Master of a style that very much belongs to him and possibly no one else, Roy Andersson has been working in films, commercials, and shorts for decades. Only now, however, is the man getting his greatest exposure, thanks to the release of A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the third film of his “trilogy about being a human being” preceded by 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor and 2007’s You, the Living. Now with a strong campaign from Magnolia Pictures and the “presentation” of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Darren Aronofsky, he seems as ready as ever to capture a newcomer’s attention.
But, by his own admission, there’s only so much time left. Now 72 and slowed-down by certain physical restraints — when we talked, he requested a hard chair for his hip — the man who has massive, intricate sets built for his films can’t do quite as much. This doesn’t mean he’s less enthusiastic, though, and our talk will show he still has plenty to say about the shaping of these projects, how to earn money so that they can be made in the first place, and where this drive comes from. That, and his strange relationship with Ingmar Bergman.
The Film Stage: When you’re in a city such as New York, this huge metropolitan space, do you see it through the eyes of your camera? Big spaces, crowds of people.
Roy Andersson: Yes, yes, yes. I mean, I want to tell about existence, and existence contains so much — a lot of things. For instance, New York has so many people — it’s so huge — and is vital, also. But it’s hard to… I wonder if I had a plan, if I wanted to create something like New York. I think it’s hard to do that in the studio. [Laughs]
It’s well-known that you construct all of your sets, and Pigeon features a few of your most ambitious ones yet. Does that endeavor still intimidate you before starting a movie?
No, I’m not very often scared. Sometimes you lose your set confidence, sometimes, for a while. But I don’t start a project without having the feeling that this will be good. So it’s a question of work, it’s a question of time, it’s a question of financing, and it’s a question, also, of patience. Maybe that’s most important, to have patience — to rehearse and build-up. Actually, I do not always know. My instrument, when I work, is that I feel when it’s wrong. That’s my instrument. I feel when it’s wrong. So I can’t immediately say, “Yes, we should do so-and-so because that will be good.” We try and try, and when I see it’s wrong, we remake, destroy the set and build a new one. Now I’m my own producer, so I have the studio, and it’s a fantastic opportunity.
Has that instinct sharpened since Songs?
Yeah, yeah. That’s true. I’m more and more aware of how to do it and what I should avoid, and so on. Especially I have learned that if you’ve chosen the wrong actors, it’s no idea to go further with them. I have made that mistake sometimes. I choose the wrong actors and the whole movie was bad. [Laughs] So you are right. Step-for-step, you learn, and see what’s necessary to get some good result.
And you’re doing some new things here, at least in terms of structure. I was surprised how it’s laid out a bit more clearly – you have title cards, and even a flashback. Is the urge to do this recent?
I had all these scenes from the very beginning, but I didn’t know the order of them. I work, always, by starting with sketches. I put these sketches on the wall, at the studio, just to have my team understand what’s going on and how to build-up the sets, but the order is not decided from the beginning. The start scene, now, was not planned to be there — the couple visiting a museum. From the very beginning, I started with three encounters with death. But I felt, “No, there should be something before that.”
There’s also the use of robotics and CGI. Are you less comfortable with these tools than a physical set?
I’ve tried it before. In You, the Living, there’s a dog that’s hanging from a leash. That’s also a robot. It was made by very talented, young engineers. The monkey also — fantastic. And very expensive. [Laughs] Everything is moving — the eyes and the lips. I think it’s hard to see it is a robot. That’s good.
At last night’s screening, you said that, after two films made early in your career, you “had to go over to abstraction.” Do you look at your pre-Songs films with some distance, maybe wishing you’d done them differently?
People say there is a difference between the three, but it’s not so clear for me. Okay, I’ve changed the equipment and started to shoot differently, so that resulted in wider shots and even deeper focus, and clarity, a little more. Because, with film, you only get so much resolution, so I’m very happy that it’s finally there to switch over to digital shooting. I’m so happy with that. Otherwise I would do as the man with the pistol, with the gun, in the movie. [Makes motion of shooting self in head] [Laughs] Stop making movies.
And you’ve already started a new film: an Arabian Nights adaptation titled 1,001 Nights. You seem to be starting this quicker than your normal filmmaking pace.
Do you expect that this will be approached the same way as your other films?
Yeah. I think it’s hard to leave that style that I’ve found after many years. It’s taken a long time to develop this style, and it doesn’t function without precision. So I will keep that precision, actually, and I can’t imagine how I can start to cut again, to close-up. No, no. It’s impossible. Maybe I can start to move the camera a little, and even change light a little. Even reduce the make-up — a little. [Laughs] Because I have used very white faces.
It’s necessary, that whiteness, because characters in the movie are more universal. I refer, often, to the clown at the circus, that’s standing there, as an individual creation that’s also representing all the spectators at the circus. And especially the theater in Japan, when they play Shakespeare with white masks. [Puts hand over face] “To be, or not to be?” Behind a mask is a strong text. The strength increases behind that mask.
Have you wanted to do an adaptation for a while?
I have, for a long time, wished to make a movie from the French novel Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It’s a fantastic novel. So I tried to… I know that people are willing to support me, but, at my age, it’s so hard to make something. It will be made in three continents, with huge scenes with war, and the enslaved period in Africa, and the Detroit car factory. It’s also about that. We will see. If some person can help me raise the sum of money that’s necessary for doing it, I will do it.
When it comes to making films, do you think a lot about aging? Obviously, as you get older, you can’t do as much.
I’m aware that my capacity will decline, of course, year-for-year. Not in my mind, but physically. I’m a little more stiff, and because I’m so used to being so involved myself, physically, in the building of my sets. I think they have less of that power now. We’ll see. I have to go to a gym and train, and increase my strength. [Laughs] But that’s true. I’m not sure how many more movies I will be able to realize — but at least one more.
Is there a special feeling of relief that comes with finishing this trilogy, a relief greater than just ending a project?
Yeah. I’m happy, because the idea with the trilogy was not planned from the very beginning. It grew out, that idea. I’m so happy, because now, when we call it a trilogy — when people see this movie — people who see it will go, “Wow. I have to see them also!” So they are collaborated, these three. Trilogy is also a respectful formulation. It’s an epic, magic number, three. It’s seven, three, maybe also nine — magic figures. Trilogy is very good. I really like it.
All of these films have an anti-materialism, anti-commercial bent. And yet my introduction to your work was your commercials.
Ah. You saw the commercials first?
Years ago, on YouTube. A compilation that was sent to me.
Because your films have this character, do you still have affection for the work done in advertising? How much can it mean to you when you’re spending so much time on films with these angles?
Yeah. Actually… I had a bad period in my career. When I made my second movie, it was a flop. It was economically, the reviews… no, no. It was a catastrophe. Actually, I was ruined. But the only people that called me were people from advertising. They asked me, “Can you make a commercial for something.” It was for chocolate, a Finnish chocolate, and it was very successful. But I had also, earlier in my career — during the film-school period — there was a winter break, and I made my first commercial, and it won the Golden Lion.
Some years later, when the advertising people called me — because they knew I’d made a commercial during my film school — they asked me to do that for the chocolates. And they were very successful. Step-for-step, people called me, asking if I could make commercials for them also. As far as they were very effective and sold the products, I got free hands all the time. I was not totally free concerning the pay-off text. I had to swallow, to accept, sometimes very bad formulations; but the story, I was free to do. Now it’s a long time ago I made a commercial — almost four, five years — and I would say I can accept to go on with commercials.
But time has changed, so now there are so-bad commercials in Sweden, and the people that are dealing with that now — it’s another kind of people. It’s more financing people. When I made my best commercials, it was very artistic people that drew it. Now it’s businessmen, and… no, no, no. I don’t like it. So if I can avoid it, I will do it. And now I’m also more accepted with the features. Not only with Sweden, but I will get subsidies from a European foundation, a Swedish foundation, a French foundation. So now I think it will be very easy for me to finance a new one.
Do you see yourself continuing with short films, then?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But it’s very hard to finance a short film. It’s much harder than financing a feature. But we have, in Sweden, state subsidies. I can raise raise twelve-million Swedish kronas. That is approximately $1.2 million. Ten times less.
But you have your supporters, such as Aronofsky and Iñárritu. Can you tell me what the process was with them getting involved?
You know, they had passed Stockholm and shaken hands with me. Both of them were engaged in a festival in Stockholm. They knew about me, and also that I had a studio, so they called me and said, “Can we have a meeting? I want really to see the studio.” They came, and… yeah. They’re very nice persons. Especially Iñárritu; he was a very kind person. He was so curious. He noticed everything: what a good design, what a fantastic set. All details. He had a nose for that. So that was nice.
Are you moved by that show of support?
Nowadays. Step-for-step, I now feel I have more international support than in Sweden, and that’s very encouraging, and you feel you can go further — even without Sweden. It’s fantastic.
I’m interested in your history with Bergman, who you knew as a younger man. Would you be willing to share some of the impact he’s left on you — what you carry, as an artist, that he gave to you?
Yes. To be honest, I really… I think that he deserves his reputation. He’s made many movies — I think it’s over 50 — but not many of them are very good, I think. Maybe three or four. I don’t find myself related to his style, or temperament, or mentality. For me, he lacks a portion of humor — so he’s not humorous. [Laughs] In some of them, but not much. I’m more related to that humor that, for example, is in the Czech New Wave. That kind of humor is my cup of tea, also. Bergman, his battle with God — if God exists or not — for me, it’s not so interesting.
Because, actually, I’m atheist, myself. I have respect for Christianity and religion, actually, because there are some beautiful things formulated in the name of Christianity. Jesus preaching on the mountains: “You should do unto the other what you want them to do unto you,” for example. Fantastic formulation. Hopeful. But, however, Bergman… he had that kind of worries about how good God looked at him. I think that Bergman was afraid that God had no respect for him. That battle is strange, for me.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is now playing in New York.