When you are given an opportunity to meet a legend in the film business you don’t turn it down. So I headed to meet Liv Ullmann who has appeared in more movies than I can count and as of late has became a great director. She directed Cate Blanchett in the terrific revival of A Streetcar Named Desire which I saw in NY a couple of years ago.
She was in NY for the premiere of the documentary about her relationship with Ingmar Bergman – Liv and Ingmar. The film screens this evening at the NY Film Festival.
WaH: Why you agreed to make such a personal film.
LU: Well, I said no first. Well, Dheeraj Akolkar had written me a letter like a year or two ago, and I said, “Sure I can be there for a movie” but I think I think I even phoned you because I was very moved by his letter— if you ever get it together, yes. And then I more or less forgot and then the producers called me. I was in Oslo and they said, “Do you wanna be part of this?” And I said oh no, I don’t want to be part of this movie. Well, this director going to make the movie whether you do an interview or not. Do you want to meet him? And I said no because if I meet him they’re going to think I’m doing the movie. And they said just go and meet him and I went. And I just liked him immediately because this person he listens and I said you know I’d like to work with you because I liked his questions. I said I’ll do the movie but on this condition only 2 days of interviews and you can use my reading which was there and that’s it.
WaH: You got a lot of work done in two days.
Dheeraj Akolkar: Yes.
LU: I made a contract with the producer, if I hate this I’m going to be very open about it, and I never thought I would really like it in the way I did. I think it’s been done with great dignity and it’s a creation. And as far as I know no one has made a documentary building on the movie of filmmaker and it doesn’t mean that Ingmar’s and my life was like his movie because it can look like that.
WaH: It kind of does.
LU: It’s only because he’s a good filmmaker and he makes movies about relationships, so yes it can look like ours, only because it looks like yours or other people’s.
WaH: Ingmar Bergman directed movies about relationships. He was the master and here in the United States it is very much a women’s domain, to do the movies about relationships. So it’s so interesting that he is revered for making relationship movies while women taunted for making relationship movies. What do you think that’s about?
LU: Because he was so interested in women. I have never felt myself so well understood by a man. He had a great, great interest in women and he also wanted to work more with women than with men because he said women are not scared of undressing, I mean their face their feelings, and so it’s much harder to make an actor do this than to make an actress.
WaH: So tell me, what makes a guy from Indiawant to make a movie about Ingmar Berman and Liv Ullmannn?
DA: Cinema is about emotions. Cinema is not about nationality because it’s an art about emotions, ultimately. I’m a human being and I read this book by this extraordinary human being called Changing and in that book I met a girl growing up to be an actor, and then she met this man and what happened is genuine is so human and at the same time so dignified. That is where the film is. I got interested in the human aspect of the story. And I was inspired by the book very much. The film came after he passed away. It just came one day.
WaH: Is it strange to see your life on screen like that?
LU: You know, I didn’t think it would be because I thought I’ll be interviewed. I had no idea, honest to God, what it would be. And yes, it was very strange first of all because it’s my story, and I think if I had made it would have looked so different. But I realized that my story wouldn’t necessarily have been closer to the truth because I color it. The shock is that he made you know Ingmar’s films like our story and I had never thought about that before. For a long while I thought that isn’t right until I realized that is what Ingmar does.
We were not violent, but really tough to each other. Not physically violent, but I know Ingmar felt these things, it was horrible for him and it was horrible for me because it goes to my tummy. And so that’s why I think there’s so much violence in his movies, because that’s his choice to show what it does a person. My second reaction was I didn’t know Ingmar cared for me that way for so long. It became so clear for me when I saw the movie the scenes that I had forgotten — and these letters and there were 78 that belong to the foundation I hadn’t read them for years and years but I kept them.
WaH: They’re intense.
LU: They are intense and I didn’t know it because when I read them then I was a kid. In the movie there was one scene I absolutely didn’t know about and that was about a letter that I left ten years earlier thanking him that I could use his workroom for making a film. And I just wrote a note and the housekeeper who takes care of his house said, “Have you looked in his teddy bear?” and inside the teddy bear was this letter I wrote long after we had passed our love relationship. And he kept my stupid letter.
WaH: Alright let’s get into that, because when you look at some of the things about your relationship like how he monitored you and isolated you, and almost kept you in prison. That’s creepy. From the perspective of a 21st century woman you get the willies. I
LU: But I’m so much older than you. And the women of that time— we were so controlled isn’t that creepy? Today we would never let this happen to anyone.
WaH: Your relationship was a product of its time?
LU: I grew up in this time where we were pleasing and we said yes. At the same time women’s liberation came. I was so controlled but I didn’t acknowledge. It’s very strange but that somebody would stand with a watch and wait for me to come, even today it stays with you. You are a product of your time, and to be a doormat it is there and to be like Nora in A Doll’s House, even today I will dance a little because I think that I have to.
WaH: I’m obsessed with A Doll’s House too. I consider it to be one of the most feminist plays also. You know, people talk about Nora in such negative ways sometimes, but I don’t see that at all.
LU: No. Can I tell you a story?
WaH: Yes please. I love that play.
LU: I love it and I’ve done it three times.
DA: And you wanted to make a movie of it
LU: And I wanted to make a movie of it. I did it three times and the last time was here on Broadway with Sam Waterston. And this was in 1970 something and women’s liberation was so big and I had caught onto it too. And what happened at the previews lthe moment people were clapping. It wasn’t for the actor it was for Nora. Sam whistles and it was terrible and it was all wrong. Sam was devastated. He was really devastated. And then the next day we did some yoga before the show and he tweaked his foot and had to use a cane at the net preview.
I got the same chairs but he didn’t get the whistles. I swear to you, and this is a true story, Sam denies it, but it is the truth. The next day, which was the day before the premiere, he cames in on two crutches and for long time he played Helmer on two crutches. He never got whistled at but I also didn’t get my claps because you don’t really hate a man on crutches.
WaH: So he took the power out of Helmer in some way?
LU: He took power away from her by being the victim, and that is also something I recognized only men do that. But women today are much more than in my time the victim. Women seem to get so much power out of being victims.
WaH: I saw your production of Streetcar. Fantastic.
LU: That was one of the best times in my life.
DA: I was so waiting for it to come to the West End every day. Has someone filmed that production?
LU: No, we talked about doing it, but it never happened. But there you talk about women interacting with women.
WaH: So when you broke up with Bergman you had to flee in order to survive?
LU: I didn’t feel it like that but it really wasn’t working. We said let’s take 3 months now apart and make a decision what to do. I thought and that was all I was thinking that after three months we will be together, I’ll write him letters to tell him how I loved him. He used the 3 months to be free and I got my Dear John letter the last day of the three months. And I got the shock of my life because I thought it was never be over. But it wasn’t over it just went into a much much better phase for me.
WaH: You could totally tell. So in the early part of your career you were an actor and now you’ve segued into directing. How did Bergman affected you in terms of becoming a director if at all?
LU: I had written a script based on the book Sophia and I put so much of myself in and the studio heads said you know you should really direct it. It came absolutely out of the blue. I couldn’t believe it I probably said let me think about it, and I remember being the airport in Denmark and I called Ingmar and I said I’ve been asked to direct a movie, do you think I could do that? He said yes you can do that. He took such pleasure in that.
The only advice I had and I wish I’d done it so much earlier because I was fed up with myself a little as an actress. But suddenly, to sit on the other side of the camera and to really experience how creative actors are, and to see that and just be there to work with them, it’s the best choice job I’ve ever had. The first week I almost ruined it for myself because little Nora was there and I know I ran and I asked, “Shall I get you coffee?”
WaH: So you were taking care of people instead of being in charge?
LU: I thought they’d like me more and respect me, but of course they don’t.
WaH: You spent some time in Hollywood but most of your career was outside of Hollywood. Is there any kind of lesson?
LU: I was lucky because I was more than 30 when I got to Hollywood, so I was grown up and they couldn’t really change me. I didn’t even understand it and I’m happy because maybe if it’d stayed or I would have done all of those things. I think it’s very important if you come to Hollywood which can be such an unreal place is that you keep your own reality, and that you feel great pride in your own reality. And I was happy because I made good friends immediately and they protected me somehow.
WaH: It can be overwhelming. It can be destructive.
LU: And they’re like, “Do this movie, do this movie.” And that happened with my agent, he said oh say yes and I made really bad choices. I was also going home and I had Ingmar and other actors that I worked with in theater so I was–
WaH: So just another question about directors. So it’s still a huge struggle for women directors in the US. As a person who’s directed all over the world do you have any opinion on why this is still such a hard place for women to get even small inroads into it?
LU: Because so many of the people who make decisions are men and for some reason men are threatened by what seems like a strong woman. Not all men.
WaH: Tell me what you want people to think about when they leave your movie.
DA: I really feel that if they see themselves in it they understand. They feel, “Oh this is my story, too.” They find something in it. We’ve had those reactions when we have showed the film. Men and women of all ages and all professions came to us with such warm reactions in Montreal after the screening of the film. There was a question/answer session but people did not ask questions, they told their stories because they feel it’s okay.
WaH: What would you have said if she wouldn’t have liked the movie?
DA: I can’t imagine.
LU: I would have felt bad, because I tell you I would have let them know what I felt.
DA: But on the other hand, let me say my producers are very wise in that way. That they did not tell me that there was a contract that if you didn’t like you would say it. But from the beginning I knew what kind of film I wanted to make. What matters is your attitude it’s the intention you go in with. So eventually my intention comes out always to do a film to celebrate this togetherness. I wasn’t worried
WaH: What do you think the legacy is of your relationship with Ingmar Bergman?
LU: Well, I’m not sure. For me the movie has been very good because it has shown that it’s a movie about collaborating together and that we really had that. And it’s not just luck and it’s not just me saying, “Oh you know, we used to work together.” I think you have given me some reality for a story that was only mine before, you have given some credit to our union and I’m proud of it.
WaH: What advice do you have for other women who want to direct film?
LU: Forget about your vanity, because it isn’t about you. I think it’s much better if you are working from your own script or your own adaptation.
And don’t do what I did: don’t dance for them, you know, so they will like you better. Be firm. Do what you want to do, and first and foremost don’t think from men that you cannot do this. And stand together because we are not always so solidarity conscious to each other. I mean really care for each other.
WaH: And do you have any advice?
DA: Yes, I do feel that more women should direct.
WaH: Thank you for saying that.
LU: OH, that I do feel. One of my favorite films The Piano is about a woman, directed by a woman.