Borg McEnroe is not just a film about two of the greatest tennis players ever. Danish director Janus Metz made sure that the film opening the Toronto International Film Festival was much more than just about the game of tennis. Metz, who is behind the opening night gala film, wanted to make more than just a biopic about the great Swedish athlete Björn Borg. He felt the film had to be about something universal that transcended the sport of tennis and Ronnie Sandahl’s script was just that.
“I really found it to be a beautiful story about deep existential questions,” says Janus Metz while presenting the movie at TIFF. “I did not want to make a biopic about Borg and McEnroe from cradle to grave. I wanted to explore what their stories meant. Why were these two people able to drive themselves to the edge and beyond – and what kind of demons were they fighting and playing with and why did the clash between them make the world stop and stare? I wanted to explore what it was that resonated with so many people in the world.”
Metz, who also presented his film Armadillo at TIFF in 2010, has directed several documentary films such as the short Township Boys, and Love on Delivery and Ticket to Paradise. In 2015, Metz directed the third episode of the second season of the TV-series True Detective. “In my previous movies as well, I have been very inspired and attracted to telling stories of characters that are some sort of soul searching trajectory, some sort of chase for a greater sense of purpose, and I really found that it is in this story and it resonated deeply with me, not only as a filmmaker but also personally.”
The film centers on the Wimbledon tournament of 1980 when Borg was on the cusp of his fifth Wimbledon title, and the young, rebellious John McEnroe was challenging him in the final. But Metz focuses on both players’ backstory showing how their different temperaments affect their game. It is the Swedish actor of Icelandic origin, Sverrir Gudnason, who plays the Swedish tennis legend. Shia LaBeouf portrays John McEnroe. “John was a tennis player who used his emotions actively to become one of the best tennis players in the world. It had great implications and consequences for him as a person and it has been like that in Shia’s life as well. You are playing with fire, you know. It is a very destructive and powerful force and you have to find a way to control that.
Even though Metz did not set out to make a tennis movie as such – more so a psychological thriller – the tennis had to be convincing when you are making a film about two legendary icons. Thus both Gudnason and LaBeouf had to go through intensive training. “They were so dedicated in doing that. So they were doing boot camp for six to eight months of tennis training every day and obviously, we used the magic tricks we have in our bag of filmmaking to sell that. But first of all, it was a huge transformation of Shia and Sverrir into athletes.”
Metz consulted with the real-life Björn Borg, who is now 61 years old. Furthermore, the young Björn is played first by his now 14-year old son Leo Borg, who is a spitting-image of the tennis legend. Then the teenager Borg is played by Marcus Mossber, and his coach Lennart Bergelin is played by Stellan Skarsgard. “The fact that we had Björn’s blood in the film brings an authenticity to it that money cannot buy,” says Metz. “He has the same splinter in the eye and a withdrawn mystery. It goes beyond acting because he is so much like his father.”
Leo Borg wrote the film team a letter saying that he would love to come for a casting. They knew who he was and hesitated a little before they decided to cast him. “I thought, if the movie doesn’t go in a direction that Björn likes, then he’s going to give this kid trouble around the dinner table,” says Metz. Leo Björn has stepped in his legendary father’s footsteps and is the best tennis player in Sweden in his age group. But he had never tried acting before he was cast in Borg McEnroe. “We had some thorough discussions with the Borg family,” explains Janus Metz. “Once we cast him, he was undeniably so true and, of course, it’s Bjorn’s blood and it lends a very strong authenticity to the film and to the part.”