Sports movies are never just about the sports; the best ones always delve into the minds of the players, in the hope to discover something new about the person behind the persona. So, who better to create a sports movie around than John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, two hugely successful tennis players of the ’70s and ’80s who couldn’t have been more opposite in personality?
The new film Borg Vs. McEnroe, directed by Janus Metz, focuses on these two iconic figures colliding at the height of their careers in 1980 at Wimbledon; Shia LaBeouf stars as the hot-headed John McEnroe, with Sverrir Gudnason opposite him as the calm, cool and collected perfectionist Bjorn Borg. When we caught up with Metz, LaBeouf and Gudnason at the Toronto International Film Festival, they told us about making a film that not only does justice to the real people they are portraying, but also making the story about more than just the match.
“I thought, coming to this story as a filmmaker, it had to be more than a biopic, more than a tennis movie,” Metz says of the film. “It had to be about something universal, something that transcended the sport. And when I read Ronnie Sandahl’s script, I really thought it was a beautiful story about really essential questions about how do people, individuals, drive themselves to the edge and beyond, in order to achieve something extraordinary. And working on previous movies, I’ve been very inspired and attracted to telling stories about characters doing some sort of soul-searching, some sort of chase for a greater sense of purpose. I really found that in this story, and it resonated deeply with me.”
So if the movie’s not about the sport, what is it about? According to Metz, “Borg Vs. McEnroe is a psychological thriller,” a deep dive into who these men really were at the top of their game and how they stayed there mentally. And while McEnroe was always a volcano, unpredictably threatening to blow at any time, Borg was like an iceberg, steady and cool. Yet that meant that they both had something big in common, that there was always more under the surface to them both. This gave both LaBeouf and Gudnason a common goal in their portrayals of the tennis legends: to get to the real truth of why they acted the way that they did. And in doing this, LaBeouf came to the conclusion that John McEnroe was misunderstood.
“I didn’t know much about his upbringing, how he came to be, in a very loud household, a scared, little guy, grew up in Queens, rough area,” LaBeouf explains. “My idea of tennis was very white collar, he was entering it in a different way. His father, and his mother, pushed him, and an A+ wasn’t enough, so I think I really just empathised with the idea that there was just no way to win. This is what made him so competitive in his life, the fact that he could stand up and hold his head high, put himself out there and be as vulnerable as he was. That kind of emotion, I respect it.
“I think he’s a tactician, I think he really added something more to the game. When he entered the game, it was a power sport, and Borg was the king of that. McEnroe brought a touch, and feel, and sensitivity to the game that wasn’t there before, he’s not just screaming rage; he used rage as a tactic to throw people off, and he manufactured his intensity to hype himself up. In that way he’s an artist; it was very thought through, though it wasn’t explained, it was very hard to sit in situations like this and explain that tactical position in tennis at the time because the narrative was cartoons, bad guy versus good guy. It was very hard to get to the honesty in a setting like this, and it really wasn’t a forum for him to express that truth. “
“Bjorn Borg, as a little kid, was like a little John McEnroe, in the sense that he held his feeling outside, and shouted a lot on the tennis court,” Sverrir Gudnason also argues that Borg and McEnroe were very similar. “And he had to learn to keep those feeling within to not be suspended. So that was something I learned about, that Borg is very human, like you can see him on the field, when he’s like an iceberg, but he’s actually very human. When we enter the movie, Bjorn is in a bad place, because he’s been winning and winning everything he can win for many years, so I think that feeling of everybody expecting you to win makes you not eager to win, but you’re afraid to lose. I think that the interesting part of the film is the psychology, but for me, to get there, my goal was to do Bjorn as best as I could. And after I met him, and talked to him, I can say that he’s very nice.”
Metz agrees that this is what the film is trying to present, the similarities in icons that were so often pitted against each other. “To me it was about two very different ways of manufacturing intensity, that’s one of the things that we were trying to get at in the film. How do you create a sense of perfection, or a sense of being in the present, and how do these two guys chase that? In some ways you can say that this is the portrait of two drug addicts, and the drug is tennis, the drug is intensity, the drug is being there now, here. Because it’s fun to play, yes, but there’s also an element of art in there, it’s very, very driven. This film could almost be about two artists, two business men, two soldiers.”
But for all the ideas that Borg Vs. McEnroe is about, there is one thing that is inescapably important within it: tennis. After all, a movie about two of the world’s most famous tennis players must have some pretty good tennis in it, right?
“When you’re making a film about two legendary icons, the best tennis players in the world, the tennis itself has to work,” Metz concedes. “So without that, the movie doesn’t work. And that meant that I had to put these two guys through intense training, and they were so dedicated in doing that, they were doing boot camp of six to eight months, tennis training every day. Obviously you use movie magic tricks to sell that, but most of all it was a huge transformation for both Shia and Sverrir.”
“We just played a lot of tennis,” Gudnason says of his preparation for the physically demanding performance. “We started like half a year before the shoot, tennis two hours a day, at least for me, and some physical training also. That was just to key into the part, the physical key, that you had to live that life as an athlete to understand the part of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.”
“I learned it more like a dance, it was dance moves for me,” LaBeouf chimes in, explaining his more interesting process of preparing to play McEnroe. “You could teach me for 20 years and I would never play like McEnroe, so early on in the process, after the screen test, we learnt exactly what we needed to do, start learning it like a dance. I never actually learnt tennis, it was something different.”
For a film not about the tennis, the tennis sounds pretty intriguing.