With his new film, Mammoth, in cinemas, the controversial Swedish writer/director reveals why he's keen to take a break from filmmaking.
One of Sweden's most successful and controversial filmmakers, Lukas Moodysson lit up the world cinema stage with his revered 1998 feature debut, Fucking Åmål (which outgrossed Titanic in the domestic box office that year), before asserting his acerbic style with Together, in 2000, and Lilya 4-Ever in 2002. His new film, Mammoth, is a sprawling and immersive story of love, betrayal and loss that stars two prominent leads in Gael García Bernal and Michelle Williams. LWLies spoke to Moodysson recently about his passion for writing, his obsession with understanding the world, and why he's keen to take a break from filmmaking.
LWLies: What made you want to make an English language film at this point in your career?
Moodysson: I don’t so much think of Mammoth as an English-language film. I think of it more as a multi-language film, and it came about through a fascination to look at people from different parts of the world – how they are connected and what small events influence and affect our lives. And also I wanted to look at children, how the way we care for them is connected all over the planet.
How important was it for you getting Gael García Bernal and Michelle Williams on board. Did you have them in mind at all?
Not necessarily, but it was important, as always, to find good actors. I think that is a part of the filmmaking process that I enjoy the most.
Yeah, I find the casting process very interesting. I feel quite alone when I write my script and then I have to find real human beings to play these characters that I’ve been fantasising about and it’s always very interesting to get a real face on a fictional character. So it was important for this film. Maybe more so than in my other films, actually.
Can you talk about the writing process? How long did you spend writing, etc...
It's totally immersive. It’s a process of walking around thinking for a long time and then writing and writing and rewriting and rewriting... I change my mind the whole time and sometime I throw away some of the good things because... I don’t know, I have this idea about what I write and the films I make that nothing can ever be perfect. You can never have a perfect, finished version, you just have to land on an interpretation of your thoughts at a certain point in time. Sometimes you just have to stop. So the script is in constant change and the film is in constant change and I have to put it to rest and realise when I’ve spent enough time on it. But Mammoth took a long time to write, maybe a year-and-a-half, or something.
You say you feel alone when writing. Do you isolate yourself and spend all your time on one thing, or do you have different things on the go at the same time?
Mostly I dedicate myself to one thing. But then afterwards I usually realise that there are a lot of things that I threw away from the script, or things I wrote in my diary, that I find a use for in something else. In the garbage that I throw out there is always something interesting that I can come back to, maybe even as the starting point for something new. Maybe it’s something that doesn’t fit in one script but might work later on.
What drives you as a writer and a filmmaker?
Confusion and curiosity. My entire career is built on confusion and curiosity. We all share a basic instinct in trying to understand the world around us, and for me that comes from being totally confused by the world and in turn being fascinated by how we, as human beings, live together and ultimately how we exploit each other. I mean that’s the negative thing; that I’m confused, and then the positive reaction to that is curiosity, which is much more of a constant force.
Is the world inhabited by your central characters in Mammoth foreign to you? Are you curious with that world or confused by it?
I think I’m curious about how the world is connected. I feel a big interest in how we as human beings tend to exploit each other. Often it can be accidental, we mean good things but they are perverted into something else. We need someone to help us take care of our children; which in itself is not a bad thing, but it can quickly turn into exploitation. Basic human needs often turn into something else – that’s one of my main interests. I’m always coming back to that.
Mammoth exposes that exploitation from a West versus East perspective. Is that a particularly interesting dynamic to you?
Yes but I try not to think in terms of East and West. If I had made the film in Sweden they would not have been immigrant workers from the Philippines but from eastern Europe or the Baltic state, or whatever. It’s very much the situation in Sweden that people employ other people to look after their kids – and that’s not a bad thing – but it’s almost always a woman and often she has left her children behind. At the same time I don’t think I judge people who feel that they are forced to hire someone to help them with everyday living because we live in a very stressful world - it’s a complicated situation. But I try to make films about people I can relate to.
What is it that fascinated you about human nature?
I think I’m interested in cultural schizophrenia: the schizophrenia of being human; how our ideals often clash with our needs and how difficult it is to be the person you want to be.
How much of your own ideology and faith is invested in Mammoth?
That’s a difficult question... Maybe I start with... I start with a stronger ideology, and then after a while I get taken away from where I was at when I started writing. Often it’s the case that I had an idea in the beginning, a stance or a main idea that I wanted to put across, but after a while that idea becomes diluted and I end up moving onto different points or ideas. I think when I started writing Mammoth it was very much about the exploitation of people from the Philippines, and after a while it turned into more of a film that is filled with sadness rather than strong opinions. For me it’s a very sad film, not necessarily pessimistic, but sad.
As you grow older do you find that your ideologies are shaped more by your films, or do your films shape your personal ideologies?
I don’t know what comes first, it’s difficult to analyse yourself in that way. I guess when I age I change perspective, but I don’t know if that is always reflected in my films. Maybe it is...
What are your thoughts on Swedish cinema?
I would say that most films in Sweden are trying to imitate a Hollywood style, and most filmmakers are shallow in that all they want to make is comedy or romance. But then I think there is a growing number of people who are trying to tell something much more personal about the way they see the world and the way they experience life. To me that is much more interesting. When I was making my first short films it was a dark time for Swedish cinema. Most filmmakers were trying to imitate a Hollywood style; everyone was just interested in making comedy or romance, it was all very shallow, very simple and conventional. And that seems to be changing. But then again maybe I’m not the best person to answer that; I’m not involved in that industry at all, I very much do my own thing and I will always continue to work that way. I make my movies and I do it outside of what you might call the ‘Swedish film industry’. I do my own thing.
You’re very popular in Sweden, but you don’t seem to openly embrace that success. Why is that?
If people like what I do then I’m very happy about that, but I try not to think about what people think too much. As a human being I’m always very happy when people like my work, but as an artist it’s better if people don’t like what I do because it forces me to think about what I really want to do. When I get a lot of positive reactions it becomes easy to make the same film again because you want to have that same feeling of appreciation. But at the same time, of course, you’ve got to make sure you don’t deliberately go and do the opposite of whatever you’ve done before. I try as much as possible not to listen to too many opinions about my work. I’m very happy to hear spontaneous reactions, but professional reactions don’t interest me. I really try to avoid listening to that.
What first got you into cinema?
I would say... When I started as a writer I spent many years thinking that it was my one and only calling, but I remember a few instances where I saw something that really got me interested in moving images. Before that I saw films just as entertainment and literature as the only serious artform. The first thing to really change my mind was //Twin Peaks//; it opened my eyes in a way I never imagined possible. That was is the early ‘90s and at that moment I was also really interested MTV and the whole flowing image manipulation of music videos of that time.
That doesn’t seem like an obvious influence on your work...
I wouldn’t say that it is, but it opened up a new world to me. I felt a strong interest in that sort of fountain of images; I thought that was really fascinating.
Is making your own music videos something you’ve considered or would maybe like to do at some point?
No, not really. It’s too commercially driven. It’s changed too much as well. At the time there was this feeling that you could turn on the television and be taken into this world of flowing images – it was fascinating to just sit there and take in that visual overload.
Are you self-taught as a filmmaker?
No, I went to film school shortly after that, maybe '93/'92. That was purely in response to [my] growing frustration with writing – I needed a big change. And it was actually very difficult because I really didn’t know the first thing about filmmaking.
Was there anyone around at the time that you aspired to be like?
Like I say David Lynch... that kind of film is what I dreamed of making. And then also people like Ken Loach, Mike Leigh – the more kind of everyday, real life filmmaking. That was very inspiring to me.
How would you describe yourself as a filmmaker?
At the moment I am very much not a filmmaker.
How do you mean?
Well, I’m very tired of making films to be honest with you. I’m not sure if it’s really... it changes from day to day but sometimes I wake up and it feels like it’s over, like it’s time to take a new direction completely. And there’s no sadness in that. I’m writing the whole time and I’m really focused on that at the moment. I’m thinking of taking a long break from filmmaking because it’s... I don’t know... It’s difficult to make films.
In what sense?
In a physical sense, mainly. It’s a very difficult, tiring process. The hunger that you need to have every day is sometime difficult to find. It’s difficult to be... you have to think very fast as a director and at the moment – I don’t know whether it’s because I’m getting older – but I feel like I need to start thinking slower. As a director you have to react to things quickly, to change things in a split-second, and I don’t feel like I have that speed right now. I find that very difficult at the moment. Or maybe I just want to find it difficult. I don’t know.
Looking forward what are your ambitions?
I don’t really have any ambitions except writing. My writing has always been the basis of everything I do, and right now I have just finished a novel, which I think should be coming out sometime in the spring. After that I don’t know, but I will always keep writing. Who knows, it might turn into a film eventually.
Could you tell us anything about the book?
Well... I can’t really... I don’t want to give anything away but it’s... One thing I have struggled with as a filmmaker is finding the way to tell a story and remain subjective. In a way I find that easier to do when I’m writing. It’s easier as a writer to write the word ‘I’ – ‘I’ do this and ‘I’ think about this – but as a filmmaker it’s hard to find that personal voice... that kind of subjectivity. So the novel I have written comes from me personally; it comes from personal experiences. It’s not autobiographical or anything like that but it’s written in the first person and that is something I find difficult to do in film sometimes.
Have you incorporated any recurrent themes into the book?
I still deal with a lot of the same issues, like how human needs can be turned into something else and how, for example, longing for another human being can turn into something destructive.
What is it you love about movies?
That’s a really important question for me at the moment. I think I need to think about this one... I think there’s something rare that can happen in cinema, and when it happens it can overwhelm you, completely blow you away. It might not have the level of analysis or same intellectual level as some literature, but when cinema works it has the ability to utterly devastate you. Cinema can be a tidal wave hurling itself at you. That is a wonderful to experience when it happens, and it’s wonderful to sometimes be able to achieve that as a director. That’s what I strive for, both as a filmmaker and a viewer. But in order to achieve that I have to focus on my writing first. That has always been the basis of everything I do. That is my main interest. It always will be.