Janus Metz’s Visions of War
For the Borg vs. McEnroe director, everything’s a battle — even on the tennis court
Whether it’s a battlefield in Afghanistan or an epic, five-set Wimbledon Championship, it’s all war to Janus Metz. The Danish director won the Cannes 2010 Critics' Week Grand Prix for his documentary Armadillo, which followed the lives of Danish troops on a military base during the war in Afghanistan. What emerged were complex portraits and fraught tactics that stirred controversy in his homeland, where the film was a surprise box-office success.
Similarly, Metz describes his latest film — and narrative feature debut — Borg vs. McEnroe as “a kind of war movie,” although this one is waged between two of the greatest tennis players ever. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the calm precision of Björn Borg (played by Sverrir Gudnason) clashed with the ragged passion of John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) both on and off the court. The rivalry culminated in what’s come to be considered one of the greatest tennis matches of all time: the 1980 Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Singles final.
Before Borg vs. McEnroe premiered at Festival ’17 as the Opening Night Film, TIFF sat down with Metz to talk about the furies of manhood, how to capture Shia’s energy, and giving it all — even blood — to cinema.
Borg vs. McEnroe opens today at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Tickets are now on sale.
What was the film that got you into film?
As a young teenager I was blown away by films like The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Raging Bull (1980), and The Godfather (1972) — the American cinema of the ’70s. That kind of epic storytelling with very strong characters, with very powerful thematic backdrops, was really my thing. And then, growing up in Denmark, a head-on collision with Lars von Trier’s work was a mind-blowing experience for me.
So I think it’s somewhere along those lines that I somehow decided that I was going to be a filmmaker. But I started making films at quite a late age. I was 27 when I first picked up a camera.
What was the impetus for you to pick up that camera?
I come from a family of artists. My dad is a painter, and he always said, you know, “don’t be an artist unless you can’t help yourself.” So, of course, I was trying to not be an artist for a very long time. I was painting in secrecy and my paintings used to look like my dad’s. I thought, “I’m such a loser. this is never going to work.”
I went to university, and studied politics, international development, communications, and anthropology. I ended up in South Africa in this media organization called Soul City. They were doing televised content that had an educational purpose — like making a story about a hospital with the purpose of educating people on HIV health issues.
Working with them, I found myself running around the townships in South Africa. Suddenly, I thought, “Well, I should make a documentary.” I picked up a camera and started shooting with a group of carjackers — in a South African context, sort of petty-crime stuff — and made my first documentary, called Township Boys (2006).
Documentaries were my first love. After Township Boys, I got in touch with some people in the business and was able to make my first real, financed documentary, called Love and Delivery (2007), which was about Thai mail-order brides and Thai migration into a small-town community in Denmark. It was a huge success on Danish television and was picked up for American markets at South by Southwest.
My next documentary, Armadillo, blew up and got me an award in Cannes. From there, a lot of doors opened, but I felt that I’d exhausted myself as a documentary filmmaker. The films that I made were bordering on narrative, extensively, and feature filmmaking appealed to me because of the inherent control and artistic expression involved. It was the natural next step.
How do you think observing soldiers and being in the line of fire with Armadillo informed your approach to working with actors?
Oh, very much. I approach filming not as a series of takes, cuts, and actions, but as a space to observe and explore life. I want to run a set that frees up actors to be more real.
What’s unveiled in front of the camera needs to be real, whether it’s a documentary or a narrative feature. Obviously, the route to find this reality is different with narrative filmmaking, but the attention to the emotional truth of the scene — how I build that and how I create a space around that — is still very informed by documentary filmmaking.
Niels Thastum, the very talented DP on Borg vs. McEnroe, has also done a lot of documentary work; some of it, we’ve done together. We try to work fast, do a lot of retakes, and keep a very fluid and open approach to the scene work. It’s usually something that actors really appreciate, because it makes them feel like they’re able to come in and work in a very organic way and give blood to the film.
I know for Shia it was a great working process. He really appreciated it, because he’s the kind of actor that amps up a lot and then unleashes a lot of energy. If you’re not there to catch that, then you’ve lost your moment. You can’t be fiddling around with lamps or extras or anything. You need to construct the set in a way so you can work with that kind of energy.
Armadillo and Borg vs. McEnroe raise a lot of questions about masculinity and men’s emotions. In an interview about Armadillo, you talked about watching soldiers needing to shut their emotions down in order to deal with war. Borg vs. McEnroe is not war, but —
It’s a kind of war movie, in some ways. Watching Björn and John play tennis is a form of a battlefield experience. It’s not life and death in the sense that you could take a bullet and die, but the kind of intensity that they need to manifest with themselves on court — it’s this very focused, concentrated space — is very much about being alive in the present.
My films are introspective, not only to my characters, but also about myself. It is about masculinity. In a war movie, military culture, by and large, is very masculine. Sports at the time — the tennis I’m portraying — was a very masculine culture.
For both Björn and John, it’s also about how two very different types of masculinity — two very different heroes — were produced at a specific time in different societies: in a Swedish welfare state and an American, very individualistic, capitalist, liberal state.
The film allows you to see those contrasts, but also an opportunity to see similarities, despite them initially appearing diametrically opposed. The flashbacks say a lot about how each man was formed. Both of their energies are contained and produced, in a way, by their parents.
John’s parents wanted the best for him. They grew up in a society where, if you don’t perform, you’re gonna fall through the cracks. They were part of an immigrant community — I believe they were second-generation immigrants, Irish immigrants — and they were people that had to make their way up in the world. If you don’t toughen up, you’re not going to make it. For them, that’s an expression of love.
Even though this puts a lot of pressure on a kid, there’s no evil intent. But obviously, if you are a 12-year-old, and you’re the best in your class at maths, and your mother tells you it’s not good enough, then where are you going to go with that? “Well, I’d better be the best in the world at something.”
Maybe tennis was not the thing that John’s mother wished for him, because he should probably have gone to law school or something, so in order to gain love and acceptance — and we are talking about something that’s probably deeply subconscious and also my interpretation — then what do you do? You become the best in the world.
One has to be very careful about these kinds of interpretations in movies, because the kind of Freudian explanation of human behaviour can be very dull, but at the same time I think there’s truth to that in the film. When you read about Björn or John’s lives, it’s very much about mom and dad, the conceptions of gender, and how you become a “real man” within this environment.
What does it take? That’s where we are.