István Borbás has been working with acclaimed director Roy Andersson since the mid-1980s, where they worked together on commercials which helped shape Andersson and Borbas’ distinct visual stylings. Following the Australian premiere of A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Conor Bateman sat down with Borbás and his assistant (and translator) Frida Elmström to discuss his work.
A lot of writing about Roy’s films and your cinematography within them tends to compare them to paintings, but actually I know that the visual schema comes from hand drawn sketches that Roy makes. How do you go from those to the film? It’s just so strange to see them compared to the final product.
[At this point in the interview Istvan got out his laptop and showed me some of the production images of the Charles XII sequence, one of which can be seen below]
For example, this is the first picture for the Charles XII sequence, and you can see how we made this. In Studio 24, we have a studio in the city, in Stockholm, and we built this scene in the studio because Roy needs a lot of time with the actors. And you can see here we have a plaster horse and we can feel out the positions for the shot. Another thing in this image, that was a big discussion for us, was whether the King should be old or young, and we felt that though we really liked the actor who was playing the older version of the King, that it would work much better with a young king.
A younger King is definitely funnier, I think, in that scene.
And also I take a lot of pictures for the background of the shots, a lot of landscape shots, after that we then go to the scene, building it in the studio. And in the background of this scene, it is analog (static), and you can see that we used a green screen in addition to shooting in the bar. With the green screen, on another day, we took the ‘army’, and got them to walk in front of the static background, and the street below was also green-screened. And you can see here in this scene (Limping Lotte) we made a trompe l’oeil, a painted roof in front of the camera lens. If you look at the floor as well, it’s a big surface and, you know, it’s a big job to paint the squares on the floor as well, they are individually painted, and even for that we have to work out the size and colour of them, whether they will be diagonal or parallel. With the lighting in this scene, you can see that the back lights are real, and the front are a trompe l’oeil.
Has the access to digital post-production made it easier for filming scenes like this?
(Frida: They use as little digital solutions as possible.)
Yes, because it’s not the same, digital is not a good solution because you can feel every time whether something is handmade.
(Frida: So, for example, in the Charles XII scene, to make it look like there were a hundred horses, it would be a bit too much to have them in a studio –)
There were 35 horses we used.
That’s still a lot of horses. You started first working with Roy back in 1984, if I’m not mistaken?
’84, for our first movie. Our first film was for Swedish television, it was an informational film about why young people shouldn’t be drinking if they’re in a boat, or something like that. The style was very Czechoslovak in the 1960s, very close to life, similar to documentaries. And after this, 1985, we started up on commercial productions.1 It was a very nice year for us, we won many a prize, some from Cannes —
The airplane ad?
No this one was the sugar company ad. It was the first time we had a studio, and the first films we made in the studio were in 1985. In this ad it was set up as a small convenience store in the countryside, and this is a very funny story, in the ad in comes an American tourist group, and they come in an ask for artificial sweeteners.
Oh, I’ve seen that ad.
With the two old women? You know this one?
Yeah, it’s very good.
It was the first time we had this white makeup on the actors, because they were old women and we wanted them to look like mummys, them saying (in a pretty spot on imitation of the ad) “artificial sweetener, you know, the tiny pills you put in the coffee to make it sweet?” And nobody in the store speaks English, and one of them says “no, we don’t have any. Try at the gas station” and the payoff is, the tagline, is that sugar is the only natural sweetener. It is very simple, and was very good. Another good one, in the same year, the Lotto —
Ah, I love those ads. Was it the one at the bar?
Oh no, this one was in the room —
Oh, the lounge one.
Yes, the sitting room, where the old man comes in and sits on the remote. And so we had those two ads in that year, it was a very good start.
Did making those ads help slowly draw you to the precision of the visuals and sets in the later films?
Yeah, these early ads were not really clearly in the current style. For example, the sugar company ad was not special visually. It was the first time we tried the soft lighting and the makeup and the patterned floor. When we made the ads for the Socialdemokraterna (SAP), we were trying out things to see what would be interesting, it was the first time we used a 16mm lens as well. This was very very effective, because there were 27 different articles about the ad, and this was very good for the party, it questioned society, and so the SAP won that election. And Sweden has elections every three years, so the next time, in 1988, they came to Roy again and asked him to make another one. And he said no because they lied.
So the SAP wanted to try and make our ad again, they went around to various companies to try and replicate it, but it was not possible. So they came back and said “ok, Roy, you have freedom to make anything, and here is some money.” So we all went to Roy’s summer house, for one week, to try and find some ideas for the ad. And it was very very difficult, there were some totally crazy ideas, for example, a worker who wants to hang himself from a tree with a red flag and can’t and you know, there are people behind him shouting “wait, wait, let’s try it again.” So, you know, many crazy ideas.That one was not possible. So we went home and we were sitting in the studio, in the studio bar, and Roy said “my daughter said the other day “I want sweets because I like sweets” and this is interesting because we want different things” and this helped because, you know, people say “I want a boat”, “I want a man”. The first ad asked “why should we care about each other?” and this ad asked “can we care about each other?” This was also a fantastic ad, and the SAP had no idea how we made it but after this one we said no more ads for the SAP.
That’s interesting because in those ads you were clearly making a political statement, and even in Pigeon, your latest feature, it seems very political; it’s a reactionary statement against capitalism, against the idea of people being forced to sell. I think it even comes across in the set design, everything is colourless because of the system at work. Is that something that was at the forefront of your minds when you made the film?
Not only this, though, but to have a timeless abstraction. I think that it’s easier to see a problem today, we want to talk about political issues that spread over time. Power – there’s the King, a symbol of power, greed and asking these universal questions. And you can see this more clearly if you have this abstraction, this timelessness. You’re not looking at or idolising a hero but looking at situations that people are in. A really clear example is the scene in the bar when a man says “I’ve realised what I’ve been doing wrong my whole life” and that scene is a really interesting composition because if you see this guy sitting at the front, he’s nothing, but so long as you have other people in the frame, who are closing the shop up, this is much more effective in creating the abstraction; making it like a dream.
It does seem like, throughout the film, you never want the audience to get stuck focusing on one spot, not everything is framed with a focal point in the middle, which is interesting. When Pigeon was put together did you know the structure of the script at the start, not only for visual flow but also narrative?
In this film we had 39 shorts, and we had a big storyboard of sketches, and we would be moving the scenes around on them, so the structure was being worked out.
You can see here that it’s very close to the actual scene.
I read that the film took something like 15 years to make, which seems wrong.
It was shot over four years, and pre-production took four months. It was two months that we tried to source a camera because this was the first time we went over to digital. We only had a 35mm camera and we knew that for this feature it would have to be in digital because Sweden no longer has a film lab and all cinema and post-production is now digital. So we tested out cameras and settled on the RED MX because this was very close to our earlier style.
It would be pretty hard to tell the difference visually, but that’s likely because the set design and cinematography is consistent in the trilogy.
Pigeon, I think, is the most clear of the three, in terms of style and in thought. The first film, Songs, it was more traditional but in this one, I think you can really see the analysis of life.
You’ve shot a lot of short films over the last twenty or thirty years that weren’t directed by Roy Andersson, you’ve hopped around a lot, I saw you shot an Icelandic short as well.
Yes, I work in our studio on them, and, if I have time, I’ve even done some feature-length films. I did a Hungarian film, and that Icelandic film, and for a Danish director Simon Staho, I made a short film that’s very nice, it’s called Nu, I think on YouTube. This was a very special project, this guy wanted many cats in his film and it was all this dream, but we had this fantastic tracking shot, five minutes long, fantastically choreographed, and the film was supposed to be 47 minutes, and it was a masterpiece. But the producer, this was a new director, a famous producer, Peter Aalbæk Jensen, von Trier’s producer, and he said 27 minutes, not 47 minutes, and so we had to cut a lot out, and then it was no longer a masterpiece. And that short had very good actors in it – Mads Mikkelsen, Henning Moritzen, an old Danish actor from Festen, Mikael Persbrandt and Erland Josephson from Bergman. So four very good actors, I think it was made in 2004.
Something I noticed when watching Pigeon is that it felt thematically similar to World of Glory, which you made in 1991, just with regards to the tedium of life, in Pigeon it ends on a discussion of what day it is and in World of Glory it’s this man telling us about his wholly depressing life.
World of Glory, I think, is a masterpiece.
It’s strong, I thought it was almost Andersson making his own Eraserhead, it’s so unsettling.
You should try and find a short film called War Time, it’s really similar to World of Glory. If you think about the fact that World of Glory was made in the early ’90s, and looking at it now, it’s still true. It’s ambitious and it aims at society itself.
The opening shot of World of Glory, with all of the naked people being herded into a truck and gassed, it seemed almost like the Zulu tribe execution scene in Pigeon was a reference to that.
It was important in the first film that we illustrated that in the Second World War they actually did that, using those trucks to kill people, but we didn’t want soldiers in uniform there, we wanted normal people. That was actually three years before the Balkan Wars and in those wars people were killed in that way, and people in Europe said “this will never happen to us” and then three years later it did, civilians killing civilians. In Pigeon, we have lots of scenes that reflect that. The organ, that’s what we called that cylinder scene, in it it’s this amazing ability humanity has to create these structures and machines that kill. In that scene the uniform is imperialistic and represents Nazis, basically.
Why was there the decision in making Pigeon to have more recurring characters than in the previous films in the trilogy?
We were thinking a lot about couple relationships, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, Dumb and Dumber, Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, so see these pairs all throughout history, and the hierarchy between them. There’s always one that leads and one that doesn’t. It’s simple but we can see them, we always have those relationships. So there within that hierarchy in their own relationship they are also put into external hierarchies, like when they try to sell things to people and they are lower than them in a social hierarchy. And then there’s another level to it in the Charles XII scene when the King comes in, and nobody knows who he is, but him and his soldiers are wearing uniforms, so everybody follows them and there is that hierarchy as well.
Well in that scene the hierarchical structure takes a twist at the end, with the King placing his hand on the bar boy whilst everyone else is looking out the window there’s this moment of, I guess, tenderness? It’s still him being forced into that tenderness though.
That’s interesting because that King is a symbol of Swedish Nazism, and the Swedish Nazis hate homosexuality, but the King was a homosexual and that shot of their hands is really beautiful, as if he’s actually falling in love. Then it becomes really hard for these Nazis when they see the film because of this, and there’s the story here of this man who falls in love.
I guess that is in keeping with the political slant of the film.
(Frida: There is another political scene in the film, and that’s the cylinder scene with something written on it, and it’s the name of a company –)
It’s a Swedish mining company that sent toxic waste to Chile and lots of people got sick from it but that Swedish company never took responsibility. That happened about ten years ago and we chose to show that as a symbol for these things still happening today. And sure there are worse things happening out there in the world but in this case they have the responsibility and want to just push it away.
Well, thank you for taking the time to talk with me.