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Interview: Liv Ullmann Talks Making ‘Miss Julie,’ Gives Advice To Female Directors, And Much More

Interview: Liv Ullmann Talks Making 'Miss Julie,' Gives Advice To Female Directors, And Much More

It’s that familiar time when everyone scrambles to see as many of the past year’s films as possible to get ready for year-end lists, and get in on the award prediction games. Meanwhile, small films end up paying a big price due to lack of exposure. One such film is “Miss Julie,” opening in limited release today. It’s a film starring Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell in the lead roles, directed by the esteemed Liv Ullmann, and adapting a classic play by August Strindberg, so it seems to tick off all the right boxes. When it premiered at TIFF earlier this fall, we fell in love with it for its passion, gorgeous look, and most especially because of the performances from the cast. 

For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s a chamber piece set on a single location, a Count’s castle, relating events that transpire over a single night. The count’s daughter, Miss Julie (Chastain), has grown up in this castle, isolated from society due to her precious aristocratic position, but on this particular Midsummer’s night, she decides to mingle with her servants. She spends the night clashing in a classic battle of power, sex, gender, and class, with her father’s valet Jean (Farrell) and the maid, Cathleen (Samantha Morton). It’s a timeless play that has been adapted for the screen and stage many times, but never in such a painstakingly raw manner as it by Ullmann.

Breaking into the international scene as Ingmar Bergman‘s main leading lady in the ’60s and ’70s, Ullmann stepped out of his shadow in the ’80s and became a brilliant theatre and film director in her own right. After a long absence from directing movies, she’s back this year with a film that showcases powerhouse performances, puts some original twists on Strindberg’s classic play, and attempts to remind people about the essence of cinema: learning something new from this beautiful, vile, human nature of ours.

We grabbed the chance to have a chat with Ms. Ullmann over the phone about what it’s like directing a movie again, her own interpretation of Strindberg, and the award-worthy performances on the display from Chastain and Farrell. The passion she has for the film and the sheer joy of creating filters through a warm and gentle voice you can listen to for hours.

It’s been almost 15 years since “Faithless,” your last film. How did it feel being back behind the camera, did you miss it?
Yes, I missed it. I didn’t know it was as much as 15 years, I think it was less but maybe you are right. I missed it. Although, I did a lot of other directing jobs in the theater so I was directing, and I acted, and I did lots of things. But the first day I was in the studio, and I had a wonderful cameraman, and so I thought “I’m so glad,” because I got to do what I like best, I got to direct, and I could do big shots of big frames, and then I could come very, very close to the individual, you know like the camera eye can do, and we can see what that person is thinking. And I had a wonderful time because everyone connected to this movie. I’m saying the creative team; the actors, the cinematographer who is Russian, and the sound man, and the set designer and the clothes designer. They were all incredible, and we had a good time together although we only had only 26 days to do the whole movie, which is a very short time to do a movie. And we did it on film, it’s not digital. It may be my last film, but I’m very, very happy I got to work with those people.

You’ve mentioned your cameraman, and the film really does look gorgeous. How was it working with Mikhail Krichmann, the cinematographer, and the production designer, Caroline Amies? They do brilliant work.
I know. And it couldn’t have been specifically without Caroline Amies, because we were supposed to do it in a studio. But very shortly before we went to do the movie, the producers told us we’re not doing it in the studio, we have to do it all at the castle, and at that time, the kitchen and the rooms and everything looked like they were two to three hundred years old. So Caroline Amies said “OK” and she became a set constructor and she made that kitchen look like it was new, but new for 1890, and we found two rooms that she redid as [the character’s] bedrooms. She did work you cannot believe. Incredible. I thank her so much. She really made that incredible castle into the fourth actor in the film. 

And Mikhail Kritchmann, he was incredible, he’s a master in light and we had our good little quarrels, which you have to have. Because I decided the frame works, and he decided the light, and sometimes we clashed. And I knew he knows everything about the light so I gave in there, and I’m the director so the framing was mine. I really admire Mikhail too, very much.

I read how you came upon that castle by chance, right?
Yes, it was really by chance. We had the castle because we were using the exterior and we were using the upper rooms, the room of the Count. And we were using the staircase, the bridge staircase, but all the rest, that came into use when we lost our studio.

Let’s talk a little bit about your particular adaptation. You’ve made some interesting changes from Strindberg’s original play. Can you talk a little bit about what those changes are, and why you made them?
Yes! Well, Strindberg had in the middle of his play—he didn’t want two acts he wanted one act—but in the middle of the play he has everybody working on the farm come in the kitchen and dance some kind of devil/exorcist dances with love and sex. I took that out, I didn’t want that. I wanted to show three people and get very close to the three people. He was also—he wrote in the foreword—very much angry at women and didn’t like women a lot. So I made some changes where I allowed Miss Julie to say certain things that she may be thinking, which doesn’t go against what is happening in Strindberg. I put words to it. And also, Strindberg has Cathleen the maid in the kitchen all the time sleeping in a chair. So I don’t think [chuckles] that would be a good sleep and it would be impossible to show in the movie. So she is in her own room. I also have Jean tell stories about what it means to be really poor and it’s not against anything Strindberg was saying or writing, it’s just putting a face on [what it means] to be poor. It’s to wake up in the bed you’re sharing with your brother and you find out that he is dead, dead out of hunger. It’s the kind of poverty that Miss Julie has never heard of. Although, even in the movie, like him and other people they do not really hear what the other person is saying because they are so full of what they would like to say.

The changes are not big, but they are essential. I didn’t want to portray a woman being the way Strindberg was portraying her, with no patience. Because I think she is a lovely person, and unfortunately to be non-existent is what she is in life. She is alone because she had so much pain so she doesn’t know how to connect with other people.

And also I had these incredible actors! I wanted to show most of what I know that they could do, and he doesn’t show them making love and I don’t either, but I do show them before and after. And I show her enormous isolation when he has left her and I show his enormous isolation when she is trying to wash herself off of him, and I show Cathleen’s isolation when she stands outside the door and hears what is happening inside when she intrudes on him.

It’s all very interesting, and I believe it adds quite a bit of originality to a classic play. In this particular version, how much of Miss Julie is August Strindberg, how much Liv Ullmann, and how much Jessica Chastain?
[Chuckle] It is a combination. It’s Strindberg’s story and a fascinating story about class, about man and woman, it is Liv Ullmann’s version of what I feel very much in life; that we don’t listen enough to each other, that we don’t connect and we should connect, and there is so much isolation, and lack of possibilities in the world, and the few people who have everything they don’t always see what the lack is and where they could be part of [that]. The whole heart, and the sobbing, and the longing, and the creativity belongs to Jessica. When she cries, she doesn’t cry so that you feel sorry for her, and to hold her, and [for others] to think, “oh what a beautiful, beautiful woman you are.” When she cries she is sobbing from the innermost of her soul because it is so difficult to be Miss Julie.

I think she gives an unbelievable performance as Julie.
It’s incredible! I wish we were such a big movie and that everybody would see that performance and nominate her for an Oscar. I’m so scared that they won’t see it. You know, unfortunately we are a small movie but it’s a big movie in terms of these performances and in terms of this incredible writer. So-

In terms of the directing as well.
But, I also think Colin Farrell is fantastic.

Yes, he is. He’s probably never been as good as he is here. The intensity!
Absolutely. So many people in that part they show this big macho person, you know, and he dares, being a man, he dares to show what happens to him when [Julie] comes down to his kitchen and starts to order him around. He shows a man who is stiff from anger and frustration being ordered around, and hitting her boots, and somewhere this hate and anger will grow within him. And this third person [Cathleen], so much is happening towards her, she’s suddenly showing compassion when no one else is showing compassion and taking the blood away from Miss Julie’s face and quoting from the Bible. You know, “those who have belief, they will in the end be allowed to come into Heaven.”

And then we have Bach, we have the music…

Yes, [the music] is almost a character in itself. Bach and Schubert.
Exactly! I love you for saying that! That Schubert, that belongs to Miss Julie. It’s the same thing that is coming all the time. Now it comes…and now it comes…but still, when you see the picture and you know what is happening it is like the music is changing. At first it’s lovely and then it becomes more and more like an echo of something terrible, something sad, something is going to happen to her. Classical music, I love it. I gave it to the actors before we did it, and that is what film is about. It’s a combination of art, of dance, of theater, of everything. I hope we are not going to lose that completely because of blockbusters and all of that. Cinema used to be a place where you went and it became dark in the audience and we were learning why we are, and who we are, and it’s so sad if we’re losing that.

Very true.
Although this year I’ve seen some really, really good movies so hopefully we haven’t lost it.

Oh, what was your favorite movie from this year?
I haven’t seen them all, but yesterday I saw this movie, the Hawking movie. You know, the, oh [struggles to remember title]

“The Theory of Everything.”
Yes! I thought it was incredible. Incredible. It made me understand what I really don’t understand because it has this incredible thing that even what I don’t understand, something within me understood it. And it was about love, and the woman’s voice was clear, and his theories were clear [laughs]. And [Eddie Redmayne] was magnificent. I walked out of the cinema and thought, “Oh I hope these [kinds of movies] will still be made and that producers and distributors will still allow us to see them.”

Alright, so one last thing. What advice do you have for aspiring female directors in such a male-dominated industry?
It’s difficult. And I’m the worst one to give advice because I find it so difficult too. But when they talk to you like you’re a baby and you don’t understand a thing, just continue to talk. Don’t get angry, don’t get upset. Just say, “But no, this is how I want it” and stop the discussion. If you are a female director trust yourself and know; if you have a talent, guard your talent. Don’t think that you have to exchange things because you are a woman. Because men don’t exchange, women don’t have to exchange.

“Miss Julie” opens in theatres on December 5th.

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