The von Sydow Dynasty: From Kickstarter to Star Wars

Father and son. Legend and artist on the go. Two different generations of Von Sydow face to face for the first time. The legendary actor Max von Sydow ("The Exorcist"; "The Seventh Seal") talks about the upcoming "Star Wars: Episode VII" and his touching relationship with his son Cédric, who is now preparing an outstanding documentary about the ragtime NYC pianist, Mark Birnbaum, and his trip down melody memory lane in Paris. "Melody Memories" is collecting backers from all over the world but fans and artists' support will be essential for the production of the whole project.


Max von Sydow, what kind of relationship with cinema did you have in the beginning and how has evolved?

I was a student at the acting Academy at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, one of the leading directors Alf Sjoberg, it was also a very gifted filmmaker. He offered me a part in his film "Only a mother", and that was the beginning. It was not my intention to start a film career. I wanted to be a theater actor, working at the Royal Theater. After three years at the Academy, I spent nine years at municipal theaters in Sweden. Then I returned to the Royal Theater.

At the municipal theater of Malmo, I had the fortune of meeting and working with Igmar Bergman. He offered me "The Seven Seal". That is when my film career began. At that time a Swedish film crew consisted of maybe 15 people, and my contract had 4 pages! Since then I have had the privilege of working with a great number of brilliant international film directors, like George Stevens, John Huston, William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese. And many others. The crew for a major production is a crowd, and the film contract, thick like a bible. But for an actor the work in front of the camera is more or less the same.

I read in one of your interviews that you find "Pelle erobreren" ("Pelle the Conqueror", 1987) one of your favorite movie. Why?

"Pelle the Conqueror" is a very good film, even if it's not the reason why I mentioned it. But the part I played appears in a great number of different situations, which made it a great pleasure to interpret.

You said that Swedes are very reserved as a people and seldom show their emotions or feelings in public. Is it the same for you?


But now, you live in France?

Yes, for many many years now. I am actually a French citizen since more than ten years, I am married with a French woman, I have two French sons. France is for me the country of happiness. My wife, Catherine, is an excellent guide and she is helping me to explore the landscape, the monuments, the culture... Not to mention "la cuisine Française" and all the good wines! I even try to penetrate all the complicated layers of French History.

"Star Wars: Epidode VII" will be the first chapter of a new trilogy and the director J.J. Abrams chose you...

I have promised not to say anything about "Star Wars VII", whatever it will be called, but I am very pleased to be part of it. Of course I know George Lucas' series. It's an international adventure.

How do you think your sensibility and culture have influenced Cédric and his vision of art?

That is a question difficult for me to answer, I think you should ask Cedric.

What about your relationship with Cédric?

Cédric is very open for what goes on around him and has a vivid imagination and a keen eye for interesting details. Just take a look at his "Debric and Debroc" series, they're so rich in details that you should see them several times. And his way of doing "making-of" and behind the scenes is very personal, take a look at the ones he did for "Rush Hour 3" and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", for example. We have a lot to talk about and I admire very much his courageous creativity.

I think Cédric's project, "Melody Memories", in its initial conception, has a lot to do with your father's ability of telling stories, folk tales and adventures.

Maybe, yes. My father made research in old folk traditions but that was in a time when recording machines did not yet exist. It was all a matter of taking notes and shooting stills.

What would you say to convince people to donate and support the documentary?

Do you really think I have to convince people to donate? I am sure that when they'll read about "Melody Memories", they will have no choice. They just have to pledge and pledge a lot! It's a very imaginative way to tie together past and present. And a great idea for a film.


Cédric Brelet von Sydow, how did you find Mark Birnbaum and how was the idea of a documentary generated?

I met him in a café, in NYC. In fact he lives on the East side like me. That day, the bar was crowded, and people were talking very loudly. Mark heard my French accent when I ordered my drink and he turned to me and said with a soft voice, "I am sorry for all this noise". He explained to me that usually here, people scream instead of talking. We spent the day talking about art, philosophy, music. The more I saw Mark Birnbaum, the more I started to learn about "Humans of New York City". One day, Mark was kind of sad, he said to me that one of his dreams was to go back to Paris, and my French accent was making him travel. Travel to Paris in 1974, the year he spent in the city of lights. That day, I got the idea to make a documentary about Mark's return to Paris 40 years later. A musical, emotional and humorous journey. This documentary will explore what has changed, and what remains eternal, in both the city and the man.

Will it be studio produced or independent?

Most of the time I've worked with big studios, as Paramount, Warner bros, Metropolitan films, Pathé, etc. Except for my homemade shorts "Debric and Debroc". This time, as the budget for this documentary involves logistics between two countries, I've decided to use the platform Kickstarter.


Because I want total freedom to make my documentary as I wish. Especially the final cut of the film. I want the style and content to be my personal artistic vision, and not somebody else's. I am ready to listen the advices and critics from my backers as soon as it helps the project. They're part of the movie too.

Which is one of your father's teaching you would like to share with us?

Discipline! Also to adapt myself to any situation and to respect the human being. I have no difficulty having a talk with a homeless person in the morning in the street and having a talk with a president in the afternoon. Everyone deserves respect. Making a behind-the-scenes documentary, I respect each person of the crew, I don't only shoot the director and the actors but also those "little hands" that make a movie possible.

What kind of cul­tu­ral rela­tion­ship do you have with your father, Max von Sydow?

The rela­tion­ship that I have with my dad is really good. Max is my dad by adop­tion, and what's really strange is that we are very close, men­tally and phy­si­cally. I look up to him, he is my spi­ri­tual father, he is an exam­ple for me. I always call him "My Jedi Master", because for me he's a real Jedi Master, one of the big­gest. And funny thing Variety has just announ­ced that my dad will be part of the next "Star Wars". I cross my fin­gers, and hope he will be a Jedi... Who knows?? He never let me down but he wants me to succeed on my own. As he always says "to be suc­ces­sful, there is no secret, it's just about work, work, and work".

Which one of his films do you prefer or do you think is important and why?

That is a difficult question. More than 150 films, including some "cult" ones, but if I have to pick one, I would say the "renter" part in the Stephen Daldry's film "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close". I love that part because my dad is known not only by his looks but also by his voice and that character doesn't speak, he just communicates by writing. I think, in this film you can see him in very different situations: from really intense dramatic ones to kind of comic ones too. The story moved me because the relationship between grandfather and grandson is just about Love. My dad can play everything, I wish one day to see him in a comedy, I know he would love it.

How and when did you realize you wanted to become a director?

After my master diploma from the "Ecole des Beaux-Arts" (Fine Art School) in France, I started to working on my shorts "Debric and Debroc" with my friend Jean Dalmasso, and I enjoyed a lot to be behind the camera. I've been directing behind-the-scenes documentaries for many years. I had the opportunity to work with my dad and also with many really good directors. I was very impressed by them and I always got something from them, it's their passion that strikes me the most.

The best film school is working on a movie. And if you have the opportunity to do making-of, you will be lucky to have access to all the people who make a film. I remember at the beginning of my documentary on Brett Ratner's movie "Rush Hour 3" ("Rush hour 3 in 80 words") published on the European DVD by Metropolitan, Jacky Chan says: "I always tell Chris(Tucker), we are not the stars, the crew makes us become the stars".

What's next for you?

Next for me is to succeed on my Kickstarter project, "Melody Memories". I am also working on a documentary on the organisation called Grace Outreach, in the Bronx (NY). This documentary is about how Grace Outreach gives a new opportunity for women to get their TASC(ex-GED). I'm finally looking for a talent agency and a publicist in New York City.