Yet another dubious attempt at whimsy, this time imagining what it would be like if a classic "serious" movie got the kind of DVD commentary we've all come to know and dread in current films:
Hi, I’m Ingmar Bergman. I wrote and directed THE SEVENTH SEAL, the movie you’re about to see, or maybe you already saw it without my talking over it... by the way, I originally wanted to call it “The Man Who Played Chess With Death,” but Svenk Filmindustri, the studio, thought it was a bad idea to put “Death” in the title, so they suggested this one. I thought it made it sound too much like, you know, a horror film or something, but it seems to have done all right.
While the credits roll, I should maybe say something about how the movie came to be made. I’d just done SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT and I was looking for a project to do that was a bit darker, and I remembered this story that had been kicking around all the Swedish studios. They’d all turned it down because nobody wanted to do a chess picture, but I thought there was something in it, because I said, look, it’s not about chess, it’s really about death and morality and that’s the kind of thing that can make for a good, strong story. So I wrote the script, and then I brought it to Svenk Filmindustri, and they said they liked the death stuff but couldn’t I update the setting. They thought setting it in the Middle Ages would be too expensive and might get people confusing us with IVANHOE, something like that. Luckily there was one guy at the studio – Frederik Larsson, I think his name was, nice guy, unfortunately dead now – and he was a big Middle Ages buff. So he got it, I mean, he said to the other executives, “Look, there was a lot of death in the Middle Ages, because of plagues and things, so if we set it now it just won’t have the same impact.” Finally the studio said I could do it if I shot it without big sets and borrowed the medieval costumes from PRINCE VALIANT, which had just wrapped. So I have to give Frederik credit, he really went to bat for us on this one.
Isn’t that a great shot of the beach? Gunnar Fischer, he was my cameraman on this, amazing cameraman. He would take all day to light a scene, and sometimes I’d say “Gunnar, hurry up, we’re going to fall behind schedule,” and then he’d just shrug and stub out his cigarette and go back to working on the lighting. A great cameraman, but he could be tough to handle. So when we were doing this shot, and I knew we really needed to get it done quick, I said “Hey, Gunnar, take as long as you want on the lighting.” It’s reverse psychology, and I know it sounds hokey, but it worked, because we had the scene set up and lit and ready to shoot in about fifteen minutes. That’s the thing about being a director, that you have to be willing to try all kinds of tactics to handle people, even hokey ones. But I don’t want to make Gunnar sound like a weirdo or anything. He wasn’t. And just look at what he did with this shot. This is the shot where you see Death turn up for the first time. I love that shot.
Here’s Max Von Sydow. I worked with him on a lot of movies. He’s an extraordinary actor, of course, most people know that, but what most people don’t know is that he’s an absolute joy to work with. You hardly even need to direct him, because he just knows what you want, just instinctively. He was also Jesus, did you know that? Not literally, of course; I mean he played Jesus in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, before Jesus movies were as big as they are now. I’m not completely sure I believe in God, of course, and I made a couple of movies about that, but I think, and Max thinks, that he was an underrated Jesus. He brought the same commitment to that as he brings to this scene here. Look at him. I love this bit where he talks to Death, you know, like it’s nothing new for him. Most people would play it like “Oh, no, Death is here,” but I told Max I didn’t want that, and he got it. He got it right away, and you can see it in his face and his reactions. He really got it.
So here’s our most famous scene, the chess game. I was originally only going to have the chess game happen once, but then it worked so well that I thought “hey, this should be a running thing,” so I wrote in some new scenes. I thought we might be overdoing it, but it’s become the signature bit of the whole movie, and people still come up to me and say “Hey, Ingmar, I’m Death, let’s play chess.” So that’s gratifying. Interesting thing, the chess board was actually borrowed from Bibi Andersson’s great-uncle, who had all these old medieval-style boards and vases in his house. And then on the last day of shooting we put too much light on it and the paint started to peel off it. We managed to get the shots we needed, but the board was shot to hell at the end of it, and Bibi had to talk her uncle out of trying to sue us. We bought him another chess board, and he seemed to like that one, so it all turned out okay.
So, that’s the first big scene. In a minute I’ll talk about how I originally wanted to kill off the young couple and let the knight live, but it didn’t test well and I had to change it around. But first I need a drink of water. All this talking is exhausting.