June 9, 2015
When I interviewed Roy Andersson last week I was struck by how mischievous this 72-year-old still was, his moon-shaped face cracking into an impish grin whenever he belittled things inimical to humanity (including but not limited to: the monarchy, billionaires, and smart phones) . The Swedish director was in NYC promoting A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the final part of his trilogy “about being a human being” that is in theaters now from Magnolia Pictures. He has only made five features in his unusual career, with a seven year gap between the films in the trilogy: Songs From the Second Floor (2000), You, The Living (2007), and now, A Pigeon. Each film in the series is made up of absurd, deadpan sketches about the quiet desperation of everyday lives, something of a minimalist, formalist Laurel & Hardy. Each section is shot in long takes on a single set, his actors wearing white face paint as if in Kabuki, speaking in an earnest monotone. A Pigeon, for example, opens with a man having a heart attack after struggling to open a bottle of wine. His films are so sad you have to laugh, or so funny you have to cry. I spoke with Mr. Andersson about comic books, his switch to digital, and a visit from the Wachowski brothers.
RS: When you started SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, were you envisioning a trilogy at that time?
RA: I was not. It came up when I finished YOU THE LIVING, and I really wanted to make another movie, and it felt very unnatural to call it a trilogy, because the word trilogy is “respectful.” [Laughs] It awakens respect. They call it an epic number. You have number three, you have number seven. It’s a historic number. So, they are also quite similar to each other, thematically, so I saw them as in a family. I changed technique. The first time I used digital technique.
RS: Which one did you use digital on?
RA: This one [A Pigeon…]. Some commercials before. I tested it out. If it was possible to get it as good as with analog technique. And I found that, yeah, time had changed so, the technique, the quality, was so much better than, say, five years ago. I’m happy that I finally dared to go over to digital.
RS: Did you find that you were doing longer takes?
RA: Yeah, I did.
RS: Has it changed your style in any way?
RA: Not so much. But of course, this sequence with the king, Charles XII, it was not possible to do that analog. Because it’s eleven minutes long. You could make it with 16mm, you could, but not with 35mm. So… uh, I don’t know why it’s so long! [Laughs] But it was nice to have so many horses passing outside!
RS: I did want to ask about that sequence, because there’s two sequences that stretch back into the past, there’s the scene from 1943, there’s the scene with King Charles, and both of those are some of the more nostalgic sequences. It’s like I had the feeling that you felt that these scenes of the past were more communal that the scenes in the present. Do you think we’ve lost something, some kind of communality?
RA: Yeah. The king is, there’s two scenes. When he leaves Sweden for battle, it’s a typical example of so-called anachronism. And when I left realism, which I did after fifty years with realism, finally dared to go over to what I call “abstracted style”, purified, condensed style, I dared to do it finally, because I had grown up with the typical worker class environment, and my worker’s realism was the only one, they didn’t like the middle class or the upper class style.
RS: A Swedish Love Story…
RA: Love Story was…very realistic. So I guess, yeah, realistic. Regarded as realistic. And finally to switch over to this and I dared to mix old time with our time, typical anachronistic, and because it’s good to criticize this stupid creation of a monarchy — I hate it! So I want to address the respect for this period, this idea with the king, who’s only responsible to God, and the world has been ruled by this stupidity for many, many years. And even the stupid Swedes, they’re really, “Oh my king and my queen!” This is stupid. It’s fake actually.
RS: So the monarchy still has a hold over the Swedish people?
RA: Yeah, I think over 50% want to keep the [monarchy]. You have that in the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and England. I don’t know why these countries are so stupid.
RS: I wanted to ask you why you switched styles to a more “abstracted” style, what drove you to that. What appealed to you about that.
RA: Realism, it’s not that it’s not correct, but it’s… realism, is more limited than the abstracted style. For example the dream. I use dreams now. And I never dared that before. In dreams you are totally free. So when I switched over to this I felt so released. I dared to show dreams. And even this scene with the king, this anachronistic scene with the slave period, colonialism, that was possible with the help of the abstracted style. And I will continue with it also.
RS: I wanted to talk about the colonialism sequence. Is it that Sweden hasn’t fully reckoned with their colonialist legacy, or is it that something that isn’t spoken about a lot?
RA: Actually Sweden was not involved so much in that. Sweden had come here, to this continent, but not much. But the attitude is, even if we didn’t, we had the mental capacity for it. So Sweden has been very, very right wing for hundreds of years. It’s been ruined, Sweden has been ruined by the upper class, and the nobility. And on the top of that nobility there was a king. And I hate it.
RS: I guess I want to ask you now about how you build scenes, because a lot of them seem to come from everyday life. The guy opening the bottle of wine, everybody saying” I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.” Are these things you hear, or do you write them down and build scenes off of that? Or do they just come to you?
RA: I like that daily life. Cause it started already in my movie. It’s a love story, it’s also a lot of daily life. Lower middle class and worker class. And my most important source of inspiration with that was the Czech [New] Wave, with Milos Forman, and Jiri Menzel, they could make such humoristic scenes about daily life, so I’m still a big fan of Forman and the Czech [New] Wave in the 60s. And I keep, okay I change the style, but I keep the content of daily life, I care about the same thing.
RS: And when you build these sequences, do you storyboard them, or do you figure it out on the set? Because they’re so precise, they’re choreographed.
RA: I make a sketch to every scene. And then I color them with watercolor to make them more attractive, and I put them on the wall, so our team members can look, and it’s possible to check the order of them. I think this should be the first one, or no, one week later I put the other… So that’s how I work. I sketch for every scene. Only one. One sketch for every scene.
RS: The way each scene is put into a box they almost look like dioramas, or comic book panels. Just curious if you like comic books.
RA: Yeah, I’m a big fan. I was when I grew up, of cartoons. And the cartoons had that quality, that they are timeless. And even not necessarily geographically specified. It’s more universal.
RS: Do you remember what cartoons you liked?
RA: All these cartoons about the Wild West in America! I don’t remember the names. And of course these more famous [serials], Tarzan, and The Phantom.
RS: It took seven years in between each feature in the trilogy, are you developing these the whole time? Are you taking breaks? How long is the development process on all these?
RA: It takes, it has taken, seven years. But the active period when I shoot, when I make the movie, three and a half to four years. So the rest of the time I do something else. So it will not take seven years the next movie we make because I’ve already started. So I will have the next movie released in 2018. That’s my plan.
RS: This is your adaptation of “One Thousand and One Nights.” And is it in the same style as the trilogy?
RA: I want to change a little, but I’m not exactly sure how I could do it because it has taken a long time to find this style, so I really want to find something that’s much better before I change. But you know Charlie Chaplin, he found his style after a lot of work, and people used to accuse him, “You repeat yourself all the time,” and he said, “Yes, and I tried to make something else. I tried. But it was worse.” So he went back to his old style.
RS: Was that the drama he made, A WOMAN OF PARIS?
RA: Yeah, I don’t remember now.
RS: So it will be something in the style that you’re currently doing? Do you have a story, or is it the same kind of sketches?
RA: I have left the linear narrative way of making a movie. I prefer what I call fragments. The fragmentary style. Because I find it richer. It’s inexhaustible. That way of making it. Fragments are inexhaustible.
RS: Regarding the main characters, the two salesmen, I mean, they’re very sad and lonely characters, but they’re trying, in their own clumsy way, to be entertaining…
RA: But they are so much inspired by Stan Laurel and Laurel and Hardy, and even Beckett was inspired by that. Waiting For Godot is Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
RS: So did you watch Laurel and Hardy growing up?
RA: Very much when I was young. I loved it and I found them so tragic and also funny. Their ambitions to climb the social ladder, the social class order. And they fail all the time.
RS: Before the interview, you mentioned the Wachowski’s visited the set of A Pigeon…. What did you talk about?
RA: Yeah, they came to me because they loved my movie, YOU THE LIVING, and they had noticed there were some similarities with that movie and the painting history, Germany in the 30s. They came with fantastic gifts for me, two books, one about Otto Dix and one about George Grosz. They came, they passed me and said “We are stopping just to shake hands with you, because we are big fans.” It was very nice.
RS: Have you seen any of their movies?
RA: You mean, THE MATRIX? My young colleagues at my company, they have seen the THE MATRIX and they are admirers. But I have not seen these movies.
RS: I guess I wanted to go back to the film and talk about the bar scene in 1943 where they all sing the song together. Because the film is, it’s one of those films that’s very funny but also has this quiet desperation. But this one scene in the bar is the one that seems to be the most joyous. Do you have fond memories of that period, of the 40s?
RA: It was my birth year, 1943. And you know that was the start of how Nazi Germany was defeated, it was the starting ground. My father was very proud that I was born. He marched soon after they lost in Stalingrad and this sick army, I think it was around 700 soldiers that were surrounded, and were sent to Siberia. So that when they left I think that even Hitler understood that we will not win the war. And that time the people there was an extra military service, because normally it was one year, but they added another year and soldiers sitting there had very little money so it was a nice song about how generous “Limping Lotte” was, would give them a shot for a kiss. So that was a song that I sang myself as a kid.
RS: Did you know where the song came from? Is it based on a real person?
RA: No, no. Nobody knows. It’s a typical folklore.
RS: It was really striking when you go from that sequence with everybody singing to when you go to the bar in modern times, where everybody’s isolated and alone. Do you think we have lost some aspect of community?
RA: Yeah, I think so. It’s very sad. Because now we have all the resources to communicate, yet in spite of that people are very isolated. I think also that cell phones make you more isolated. [Laughs]
RS: Do you have one?
RA: Yeah, though I forgot it on the plane!
RS: Did you get it back?
RA: No, no. When I come home I will buy a new one. A better one. So that was the meaning in it! [Laughs] However, there is the scene in the movie where a sad man is sitting in a restaurant and he’s trying to get into contact with the waiter who is cleaning the tables and so on. And the waiter doesn’t react at all. And the man says ” I understand that I have been ungenerous and greedy all my life. And that’s why I’m so unhappy.” [Laughs]
RS: It’s like the key to the whole movie. Yet also comic.
RA: The most dreadful thing I can see is a billionaire that is 90 years old. A 90 year old billionaire is the most tragic thing to see. [Laughs]