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Socks, Scope and 35mm Projection: Mia Hansen-Løve on Bergman Island

Mia Wasikowska in Bergman Island

in Directors, Interviews, Screenwriters
on Oct 13, 2021

Filmmaking couple Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth) arrive at Fårö Island to begin a real-life residency for artists who wish to work in Ingmar Bergman’s former home. “All this calm and perfection, I find it oppressive,” she says; “soothing,” he counters. Mia Hansen-Løve’s seventh feature, Bergman Island, sets up a number of binaries, most directly in the film’s bifurcated structure: the first half is a third-person POV of Chris and Tony’s time on the island, the second a film-within-a-film of the project Chris is writing and recapitulating for Tony. (For schedule availability reasons, the second half was shot first, while the first was shot a year later.) Her voiceover guides the footage along as it echoes and transmutes the first half’s low-key marital strife into a sublimated variation depicting a doomed, off-/on- affair between Amy (Mia Wasikowska) and Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lee). Here, it’s obligatory to note that Bergman Island, at least in broad strokes, is widely acknowledged to draw upon the end of Hansen-Løve’s relationship with Olivier Assayas—as with all her features, she starts from something in her own life, then traces layers on top of it. In that sense, Bergman Island serves as a metaphor for her body of work as a whole.

More binaries: Chris struggles to get rolling on her sketchily outlined feature, snooping on Tony’s voluminous, handwritten notebook where he journals out his thoughts. (The pages are impossibly tightly-written and give no guidance where to look; the words “Vertigo” and “woman as salvation” popped out at me.) Tony’s script is already fully drafted, as shown in a shot in which a desktop printer groans into action and starts slowly printing it out in reverse order from page 110. He’s an all-in acolyte whose own films are being shown as part of Bergman week, she’s respectful but agnostic; given the chance to screen one of his films in 35mm on the island, she expresses a desire for “at least a nice one.” “There’s no such thing,” he replies (taking both Smiles of a Summer Night and The Magic Flute off the table). He goes on the “Bergman Safari,” a bus tour of locations Bergman shot at on his home island, where Tony’s fellow pilgrims include a woman smiling knitting socks without missing a beat; Chris skips it, instead taking an ambiguously charged drive around Fårö with filmmaker Hampus (Hampus Nordensen).

By her own account, Hansen-Løve is a huge Bergman fan, but enjoying his work isn’t necessary for Bergman Island. Knowledge of it certainly helps (there’s a certain Ready Player Bergman quality to the level of citational detail), but the emotional dynamics and tightly edited pleasures are characteristically and gratifyingly Hansen-Løve’s own. Bergman Island opens this Friday from IFC Films.

Filmmaker: You talk a bit in the press kit about this being only the second time you’ve shot scope after Eden, and the reason for doing it being because Bergman didn’t do it, which gave you a fresh perspective on the island. But I’m also curious about if there was anything technically that was different or surprising to you about shooting scope on 35 millimeter, since you shot Eden digitally.

Hansen-Løve: Eden was the only film I didn’t shoot on film. I had to do this, there was no other way. It would have been too expensive: we were going to [shoot] long takes while filming the music, and I needed to have no limit in terms of footage. It was really an economic matter, so, I [did] my best to love that format. But, to me, film has always been the obvious choice—it’s just an extension of my language. I could never get used to the idea of filming on digital, I just don’t like it. It’s not a problem for me when I watch films as a spectator: I don’t even know most of the time what the format is and I don’t look at them that way. But, as a director, it’s really part of my language. I need the texture of film to have the feeling that I’m getting the beauty I’m trying to reach—in all of my films, I’m trying to capture some kind of light and movement that only film captures.

For Bergman Island, there was never an option for me to not film on film, but I thought I would film in 1:85. When I came to the island with Denis at first to prepare, there was no way for me to film scope. But our experience on the island—watching the island, discovering it, wondering how we were going to film it—progressively led to wanting to film scope because it would be more faithful to my vision of the island. What I mean is, it wasn’t a decision I made beforehand. It was the result of my observation of the island, of its light, of its space, of its atmosphere that made me want to film in scope. And I [didn’t think that] because Bergman didn’t do it, I wanted to do it. It’s just that I noticed that Bergman didn’t do it. He never filmed in scope. I thought, “Oh, that would be part of how to film the island in a different way.”

Filmmaker: There’s two other elements involving film that I’m curious about: the print of Cries and Whispers that they watch in the screening room, and also the film that Tim Roth’s character has made. I’m curious about filming the Bergman print off the screen, and the visual language of Tim’s film is very different from your usual visual language.

Hansen-Løve: The screenings in 35 in Fårö happen only once a year, during the Bergman week. The prints do not stay in Fårö because it’s too humid, so they have to be preserved in Stockholm. Cries and Whispers, we used the real 35 copy—it wasn’t easy to get for some reason. You can see the dirt and everything. It’s an old copy. It was very moving, actually, maybe where I was the most close to crying when I was filming—to film the film being screened, but maybe even more than that, to film the projectionist [Magnus Almqvist]. He’s always been there since I’ve been traveling to Fårö. He’s the only one able to project these films on 35. Apart from being a projectionist, he’s a tramway driver in Stockholm, and he comes only once a year to screen [the] films because he’s the only guy who knows how to do it. He’s been doing this for 10 or 15 years. He’s so authentic. I’m not even sure he watched any of Bergman’s films, really (laughs). I guess why it moves me is because it’s the kind of job that has disappeared and incarnates all the past world somehow. 

We had so much fun doing the filming of Tim[’s] movie. My DP Denis Lenoir, before becoming a DP of my films, was the DP of Olivier Assayas. So, when we made that film, we filmed the scene (we shot on Gotland, close to Faro) a little bit like Olivier would have filmed one of his films in the ’90s: handheld, a certain atmosphere, certain kinds of shots very different [from] the ones that I’m doing. Also, what we did that was the idea of Denis: when you develop film, you have to go through different stages. If you skip one of them, the [bleach bypass], you get an image with less colors that’s closer to black and white. So, we did that in order to give that texture that’s closer to what Olivier Assayas would do in the 90s.

Filmmaker: Is that also shot on film?

Hansen-Løve: Yes. Everything was shot on film.

Filmmaker: And did you project it in the theater on film? Did you actually print it out?

Hansen-Løve: No. We filmed the screen with nothing, then incorporated the little scene [via] green screen, basically.

Filmmaker: In terms of the gap—shooting the second part first, having the year off and then shooting the first part—did you already cut the second part to some extent before you started shooting the first part? Or did you do it all after you were done with it?

Hansen-Løve: No, I cut it all before, which is a little bit like torture—you know, to have a first cut of half the film with holes everywhere. Actually, I’m going through the same process now—not on purpose, but I just shot half of another film, so I am into the same kind of thing. But Bergman Island was supposed to be very simple—just one set, one time. But I had to stay with half of the film [for] a year. I cannot say I enjoyed that: it’s impossible to really know what the film will be like, to really be sure of yourself, when you have only half the footage. But in some ways it was quite helpful, because then I knew exactly where I wanted the previous scene to stop, how the scene that I edited would stop, information that was interesting in order to decide how I was going to film each shot the next year. The script never really changed, but there was a maturation that was possible thanks to that time I had to wait. Also, I had a lot of time, and I do think shooting is about time. That’s why I’ve never wanted to make a TV series, at least [not yet], because this matter of time is crucial to me and I’m really convinced that time is the key thing—at least it is for me.

Filmmaker: Did you show that second part to Vicky and Tim before they started shooting their part?

Hansen-Løve: No, they didn’t ask me, and I’m glad they didn’t. I wouldn’t have liked to show them something that’s unfinished. I showed it to my producer, because it made sense to show it to him, but even that felt very uncomfortable.

Filmmaker: I’d like to ask about some of the objects in the film, specifically Tim’s notebook and the script. With the notebook, it looks like somebody has sat there and really written this. Every page is covered with words, and there’s no guidance for which words your eye should land on. There’s a lot of them and they’re all equally clear. So, I’m wondering: who actually had to sit there and write all that down? 

Hansen-Løve: I was convinced it would make a difference if we feel that the notebook actually exists and it’s not just one or two pages. So, we were looking for a real script [and] used a script in English, free from rights. I created some of the [notebook] pages. I used an article that somebody I know had written on Bergman. So, it was a mixture of different things that made that notebook, but we really created it from the first to the last page. When I said the fact that I had more time helped in some ways, that’s a good example—it really took a lot of time to create that notebook. There was this one guy I love who worked on it: he created the specific writing and also did all the drawings. He would do a lot of drawings, and I would choose them, and which ones I wanted to show, and how and which order and everything. 

Filmmaker: I also wanted to ask about one of my favorite background players in the movie, the woman who’s knitting throughout the tour.

Hansen-Løve: It’s so nice that we are talking about objects, because I’m very interested in objects in film. That started [when] I made Father of My Children, when I started filming posters and boxes of film and notebooks. I got very interested in how to film objects as a way to convey invisible things, the union they make between the material and the soul. Since then, I’ve been really interested in how to film objects and use the meaning of that in my films.

So: the lady knitting, I love her. When I did the Bergman safaris, there were actually two or three of them knitting at the same time. That was part of the picturesque [aspect] of the whole thing. So, when I was going to direct my own Bergman safari for the film, I wanted to find these ladies. We found them, and they knitted for real. It was very funny—well, funny and difficult for the script supervisor, because they knit a lot, and quick, so it means the socks they are knitting are going to become bigger and bigger. So, you cannot change the order of the scenes—well, you can, actually, because very few people will notice—but if you change the order, the scene will start with the big sock and then the smaller one. It’s funny you mentioning it, because I just received an email from somebody from Gotland as they were screening the film [there], who told me I was going to receive socks by mail from this lady, who saw the film and had kept the socks that she was knitting while we were shooting.

Filmmaker: This is my last question, so I’m using that to ask about the use of ABBA. Sometimes there are ways that songs, at very crucial moments in your work, directly comment upon the text. In Things to Come there’s the use of Donovan’s “Deep Peace” at a strategic moment. Here, the lyrics of “The Winner Takes it All” are obviously very applicable to this situation at hand. But you’re also in Sweden.

Hansen-Løve: Actually, I was listening to ABBA, and to that song, long before I ever thought I would make a film in Sweden. What I mean, it is not because I made that film in Sweden that I came to ABBA, but it’s more like because I was such a big ABBA fan, and I enjoy that song so much, and I was doing a film on Fårö—there was a situation where it made sense [to] use that song. But I thought it was kind of funny that while I was doing a film on Bergman—who is considered a superstar of Sweden, incarnating something that is very intellectual—to use the other star of Sweden, ABBA, who incarnate something much more popular, and to make them connect. But above all, if I use that song, it’s really because—I use [very little] music. People notice a lot the music of my films because I don’t work with composers. But when I use music, I really let it take all the space, and you can really listen to it. It’s very present. Most of the time when I use music, it means that the character in the scene also listens to it. Most of all, if I use that song, it’s because I really loved it.

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