Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Bergman: On Writing, Demons and Childhood Secrets

Fanny and Alexander (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Jörn Donner was Managing Director of the Swedish Film Institute between 1978 and 1982 during which he produced Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander (1982). In 1984 the movie won a total of four Academy Awards including the award for best foreign language film. The following dialogue is taken from an interview Donner conducted with Bergman in Stockholm during three days in November, 1997. Aged 79 at the time, Bergman reflects on his writing method, his childhood and the ‘demon of suspicion’. 

Ingmar Bergman: When I am going to sleep at night, I can walk through my grandmother's apartment, room by room, and remember everything in the most minute detail, where different things were, what they looked like, what colour they were. I can also remember the light, winter light or summer light, through the windows, the pictures on the walls. The apartment was furnished before the turn of the century and contained a huge number of things. That was the bourgeois style of the day, not a millimetre was to remain uncovered; there had to be things everywhere. It's really strange. My grandmother died when I was twelve and I haven't been there since I was about perhaps ten or eleven. But I remember it in detail. The things there in the apartment, they still have a magical content and significance to me. I made a lot of use of that in Fanny and Alexander. If any conclusions are to be drawn from that, Jörn, then it may well be that in that way, the whole of my creativity is really tremendously childish, all based on my childhood. In less than a second, I can take myself back into my childhood. I think everything I've done in general, anything of any value, has its roots there. 

Or dialectically, it is a dialogue with childhood...

Jörn Donner: Quite often, you’ve been considerably more experimental in films than in the theatre.

Ingmar Bergman: Films demand their form, and staged plays theirs. I’ve never simply decided that now I shall experiment, but everything has just been given the form I’ve thought it ought to have. I’m not at all interested in whether I’m experimenting or not.

Fanny and Alexander (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Jörn Donner: But is it some kind of intuition? Who the hell would be crazy enough to write a script such as Cries and Whispers?

Ingmar Bergman: [laughter] It’s like this: it was necessary to write it in that way, or Persona, or the one I’ve just written, Faithless. They’ve found their form simply because it was necessary to write them in that way – to do them in that way.

Jörn Donner: You didn’t think about the drama...

Ingmar Bergman: No, in general I wasn’t thinking about anything.

Jörn Donner: That’s not what I meant. But to go back in time, to Sawdust and Tinsel or Prison. Didn’t you think them out either?

Ingmar Bergman: No, I didn’t. Well, not Sawdust and Tinsel, but Prison – I suppose that was the first time I wrote my own script. I was quite crazy with delight and had to get everything that I had been walking around and thinking about into it. Without my really making any effort, it became... peculiar.

Jörn Donner: I suppose you don’t want to say you’re an intuitive writer.

Ingmar Bergman: But wasn’t it you who said that when you begin writing, you don’t know how it will turn out?

Jörn Donner: That’s right, of course, yes.

Cries and Whispers (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Ingmar Bergman: It’s just intuition, and it’s the same when I start writing, I have a kind of basic scene, a beginning. I usually say that in Cries and Whispers I went on for very long, and had a scene with four women in white in a red room.

Jörn Donner: And that was all, generally speaking.

Ingmar Bergman: Yes, it was only that. And then I started thinking about why they were there and what they said to each other, that kind of thing. It was mysterious. It kept coming back again and again, and I couldn’t get that scene to come out right.

Jörn Donner: A kind of dream image.

Ingmar Bergman: Yes, you know what it’s like. Then you begin winding in a long thread that appears from somewhere or other, and the thread can suddenly snap. That’s the end of that, but then all of a sudden, it’s a whole ball.

Jörn Donner: Have threads often snapped for you?

Ingmar Bergman: Yes, lots of times.

Jörn Donner: But not the kind of threads you’ve spent weeks working on, or in manuscript form.

Ingmar Bergman: No, not once I’ve started writing. By then I’ve already done my working books. In them, I’ve written endless things, masses of stuff, but once I’ve started on the script, then I know what I’m doing.

Prison (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Jörn Donner: What are your working books about?

Ingmar Bergman: Absolutely everything.

Jörn Donner: So the script grows out of the working book?

Ingmar Bergman: Exactly. Well, it’s unfinished, completely. Keeping working books is fun.

Jörn Donner: Have you always done that?

Ingmar Bergman: Yes, always. At first, I didn’t really have the time. But when I did have the time, yes. Often when I was younger and had to earn money for all my wives and children, then I had to begin on the script, so to speak, bang, directly, I mean. But now I can lie on the sofa and play about with my thoughts and have fun with them, looking at images, doing research and so on. All that’s great fun. My working books are also quite illegible to anyone else but me. But then the actual writing begins out of these notebooks.

Jörn Donner: And it goes quickly?

Ingmar Bergman: Relatively quickly because it’s so boring. It’s hellishly boring, just like when you do a theatre performance and sit there sketching out the scenes, how the actors are to move and stand, when they’re to say what, and all that – hellishly dreary. When I’m writing the script, I write a certain number of pages a day.

Sawdust and Tinsel (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
 Jörn Donner: Would you consider writing in any other way but by hand?

Ingmar Bergman: No, never.

Jörn Donner: Why not?

Ingmar Bergman: I can’t type. [laughter] I’ve tried.

Jörn Donner: Is it a physical thing?

Ingmar Bergman: Yes, it’s a physical thing, profoundly unsatisfactory. I use a sort of notepad to write on. They existed when I was employed as a slave scriptwriter at Svensk Filmindustri in 1942. You were given a kind of lined yellow notepad. Then you had to write by hand and with a broad-nibbed fountain pen. Since then, I’ve always written on that yellow paper and those notepads.

Jörn Donner: Where do you get them?

Ingmar Bergman: About twenty or so years ago it turned out that they weren’t making them anymore, so I had them make eight-hundred pads especially for me. And I’ve still got a few left. I think they’ll just about last me out.

Jörn Donner: I should damned well think so.

Sawdust and Tinsel (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Ingmar Bergman: I write with a ballpoint pen nowadays, but not just any old damned pen. It has to be a very special ballpoint with a very fat tip. It’s the actual writing, although my handwriting is so difficult to read, that gives me pleasure. I like writing by hand. It is very satisfying. In that I always write on the same kind of pad, I know how much I’ve written, you see. And I never write for more than three hours. When the three hours are up, even if I’m in the middle of a scene or wherever the hell I am, I stop working. I stop for the day. Because it’s so boring. But the working book is fun. That’s the actual creative process. Writing the script is just the arranging process.

Jörn Donner: Do you think you have some sort of ritualistic superstition about these notepads and pens, where you work, and those three hours, or is it just a routine?

Ingmar Bergman: No, it’s a ritual. I have very precise rituals. Get up early and eat breakfast, go for a walk, don’t read the paper, don’t talk on the telephone with anyone. Sit down at the desk. My desk has to be tidy, nothing lying about in a mess on it. I am maniacally pedantic when it comes to what it has to look like if I’m to be able to sit working at it. Then when I’ve been writing for about three quarters of an hour, I take a break. I’ve usually got a backache by then, so I walk all through my house, or go and look at the sea, or something like that for a quarter of an hour. Writing scripts is a ‘compulsory exercise’.

Jörn Donner: A kind of battle? Against...

Ingmar Bergman: Against disorder, sloppiness, lack of discipline.

Jörn Donner: You never lacked that.

Ingmar Bergman: Well, no, I’ve never lacked discipline, but if I had, things would have really fallen apart, I assure you. Because I’m constantly battling against my lack of discipline. You just can’t be undisciplined in my profession, you just can’t. That’s why I’ve become so frightfully pedantic, so trying to so many people.

Sawdust and Tinsel (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Jörn Donner: There’s a strange contrast between two things: in both your films and your autobiography you describe your demons with a capital D, while on the other hand in all the pictures of you at work in the theatre and on films, you always seem to be in a good mood.

Ingmar Bergman: I think it’s part of a director’s duty to be in a good mood at work. To create a kind of cheerful atmosphere around the actual exercising of the profession. In the workroom, too.

Jörn Donner: A sense of comfort?

Ingmar Bergman: Yes, and security. It’s terribly important. When I was young, I didn’t understand that at all, and took it all with me into my working life, my hangovers and troubles with women, all my shortcomings and stupidities. I dragged them with me into the studio or on stage and raced around like a demon creating hideously unpleasant and uncomfortable situations.
But there’s also something called the educational outburst, that you sometimes have to make use of. These are enormously premeditated attacks of rage. And they are a precision bombing, because that is what’s needed. Things mustn’t be lovely and cozy in a studio, or on stage. And the people we work with, they’re so often tremendously ambitious, so tremendously sensitive, that although we’re playing a game, although it looks like fun – we’re joking and telling funny stories and we relax and so on – they still feel it’s a matter of life and death. And when I say life and death, I actually mean just that.

Jörn Donner: Is it also a matter of keeping up a certain tempo?

Ingmar Bergman: Yes, to a tremendous degree. For instance, when you start in the film studio, at nine in the morning, then you start at nine in the morning. The first scene is to be shot at ten. Somehow you have to start punctually. A day shouldn’t start with endless discussion. To me, chatter is largely an abomination, because then there are one or two people, perhaps more involved, while a whole lot of others are standing around, even more in the theatre – should be outside of rehearsals and outside the studio.

Persona (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Jörn Donner: How have you managed to create a distance between what you yourself call your demons and a film studio or a theatre?

Ingmar Bergman: My demons... well, they’ve somehow got to be harnessed. They have to be there, because I suffer from, for instance – how shall I put it – the demon of suspicion. I am an immensely suspicious person.

Jörn Donner: And a hypochondriac, too, perhaps?

Ingmar Bergman: Let’s not keep on counting my demons, for Christ’s sake, but I think they ought to be present. They have to stand at attention, on parade, so that I can convey to the actors how suspicion functions and how hypochondria functions, in gestures, tone of voice or in movements. Obviously the demons have to be brought into it. It would be tremendously risky not to have them with you, but they have to be kept very much under control.

You see, as long as I’m inside the studio, or in the theatre, then that’s a universe controlled by me. Then the demons are also under control. Everything’s under control. But the moment all the lights go off and the camera stops, and I leave by the stage door, or the rehearsal is over, then I no longer have control over the demons. Then it is no longer my universe, so to speak, but the often unpredictable universe that I try to control, but which has constantly bedevilled my efforts...

- Extracted from ‘Jörn Donner: Demons And Childhood Secrets: An Interview’. Translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate. Originally published in Grand Street 17, no. 2 (Fall 1998).

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