No matter what films Oscar-winning Danish director Bille August makes in the future, it is a safe bet that none will mean quite as much to him as “The Best Intentions.”
Earlier this year, August’s three-hour film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
It also brought him into contact with Swedish actress Pernilla Wallgren, who played one of the two leading roles; during preparation for “The Best Intentions,” they fell in love. They are now married and have an 8-month-old daughter named Asta. And Pernilla August, as she is now known, was named best actress by the Cannes jury.
Add to this the fact that legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, director of such masterpieces as “The Seventh Seal,” “Wild Strawberries” and “Cries and Whispers,” personally asked August to direct “The Best Intentions,” which Bergman wrote about his parents’ courtship and early marriage, and one begins to appreciate its significance for August.
“One day I got a call from a lady in Sweden, asking me if I wanted to do a Swedish film,” August recalled. “But I was on my way to Hollywood to direct an English-speaking film, so I said no. When she told me it was something Ingmar Bergman had written and wanted me to direct, of course I had to look. And by the time I had read 20 pages of the script, I knew it was something I wanted to do.”
He flew from his Copenhagen home to Stockholm to meet Bergman, who had seen August’s 1988 Oscar-winning film, “Pelle the Conqueror,” seven times and was convinced August was the man he wanted.
“He told me having been a director himself he knew the director was the one who made all the important decisions,” August said. “From this point on, it was my film.”
Bergman kept his word, and even refused to show up for a large press conference to announce the film in Stockholm in December, not wanting to steal any attention from August. But before shooting started, Bergman had one request for August--that he cast Pernilla as Anna, the character based on Bergman’s own mother. “He told me he had written the part especially for Pernilla,” August said.
She had been a leading player in Bergman’s last movie, “Fanny and Alexander,” and later worked in Swedish stage productions he directed, including “Hamlet,” Strindberg’s “A Dream Play” and Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.”
“I had no idea he was writing it for me,” Pernilla August said. “I probably would have been terrified if I had known.
“When all this came about, I was in rehearsal with Bergman for ‘A Doll’s House.’ We rehearsed that play for two months, and while we didn’t specifically talk about the role of Anna so much, we became close to each other. That helped me. I had the feeling he trusted me and made me feel I trusted myself.” August watched “Fanny and Alexander” again, satisfied himself that Pernilla was a suitable choice, and went to work on “The Best Intentions.”
The romance, he said, was very simple: “We met and something happened. It wasn’t just that we fell in love; it was something built on knowledge and respect. Neither of us is 18 years old anymore. We both have children from earlier marriages.”
Filming took nine long months, and shooting was from two scripts--the feature version, which will be seen in U.S. theaters, and a six-hour version for TV, which has been sold in Japan and several European countries.
Whether or not he was aware of it, Bergman passed on to August the mantle of the Great Scandinavian Director by offering him “The Best Intentions.” In his autobiography, “The Magic Lantern,” Bergman writes of being seized by a violent illness in 1985, when he was 67: “I realized I would never again make another film. My body was refusing to cooperate and the continuous tension that is part of film-making was now a thing of the past. I shall take my hat while I can still reach the hat rack, and walk off by myself, although my hip hurts.”
“I never felt I was in Bergman’s shadow,” said August, reclining on a sofa in his London hotel suite while his wife breast-fed their daughter. “My main worry was whether I could keep up my concentration and energy for that long. But it was such deep, substantial material that each day was inspiring.”
The film’s two protagonists, closely based on Bergman’s parents, are Henrik, an impoverished, stern young theology student, and Anna, a mercurial girl from a wealthy family. They marry after a courtship of fluctuating emotions, and Henrik becomes pastor of a poor, bleak rural community in the north of Sweden--a move for which Anna is quite unsuited.
The revered Swedish actor Max von Sydow, who was nominated for an Oscar after his work in “Pelle the Conqueror,” had a small but telling part in “The Best Intentions” as Anna’s father.
Unlike many Scandinavian films that look ravishingly bucolic, “The Best Intentions” shows the Swedish climate at its harshest; with winter snows set against summer sunshine, climate functions almost like a character. This was deliberate on August’s part--he had also shot contrasting weathers in “Pelle the Conqueror.”
“There is this big change in the seasons,” he said. “It’s dramatic and dark in the winter, and light and open and warm in the summer. I believe that has to affect our temperament, and why we Scandinavians are the way we are. It’s part of our culture, and I wanted it to be part of this story.”
The nine-month shoot might have been grueling, but the couple enjoyed it.
“For me, it was a luxury to have all the time we had,” Pernilla August says now. “Apart from ‘Fanny and Alexander,’ I had only done a few films in Sweden, and this gave me a lot of experience in the medium.” Her husband: “It was like entering some endless tunnel of discovery. It opened up the doors to some secret rooms. Had it been an American action movie, I might have felt different about the length of time it took.”
Bille August, 44, worked as director of photography on a dozen Swedish films before making his directorial debut, “In My Life,” in 1978. His 1984 movie “Twist and Shout,” a teen buddy movie set in the Beatles’ era, secured a U.S. release, and he was then involved for three years on his first epic, “Pelle the Conqueror.” This story of Swedish immigrant laborers to Denmark at the end of the last century also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, as well as an Oscar for best foreign film. It made August an international name.
At the time Bergman approached him for “The Best Intentions,” producer David Puttnam had persuaded August to make “The House of the Spirits,” an adaptation of Chilean novelist Isabel Allende’s novel, for Warner Bros. Though that deal fell through, August is now about to make the film for a German company and was in London to cast minor roles.
“It will be an international film, English-speaking, with mostly American and British actors,” he said. The prospect of working in Hollywood does not faze him: “What appeals to me is the chance to reach an audience. It’s possible to combine substance and entertainment--that’s my goal.”
He points to Milos Forman and Francis Ford Coppola as two directors who have achieved this balance, yet he is also shrewd enough to know that both men have had their setbacks in working for major studios.
“Things are probably worse now than they were then, in the ‘70s,” August said. “Hollywood seems to be almost all lawyers now. But I feel I have the energy--I’m a member of a generation that can change things. I just can’t accept that things are the way they are.”
Certainly August has a more pragmatic attitude toward Hollywood than Bergman, who hated the place and resolutely stayed away. August directed an hourlong episode of “Young Indiana Jones” for ABC shot in Prague, Czechoslovakia, for executive producer George Lucas. Pernilla had a role as a German maid.
“I don’t think it was a typical experience,” August said. “Remember George hates Hollywood too, which is why he lives where he does (Marin County). But it was a big international crew, 160 people, and it was just like making a film in Denmark. Same pressures.”
After completing “The House of the Spirits,” August intends to take a break. His wife, despite her award at Cannes, which has made her a sought-after name, is already doing so--for the first time in 10 years after almost perpetual stage work. “Right now, I’m enjoying being a mother,” she said firmly. “I have no plans. I’m very satisfied.”
Although the couple are now highly visible players in the international film community, Copenhagen, where they have been treated like heroes since their Cannes triumph, remains their home, although Pernilla has kept her apartment in Stockholm.
“We’ve been living like Gypsies for a while, but need a base, and we can make our trips from there,” he said. She agrees: “It’s important for us not to lose what we have. Our roots are at home, and we want to hang on to them.”