Interview with Marcus Lindeen, director of Regretters

Mikael and Orlando were born as men but decided to change gender to become women. Now in their 60s, the two men share their unique experience of having had a sex change and realising it was a mistake. Based in a studio setting, Orlando and Mikael take us through their journey by interviewing one another and discussing the experience through slide-shows and archive footage.

Orlando was one of Sweden’s first sex change patients in the sixties, whereas Mikael changed gender mid-way through his fifties. Mikael is desperate to return to being the man he once was while Orlando has now defined himself as a ‘third sex’, devoid of gender associations. Through this confined interview format, they ask questions of the other no-one else would know to ask and a respectful intimacy between them derives from this. Despite their shared experience their journeys have been very different.

Regretters is an exceptionally interesting film, having the two characters interview each other in this setting and defying standard documentary conventions, works in such a way that would have been detrimental to the insightful nature of the discussion had it been filmed in any other way. Their candid testimony leads you beyond the simple premise of the specific area of their regret and opens into a exploration of how you deal with feelings of separation to your gender, sexuality and place in society. Both characters are fantastic storytellers and their life stories will speak to an audience in completely different ways. Regretters is a film that stays with you long after you finish watching it, is beautiful in both style and substance, and definitely one of the most thought provoking films I’ve seen this year.

Regretters is Marcus Lindeen’s first documentary and he has been kind enough to give us the interview below:

This film is a progression from a radio interview to stage play and now documentary. What initially drew you to these two men in particular and how have they reacted to the evolution of their story?

A few years ago I was working as a host for a weekly cultural show on The National Swedish Radio. We did this program with a theme on regrets. Different kinds of regrets. One of the people I interviewed for the show was Mikael. At that time I thought he was a unique case in that he was alone about regretting something so irrevocable as a sex change operation. But the same night as the show aired on the radio, Orlando called in to the radio station and told me he had heard the show, and that he had recognized himself for the first time in his life. He had also made the transition and had come to regret it. That night we talked for a long time on the phone. He told me the story about getting married to a man just months after his surgery in 1967, without telling the man who he actually was. And then continuing hiding the truth for eleven years. Then I really realized I had something really strong in front of me.

Shortly after that night I came up with the idea to let Mikael and Orlando meet. But when I approached them with the idea of making a film, Mikael hesitated. He was afraid that people would recognize him and wanted to remain anonymous. I didn’t know what to do, because I didn’t want to blur his face and change his voice. To solve the whole problem, I came up with the idea to have them meet and only record the sound from the meeting, and then turn the audio tapes into a theater play, where actors could portray Mikael and Orlando on stage. At that time I had just started studying at the theater director program at Dramatiska Institutet and was approached by Stockholm’s Stadsteater (Stockholm City Theater), Sweden’s biggest theater, to make a smaller production there. So I did Regretters there first, as as a stage play. It was a big success and ran for two years before it was recorded for broadcast on national television. The script has been translated to French, German and English. They have made a production of it at The National Theater in Oslo, Norway, and a staged reading with German actors at The Schaubühne in Berlin.

Actually, I just heard a theater in Brazil might be interested in making a production and having it translated into Portuguese. That would be great.

The successful stage play came before the film due to Mikael’s reluctance to go on camera, what caused him to change his mind and how does he feel about the film now?

Mikael saw the theater play and understood what it was that I wanted to achieve with the film, that I really didn’t want to hurt him or exploit his life. He was very moved by the performance and proud of how well it was received. And in a way I also think it had a somewhat therapeutic effect, to see a professional actor portray you on stage and sit in a big audience who reacts in a very warm, respectful and humble way to what is being told. I think he felt it was empowering. When the film opened in theaters in Sweden, Mikael was there for the premiere and was very proud. He even went up on stage afterwards and had a little speech to the 500 people in the audience.

You mentioned that, unconventionally, you hired Orlando and Mikael to be in the film to allow you to direct them in a greater way. In terms of the varying views of truth in documentary how do you think bending the ‘rules’ in this way added to telling their story factually? Coming from a journalistic background was this something you struggled with?

I think the financiers of the film have been more worried about the potential “fact-bending” situation of having the them hired as actors. I am not concerned with that at all, because this film isn’t about facts, it is about people trying to understand who they are and reflecting on their lives. Of course, the custom with documentaries is that you’re not supposed to pay people who appear on camera because that might interfere with the authenticity. But I don’t believe in documentaries as being objective. I believe all storytelling is constructed, so I would rather be there manipulating it to be true to what I, as a filmmaker, want to give my audience. Also I had to direct them a lot, otherwise it would have been dreadful and unbearable to watch it. I mean, you can’t expect two untrained people to be the best interviewers of each other on camera. I had to help them a lot.

But I mean, every documentary filmmaker wants to control the story and even if we try to be a fly on the wall when we are documenting things, we just end up doing it in the editing room anyways. You just have to accept that there is a storyteller, and that is you, the director. So I just felt like I wanted to have more control over the material when we were shooting. Actually, and this might sound weird, but it also felt like the most honest and respectful way for me to treat Mikael and Orlando, hiring them as actors and giving them a more active role in the filmmaking. Instead of getting surprised when seeing the finished film, they knew already on the set what I tried to achieve, and could protest right away, or try to understand the task and deliver their best.

The conversation between them comes across as very natural and flows well but were there any conflicts between them and their differing viewpoints and experiences?

Hmm, not really. I mean not in any aggressive way at least. They are very polite people and really wanted to show each other respect. But of course after a while they recognized the fact that they were so different, I mean, extremely different. You would maybe think they would go on and be friends after the shooting, but they didn’t really. Mikael occasionally calls Orlando, but I think Orlando gets stressed by that. He feels Mikael is dragging him down and is being too depressing. Orlando’s way of dealing with life is moving on.

It’s obviously unusual to have had the play of the documentary to come first. Considering a scripted version would essentially be your ideal version dialogue wise was this a difficult transition? Had either of them seen the play and if so did this affect the way in which they described their experiences, and in turn their knowledge of what you wanted from them?

Both Mikael and Orlando were involved in the production of the play. They met a couple of times with the actors during rehearsals. Also Orlando handed in his red velvet suit to the costume department to have them make an exact replica for the actor. They also made an exact wig to look like his hair.  And when we couldn’t find the same kinds of Gucci sneakers Orlando wears in real life, the theater bought them from him so the actor could were Orlando’s shoes on stage while playing him.

It is such a unique situation. To be able to show your subjects, with the use of actors making a staged version of my “dream film” with them, and then continue shooting the film with the original subjects. The film is shot in two sessions, two years apart. First in 2006, then I did the play based on that material, and then again in 2008. When we did the second shooting I had learnt things from working with the play that I wanted to go back and use in the documentary.

There is the belief that certain stories fit one medium in particular but this is very much proof that the right story transcends that limitation. Did you go from the initial interview with Mikael into knowing the end goal was to make a documentary and are you planning to take the story in further directions?

I knew I wanted to make a film from the beginning. The play was just a practical detour, but a very good one. I learned so much from making the story as theater first. Just understanding that I really wanted to achieve something that I could never have pulled off by pure journalism. That detour made me more brave about letting the story continue its journey to transcend to even newer media forms. It takes a lot of energy to be able to tell the same story over and over again. It feels like I have made the same film twice, almost. But it has actually been invited to be shown as a video art work in a big exhibition at The National Centre for Contemporary Art in Moscow in December, so I guess then it will have gone from radio to theater to film and finally to art.

How has the reception been to the film so far and where is it going next?

I have gotten such an enormous amount of feedback from people who really love the film, and great reviews. Both after the Swedish cinema run and from the festivals we have been at so far. A lot of people say that they went to to see the film with the idea that they were going to observe two very odd and extreme life stories. But then when they went out of the theater they felt that they could relate, even though the stories seem so far from from their own lives. My ambition has been to treat the sex change operation more as a metaphor for all big life decisions and transformations.

For more information of where to see Regretters visit the Atmo website – here