Today Sweden has rendez-vous again with its national icon, the late jazz singer and actress Monica Zetterlund, with SF’s wide theatrical release of Per Fly’s biopic Waltz for Monica. The Danish director spoke to us on Monday.
How did you get involved in Monica Z-Was it producer Lena Rehnberg who approached you?
Per Fly: Yes she approached me three years ago in Cannes. At that point I didn’t have the time to do it. Later on the project came back to me via a common friend. I read the script and loved the idea of making a film with music, especially about Monica Zetterlund. Her jazz album ‘Waltz for Debbie’ with Bill Evans from 1964 is one of my favourites. So I started collaborating with Peter Birro on the script.
From the outset I told him that I didn’t want to make a film just about Monica’s real life. I want to show her myth, her musical legacy which is as important to understand her personality.
Biopics are perhaps one of the hardest genres to make because you have to figure out how to shoehorn a whole life into a 90 minute movie...Instead of doing a cradle to grave’ biopic, you obviously chose to focus on a certain period of Monica’s life…
PF: Yes Peter’s view was very good from the beginning. It was clear for him that the film wouldn’t be a docu-style biopic. He wanted to focus on Monica in the early 60s so we took liberties in putting together moments of her life so that they would take place within 1-2 years. That allowed us to focus on the dilemmas in her life, her inner fears and demons. It also allowed us to have people the same age during the whole film. What happens in a lot of biopics is that they have too much detail and you lose focus on the character.
What attracted you to Monica’s personality? (Spoiler alert!)
PF: As a young child, I had seen pictures of her; she was so sexy and her singing was so beautiful. I remembered her as a person who had a huge appetite for life. She was very strong-willed, talented and took men when she wanted. I knew that at the end she had tragically died alone in the fire of her Stockholm apartment. Between those two characters I thought there must be a big dilemma. I wanted to show that her life was one big adventure but also a big tragedy.
The story that you’ve chosen to tell is in fact very universal. It’s the common story of successful artists showing a strong image to their audience yet hiding an extreme vulnerability and sensibility from which they draw their creativity…
PF: It’s a huge thing to become famous like Monica. I have friends who’ve become spoilt by fame. It’s very difficult to deal with fame. I also relate to Monica because she had a working class background –just like me- and ended up in this upper-class, intellectual environment. You think someone can come and take everything away from you, because you’re not a real intellectual…
You feel almost like a fake..
I know Monica had that feeling and I could relate to that.
In the film her father -brilliantly played by Kjell Bergqvist-constantly questions her talent and ability to succeed and her conflict with him is one of her deepest inner sores…
PF: Her father is actually afraid that she will lose the script of her life and in the real world she did lose it. In a strange way he was quite right.
Finding ‘THE’ perfect actor who will impersonate the real person is also one of the biggest challenges for biopics, and you succeeded at 200% with Edda Magnason, a trained singer/composer who had no acting experience whatsoever but radiates throughout the film. How hard was it to find her, then to help her act with confidence?
PF: At the beginning I didn’t really want a singer for the part. I wanted an actor because I knew it would be a difficult part, needing the ability to play a wide range of emotions. Then the music video of Edda came out. We made a casting tape and I saw that she had something special. The camera loved her and we could see a resemblance with Monica, not just in her looks but in her singing.
Then when I started to work with her I knew she could make an extraordinary Monica precisely because she wasn’t an actor. However she did learn some acting techniques. We improvised a lot, tried to make her secure with the camera and tried to build the shooting around her as she WAS the film.
Edda is a very clever girl, very hard-working. Because of her musical background, she has a strict disciple. She knew that the part required a lot of work and she was prepared for that.
The songs were re-written as well by Peter Nordahl. Was that again because you didn’t want to be too close to the real Monica?
PF: I wanted people to understand that we interpreted Monica’s life. The songs that Peter Nordahl wrote almost sound like the original songs, but they aren’t. He invented new arrangements. I also asked Edda to leave a bit of herself in her singing.
This is your first period film and you’ve succeeded wonderfully in recreating the 60s in the spirit and in the mood through rich photography, set decoration, not to mention the music of course. Was this one of your most fulfilling experiences as a director?
PF: Yes it was, also because of that period. To be allowed to recreate Bill Evans’s trio in New York was a dream come true because I love that music. Our idea was to shoot as if we were in 1962-63, so I put a lot of effort in finding extras because I wanted to shoot around the people. The set designer, costumer and art department were also fantastic and worked their asses off and the result is that the film looks more expensive that it actually was.
Monica Z was your first film made outside of Zentropa, and I believe your next one, the English language political thriller Backstabbing for Beginners will be made for your new collective Creative Alliance. You feel it’s time for directors to get a better control of their creative material?
PF: When I worked at Zentropa I worked on one film at a time. That worked very well for some years but the business is such that you cannot do that anymore. I’m also more experienced so I can work on more projects at a time. If I’m going to make an American film, especially a political film like Backstabbing for Beginners I want to keep as much control as possible. The Creative Alliance is really about finding another way of entering the US market.
Besides that I’ working again with writer Peter Birro on a sequel to Pelle the Conqueror, produced by Meta Louise Foldager for Meta Film.
Aren’t you also involved in a humanitarian project?
PF: Actually on Tuesday I’m going to Africa. I’m part of a project that started 4-5 years ago in Bamako, Mali. Our biggest ambition is to try to build a post-production studio there. Their film industry is of course very small and within the next 2-4 years we will try to teach people there and build up a film environment for them. It’s a very fulfilling project.