The Bergman Island writer/director on the Swedish maestro, the inner lives of artists and the process of bringing dreams to life.
Bergman Island is a new film by the French writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve, which explores the relationship between two filmmakers – Vicky Krieps’ Chris and Tim Roth’s Tony – as they retreat to the island of Fårö to write screenplays. The pair interact with the legacy of Ingmar Bergman, spending time in his house and exploring the locations of his later films, and his shadow looms large over their nascent projects.
LWLies: Regarding Bergman Island, when was your first encounter with Fårö? When did it occur to you that you may want to film there?
Hansen-Løve: It wasn’t when I saw films that were shot there, but it was the pictures of the island that were in the book that was made for the auction of the Bergman estate. After Bergman died he wanted to sell everything because he thought it would be too difficult to divide among all his kids. And so everything was supposed to be sold and they made a book for the auction. In the book there was pictures of many of the objects like the paintings that were in his house, but also everyday life objects like lamps and clocks. But also there were pictures of the houses, of his car. I remember being impressed by the pictures of his cars. To me, it gave me a very strong feeling of the island as being a kind of haunted place – like you see in a Hitchcock film.
And that ghostliness was attractive as a film location?
Of course, it’s not what gave me the idea to do the film but I think that the attraction that I felt to this haunted place met my desire to make a film about a relationship and artistic creation. This must have been after I made Eden. Also, after Eden, I started to have this idea of making a film about a couple of directors. It was this idea that was brewing up in me but it wasn’t clear yet where it was going or where it would be set. And then I met Greta Gerwig, who has a part in Eden, in Paris for a couple of days and she was coming back from Fårö with Noah Baumbach, and they told me about their experience of their trip, and all these things at some point came together and that was the start of the process of Bergman Island.
That’s so funny that Noah Baumbach would then go and make Marriage Story after going to Fårö.
Well it was certainly not an accident, I’m sure he’s a great fan of Bergman’s. And I’m sure it was influenced by Scenes from a Marriage.
I remember seeing those same shots you talked about from the auction, and thinking he must’ve been quite a lonely guy in his later life – this hermetic existence, where he was trying to close himself off from the world.
His wife died some 15 years before he did, so he spent the last part of his life more or less alone. He had a big family but he was living there for the last years – for a long time he used to go back and forth to Stockholm where he had an apartment, but at some point he cut himself off from the city and decided to stay in Fårö. In this last part of his life he decided to live there in this remote place throughout the year, alone. He made a point of not being disturbed. He would mostly see the people on the island who would work with him to renovating bits of his house.
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Do you think it’s a good skill to know how to be alone?
Yes – part of my admiration for him has to do with his aptitude for being alone. Which is actually very unusual. Of course, we know a lot of great artists who must have lived alone and faced this loneliness. But among filmmakers it is less common. Because the job of a filmmaker is a job where you are always surrounded by people – you have to enjoy being with people. And I’m sure Bergman also enjoyed that a lot. There is footage of him on his sets of his films and you can see he actually loved being there, he has this childish smile that is very seductive. But he was able to get away from that at the end of his life as he became darker or more melancholic – he enjoyed solitude more than anything.
But I admire that because I think when you make films it is very difficult to preserve that solitude and to desire it. There is a temptation when you make films to never be alone actually. That’s why we see so many directors, for instance, who write their first feature alone, then maybe a second, then that’s over, they start writing with co-writers and then they can never write alone again. I’ve seen so many of them around me.
And yet you still write alone, if I’m not mistaken?
Yes. And I think that’s partly why I’m so determined to try and still work my scripts myself, not because I think I write better than anybody else, not that I think I’m gifted or anything, but because it’s actually pretty difficult for me to write. But I still think that the kind of things you can find when you face solitude – when you go into yourself – you cannot find if you disappear among people all the time. If you do not face fears, or the meaning of your life or whatever you want to call it. I think there are things that you can face, or say or express only if you can look into yourself alone, accept the silence and the voice. It’s about silence. It’s about God. It’s about patience too. I think that the job of a filmmaker can really take you away from that if you are not careful.
It’s interesting that you say that because the island that you present in the film is very different to the one that is seen in Bergman’s films. The forbidding and bleak place where he made Persona and Through the Glass Darkly and everything. There’s a really interesting difference between the island that he saw and the one that you show us – now, it seems like a much more normal place.
Maybe it’s just because I’m a much more normal person. So it’s just the way I see it. Yeah, that’s what made the film possible – to film it in a different way to how he did it. If I’d been there and had found exactly the same places as those in his films, then I don’t think I would’ve known how to express myself or find my own voice there.
Going back to the auction book – it was so inspiring because these pictures, they were not in black and white, they were in colour. And most of Bergman’s films that were shot on Fårö, they are in black and white. And most of them have to do with nightmares – they have to do with his demons as he was seeing them. But the island that I saw when I went there was an island in colour. There was another way to experience the island. It could still be Bergman’s place and a haunted place, but there was a way for me to make it mine.
Your film intersects with the world of Ingmar Bergman and his legacy, and there’s almost this theme park aspect of visiting his house and doing the Bergman Safari. When you decided that you wanted to make a film there and it would be connected to all these things, did the Bergman estate need to give you their blessing?
Well I needed them to open the houses for me. I wasn’t so worried about getting authorisation to film outside, because these places don’t belong to him. But I was worried about getting authorisation to be able film in the Bergman centre and especially in two of his houses – one you see in the first part of the film and the other was where he ate and slept and spent most of the last years of his life. There was something risky about that. The first time I went there was in 2014, but that was just a way to discover the place and I wasn’t sure at that point whether I would write the film. But then I went back and stayed there for a month and wrote half of the film.
While I was writing, I wasn’t sure if I would get access to all these locations. Especially the mill, because it was crucial for me in terms of mise en scène but also in terms of the film’s structure and meaning. I needed Tony to write in the big house and Chris to write in the small mill. Symbolically it was so important for many reasons. But I had never been into the mill because no one could go there because the Norwegian guy who owns the Bergman estate today kept the mill for himself. So basically it’s the only place where guests don’t go.
There’s a sequence in the film where we see Tony’s notebook, which contains all these notes and pornographic drawings. And it looks like a serial killer’s journal. And I just wanted to know how you came up with that idea of looking at the writing process in that way?
I think this in a way was in the heart of the film even before the idea of shooting in Fårö came up. There was this idea of a couple who have a real artistic complicity, they are still in love with each other, they have a child, they are still very close in many ways. But as they are both writers and filmmakers, they each have their own world – call it a secret garden or whatever. They have their own inner worlds, you could say. They each have their own thing that they cannot really share even though later she tries to tell him a story. She is trying to be more transparent about her imagination. There is no real communication between them about their films. She tries to know more about what he has in mind, but he doesn’t want to express anything deep about what he wants to do and why. And she tries to tell him about her story but he’s not really listening.
So you can see that in many ways there is this complicity: they are both filmmakers; both Bergman fans; they have a lot in common but at some point there is a distance, something they cannot share. So this idea of the book full of notes that express something about him that’s very different, if not opposite, from what he seems to be. That tells you about the impossibility of really sharing everything. When you are in a couple where both are artists, and they write, you have to accept the fact that there’s something that escapes you, that you cannot reach, something that cannot be shared. And that’s painful in many ways. And that is I think why I wanted this notebook to be so disturbing and surprising and in a way that it tells you something about the character of Tony that nothing else tells you because he seems so nice and so easy and doesn’t seem that dark.
Which side are you on? When you’re writing and you find people asking you about certain projects, do you demure and say, “No, I don’t want to talk about them,” or are there certain important people who you tell these things to, who you trust?
I love to talk about what I’m thinking of, but only to one or two people. It’s even the same actually when I finish my films, when I’m in the editing room also. Some directors like to show a first draft to ten, 20, 30 people to test the film, like a screen test. But me no, I’m more protective. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I’m more insecure. I only show my films to one person, two and then the producers – I hate showing them to people I don’t know. And then when it’s over of course anyone can see it! But as long as I’m still working on it, I hate sharing it.
But unlike Tony, who seems to be keeping it all to himself from the first draft to the script, I do like sharing my ideas with the person who is closest to me. I do need this dialogue. Just like Chris, you see she tries to have a dialogue with Tony. And that leads me back to this notion of solitude that at the end we are alone in this and we have to face that, and that is the only way maybe to be completely free is that we have to accept this and try to forget about the opinion of anybody else. And you can’t look at your work from anybody else’s perspective except yourself. And that’s really about that for me, is to try to get into myself and to forget about anybody else’s reaction to what I need to tell.
With the second half of the film where we see The White Dress film playing out – I love this idea of a filmmaker who’s also a writer being able to see the film in their own head. In the end we’re seeing, rather than the film that Chris made, we’re seeing the vision inside her head. Is that something that you do when you’re writing? Do you envisage the shots and the performers and the framings and everything?
It’s like a dream. I mean I see and I don’t see – when you dream and you remember your dreams you can describe them, but when you try to get closer to them they vanish. It’s a little bit like that for me when I imagine the films – writing them is a way to try to get closer to what they are. When I write a film it is because I feel like there’s something that already exists, like it’s already there. And my work is to try to approach it, to get closer to it so that it doesn’t disappear. When you try to get closer to your dreams and express them, they vanish. You know that strange feeling when you wake up and you remember a dream and then when you try, 10 minutes later, to tell it, even to yourself, it has already disappeared. For me scripts are like that because I will get haunted or inhabited by an idea for a film that’s very strong and powerful but also very fragile.
So I need to find the right words and the right way to approach it so that I can catch it before it goes. And that I think is what gives me so much energy and determination when I write because I know how fragile the process is. In the film that Chris does with Mia, I enjoyed filming it and telling it because, just as you said, it was not just the film that she was going to do, but the one she was thinking of, the one that’s still a dream. Not only does the film not exist, it may never exist.
But for me it was just so exciting to make the dream film into a real film, but to have it still a dream. Because there is always a transformation when you start with this film you have in mind and that’s still unreal and you make it real when you write a script and you hire actors and you go into production. Only then does it become a real film.
Bergman Island is released by MUBI and opens in cinemas on 3 June. Read our 5 star review.
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Published 30 May 2022
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