One’s life is their art as their art is their life—this is the axiom of Mia Hansen-Løve’s career which, seemingly all of a sudden, is fifteen years and seven films deep. Perhaps nothing in that span summarizes her fascinations more fully than Bergman Island, wherein a director-director couple (Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps) visit the Swedish director’s home on the almost-too-beautiful island of Fårö—ostensibly for creative endeavors that are inevitably complicated by the entanglement of soaring ambition and mundane reality.
I speak to few directors more open about their intentions than Hansen-Løve, who over several years of conversation has incisively detailed why and from where her cinema has emerged. Bergman Island is the most fertile possible ground to continue that discussion.
The Film Stage: I saw myself represented in Bergman Island—I also curl in a ball whenever there’s turbulence.
Mia Hansen-Løve: Yes. Yes.
You do this as well?
Yes. I’m not sure we should be talking about this, as I am on a plane tonight. I have big, big problems with flying; I think that started on September 11 and I could never really get over it. For instance, tonight I’m really relieved because I’m on the same with Joachim Trier, because we are both flying to Reykjavík, and that has been reassuring me since. But yes: I’m still so much afraid of flying. Even speaking about it, I start sweating. So yeah: if there is one thing that is really autobiographical in the film, it is certainly that first scene.
From what I understand Bergman Island was supposed to premiere last year but, given the circumstances, didn’t, and the end credits copyright it for 2020. Given some extra time between completion and this summer’s premiere, did you find yourself tinkering with the film at all? Whether it’s cutting entire scenes or just slightly adjusting the audio mix—anything like that.
No. Actually, I didn’t change anything. The film was complete in March 2020—I mean we had the DCP—so we were ready for Cannes, ready for last year’s New York Film Festival, and all the festivals saw the film, or most of them. At least Cannes and New York already invited it last year. I was really at peace with the film. The whole film has been a very peaceful process for me. I know some directors who, because they had so much time, they rethought their film and reedited and changed things. I know a lot of directors who went through that but, for me, the film was totally finished—which doesn’t mean I turned the page and went somewhere else, because actually the film stayed with me during the whole year of COVID, where everything stopped. The film was very much in me, very much present. The more time passed, the more Fårö appeared as some kind of paradise lost because of the situation where I was locked in my flat in Paris. We couldn’t move or travel anywhere and there was this anxiety everywhere. So that island and that film really was this paradise lost for me.
But then I didn’t change anything; it was just within me, and I wouldn’t have come back to the editing and changed the editing. Also, I never did that. It’s not the way I work. When a film is done it’s done; I’m pretty much a fatalist about that. I work a lot on my films—I overprepare, I’m involved in the editing, I will be there from the first to the last second of editing with the sound and everything—but once it’s finished, it’s finished. I don’t even have my films on my computer, for instance. I don’t like the idea of watching your own films over and over; I find that very depressing. I want them to stay like something I have a very positive idea about. It has to stay in my mind but I don’t want to have a look at it and try to look at the shots, see how they could’ve been better. That I would find mortifying.
You have that quote in my film of Bergman saying Hell, to him, would be watching his films over and over again. I feel the same about that: I love my films because they are just part of me, and I have to love them because I gave so much sincerity to them. But I don’t have any distance; I don’t judge them. I don’t know what they are. They’re just there.
When I look up Fårö—just a cursory search, as an outsider who’s never been—I see tremendous overlap between the island and its buildings “as is” with what’s onscreen in Bergman Island. How much can you and the team—cinematographer, production designer—bring to the island, particularly its interiors? Or are you beholden to what’s already present?
How much I brought that wasn’t from the island? That was from me, my own vision of it?
Yeah. And the level of change in, say, the home.
I didn’t change… it’s interesting that you’re saying this, because actually I didn’t change anything—or I didn’t change much. At least if we’re talking about the houses of Bergman, maybe I moved a chair or changed a curtain here and there. But then, for instance, the house where they stay, I changed very, very little. I didn’t change anything to Bergman’s private home that we see at the end, obviously; I wouldn’t even have been allowed to do so, even if I wanted to. I changed a bit to the mill because, usually, people are not allowed to stay in the mill; that’s the one place people are not allowed to stay, because it belongs to this Norwegian man who owns all the houses and that’s the one thing he wanted to keep private. So the mill is really the one thing I created. I mean the room in the mill with the little desk where Chris writes—that’s the one thing we created. And we created the sets for the marriage scenes, the house where they’re having the party—that we created.
I was actually extremely faithful to the island, and I was excited to do so, also, because I think what we see in the films of Bergman, of Fårö, is quite different from what you see when you arrive on Fårö. Especially in the summer, where it’s so full of flowers, so luminous, so joyful in many ways. I felt immediately at home in Fårö, and not because it’s the place of Bergman; it’s because that kind of landscape is the kind I enjoy. If the Fårö that I discovered when I went there was exactly the one you see in the films of Bergman, then maybe that would have been more difficult for me to find my own space in there, you know? There is another one, and that gave me the possibility to find my own language, to film the island differently. That’s why, for instance, I chose to film in scope. I thought at first I would film in 1.85, like I did for most of my films—I didn’t want to shoot scope—but when I discovered the island and saw an island that was so different, with so much void and emptiness and space, that made me want to film them in order to give a fresh vision of the island.
From the moment they enter the Bergman house you seem so confident in your staging—camera movement, camera distance, blocking of actors. You’ve spent plenty time on Fårö before shooting anything, so you must’ve conceived visual strategies well in advance.
The way I work, even before making Bergman Island, I’ve always wanted to spend a lot of time in places I was going to film—at least the places that really were important, that really were like characters in my film. It’s often the case in my films that locations are more than locations to me; they are always haunted, somehow. Places have always haunted me, and I was always interested in trying to film the places in the way you feel the light of a place, but also the presence of human beings, somehow. I wanted them to have a soul. Also, I want to spend a lot of time there where I shoot, and that’s the only way I can find the right distance, the right position of the camera, the right rhythm. The only way I know how to do it is to actually walk in these places, in all ways possible, until I feel I know them intimately.
Where I was so lucky with Bergman Island was that the people from the Bergman estate were extremely welcoming with plenty of time to prepare that film. As you may know, the shooting was postponed—half of the shooting happened another year. I’ve never had so much time, actually, to prepare a film; I ended up spending literally months on the island. But I think that was very important for me. I didn’t want to film the places as a tourist—just arrive and, with distance, look. When I filmed the house where they stay, Tim and Vicky, I had stayed myself there for months, literally. And I think I need that intimacy to the place to really film it in a way that’s organic. That’s what I’m looking for: I’m looking for a kind of mise-en-scène where it’s totally fluid and I have an organic way of moving around the place.
In another interview you said Bergman Island was the first time writing was defined by pleasure, not suffering.
As great as that sounds… do you question that, when it feels different? Do you worry you’re doing something wrong if the writing is going well?
Oh, you mean, did I worry that because it was easy—that there was no suffering involved—it wasn’t going to be good or deep or whatever?
Yes! Yeah, I did. That made me worried. [Laughs] But, you know—it just happened. Yes, it’s a very interesting discussion, and actually I’ve had this discussion before with people who are really close to me. I, from time to time, have this discussion with my closest friend where they try to convince me it’s okay—that I’m allowed to write without suffering and that doesn’t mean it will be bad. “There could be lightness in my film. It’s okay.” You know? “You don’t have to suffer in order to be an artist,” basically. I know that consciously but I think I’ve been very much influenced, as an artist, by this very European, very romantic idea of the melancholic artist. I grew up in a world of melancholy and I think I still carry that with me. That’s just the way it is for me, and that doesn’t mean it has to be like that my whole life. And I truly hope at some point I will accept to write with certain lightness, without this romantic idea of the connections between pain and creation.
But in that perspective, I think, Bergman Island freed me from something—because for the first time, really, I was writing a film and I was writing alone. There were plenty reasons why it shouldn’t have been an easy process. To be staying on that sacred place and pretending to make a film of that—it’s so risky, obviously. Sacrilegious. You have this word?
So I was aware of that, so that could have made the process of writing that film very difficult, but it wasn’t. And actually there was a lightness and a pleasure and feeling of it being easy that was very new for me when I was writing that film, and I still can’t really explain why being on Fårö and writing alone [Laughs] in one of the houses of Bergman, why I remember this being, like, the funniest experience ever for me, of writing. It could have been the most scary or depressing, bringing anxiety, and at the end it was so much fun.
Maybe I idealized it a bit afterwards, because I enjoyed so much the whole process, and I enjoyed so much the fact of staying with that film for so many years. I really did. The film was basically me during five years, because I went there three times before shooting it and we shot during two different summers, so I ended up spending so much time there; it became almost like a second home. So maybe I idealized the process and maybe it wasn’t that easy, but yes: I will always remember it as the most peaceful moment of writing I ever experienced.
Well, I think it’s your funniest movie.
That’s really unexpected. But I like that about movies, actually: that they often are the opposite of what you expect from them. Same when I did Things to Come, my film about a philosophy teacher who is alone—I thought that would be my darkest film when I did it. Everybody was telling me it was my funniest movie. Whereas when I did Eden, which I thought was going to be my funniest or most… it was a film about partying, about youth, the excitement about being part of the moment and everything, and it ended up being the film that people tell me is my most sad film. They’re often not where you expect them to be, and I think it’s good it’s this way.
I saw Eden seven years ago and it still haunts me. I worry it’s the story of my life.
I’ve heard that before.
Bergman Island was in development quite a long time and the film has been done for a while. Creatively, artistically, is there a sense of renewal? Or just turning a new page?
I don’t know. When I was shooting Bergman Island I felt that way. I really felt I was in a turning point because of what the film was about, which felt like some kind of achievement. “Achievement,” maybe, I don’t know if it’s the right word. But I felt I was at the end of something; I felt that the film was like the conclusion of whatever I had been working on since I started making films. I really felt that, strongly—that the film was the conclusion, the final moment of all the themes I had been working on. It felt, also, at the beginning of a new thing—a white page. I really enjoyed that feeling so much. Maybe that’s why I told you before about that pleasure I had to write the film. Maybe because I really felt this feeling of writing a new page of my work. It was a really nice feeling—like a rebirth.
I think it’s also thanks to the fact that, for the first time, I wasn’t writing a film that was only realist. Whereas all my previous films are telling stories in a very realist way. In this case I will move from fiction to reality freely; that was a very liberating feeling. But I have to confess: I have no idea if that means I am starting something new. It may just have been that film and maybe I’m just [Laughs] back to my previous things. I don’t know! I wrote a film since that I shot half of this spring, and I will shoot the second half this winter. You’ll see and you will find out if you think there’s something that has changed before and after Bergman Island.
But in terms of the theme… in a way my new film is like going back to my first feature, somehow. So I don’t know if there is really any progress or if you just stick to your own obsessions for your whole life, and sometimes something happens and you think you are on a new level—you’ve changed—and then you discover you haven’t changed at all and are still haunted by the same things.
Bergman Island opens in theaters on October 15 and digitally on October 22.