I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Roy Andersson: The Swedish Art Director that Could

by Matt Kelley
May 30, 2018


If you’re not familiar with the work of Roy Andersson, you probably aren’t Swedish. His first feature film, En kärlekshistoria (distributed as A Swedish Love Story in the US), premiered in 1970. Influenced by the Czech New Wave, En kärlekshistoria recounts the love between two working-class young people set against the backdrop of the perfect summer. Andersson was just barely out of film school at the time of it’s release but that had virtually no effect on the film’s major critical and commercial success. 40 years later, the film is still quite often found on the “most popular films” shelf in many Swedish video stores. Aside from his debut film’s unprecedented achievements, success wasn’t all lollipops and puppy dogs for Andersson. When producers pressured him to make sequels or at least repeat the formula of En kärlekshistoria, Andersson fell into a deep depression and took a long break from filmmaking. Five years later, Andersson released his second feature film, Giliap, but the film went wildly over budget and was considered a financial disaster. Critics and audiences alike didn’t understand Giliap and box office sales were very low. The film was an overall failure that nearly cost Andersson his directing career. Unable to find work, Andersson nearly turned his back on making films altogether. Just as he was about to give up, Andersson got a job offer and soon he began shooting commercials for a Swedish based insurance company called Tyrgg Hansa. With a family to support, Andersson was willing to take whatever work he could find. During the next leg of his career, Andersson shot hundreds of television commercials that would soon define his unique directing style. He would not direct another feature film for 25 years.

Meticulously planned and often delivering a surprise ending, it’s easy to recognize a Roy Andersson commercial. He tends to focus on working class people in typical everyday situations somehow being screwed over by fate. Andersson uses a lot of what he calls “no mercy” lighting. He shows his audience exactly who the characters are, what they look like and what kind of world they live in. All flaws intact, Andersson gives his characters no place to hide. This is pretty much the standard not only for Andersson’s commercials but for his feature films as well. Andersson’s shooting style is very clean. His shots are set up much like a painting; everything you see in the shot is there for a reason. Otherwise, why shoot it? From the characters to the props to the actions, everything has a function and serves a purpose. Andersson consistently demonstrates extreme patience and complete control over his sets.

Andersson may also be the original man behind the “two working men moving a large piece of doomed glass” bit. You see the laborers moving the glass and you know it’s going to be shattered to bits, but you don’t know when and you don’t know how and for some reason, you can’t seem to look away. Andersson’s commercials almost always end with a classic example of slapstick destruction and he seems to have a particular distaste for automobiles. More often than not, a car is completely destroyed in a Tyrgg Hansa insurance commercial. Andersson obviously has a lot of fun with his work but you can still tell that he still takes his jobs very seriously. There is discernable evidence of playfulness and art that goes into a Roy Andersson commercial, yet everything the viewer sees in each commercial is so carefully planned, you can tell that each set was a serious working environment. It's refreshing to see that in a world that normally views commercials as more of a business than an art.

It’s great to see such original ideas and hard work put into Andersson’s commercials with little to no influence from the stereotypical corporate or Hollywood productions. No one even comes close to rivaling Andersson’s originality. His style is distinct, unique and that’s really not something you see a lot of anymore. This goes to show that a person can be an artist no matter what form his or her medium takes. So many people today are hung up on making the next great Hollywood movie, but there are an inordinate amount other ways to produce art. The medium isn’t what’s important; it’s what the artist does with the medium that counts. Andersson’s story is an inspiration to filmmakers everywhere. The man was “exiled” from filmmaking but because he is a true artist, he continued to work in whatever environments he could. In the end, Andersson never stopped producing art and that’s why we love him.

Over four decades later, Roy Andersson has only returned to directing feature films in the last 10 or so years. Today, thanks to his 25 years of directing commercials, Andersson now owns his own production company, Studio 24, and he’s basically rich enough to produce whatever sort of projects he wants to on his own. In 2000 Andersson released his third feature film, Songs from the Second Floor and 2007, brought us You, the Living. After its premiere at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, Songs from the Second Floor became an international critical success. It won the Jury Prize in Cannes and five Guldbagge Awards in Sweden for best film, direction, cinematography, screenplay and sound. In September of 2009 the Museum of Modern Art in New York City presented a retrospective of Andersson's work. To this day, Andersson has completed only four feature films yet he is still widely acclaimed as one of Sweden’s greatest directors. He continues to write and direct commercials today and is speculated to have made close to 500 of them. Andersson is currently working on his fifth feature film. We can't wait.





Matt Kelley is a writer who lives in Chicago, Illinois.  Matt has been writing and producing short films since he was 14 fourteen years old and he will continue to do so until he is dead.  Matt has won several awards for the short films NakedAction City Bathroom and FutureCop 2010.   He currently writes for the new web series, Hank Frisco: Galaxy Defender.  Check out more of his work at www.hankfrisco.com or follow his angry rants on Twitter@_MattKelley_