Marcus Söderlund is sitting hunched up in an office chair, feet up on his desk with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. I’m standing three feet away looking at him through the window trying to get his attention with an awkward wave. He can’t see me. He is staring into a large split screen at what looks to me like an editing program. I knock on the window and he lets me in to a two-room office on the hills of Södermalm in Stockholm that he shares with three others. The locale looks like a fin de siècle apartment mixed with your regular creative freelancer type office. According to Marcus it used to be a milk store, a long time ago, and after that a psychologist’s reception. He shows me his desk – nothing special, a computer, two large screens, a couple of file folders and some pictures on the wall. I am introduced to his fellow tenants, a photographer, a writer and a psychologist, before we move into the other room.
In a time when MTV has abandoned its supposed raison d’être for reality shows, the trade of music video directing has had to shed its skin. The age of high budgets are long gone. Today the industry is fighting for its existence, and if you’re not Jay-Z, the record company has little or no money left to pay for your music video. This development is not all bad as it leaves the field open for a more diverse musical landscape, smaller artists and record companies get attention through alternative media and of course the internet. This affects the whole of the music industry, including music video directors.
Marcus Söderlund is one of Sweden’s most promising filmmakers, and one of the most sought after music video directors in the country. For the past five years he has continually delivered fine quality music videos to Swedish artists like The Tough Alliance, Jens Lekman, Marit Bergman and Taken By Trees. When Pitchfork compiled its list over the 50 best music videos over the last 10 years, Marcus video for The Tough Alliance’s “Silly Crimes” was one of them.
Attempts to describe Söderlund’s imagery often fall flat, but Sukhdev Sandhu captured it when he summarized the year in music videos 2007 in Sight & Sound: “There were lots of terrific music films this year. None delighted me more than lusciously romantic short, the equivalent of floating to heaven atop a disco mirror- ball, in which Swedish crooner Jens Lekman recollects his first kiss while piloting a jet with which he skywrites his name across a blue horizon.”
Now he is sitting opposite me in a recliner in front of an open fire, blanket still wrapped around him, sniffling over a cup of tea in this old psychologists reception. Marcus Söderlund has a cold.
Do you like going to your office every day, as opposed to working from home?
I do. Having an office where you have your work computer and work papers enables me to trick myself into working 9 to 5. Which is ironic because that’s one of the reasons why you don’t get a proper job, right? So you don’t have to get up in the morning? But I’ve found out that I work better and feel better if I have regular hours.
Have you ever tried working from home?
I can’t do that. It’s just too schizophrenic for me. When am I working, when am I free? Now I can choose. If I for some reason I want to be alone I can sit at home for a day or two but I don’t have to. The weirdest place I’ve ever used as an office was a friend’s apartment. When I came to work he left for school, sometimes he was still in his underwear when I got there. I’m not going to do that again.
Are you trained in filmmaking?
Yes. I went to Stockholm School of Film for a year and a half and after that the Gothenburg School of Film for three and a half years. To be trained professionally, to get an education, has been very important to me.
I decided when I was young that I wanted to be a film director. I can’t say when or why, I just decided. I was in a band trying to be a rock star but I really didn’t have any talent. So I just chose, in my opinion, the next best career. But then I felt that I needed an education and I knew that there was a school in Stockholm that was good if you wanted to get into bigger and better schools. The only problem was that it was expensive and I didn’t have any money. So I sold everything I had, clothes, furniture, everything. In the end all my friends were walking around in my clothes. But I applied, got in and moved to Stockholm. After that I tried to get in to Gothenburg School of Film for a few years, with no luck. But in the end I got in.
Do you think you can be successful in this field without an education?
Definitely. I think an academic education in any field of art can sometimes be inhibiting if you don’t have enough guts to say “Fuck it, I’ll do it my way.” But for me it was a personal goal to get an academic degree. No one in my family has ever done that. So to break that tradition was extremely liberating.
When did you get in touch with Ola Borgström (of the label Service: Jens Lekman, The Embassy, The Tough Alliance, The Whitest Boy Alive, and more)?
While I was at Film school in Gothenburg.
Did he approach you?
No, I went up to him drunk at his club Hot Service and said that I really liked what he was doing and we sort of clicked. Then he called me a couple of weeks later and asked if I could help one of his new bands, The Tough Alliance, with a video. A friend of the band had shot it but he couldn’t really edit it, so they came over one night and I helped them with it.
I heard Peter Englund on the radio the other day saying that when people reach midlife they involuntarily start to dress the same way as they did when they were at their “peak” physically – in other words – their early 20s. Without revealing too much of your age, or for that matter imply that you are anywhere near midlife, would you agree to that your aesthetic language today is heavily influenced by the cultural diet you kept during the nineties?
Haha, I don’t know. You’re implying a lot here. I actually listened to The Stone Roses first album the other day and it felt truly timeless. The aesthetics, the sound, everything felt very up to date. Of course I’m biased, that’s an album that I listened to a lot when I was young when it was just out. A lot of the films and bands I discovered then are very special to me and still influences me today. So I think you’re both kind of right. Although, I constantly find new art and expressions that effects me, I never stop to take in new inspiration.
Do you think it’s boring and predictable to talk about Terrence Malick?
Is it ok if we do it anyway?
Looking at the two of the best Swedish films the last couple of years, Jesper Ganslandts Farväl Falkenberg and Fredrik Wenzel and Henrik Hellström’s Burrowing, it’s hard to get around the fact that they are clearly heavily influenced by Malick. Why do you think that he has had such a big impact on young filmmakers today, yourself included?
You mean middle-aged filmmakers…
Again, I’m sorry about that.
Haha. Well, a part of it is because his aesthetics are easy to comprehend. For me, as a part of the same generation of filmmakers as the three you mentioned, I would say that it’s a revolt against our predecessors. During the last 20 years in Sweden every film or music video that has come out has been cool and detached. Anything with beauty or meaning has been shunned. Malick is everything but detached, he is for real. It’s as simple as that. I think a lot of people who work with visual arts, not just film, feel relieved to express themselves in a way that actually means something. One more very unromantic reason why I think Malick strikes a chord is simple math. The natural light you see in his film, a big part of his unique quality, is out there everyday for free. If you find the right natural light and make sure you hold your hands still – you don’t need an expensive studio or lighting. You do need to get what you’re doing. And I like to think I do.
Sounds like you have found a magic recipe: beautiful and cheap. Whoever is paying must love it?
I like to make people happy. When you go out and shoot without any money people don’t expect anything. They think you’re going to come back with something shot in your own basement. If you work hard and if you know what you’re doing, today’s technology has made it a lot easier to make really great looking films and music videos really cheap.
Would you say that themes are reoccurring in your videos?
No, I don’ t work that way… Or it depends on what you mean. Every project is built around an idea of course, but if you see a theme reoccurring it’s something that I’m not aware of at the time I’m working anyway. But sure, afterwards you might see tendencies, but that’s more approaches than themes.
Well, patience is important, both my own patience and the viewers. I believe that if you decide to focus on five girls jumping rope, then you focus on that for the entire video. You will gain so much from having faith in your audience. If people can’t focus on one thing for three minutes you might want to switch subjects. Doing that for a longer period of time though, is harder. But if it works, it often works out great.
Do you have an example of such a film?
I think Gus Van Sant’s Elephant is great as long as he manages to focus on the teenagers. It’s when he diverges from the kids that you loose interest.
How about borrowing scenes or themes from other films, would you say that that is a reoccurring approach?
I’ve done close to 25 music videos and I think I’ve “borrowed” a theme three times. So no, I wouldn’t say reoccurring. Sometimes people get agitated when they see that you have done that but I really don’t see the problem. It’s not like I’m trying to get away with it, like I think that people wont notice. Taking, stealing, borrowing is a part of the creative process of making art and it can be very rewarding if you manage to make something original with it. I took the car/Vespa scene from Abbas Kiarostami‘s Close Up, and made it into something of my own that works very well with the song. If you do it really well it can actually top the original. I’d say that the video I did for The Embassy’s “Stage Persona” where I borrowed a lot from the film The Swimmer, is better than the original film. I think a lot of kids discovered The Pixies after listening to Nirvana’s Nevermind. If one kid discovers Kiarostami after seeing the video for “New Chance” I mean…that would be great.
Sometimes your imagery almost reaches the level of German Romanticism, like in the video for “The Queens Corner” by Joel Alme, you expect Napoleon to come riding down the hill on Marengo at any second. I know “nature” is a ridiculously general word, but for lack of a better one, what role does nature play in your videos?
I don’t want to talk too much about this because it’s demystifying. You loose a lot of the qualities these images possesses by asking how and why and so on. But yes, it plays a big part. There is a power and a beauty in mountains, woods and in the open sea that has been extremely underused in music videos up until very recently. The calmness and beauty you might be able to capture, sometimes it doesn’t work at all, is very hard for me to stay away from. Also, you mentioned Romanticism – Caspar Friedrich is a huge influence for me, that whole period with its images is very important to me.
I saw a picture of Prince Eugén’s The Cloud hanging by your desk. What other painters do you like?
Marcus Larsson, I mentioned Friedrich, Andrew Wyath, Strindberg, the Pre-Raphaelites. When reality meets the magical.
Are you a fan of that whole period in Latin American literature?
I am, although subtle magic is more my thing, like in Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned.
Are you looking forward to Where the Wild Things Are?
The trailer looks fantastic. I just hope it’s not another great trailer where the actual movie doesn’t cut it, like Marie Antoinette.
Is it your goal to make movies?
Yes it is. Partly because – and this is very childish, but nonetheless it’s a driving force – I want some goddamned respect for what I’m doing. It’s incredibly annoying that a feature film is the only format that is worth anything. The common assumption is that music videos are just something you do on your way somewhere else. I’m proud of what I do. You don’t ask a poet when he’s going to stop fooling around and write a real book, right?
Yeah, “Every novel is a failed poem,” right?
Who said that?
I don’t know, Faulkner maybe?
Have you ever thought about doing a musical?
Ha ha, no.
Why? I think you would make a great musical.
Maybe. I love White Christmas. I would love to build a giant studio and make it look like they did in the 1940s and 50s, so wonderfully artificial you know? Oh shit, I just remembered, that’s another one I stole…