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A Unique Universe: An interview with Roy Andersson, István Borbás and Gergely Pálos

Roy Andersson’s films are unlike any other motion picture. The style he has created with his long-time cinematographer István Borbás is not only unique and easily recognisable but also gives the impression as if we saw a series of paintings while watching the screen. To find out more and have a greater picture of Roy Andersson’s style and his way of working, I have interviewed the Swedish director himself, his long-time collaborator István Borbás, and Gergely Pálos who has worked with Andersson on the film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

Sweden has a long tradition in film-making although there were times when one could name none or only a couple of film-makers who were able to cross borders and enter the circulation of international cinema. Today’s Swedish contemporary cinema, however, shows real diversity: Besides Roy Andersson, one of the most prominent figures of Swedish – and Scandinavian – cinema, new talents have emerged and introduced their art to the world in the past few years or maybe decades. Andersson, himself, has commented on this phenomenon, too.

Barbara: We could read a lot about Swedish films last year. Ruben Östlund won the Jury’s Prize in Cannes and your new film won in Venice. When I lived in Trollhättan and then in Gothenburg I came to realise that film had also become an important industry in Western Götaland (besides Stockholm) thanks to Film i Väst, Gothenburg Film Studios, ABF Media Lab – Göteborg and Akademin Valand, for instance. Both you and Ruben Östlund come from Gothenburg so I’m particularly interested in your opinion on Swedish films, (young) Swedish directors and the Swedish film industry.

Roy Andersson: I think Swedish cinema has been quite quiet for several years. Ruben is a fresh exception as well as some young female directors, such as Gabriela Pichler (Eat Sleep Die, 2012), have also emerged with their own way of personal expression. She’s studied at the same film school in Gothenburg as Ruben has. Anna Odell (The Reunion, 2013) is another young and interesting female director. It’s nice that nowadays young women have something new to offer.

Nevertheless, every time when Roy Andersson makes a new feature film he has also something new to offer. He started his career in 1970 with the film A Swedish Love Story, and the rest is already history. Andersson is certainly not a Woody Allen who releases a film every year seeing that nearly one decade can pass by between two of his pieces. It has to be mentioned that it takes quite a long time to shoot and produce his films, and in the meantime he also works on commercials. But even if one has to wait for years to see a new film by Andersson, we all know that the results will be something unique. Hungarian cinematographer Pálos Gergely has also elaborated on this, meanwhile he talked about the differences between Hungary and Sweden, and the films produced by these two countries.

How much did you know about the Swedish contemporary film art/film industry before you moved to Sweden? Did you do some research or did you want to gain personal experiences instead? Did you choose Roy Andersson’s studio, and if so why you wanted to work there?

Gergely Pálos: I saw one of Roy’s short films (World of Glory, 1991) that amazed me a lot, and then I watched the film Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and I was shocked. Besides these, I watched films by Lukas Moodysson but I knew more or less only the classics.

I really wanted to work in Roy’s studio because I had never seen anything like his films before. Cinematographer István Borbás was also very supportive so everything went easy.

You have told Origo [Hungarian news portal] that you are still learning Sweden, since the visual world of Swedish films is completely different. Could you add detail to this a little bit?

Gergely Pálos: Light and life are less dramatic here in Sweden. People have more self-awareness, they are calmer and this can be felt in the films as well. Everything happens more slowly, even the light changes very slowly. During summer the sun shines in a very low angle. The common Hungarian sunset, which lasts for 10 minutes, lasts for hours here. Or the nature, for example, looks very organised in Sweden and is very chaotic in Hungary.

The unique and easily recognisable visual world of Roy Andersson’s films was born as the result of Andersson and his long-time cinematographer István Borbás’s joint work. All started with a really short film that changed their lives and convinced them to keep on creating such motion pictures that operate with abstract, painting-like scenes, which focus on the environment instead of the individuals. Both Andersson and Borbás have shared with me some interesting facts, and they were also talking about their style.

You have been collaborating with István Borbás for 30 years, and another Hungarian cinematographer Gergely Pálos has also worked on the film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Some say that Hungarian cinematographers are especially talented, but I’m still wondering how you choose your team members.

Roy Andersson: My previous wife’s mother came from Hungary and I also met many Hungarians who moved here. This is how I got to know István Borbás and through István I eventually met Gergely. Both of them are very talented and, first and foremost, very serious. Hungarian still photographer André Kertész, one of the best ones, has been a significant source of inspiration for us.

You have been working with Roy Andersson for more than 30 years. How shall we imagine your collaboration?

István Borbás: Yes, we have been working together more than 30 years. One can say that the first films made in 1984 used those lights and cuts that characterize traditional films. The style of these works and the style of Roy’s first film, A Swedish Love Story, had a lot in common. Roy was really fed up with this style, and he was thinking of quitting filming. Then we were commissioned to shoot a film on the dangers of an egoistic society, which was crucial on the grounds that many politicians thought it was time to put an end to the welfare state. The film lasts about 90 sec and is available on YouTube entitled SAP 85.

It would have been impossible to make this film without strong abstraction. Here one can see for the first time that the space that surrounds the characters and, of course, us strongly determines our actions. It says a lot about our ambitions, opportunities and constraints. We coupled this with that soft, almost shadow-free light that we have been using ever since; this light has a character but isn’t based on effects, on the opposite, it bares the scene and enables us to interpret more freely. After the impact of the film it wasn’t so difficult to decide on continuing to work in this direction.

People – and society – lie always in focus in your films. We can find many films that show one part of the society, and many of them exemplify what kind of problems individuals might have. What do you think about the Swedish society? Do you think your films really present today’s Sweden?

Roy Andersson: I consider myself cosmopolitan, someone who has the whole world as his homeland. I’m from Gothenburg and my perception of the world is strongly influenced by my upbringing there. But even if one makes films with local tones, the result can be greatly universal. We, people, are very similar regardless of everything. My films are universal, I believe.

You have told Prizma [Hungarian cinematic journal]: “The scenes have their own lives in Roy’s films, they are not bound by narrative form, they can stand on their own, and that is why one can enjoy these images for several minutes as if they were paintings. We have been consistently working with this style since 1986.” It’s obvious that you have succeeded in it, however, do you think the (life) stories, the characters or something else is the reason that both the audience and the critics like your films? Do you intend to make these life stories universal or would you rather like to present the Swedish society?

István Borbás: Our films are neither always loved nor loved by everyone. We are accused a lot of working with Eastern European aesthetics, and value systems that have nothing to do with today’s reality. Still, despite all this it can be seen that most of the viewers remember the scenes and can talk a lot about their meanings. It might not characterize most of the films that have stories, but since we know most of the stories, only films with unexpected narrative solutions can draw our attention – at least – for a short period of time from reality under the pretext of entertainment. We are working against this, and thanks to the most accurate description of the most trivial scenes reality can really be interesting to everyone.

Trivial, ordinary situations can be meaningless if those are not separated from realism or naturalism. The accurately defined spaces and the archetypes of characters help us experience the effects of the permanent and true presence, and by watching our fellow human creatures acting we can be as impressed as when we see a lion completely concentrated on stalking a gazelle. Scenes are always determined by those social and philosophical issues that we are interested in at that time. Life situations considered typical come to existence while showing these problems and searching for solutions; everyone can understand so it really is a very democratic form. In short, it is not age-related, but the goal is to create scenes demonstrating basic human traits. So I think it can be considered universal rather than typical Scandinavian.

You have also told Prizma about the greatest challenges during filming so I’d be interested in hearing about your favourite scenes.

István Borbás: Each film has a scene after which one can think that it’s impossible to make something better. In Something Has Happened (1986) I find the so-called ice scene the strongest. The first and last scene of World of Glory (1991) are unquestionable for me. In Songs from the Second Floor (2000) there are more scenes I like but I consider the last one as the most accurate scene shooting outdoors. In You, the Living (2007 – when Gustaf Danielsson was the cinematographer not me) that scene when the apartment arrives at the station. This was a very old idea of Roy’s, we tried it during shooting Songs… but we didn’t manage to do it that time, but in this film this is one of the main scenes. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) is more polished and matured than the previous films, and therefore I consider more scenes important. If I really have to mention something, I would say two completely different scenes. One of them is the two-piece Carl XII, and the other one with the man and the woman in the window. The latter, I guess, is the most beautiful and simplest image I have ever created.

Andersson’s latest work A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is widely echoed to be the third part of a trilogy already consisting of Songs from the Second Floor and You, The Living. All three of them reflect upon the human condition and explore the scope of existence. While Andersson comments on the theme of the film, Pálos provides us with some knowledge of how the film was made.

You’ve stated in an interview regarding your latest film: “The motif is a couple of hunters who come home on the mountain with their target and look down towards a small village one can see from above, and above some birds are sitting on the tree. I saw them and was thinking of what the heck they are thinking. In fact, this is just a kind of description of ‘what are we doing actually’, so this is what the film is about.” Do you mean that people have lost control of their lives and we don’t know what we are doing?

Roy Andersson: Our time is characterized by deep disorientation, which we are trying to hide with the plethora of superficiality. The world is run – as an instrument – in the short term. We simply hinder us in taking long-term responsibilities.

You’ve said you are very satisfied with the results but I’m interested in hearing about the process. What was the greatest challenge during filming, for instance?

Roy Andersson: We didn’t work with the naturalistic style back then. We wanted it to be pure and densified. We call it the abstract expression. In order to become interesting it is required to be implemented this with precision, which takes much work and long time. The most important trait of a film-maker with ambition is patience.

What was the greatest challenge during filming?

Gergely Pálos: The lighting of the outdoor scenes as we shot them in the studio just like all the other scenes. It was really challenging to get a natural light which is also interesting. I have never had the chance before to work so long on the light until it becomes perfect.

Could you tell us about the shooting process?

Gergely Pálos: Every scene is based on Roy’s sketches. We do a rehearsal in the empty studio, sometimes with the team members or with the actors. We take or search for many photos of similar locations and the set designers make different kinds of montage out of these photo elements. After Roy chooses the set design, the construction work starts. During the building process we try different kinds of light before we find the right atmosphere of the scene. We also shoot tests with different actors/actresses, so each element – the set, the light and the scene – develops and gets ready together.

One word can really sum up all motion pictures directed by Roy Andersson and this would be perfection, which in this case also means that the director has full control of everything. Scholars and film critics tend to argue both the advantages and disadvantages of a film completely shot in a studio, in an artificial environment, and they also compare this method to filming in location actually. Both directions have its own charm and greatness, last year Venice preferred the former one so I’ve asked István Borbás about their success at the Venice Film Festival. His last sentence says a lot about (European) art film and the crew behind them.

You won the Golden Lion in Venice. Did you expect such success? What does success mean to you?

István Borbás: According to our distributor, during the press screening one could experience such ovation that had never occurred before, so we thought it would result in something good. After the premiere many people approached us to rave about the film, so it wasn’t so unexpected. The award means that international sales go well but this doesn’t mean huge amounts of money, European art films never recoup their production costs. So we can continue to work, since we are not capable of financing long holidays with these films, but it does feel good making them. •

Barbara is a Hungarian arts & culture journalist and editor working in the field for more than five years; she is currently the editor-in-chief at Hungarian design magazine Hype and Hyper. She took Film, Scandinavian and Communication Studies, and she mainly interviews film-makers, designers and musicians.

View the trailer for A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence:

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.