An inner cinematic landscape

Stina Gardell on Stig Björkman and Movie Man

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Stina Gardell with her Movie Man star Stig Björkman and Anne-Katrin Titze: “He loves Ann Miller and Fred Astaire. So we created a scene about longing. Longing to dance, to be with someone.”
Stina Gardell with her Movie Man star Stig Björkman and Anne-Katrin Titze: “He loves Ann Miller and Fred Astaire. So we created a scene about longing. Longing to dance, to be with someone.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Isabella Rossellini, John Sayles, Alicia Vikander, Vicky Krieps, Olivier Assayas, Domiziana Giordano (Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia), Joyce Carol Oates, Jørgen Leth, Seamus McGarvey (Oscar-nominated cinematographer for Joe Wright’s Atonement and Anna Karenina, both starring Keira Knightley), Gregorio Graziosi, Burhan Qurbani (Berlin Alexanderplatz), and Tom Kalin, joined Stina Gardell’s Movie Man star Stig Björkman virtually during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

Stina Gardell with Anne-Katrin Titze: “In a way it’s Stig’s inner cinematic landscape.”
Stina Gardell with Anne-Katrin Titze: “In a way it’s Stig’s inner cinematic landscape.”

Stina Gardell is the producer of Stig Björkman’s Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words, ...But Film is My Mistress, the short Images from the Playground and his latest, Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in the Service of Mind. Stina is also the producer of Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s The Most Beautiful Boy In The World documentary on the life of Björn Andrésen, Tadzio in Luchino Visconti’s Death In Venice.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s expressed love for Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words in a DVD supplement for Phantom Thread; the start of Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s West Side Story (shot by Daniel L Fapp), Stanley Kubrick, The Blue Danube Waltz, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show and Gregory Monro’s Kubrick By Kubrick; Esther Williams (in George Sidney’s Bathing Beauty and Edward Buzzell’s Neptune’s Daughter), Jane Powell and Ann Miller (in Leslie Kardos’s Small Town Girl), and Fred Astaire (in Stuart Heisler’s Blue Skies); Isabella Rossellini’s dog and Jimmy Stewart’s broken leg in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and so much more came up in my discussion with the director/screenwriter/producer of Movie Man.

Stina Gardell: “When Corona started, we were exactly in the last shooting week for Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in the Service of Mind in March 2020.”
Stina Gardell: “When Corona started, we were exactly in the last shooting week for Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in the Service of Mind in March 2020.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

From Sweden, Stina Gardell joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Movie Man.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi Stina!

Stina Gardell: Hi! So sorry I was late, I have this awful situation at my summer house; when I opened the door it was hundreds of bees. So if I am turning around, it’s so that I am not piqued.

AKT: We don’t want you stung by a bee. How is Stig doing?

SG: When Corona started, we were exactly in the last shooting week for Joyce Carol Oates [Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in the Service of Mind] in March 2020. Suddenly we couldn’t get to the US to work and he was sitting at home and didn’t go out, because he’s 82. And I started making this film to keep him company in a way. But he started as well to write. He has written a book of more than 800 pages, about all the films that he has seen during his life. He chose like 400 films, I think.

AKT: The book of essays is the companion piece to Movie Man.

SG: Yes!

AKT: It’s funny, the moment when he talks to Vicky Krieps about Phantom Thread, I was the one who told Stig to look for the DVD extra where Paul Thomas Anderson mentions your Ingrid Bergman film.

Jane Powell ties in with the beginning of Stig Björkman’s love for movies.
Jane Powell ties in with the beginning of Stig Björkman’s love for movies. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

SG: Wow, thank you! It’s so beautiful I think in the film, because Stig is so cute because he is so humble. He’s so happy when he says “Paul Thomas Anderson loves my film.”

AKT: When I saw it in your film, I looked for the e-mail, and there it was. I thought Stig would love to hear that.

SG: Then you should have been mentioned in the credits!

AKT: I didn’t know that Stig was a tap dancer!

SG: He started to tap dance when he was 77 or 78. It was a place quite close to him. Of course they closed it. With the film I wanted to do an emotional meeting with Stig, not a Wikipedia or his profession in detail. I wanted people to meet him as I had got to know him throughout these years as such a fantastic warm and generous person. My idea was to make this emotional dream in the film, because he is a tap dancer. He loves Ann Miller and Fred Astaire. So we created a scene about longing. Longing to dance, to be with someone.

AKT: It ties in with the beginning of his love for movies. First came Jane Powell, whom I actually met a few years back. I have not seen Stig’s first film he mentions, but I love her in Royal Wedding and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Also the clip with Ann Miller from Small Town Girl is a great choice. I had to look it up in the [signed] Ann Miller book I got as a teenager. You begin, I believe with Une femme est une femme by Godard. The film clips you identify are those by the filmmakers Stig talks to and you combine them with clips from his memories. Is that the structure?

Stina Gardell on Isabella Rossellini seeing Movie Man: ‘She told me she cried a couple of times, because she felt the sorrow for what has happened with cinemas.
Stina Gardell on Isabella Rossellini seeing Movie Man: ‘She told me she cried a couple of times, because she felt the sorrow for what has happened with cinemas. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

SG: Yes, first in the structure I wanted him to choose the 20 most important films that he would suggest that everybody sitting at home should see. Then I had this list. Then I asked him, who would you like to talk to about these films? Then he suggested some of his best friends. Then when we talked to the best friends we asked them the same question. In the end I have this huge archive. In a way it’s Stig’s inner cinematic landscape and as everyone is talking about Corona, you can meet the pandemic through the clips.

AKT: When we did the Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words opening night Q&A together in New York, that was such a special evening. John Sayles was in the audience. It was the evening of the Bataclan attack in Paris and we were all slightly on edge. It was November 2015.

SG: I had forgotten. It’s true, everything was infected by it in a way. I remember now.

AKT: I was surprised by Olivier Assayas and how he says that he was scared earlier than anybody else. You show clips from Lars von Trier’s Melancholia bracketing his comments. He is very open, very honest, It feels, about too much fear, too much paranoia. Vicky Krieps also is very open about the first depression in her life. They are opening up to Stig, which is due to his persona.

SG: It is. They feel so reflected when they are talking to him.

Anne-Katrin Titze’s Ann Miller Tops In Taps, signed personally by Ann Miller
Anne-Katrin Titze’s Ann Miller Tops In Taps, signed personally by Ann Miller Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Joyce Carol Oates mentions the film festival going on. That must have been the New York Film Festival in September?

SG: Yes, the filming became one year. That wasn’t my thought, but it just continued. When we first started with Corona, everybody was in shock in a way. We didn’t know how to handle this situation. But after the summer when the fall came, we had learned something. In Sweden at least, we had a pause and could go out again and spend some summertime. When we started again, I could see that it was more deep, the feelings, and people started talking about different things. Everybody changed. That’s why I said I need to continue to follow.

AKT: Yes, some responses allow us to remember the timing. It is Seamus McGarvey who talks about the sky over Los Angeles being technicolor blue as in the Fifties and the dolphins being back. I love the clip from Flipper, very funny. That was a Corona moment when everybody was hoping that well, at least something good comes out of it for the environment. Isabella Rossellini is of course great, telling us how at first she liked quarantine, her dog with the broken leg comes by, and she shows Stig the basket of films she didn’t watch.

SG: I’m so happy that Isabella and Joyce and everybody in it has seen the film, and they really like it. Isabella was very moved and when she saw it she cried. She told me she cried a couple of times, because she felt the sorrow for what has happened with cinemas. Streaming is taking over everything.

AKT: Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, where we had our Q&A had closed long before Covid.

SG: Isabella had this feeling of the old times when we are watching a film together, that feeling of sitting in a cinema. And I think it was very generous of Vicky Krieps to be so open about her situation. I think so many people can relate to her depression. I can relate to it. I didn’t know I was so dependent on traveling.

Stina Gardell on Olivier Assayas and Vicky Krieps opening up to Stig in Movie Man: “They feel so reflected when they are talking to him.”
Stina Gardell on Olivier Assayas and Vicky Krieps opening up to Stig in Movie Man: “They feel so reflected when they are talking to him.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: What surprised me was how much Hitchcock nailed our situation right now. How soothing it felt to watch his films during 2020. You picked the perfect clips. Jimmy Stewart with his broken leg links nicely to Isabella Rossellini’s dog’s broken leg. You have a theme going on there. And then the dream sequence from Vertigo. And Stig has a Notorious poster in his kitchen. Plus a scene from The Birds - Hitchcock really perfectly timelessly connects. Hitchcock and Tarkovsky.

SG: Rear Window, you know, when we asked everyone, I think 10 of the people in the film chose Rear Window. As Seamus McGarvey, the cinematographer, said, suddenly it was like being in a frame. He has a big window in Los Angeles and that is exactly the 69 frame. He is saying “My point of view is exactly this frame.” Rear Window points out exactly how it has been. Not anymore. I think we are in a different situation today.

AKT: Water and lots of Esther Williams and Stig swimming are another important link. It’s interesting how you changed the sound for the Esther Williams clips. You didn’t use the original sound, but let different music flow that connected also to Stig swimming and not being able to do so during the pandemic. Is water another theme for you? Did anyone else mention Esther Williams movies?

SG: No, it’s just that I know that like Jane Powell, he really loves Esther Williams. When I was talking about death and dying, I made it like paradise when they are jumping. Stig is always talking about this scene as the most beautiful scene. That’s what is so good about Stig - he has Tarkovsky and he has Esther Williams.

Stina Gardell on Stig Björkman: “I know that like Jane Powell, he really loves Esther Williams.”
Stina Gardell on Stig Björkman: “I know that like Jane Powell, he really loves Esther Williams.”

Yes, water reflects of course a lot of things in the film and the longing he has. What can you say, no one has touched his body and water is like touching again in a way. Being in the water is very intimate, I would say. We are very close to ourselves when we meet water. Stig is swimming now 800 meters every Wednesday, to feel he is an independent free person.

AKT: His apartment is very cinematic, with the bridge leading to it and overlooking the city of Stockholm. Cinema couldn’t have invented a better location.

SG: Do you know how small it is? It’s the most difficult shooting place you can dream of. It’s so small and he has so many things and we were seven persons in his apartment. I really wanted to make it very visual. In the beginning it’s Stanley Kubrick’s 2001[: A Space Odyssey].

AKT: With The Blue Danube Waltz, yes.

SG: But we have made it ourselves in miniature, the Earth and everything, because you are not allowed to buy a clip from 2001. And films would not allow you to start a film with a clip from another film. You don’t do that, it’s impossible. We had to make it ourselves, so we created it in a small studio and I am happy that you can tell it’s of course 2001.

AKT: Have you seen Kubrick By Kubrick, a documentary that was in Tribeca this year?

SG: No.

Movie Man poster
Movie Man poster

AKT: It also started with the waltz and they were doing something similar. Kubrick is on people’s minds at the moment. Pan Nalin's Last Film Show, an autobiographical film about a little boy growing up in India who traded his mother’s beautiful vegetarian lunches made for him in order to sit in the projection booth and watch movies also credits Kubrick. I was thinking of that when Stig mentions that he was lying to his parents in order to see films. The forbidden! Once you get hooked, the forbidden pleasure of seeing movies never lets you go. That’s still so present in his love of film.

SG: You mention his apartment and the view. It was my idea to take a single person in a small apartment living in this house in this quarter and it’s getting bigger and bigger and then you have the whole Earth. That’s why we start up there to go down. Have you seen West Side Story? Of course you have. I love it, that is the best start ever, that you start with us flying and suddenly you go down to this [Stina snaps her fingers]. I wanted to do the same, but it’s from the whole Earth down to his cactus. This big flower in this old man’s apartment standing in the window and his hair is flying over it, and all the papers. So it’s an inspiration from West Side Story. And that is me, that’s not Stig.

AKT: Joyce Carol Oates likes his hair long, she says. That’s very funny.

SG: Yes, I know! Actually, when he cut his hair the other day, he spared a bit.

AKT: Just for Joyce!

SG: Just for Joyce, for sure.

Stig Björkman's Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas
Stig Björkman's Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: It’s another problem that we all shared during that time. Do you get a haircut? Do you do it yourself?

SG: With Stig, it’s so nice when he takes his big scissors and just cuts it. It’s before he talks to Domiziana [Giordano]. He wanted to look a bit beautiful.

Stig Björkman is the author of Bergman on Bergman and was interviewed by Margarethe von Trotta for her documentary Searching For Ingmar Bergman. When I spoke with Margarethe she told me that when presenting the film at Cannes she said to Stig: "You know, you are really a very good actor." And he said, "I'm so glad, now I can become an actor!" And as he has shown in Movie Man a tap dancer too.

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