Friday, June 5, 2015

Interview: Roy Andersson on Being Human

Roy Andersson, arguably one of the most singular voices in cinema and widely regarded as one who godfarthered that droll, deadpan 'Scandinavian Humor', has a new film out in 8 years and it's titled, A Pigeon Sat on A Branch Reflecting on Existence. If you are an Andersson fan like me, who's been waiting for 15 years for the conclusion of his 'Human Trilogy', you won't be disappointed. For the film's two week engagement at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema here in New York City, the legendary Swedish director is in town and I was lucky to snag an interview.

In person, Andersson is nothing like the sad sack characters in his films. He is warm, extremely friendly and full of laughs. I really treasure those twenty minutes being with him.

*Andersson will be on hand for Q & A sessions for selected shows. Please check Film Forum website.

It took you 15 years to do 3 films. Why is it taking so long for you to make a film?

If it's any consolation, you can expect my new movie in 3 years.


Maybe 3 and a half.  This time I don't need a pause. Between those, I needed to pause. Obviously I don't need 7 years for production, but 3 and a half seems doable. Between those I do other things.  So the new one will be coming out in 2018. I hope, anyway.

Would it be something quite different than the three films we've seen?

Of course, the audience wants a surprise. But it is hard. It's taken a long time to cultivate that style so it's hard for me to find something better. I won't change it until I am sure that I can do something that is actually better. Maybe it will be wilder. More... whump, whump (pumps his fist in the air), surprising. (laughs)

The title of your new film: A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE.  How did you come up with that?

It was actually very simple. I was looking at some Flemish paintings of the 17th century.


Yeah. He always depicted daily lives of regular people in the village you know. It's always in every one of his paintings depicting outdoor scenes, that there is a bird sitting in a tree, looking down, observing whatever people are doing, perhaps wondering about their lives. Bruegel painted crows. I just changed it to pigeon. (laughs)

You've influenced a generation of filmmakers with your distinctive style and deadpan humor. Recently I had a chance to ask Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure) who takes a lot of element from your style, about your influence. He said that his generation grew up with watching your commercials and that you are more influential to a lot of people than Ingmar Bergman ever was. What do you think of these imitators?

It's OK to copy me. I've known people imitating my style, especially in commercials. Many people still come up to me and say, "I saw your new commercial." And it turns out that it is not by me. (laughs)

It's just not good enough in my eyes. They might have copied it very well, but its quality is not the same.

Obviously you have a very distinctive style. The look of your films remind me of great many painters from Bruegel, Goya to Ed Hopper. Are paintings where you draw your inspirations from?

From daily life, first and foremost, of course. I do get it from paintings, photographs and even films. But painting I should say is number one source. I wanted to be a painter when I was young. Well, I wanted to be many things- a musician, author and painter. It's good with film making because it combines all those elements and I'm happy to have found that as my profession.

What's fascinating about painting is that you can spend hours looking at them. But there are so few movie frames which have that quality.

Who are some of the painters that you like and draw inspirations from?

The last time I felt a kinship with the paintings was when I was looking at Otto Dix's painting. He works are very very special to me. Also George Grosz- same period as Dix, in Weimar era Germany. These guys were in WW1. They saw many terrible things in that war and it influenced their grotesque style. It's called Neue Sachlichkeit, the New Objectivity. What comes out of that is not only satire but the use of deep focus. I really hate to lose deep focus in my films. I want to have deep focus as far as I can get.

But now, today, the young generation of filmmakers, they seem to avoid using deep focus. They diffuse the background use shallow focus. It depends on not having enough money or not being patient enough. But I guess it cost a lot of money to afford what I do.

From WORLD OF GLORY to PIGEON's segment on 'The Weeping Machine'- heinous musical instrument, you are very critical of people's apathy and conformity. Do you still think people are capable of those things?

That scene is from real history. It was not a machine but a Roman emperor in 300 A.D. who constructed something called the Brazen Bull. It was a torture and executing device made out of bronze in the shape of a bull. You put the people there and set fire under it. Their cries would transform into music.

The scene is a metaphor for how people have been cruel to each other throughout history. It's also about exploitation. Nowadays you don't put fire under people but you exploit them brutally to death in economical means.

Your films are full of pale, ugly people. But you always portray young people as full of hope ever since your first film, SWEDISH LOVE STORY. Are you an optimistic person?

I hope I am optimistic. (laughs) I want to be optimistic. But I can't accept where the world is heading. I can't accept this brutal attitude toward other people, toward poor people, exploiting nature, exploiting other human beings. It's impossible to run the world like that and expect the future to be bright. All these problems we see now are the direct result of the shortsightedness. They plan for immediate profit and the results are unhappiness for both exploiters and exploited.

The saddest sight I can think of is a ninety- year old billionaire. Now, that's sad. (laughs)

Just like in Pigeon. The old man holding a gun in his grand office alone, telling he's OK on the phone.

Good that you noticed a gun. (laughs)

One scene that was really funny was 'Limping Lotta of Göthenberg'. What's the origin of that story?

It's based on a true story and it's also little bit of a myth. There were signs that she literally existed and ran a restaurant during war time. It was long before my time though. The song they sing has been popular for a long time. I remember as a child singing that song.  It goes, "ten cents for a shot and if you have no money you can pay with a kiss." I found the story very beautiful. It was during WW2 and soldiers didn't have money. I find Lotta very generous.  (laughs) That's why I included that scene.

The world you create in your films is so specific. It feels like it's suspended in time. Where is that coming from?

After I left realism, I was happy to find what I call abstracted, purified and condensed style. I regard myself as a universalist. I wanted to create universality, the timelessness in my films. So the challenge was how to show the timelessness?

For me it was growing up in the fifties in Sweden, when we created a, so-called Welfare Society. They built all these buildings for people with special colors in a special architecture. And that's my timelessness, roughly. I don't like people saying, "Oh, that's Sweden in the 50s." I want to say it's timeless. It's the same way that cartoons can be timeless and universal.

Do your films get better receptions from older audiences or younger ones?

It's strange. But younger people responds more to my films than older ones. It seems every time I come out with a new movie, I gain new set of young audiences.