Interview: Director Janus Metz Talks “Borg vs McEnroe”

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Shia LeBeouf, director Janus Metz, and Sverrir Gudnason on the set of BORG VS MCENROE, courtesy of NEON

Watching sports dramas is always a complete joy – be that about football, soccer, hockey, or karate. When that film watch is based on a true story that tells about who very different men on either side of the tennis court, who founder themselves there for two very different reasons, that is a storyline that can never go wrong.

Set in the 1980s, the film tells about the legendary Swedish tennis player Bjorn Borg, who is chasing his fifth Wimbledon title. He is playing against the American John McEnroe, for whom this will be the first Wimbledon. The two men have different personalities, backgrounds, and visions. One must be controlled psychologically, whole the another can’t handle his own emotions. This ends up being the greatest rivalry in the tennis world, where they challenge one another during their final game. Now, nothing can stop them, except one thing – deep in their minds they are lacking somewhat readiness for what is to come. Now, whatever the outcome of the match will be, this the final game of the championship will never be forgotten.

Directed by Janus Metz, “Borg vs McEnroe” is the right film to bring some heat to Ontario during these cold spring days. It is full of energy, creativity, emotions, and outstanding performances from the lead stars. I am sure, you do not want to miss this film.

During the last year’s Toronto International Film Festival the director Janus Metz kindly spared a few minutes to talk about his journey of making the film about these two legendary tennis players – Borg and McEnroe.

MOVIEMOVESME:  As Canadians, we are more familiar with Swedish hockey players, yet, I knew about Swedish tennis players as well. They don’t have reputations for self-indulgent people. I am wondering whether the message of this movie is that perhaps Bjorn is a bigger headcase than John McEnroe? Does it say anything about the Swedish temperament and about holding hold these things down? Does the coach’s advice refer to the whole society in some way?

Janus Metz: Well, I think it’s very much a film about how two very different societies produce two very different types of heroes – athletes. I mean the Swedish sort of welfare system of the 70s is of course very much about not sticking out. It’s about composure and that’s very opposite to the American society of the same time. Which is a very individualistic society, a capitalist society that champions a completely different type of personality?

MOVIEMOVESME:  At some point when you watch the film you expect that one character is supposed to be the villain and the other is the good guy. But then you realize it could easily have been flipped the other way. It’s just whatever your perception is because you really don’t know what the backstory is, and this is what this is really all about.

Janus Metz: For me, it’s not a film about villains and heroes. That’s more like the narrative that the media at the time constructs. And I don’t even know if it was that much one-sided. I mean there was a conservative thing surrounding tennis back in the UK that McEnroe charged for rum. And he had spectacular fights with the British tabloid press, of course. But to me, it’s more a film about human behavior. Human conduct and how one becomes who they are. And about these two people and they share some common things rather than the things that made them so different. I think that kind of existential questions that we’re driving at in the movie is much more interesting than that kind of superficial drama about heroes and villains.

MOVIEMOVESME: I liked the film structure very much. You have shown the backstory and then you were going back and forth. I want you to talk about the way you have built the structure and have started making this movie.

Janus Metz: This is obviously something that needs to be attributed to the scriptwriter, Ronnie Sandahl. He came up with this concept for the movie that is centered around 1980 Wimbledon. And of course this spectacular match between Bjorn and John that historically made the world stop and wonder. And you know, it’s one of those incidents in the history of sports when time stands still. So going from that, building from that, what was it that created a ‘John’ and a ‘Bjorn’ and as the two types of personalities that they were. Which clashed on the court that may be created something bigger. So that’s the structure of the film and you can say, no it’s not a biopic in a classical sense of the word. It’s more trying to crystallize a story from a particular moment and building from that.

MOVIEMOVESME:  Did you have compunctions about this project before you started it? Any reservations about doing a movie about sports or a biopic before you saw that script?

Janus Metz: Yeah, in a sense I don’t think you can really make a sports movie. I think the sport is always a stage or a scene. It’s always about the characters and it’s always about a sense of humanity. That’s what drives all good filmmaking. We can call it war movies or sports movies or, I don’t even know, all kind of genres – but the thematic thing that’s in play here has to be about character and about a certain – let’s call it a type of humanity or existential questions. That’s what was interesting to me.

So reservations at the point where I had the script put on my desk in front of me and said “Borg vs. McEnroe.” I’m like, okay do I, I don’t have any particular interest in tennis. I thought these two characters were spectacular but I had a particular interest in people that drive themselves to the edge and beyond. Maybe to search for some sense of purpose in life. Or some sense of meaning or like a larger abstraction. And as I started reading those were the things that the script was driving at. That made me interested.

MOVIEMOVESME: So you mentioned that this match is a moment that time stood still. There’s a lot of great sports moments in our history. But this is one, I’ve seen it re-enacted as an art installation. That you’ve used it for very high drama, reminded me of the movie “Rush” – that really intense drama. What do you think it is about this particular match that still stands out after 30 something years?

Janus Metz: I think it is multiple things. I think it’s a perfect narrative between two perfect opposites. The one who always represses his emotions in order to manifest an intensity that makes him a winner. And then John McEnroe is the opposite that feeds off of his emotions and uses them actively, and extravagantly. So I think as personalities they represent mirrors that we can look at and maybe find a piece of ourselves within. So that’s one part of it. Secondly, it was a perfect narrative of clashing types of a society of clashing worlds. And then what happened in that match became so dramatic. It was so extensive that it was almost an element that became larger than tennis. That became sublime. Perfection.

MOVIEMOVESME: To what extent did you find the qualities you were looking for in your leads? I think, for instance, of the press conference scene with McEnroe, Shia LaBeouf’s own bowels with the press – it was almost meta that scene. I didn’t know whether I was looking at John McEnroe or Shia LaBeouf. It could have been either one with the words he was saying. Did you get a sense of who you were dealing with in the actors?

Janus Metz: That was pretty much part of the casting, of course – to find people that could bring a certain authenticity to the roles. So that we were not just replicating or trying to create a sense of mimicry but we were trying to create a sense of truth, a reality that transcended that possessed the film.

MOVIEMOVESME: Because I got the sense that you would know exactly what was going on when he read that scene.

Janus Metz: We used it very accurately of course. I’d be foolish as a director not to use that.

MOVIEMOVESME: You discussed the duality of the two characters and those icons in history. But what I thought was kind of interesting was how effectively you created a continuum between them, like they recognized each other that they are on some sort of circle and each one is at a different end of it and moving back and forth. When they see each other at the end, in the airport, that recognition is instantaneous. On the court, they are antagonistic to each other. But they already know they are the only two people who can actually understand what’s going on at that moment.

Janus Metz: But that’s very much the point of the film I think. That they see sort of something in each other that they recognize in themselves. You can wonder what that is if it’s some sort of pain or some sort of longing.

MOVIEMOVESME: You were talking about bringing the truths to the story. But you have also cast Borg’s son –  Leo Borg who played the younger version of him. I wonder how did you bring him on board and how the tennis icon himself was involved in the film.

Janus Metz: This was a wonderful thing because we were actually approached by Leo himself. When we went out with a casting brief we got a letter saying: “My name is Leo Borg. I’m a tennis player. I’m 13 years old. I would like to come to the casting. By the way, my father’s name is Bjorn Borg.” We obviously knew very well who Leo was. And he was already on our radar. I thought this was really interesting. I mean this is the blood of the real character and that could potentially be great. It could also potentially be a big problem. Because, would Bjorn Borg be able to have a say regarding the film? Would he suddenly be on set saying: “No you can’t do that scene because I don’t want that side of me to be in the movie.” Or could Leo be in trouble at home, at the dinner table if Bjorn didn’t like the film? And suddenly here’s a director asking him to do stuff that dad doesn’t want. Leo was just so undeniably good. And we had very thorough discussions with the Borg family as to what it would mean to bring Leo into the production. He was going to be treated like any other actor. This was Leo’s own thing. Bjorn wouldn’t have any real interference. But of course, the whole scenario evolved into me having a chance to sit down and talk with Bjorn and talk about his life and invite him to come to set. He was on set as we were going to film. He was never there when we were filming Leo. I didn’t want that double awareness on Leo’s behalf. I wanted him to feel free. But he visited the set on a day when we were filming a scene in Bjorn’s childhood home. So he walked into a perfect replica of his childhood home with two of Sweden’s most talented actor’s dressed up as his parents. It was a very touching day for him.

But to answer your question, they haven’t had any final cut or say on the movie. We’ve never had any secrets from them either. We’ve tried to be open. We’ve always tried to engage them in conversations. I’ve been lucky to have that opportunity with Bjorn. Unfortunately, not with John.

MOVIEMOVESME:  A funny thing was that Shia mentioned that this is the second time that he’s been offered a role of John McEnroe. So clearly people see this parallel. I wonder what did you see in him to cast him for this role?.

Janus Metz: Well, it’s very obvious and Shia himself talks about this role as being a cathodic experience for him. So that, of course, makes me very proud. And it’s something that we used that actively as part of the production.


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