Roy Andersson: From Mordant Ad Director To Philosophical Filmmaker

Roy Andersson: From Mordant Ad Director To Philosophical Filmmaker

10:30am Jun 08, 2015
Andersson's new film, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, consists of a series of absurdist episodes. It opens with a man (Per Bergqvist) wandering a museum, looking at exhibits of stuffed birds.
Andersson's new film, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, consists of a series of absurdist episodes. It opens with a man (Per Bergqvist) wandering a museum, looking at exhibits of stuffed birds.
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
  • Andersson's new film, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, consists of a series of absurdist episodes. It opens with a man (Per Bergqvist) wandering a museum, looking at exhibits of stuffed birds.

    Andersson's new film, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, consists of a series of absurdist episodes. It opens with a man (Per Bergqvist) wandering a museum, looking at exhibits of stuffed birds.

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

  • Roy Andersson made hundreds of commercials — and they made him rich. He built his own movie studio in Stockholm and, in 2000, released a third feature that was partly financed by his ad work.

    Roy Andersson made hundreds of commercials — and they made him rich. He built his own movie studio in Stockholm and, in 2000, released a third feature that was partly financed by his ad work.

    Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Roy Andersson just might be one of the most interesting oddballs in the world of film. His Hollywood fan base includes high-class auteurs like the Wachowski siblings, Darren Aronofsky and Alejandro González Iñárritu — but he's best known in his native Sweden.

Back in 1970, Andersson's first film, A Swedish Love Story, took Europe by storm. He was only 26. "It was a fantastic time for me," he recalls. "However, I was not very happy after that. I was a little depressed. My second movie was a flop in all senses. A very, very big flop."

So Andersson stopped making movies and turned to commercials. It was a radical move for a young, lefty, European filmmaker, but he became one of Sweden's top commercial directors, famous for mordantly funny spots for deodorant, ketchup, cookware and cars — all while still retaining his socialist sensibilities.

"He's a devout humanist," says Ursula Lindqvist, a Gustavus Adolphus College professor who's written scholarly articles about Andersson. She says his ads are about people more than products, and points to a legendary political commercial Andersson made in 1985 for Sweden's oldest political party. At the time, a conservative party seemed poised to overturn the Social Democrats, known for their tradition of generous social welfare. The commercial shows people being just awful: A doctor and nurse rapaciously empty a patient's purse; people shove each other, slap hungry children; someone falls and everyone ignores him. Then, you simply see the words: "Why should we care about each other?" and the Social Democrats' party logo.

"That commercial has been studied a lot in Sweden and has often been attributed to tipping the scales in favor of the Social Democrats in that particular election," Lindqvist says.

Andersson made hundreds of commercials — and they made him rich. He built his own movie studio in Stockholm and, in 2000, he released his third feature 30 years after his first. Songs From the Second Floor was partly financed by Andersson's money from commercials, and it won a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It's a series of odd but compelling vignettes with a few recurring characters. It seems random, but there's a funny internal logic: Every scene looks like a painting magically come to life.

"He eliminates the editing entirely," Linqvist says. "There is no editing within a single shot. The camera does not move. And so it's our eye that has to move, has to roam around the picture."

Andersson demands we pay attention; he refuses to manipulate us with close-ups. And his filmic philosophy is also expressed through lighting. "I want to have light without mercy," he says. "There are no shadows to hide in. You are illuminated all the time. It makes you naked, the human beings — naked."

Lindqvist says Andersson also prefers to work with amateur actors: "He doesn't like to use professionals because he thinks that they can too easily hide the authenticity, the body language, the moment, the dialogue. It'll be too stylized, and he wants a more raw, honest kind of acting."

It's definitely not Hollywood's kind of acting, and his new film's title also defies Hollywood marketing. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence was partially inspired by 16th-century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Hunters in the Snow, in which you see birds looking down at our human foibles.

The film also came out of a moment when Andersson was struggling with his script at home. "Outside through the window, I saw ... a pigeon sitting on a branch. And I [thought]: Oh, maybe that pigeon also is battling with a problem with his script or his philosophy," he says, chuckling.

Andersson's humor feels as specifically Swedish as his references to his country's history and politics, but he says his films are about nothing less than loneliness, exclusion and intimacy — common human experiences. "People around the world are my homeland," he says. "My homeland is the globe, not only Sweden. I want to be universal."

A bird's-eye view through a Swedish lens.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Roy Andersson might be one of the most interesting people in film. His fans include many leading Hollywood filmmakers, but he's still best-known in his native Sweden. NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us more about an idiosyncratic director and his new movie.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Roy Andersson was only 26 years old when he directed a movie that took Europe by storm. He even got compared to the great Ingmar Bergman.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Swedish).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Swedish).

ULABY: Andersson's now in his 70s, but he remembers what it was like to be the next big thing.

ROY ANDERSSON: It was a fantastic time for me. However, I was not very happy after that. I was a little depressed. My second movie was a flop. In all senses it was a very, very big flop.

ULABY: Andersson stopped making movies completely. He started making commercials...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

ULABY: Radical for a lefty European director in the 1970s.

ANDERSSON: And I was accused - how can you make commercials?

ULABY: But Andersson became one of Sweden's top commercial directors while hanging onto a Swedish socialist sensibility. Professor Ursula Lindqvist has written a book about Roy Andersson.

URSULA LINDQVIST: He's a devout humanist, you could say.

ULABY: Andersson pumped out hundreds of commercials, about deodorant, ketchup, cookware and cars. But they were always about people, not products, says Lindqvist. She mentions a political commercial Andersson made in 1985. A conservative group seemed about to take over from the oldest party in Sweden - the Social Democrats, famous for generous social welfare.

LINDQVIST: So he made this commercial for the party called, "Why Should We Care About Each Other?"

ULABY: Of course, it's on YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD, "WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT EACH OTHER?")

ULABY: The commercial just shows people being awful to each other - shoving each other out of the way, slapping kids. Someone falls down in the subway and everyone rushes by, ignoring him. Then just the words, why should we care about each other and the Social Democrats Party logo.

LINDQVIST: That commercial has been studied a lot in Sweden and has often been attributed to tipping the scales in favor of the Social Democrats in that particular election.

ULABY: Lindqvist says Roy Andersson's commercials made him rich. He built his own movie studio in Stockholm and made "Songs From The Second Floor," from 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR")

ULABY: It won a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It's a series of odd but compelling little vignettes with a few recurring characters, like a pair of hapless guys tugging a ridiculously overloaded luggage cart through a train station. Imagine Laurel and Hardy written by Samuel Beckett. There's a funny internal logic, and every scene looks like a painting magically come to life. Ursula Lindqvist says that's because Andersson creates a scene, points his camera at it...

LINDQVIST: ...And he eliminates the editing entirely. There's no editing within a single shot. The camera does not move. And so it's our eye that has to move, has to roam around the picture.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking Swedish).

ULABY: And find, for example, the person having drama at the back of the bar, not up front. Andersson refuses to manipulate viewers with conventions like close-ups. You have to pay attention. He says he expresses his philosophy even through lighting.

ANDERSSON: I want to have light without mercy. There are no shadows to hide in. You're illuminated all the time. And it makes you naked. Yeah, the human beings - naked.

LINDQVIST: He uses all amateur actors in his films.

ULABY: Professor Ursula Lindqvist says Andersson and his philosophies are consistent.

LINDQVIST: He doesn't like to use professionals because he thinks that they can too easily hide the authenticity, the body language, the moment, the dialogue - that it'll be too stylized, and he wants a more raw, honest kind of acting.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing).

ULABY: Not a Hollywood kind of acting. And the new movie's title defies Hollywood marketing. It's called "A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence." Roy Andersson was partly inspired by a 16th-century Flemish painting where you see birds looking down on our human foibles. But he says it also comes from a moment when he was in his apartment struggling with his script.

ANDERSSON: Outside through the window, I saw at the same level a pigeon sitting on a branch. And I think, oh, maybe that pigeon also is battling with a problem, with his script or his philosophy (laughter).

ULABY: The humor feels as Swedish as Andersson's references to his country's history and politics. But Roy Andersson says his films are about nothing less than loneliness, exclusion, intimacy - common human experiences.

ANDERSSON: People around the world are my homeland, so to say. My homeland is the globe, not only Sweden. I want to be universal.

ULABY: A bird's eye view through a Swedish lens. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station