‘It Has Changed My Whole Life’: In Conversation with Swedish Screenwriter Ronnie Sandahl

Cinema Scandinavia has the lovely opportunity to do an interview with Ronnie Sandahl, the screenwriter behind the international hit Borg vs. McEnroe. He has taken the time to talk to us a little bit about the process of writing the script and how the film has even persuaded Hollywood to pay attention.

How were you first introduced to the project?

– It started with a meeting I had with Fredrik Wikström Nicastro (SVP International Production at SF Bio). During this meeting I told him that I had been thinking about writing a different kind of sports film than what has been done before, then Fredrik suggested that it would be possible to then make a movie about Björn Borg. I am pretty much allergic to the whole “from the cradle to the grave” biopic so I told him that I would go and do some research, to watch and read everything that there was about Borg and see I could find something there that could spark an idea for an interesting film about him. But I really liked the idea about the tennis aspect of it from the start, since it’s a very cinematic sport.

There aren’t that many movies about tennis in general out there. The only one I can remember right now is Wimbledon (Richard Loncraine 2004), and that was all about fictional players…

– Exactly! And it’s not very good either, playing tennis just doesn’t look believable in it. No earlier film has really captured how tennis is actually played. I have played a lot of tennis myself and I have a pretty good knowledge of the rivalry between Björn Borg and John McEnroe, and I thought if I can find a way to portray that rivalry and just how odd it was, then I can write a sports film that nobody has really seen before.

By saying that it was odd, do you also mean that their rivalry was very intense?

– It is incredibly intense in the way that they were both really similar, despite everything. I was very fascinated by the idea that you have two people that the whole world insists are each others’ opposites, but the more they are thrown at each other, the more they have to realize that they are almost the same person. For me, I realized how the film was going to turn out when I realised it was a story about rage, about two young men with two different ways of coping with that emotion, and how they channelled it through tennis: one by not showing any emotion at all, and the other by showing everything. Two different ways of coping based on very different upbringings in two separate societies: the social-democratic Sweden and the Reagan-influenced USA. That somehow results in both of them having a difficult time coping with both rage and the fear of losing.

Ronnie Sandahl

Was McEnroe always such a big part of the screenplay?

– Yes, he was. I decided early on that it was going to be about those two and not just Borg. Then Borg’s part grew because he’s the character who makes the biggest emotional journey throughout the film. It is him who has a crucial insight into his own life and career. There was always the idea of making an existential, character-driven film dressed up as a sports film.

There are usually two options when making a film about a real person: either make it more like a documentary that holds itself strictly to the facts, or you make it more about the individual characters and the meeting of different personalities. This film seems to follow the latter option.

– Yes, if you make a feature film about people that live here and now, then you also have a responsibility to try and capture the poetry of reality. I can’t fabricate much from my own imagination, instead, I have to move inside the borders of the reality of their two lives. Then, of course, there is an element of poetic licence in some scenes, but those, in turn, have to somehow be true to the people it is about.

I was thinking about the first scene of the film when Borg leans over the balcony railing of his motel room in Monaco where it almost seems as if he is contemplating death. What made you start the movie with that scene?

– That scene has always been in the screenplay, and, of course, I cannot know if he truly did that in real life, but it is one of those scenes that work metaphorically – a man alone on the top, who is standing at crossroads in his life. I actually didn’t start writing the screenplay until I had that scene in mind.

It really does set the tone for the film…

– That scene was very important to the film. So much so that they actually filmed it in Monaco, to get it right. The film crew spent a lot of time on that scene, and I think that everyone involved understood how important it was.

Did you speak directly with Borg or McEnroe as part of your research for the film?

– The problem is that I can never meet Borg or McEnroe, as they were big in 1980, which is why I made the choice to go on everything that has been documented from that time. And there is a lot of material there to turn to. There are a great number of books, a lot has been written down in the form of interviews and there are also TV clips from that era. There is a diary that I got my hands on that Björn’s then-fiancé wrote, so I had a pretty good picture of that time period. Then I also wanted to see if there was enough material there to make a feature film before actually contacting them in real life. I didn’t know for sure until I had finished writing the first version of the screenplay. Then after that was done, they got to look at it and became informed about the film.

Were there any challenges with the screenplay, due to the fact that it’s about real people rather than fiction?

– Yes, the biggest difficulty, I guess, was the structure. It is a very complicated one because it is about two separate characters with many flashbacks to their different childhoods. It took a long time for me to crack the code of how to tell the story properly – flashback structures are complicated to work with. What I often think goes wrong with that idea is when you cut back to interesting episodes in a person’s life, and in this case, that way wouldn’t have worked. I was very careful to make sure that flashbacks and the present time together told a story of two lonely people coping with rage. Every flashback is dramatically tied to the story. I thought a lot about the story for about two years before I wrote it down.

So are there no earlier ‘scrapped’ versions of the story?

– Well, I am pretty good at visualising the text, I can feel how the story is going to play out and wait until I really know what I’m doing. Some screenwriters pour everything out at once, while some do it over about a thousand times. The way I work is that I come up with an idea, keep quiet about it for about a year or two where I think it over, then I know for sure what it is that I’m going to do. For me it’s a matter of timing, it’s like keeping a secret for several years until the right time.

I can imagine that writing process makes the story more potent for the writer.

– That’s how I try to make it work. It’s a method that works for me right now – and in this case, it came naturally since I was busy directing Svenskjävel (English title: Underdog) in-between projects.

 

Are you a sports fanatic in real life?

– Yes, I am pretty interested – and I think that the sports film is a very underdeveloped genre, even though there are very interesting and good possibilities there for character-driven dramas. The world of sports is interesting, and it is exciting with characters who go beyond all boundaries to get what they want. That fascinates me.

I agree it’s pretty rare to see that aspect of sport in a film. It’s usually from an outside perspective rather than in a private sphere…

– Isn’t it? For example, there was an Italian review recently that likened Borg vs. McEnroe to the movie Rush (Ron Howard, 2013), which is about racing, and there you can see the differences between them. Rush is more of an action film and Borg is more of a drama. I am not very fond of action/sports films, it’s not really my thing.

Was it a different experience writing Borg vs. McEnroe than with your earlier films like Underdog?

– Yes, it was different. When making Underdog, I was pretty tired and pretty tired of being alone, as you often are as a director. You have to pull the project forward for many years by yourself. That was when I decided, as a present to myself, to write whatever I wanted and give the screenplay to another director. The first thing I wrote after was Borg vs. McEnroe actually. It’s been so strange that it has changed my whole my life. It was kind of strange how it came about from the fact that it was completely different from how I worked before. I’ve always tried to tone it down in my scripts before that I am a literary author because I don’t want people to think “oh, a goddamn author is going to direct”.

Was there a lot more freedom in your writing for this project?

– Yes, much more, and it’s interesting how that turned the screenplay into the international breakthrough film as now it is.

And finally, please tell us a little bit about what you are working on now and for the future.

– I am working on a lot of stuff. I have for example written a British war thriller that is going to be filmed next year, and then I have this idea about making three films about sports of different kinds. The first one was about tennis, the next one is going to be about soccer, which I will direct myself, and the third one is going to be about gymnastics. I have just recently signed a contract for that one for an American production.