for such as alcoholics and those struggling to pay the rent.” He tells me how his spell at the Swedish Film Institute coincided with a period of great social upheaval in Europe: “In 1968 there were protests in Paris, London and Prague. I belonged to a generation that felt empowered and believed we could change the world. My confidence to make films came from these social revolutions and I’m very grateful for that.”
Andersson had barely graduated when in 1970 he released En kärlekshistoria (A Swedish Love Story), a coming-of-age romance that established him as a household name in his home country. Apart from being mildly eccentric, it looks nothing like a Roy Andersson film, which is to say it looks like a normal film with moving cameras, scenes with multiple shots and a linear narrative. It was acclaimed by critics and loved by audiences, but its success was difficult to handle. “Everybody wanted me to make A Swedish Love Story Two and Three afterwards but I was disgusted by thinking in such terms,” he recalls. “It’s not always the case that success makes you happy. I felt depressed and lonely for more than half a year.”
It took another five years for Andersson to make Giliap, an abstract film almost everybody hated, although he insists that “about 40 per cent” of it is very good. “I was out in the cold after it flopped,” he recalls. “I had two small children to raise and I’d spent all my money on the movie. I asked for a small loan from the Swedish Film Institute but they said no. So when advertising people called I accepted their offer and because of this work I was eventually able to start a company, buy a studio and equipment, and begin making films again. In that sense it took 20 years to make Songs from the Second Floor.”
The advertising world seems an unlikely home for an avowed leftist, but Andersson retained creative control over his commercials and made them with the same level of perfectionism that goes into his features. He was principally a director of commercials in 1985 when he radically changed his approach to filmmaking. Rather than looking to other directors for inspiration, he turned to art and literature, in particular the New Objectivism of Weimar Germany and the surrealist poetry of André Breton.
When he studied art he found he wasn’t interested in portraiture; he liked paintings with depth and multiple characters. He decided his films should no longer contain close-ups of actors. Instead, every scene would be like an Otto Dix painting – the unmoving camera a fixed easel, the studio a blank canvas. Breton’s poems taught him that realism placed limits on his imagination, while surrealism would allow him to indulge his taste for the absurd. He increasingly used the device of trompe l’oeil, the art of placing objects in front of the camera to create the illusion of scale and distance, which allowed him to create complex street scenes and epic landscapes without having to leave Östermalm.
This shift in style had a drawback – it’s an incredibly slow and labour-intensive way to make films. Every scene is built by hand. In Det är en dag imorgon också (Tomorrow’s Another Day), a documentary about the making of Du levande by Studio 24 production manager Johan Carlsson, we see how Andersson created a scene in which a fleet of B-52 bombers destroy an urban area. Most directors would employ digital trickery, but Andersson asked his team to build an entire miniature city - it took weeks to make and glue down the thousands of Styrofoam trees and MDF apartment blocks. This new film has also involved sophisticated set-building – saws, drills, screwdrivers and empty tubs of white paint are scattered across the ground floor of the studio, as well as fake plastic breasts and creepy-funny face masks. While Andersson is clearly enamoured of the grainy, washed-out aesthetic achieved through analogue filmmaking – and he often uses the word “authenticity” to describe his work – it’s also evident that he’s a man who thrives upon a challenge.
Another example of his painstaking approach is his preference for untrained actors, and he goes to great lengths to find people who look suitably ordinary. One of the white-faced, droll-voiced men in grey tracksuits I met on set, Holger Andersson (no relation), says he was working as a cleaner when he landed a small part in Sånger från andra våningen. Although he’s not a real actor, his life has never been the same since – he’s known as Ketchup Man in Sweden thanks to his role in one of Andersson’s commercials. The director says he respects professional actors, but they’re too predictable and “might behave as if they know the end of the story”. Non-actors are more authentic, he believes. You never quite know what you’re going to get from them.
He’s never been one to conform. When asked to name his favourite films of all time, he chooses Bicycle Thieves, Viridiana and Hiroshima, Mon Amour, the most recent of which came out in 1961. He says he doesn’t particularly like contemporary cinema and there aren’t any younger Swedish filmmakers he’s excited about. When I ask if it’s difficult for Swedish directors to live in Ingmar Bergman’s considerable shadow, he says his former teacher at film school was “a little overrated”. While Andersson may create his art with the stubbornness of an auteur, he’s far from a difficult character.
He speaks softly in slightly wobbly English, which he often apologises for, and he’s generous with his time. He’s clearly admired by his staff, several of whom tell me it’s an honour to work with him. While nobody’s saying anything, there’s a sense among the crew that En duva might be a swansong. Johan Carlsson tells me he made his documentary about Du levande because he thought that would be the last chance to document Andersson’s unique approach to filmmaking.
Now Andersson hopes En duva will follow in the footsteps of Sånger and Du levande and premiere at Cannes in May. Promotional activities will keep him busy for the rest of the year and after that his plans are unclear. “I’m afraid of stopping work,” he says, dismissing suggestions of retirement. He says he’s going to write a novel he’s been planning for many years, and that he’s willing to make more commercials if the right offers come along. There are no plans for another movie.
Before leaving Studio 24 I’m invited to the recording studio and asked to scream orders into a microphone. Andersson has decided that the actors playing the soldiers in the terrifying slavery torture sound too Norwegian and it would make more historical sense if they’re British. He may or may not use the overdub and I’m not going to know until I see the film. I’m desperate to know if my voice will be in the new Roy Andersson film, but as the director himself said, filmmaking is a question of patience.