Figurative and Abstract: An Interview with Roy Andersson

An interview with the Swedish director of "You, the Living."
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

There aren't many careers in the history of cinema quite like Roy Andersson's. Fresh out of film school, he had a major success with En kärlekshistoria (distributed as A Swedish Love Story in the US) in 1970. Too much success, maybe: producers wanted him to make sequels or at least to repeat the formula of the popular coming-of-age drama. Instead he took a break for five years, returning with the bleak Gilliap in 1975, a film whose financial and critical failure destroyed his prospects as a director. Looking for work, Andersson turned to television commercials, where he found both popular recognition and considerable creative freedom. He continues directing them to this day, and is said to have made close to 500. It's through these comic ads (most famously a series for an insurance company depicting slapstick mishaps) that he was able to refine his style and develop a following uncommon for a director in the business, counting Ingmar Bergman amongst his fans. In 2000, a quarter-of-a-century after Gilliap, Andersson returned with his third feature, Songs from the Second Floor, which won him the Jury Prize at Cannes.

Though You, the Living (currently playing at Film Forum in New York and expanding to other cities throughout the fall) is only his second feature this decade, Andersson works constantly, both on commercials and his feature projects (both Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living took several years to make, with one of the latter's sets—utilized in only two shots—taking two months to build). When I called him, he was out casting for his next movie, which has been described as a continuation of the themes of Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living (with which it will form a trilogy) but which he reveals in this interview will also mark a change in style.

If you're gonna talk to someone about their work, you shouldn't interrupt them working, so I asked if he'd rather we talked when he was done. Two hours later, he called me from his apartment. Andersson is very friendly, the sort of person you wouldn't mind working with for a few years. We discussed Vincent Van Gogh, the history of painting, the tragedy of the wide shot and his plans to shoot his next movie digitally.


NOTEBOOK: How did the casting go?

ROY ANDERSSON: Well, I'm planning a new feature. I'm examining different techniques.

NOTEBOOK: Different from the ones you've used in the last two?

ANDERSSON: Maybe I will shoot it digitally. I've made three commercials digitally. I used the Red camera. I think we got very good results. I'm planning, and also working on the script at the same time.

NOTEBOOK: Do you come up with ideas first, and then plan how to shoot them?

ANDERSSON: It's a mixture. I have 50% of the script finished. And as usual I don't have a complete script, because I like to have some "white pages," so to say.

NOTEBOOK: You have an unusual history in that you had a long time to hone your style in commercials before you made your third feature, Songs from the Second Floor. Are you now trying out new ideas in your commercials, or is it a question of the agencies or the businesses you're representing that are pushing you in new directions?

ANDERSSON: No, they're not leading me—I lead them! I've suggested a style and some solutions to them. They accepted, we made the commercials, and they were very successful.

NOTEBOOK: One of the things I wanted to talk to you about is something that's often said about you—that you draw a lot from painting and theatre. Would you say that's true?

ANDERSSON: My most important source of inspiration is painting and its history, and photo history as well. I'm very fond of all periods in art history, though there are some periods that I appreciate more. For example, expressionism. Expressionism, you have that word in English, right? Expressionism—especially the expressionism they had in Germany between the two World Wars. And of course you could say even Van Gogh is an expressionist.

NOTEBOOK: Do you prefer the earlier or the later Van Gogh?

ANDERSSON: He kept his style constant through his life, but at the end he was more abstract. More brutal in his colors.

NOTEBOOK: Do you admire that brutality?

ANDERSSON: Nowadays I prefer lighting without shadows. There should not be a possibility for people to hide. They should be seen. They should be illuminated all the time. That's what I mean when I say "light without mercy." You make the people, the human beings in the movie, very naked.

NOTEBOOK: Yes, and at the same time, it's not cruel. There's a difference between being "without mercy" and being cruel.

ANDERSSON: I hope so! Even in cartoons, there is a light. Cartoons often have a light without shadows. That's what I like. The individuals in the frames, they are very, very naked, without any defense. There are no shadows.

NOTEBOOK: Very true. The reason I asked about which period of Van Gogh you prefer is because I often think, in relation to the actors you cast, of his peasants and their faces.

ANDERSSON: Yes! And I like the simple motifs he had. For example, a haystack in a field—only a haystack. It's amazing to make a picture of a haystack so interesting. Or the field with the crows. In the background is a very heavy sky. Some crows are flying over the field. And it is so expressive and so interesting.

NOTEBOOK: We have a very romantic view of his life. But so much of his work came out of these simple projects—like when he painted the Roulin family, and painted every family member, or the two portraits of Dr. Gachet and the decorations for the Yellow House. There's something really beautiful about an artist being able to express themselves through such basic subjects. That's part of the beauty of painting—which kind of brings us back to your commercials again. Before the 20th century, before we really had this idea of "artists," painters did 90% of their work on commission. As a person who thinks about painting, do you also think about painters, and how they worked?

ANDERSSON: What's interesting is that, throughout art history, most paintings are commissioned works. But they could be so artistic, completely without the influence of the clients. You feel that they're very, very free, in spite of the fact that they were done for money.

NOTEBOOK: To change the subject a little—do you have any interest in theatre?

ANDERSSON: I do. I tried it once. The student theater in my university town. I wrote a comedy. I acted in it myself, too. Many years later, I directed a play: Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. But I must say that theatre is not my cup of tea, so to speak. Though I like some plays very much. For example, O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. And even, of course, Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Those are my favorites.

NOTEBOOK: Can we talk a little about your actors? I've heard that you have a very specific casting process.

ANDERSSON: I spend a lot of time and energy finding the most fitting characters for the scenes. I want to use common, ordinary people, not "VIPs." The dialogue is written first, but when I meet the actors, I may re-write it. I am ready to change the dialogue a little to better fit the person. I can rehearse ten or twenty times. Twenty times we'll meet. I work a lot with them. Often the dialogue is very, very simple, just a few words, so it's very important that the dialogue is expressed properly.

NOTEBOOK: You went to film school. Your early shorts and your first feature show the influence of other movies that were being made at the time. It seems that since your second one, Giliap, you've drifted towards other influences—often outside of cinema.

ANDERSSON: I couldn't find the so-called "realism" or "naturalism" interesting any longer. My first movie, Swedish Love Story—it was good, I think. It's very good for that style. It has good acting, and it's very spiritual and very impressive. But I felt that I couldn't go further with that style. So with Giliap I started the process of finding the style I'm at now. More abstract, more planned. More abstract visually. Even in art, I've become closer to abstract painting. I haven't gone to the non-figurative. I like it both figurative and abstract. All of these things you and I talking about now—expressionism, impressionism, simplicity—I think that, within us, we have all of these things. My abstract side was always there. After having passed naturalism and realism, I found that side of myself. I used it to condense and purify and simplify the scenes.

NOTEBOOK: In trying to find that side, did you look at other films?

ANDERSSON: I was influenced by art, but also some movies. Federico Fellini's Amarcord and And the Ship Sails On. Actually, I saw Amarcord again the other day, and I feel that it's a little too much. Personally, I want to be more restricted. Abstract, but restricted. Not too obvious or clear. I want the spectator to be a little unsure. He or she has to see it again.

NOTEBOOK: That sounds like a very good box office strategy.

ANDERSSON: [laughing] I hope so. The audience should not find control over what they've seen. They should not feel comfortable. Well, they should be comfortable in the sense that it should be nice for them to sit and watch the movie, but they should not be very sure of what it's about. Is it humorous or tragic? In my opinion, in my films a larger portion is comedy than tragedy. [laughing] But I know that many people think the contrary. I prefer comedy, but not a comedy that very easily read. As I said before, you shouldn't be too comfortable or sure of where you are. But of course the comic side of our existence is greater than the tragic side. There's more comedy than tragedy in life. But it depends on how you see it.

Above: Andersson (blue shirt, right) shooting You, the Living.

NOTEBOOK: Chaplin said, "Life is a tragedy in close-up, but a comedy in wide shot."

ANDERSSON: I'm not sure than I agree with that. I think that the wide shot tells a lot about the human being that a close-up can't. About their place in the world. The wide shot defines the human being more than the close-up because, for example, the room where the person is tells about his tastes, his life. Even if it's not home, you can read the history of a person better in a wide shot. When you read this wide shot, there are so many elements that make the picture more tragic. Do you follow me?

NOTEBOOK: Do you mean that the tragic aspect of your films is more a question of the settings than the action?

ANDERSSON: Yes. And I think you get more of the person in a wide shot.

NOTEBOOK: That's true. There is a sense in close-ups that you're cutting up a person—that you're turning them into just a hand or a shoulder or a foot. The close-up of the face is supposedly where we should go to see "personality," but in the wide shot, you get more of a sense of the body and how they hold themselves, maybe more of their personality.

ANDERSSON: I think television brought more close-ups. There was a change in the 1950s when people, when they made movies, knew that in the future, the movies would be shown on TV. They changed their style. It was an important change in the visual style of films.

NOTEBOOK: But if they changed, I think they based it on an incorrect assumption. Wide shots look very good on a television screen. You see more of the design of the image, the master plan, when it's miniaturized. Obviously your commercials are all made for TV, but your films work very well on video.

ANDERSSON: I'm always surprised that they work so well. It'll be even better in the future, when we have so-called high-definition. A lot of my commercials are made to play in cinemas. I'm surprised now when I put them over to HD how good they look. I'm happy that in the future, my work will be much better shown than it was before, because of this technical development. With the Red camera, I must say that you can make whatever you want. You get such a good picture in the beginning that in post-production you can get whatever you want. But I think on the other hand that the Red is not the only equipment you can use nowadays. There are many new systems coming out—from Canon, Sony. We'll see a lot of change in the future.

NOTEBOOK: We're seeing a lot of it right now. Have you seen any of the movies that Steven Soderbergh has shot with the Red, like Che?


NOTEBOOK: He got a prototype of the Red One to shoot the movie, and he's shot two more since then with the camera. He works very quickly. It looks very crisp, but the colors are very different from film stock. The palette is very different. Almost expressionist.

ANDERSSON: As I said, you have so many possibilities to get whatever you want, with just the basic stuff that you get from the Red camera.

NOTEBOOK: Since you'll be editing the next film digitally, I was wondering whether, having also edited You, the Living digitally, you did any color correction.

ANDERSSON: We scanned the 35mm negative without any manipulation. We designed the film in those colors. We planned the style and the lighting and the color before we shot. We have not manipulated the stock afterwards.

NOTEBOOK: Do you plan on manipulating the colors on your digital movie?

ANDERSSON: Yes, actually. I will not reveal how yet, but I will. It will be different.

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