If you’re a film fan, chances are that when you think of Sweden, you think of Ingmar Bergman. Then if you forget the actress is herself Norwegian, you think of Liv Ullmann. She’s the recipient of an honorary Dragon award at this year’s Göteborg International Film Festival, and is known best as the star of ten Bergman films and also as his erstwhile lover (though their professional relationship outlasted their romantic one and is widely felt to have added resonance and unexpected currents of insight to many of those later roles). But as well as having a long film acting career before, during and after the Bergman years, she’s also a prolific theater actor and director, and now five-time film director with “Miss Julie.” All of which makes her close to a reigning monarch of the Scandinavian performing arts scene.
These are intimidating expectations for a flesh and blood human to have to live up to, but Ullmann in person is anything but a disappointment. You are aware when in her presence of just how very long she has been famous, yet it’s an uncompromised sort of fame, measured with respect not just recognition, and it suits her handsomely. But she is also warm and speaks unguardedly, so that as the minutes tick by, her affect morphs into a more personal, conspiratorial charisma. By the time she leaned across to touch my face near the end of our interview (she was in character, but it counts), it felt quite natural. It was only afterward that I thought, “hey, Liv Ullmann stroked my cheek!”
In December, we spoke to Ullmann by phone about her most recent (and probably last —see below) directorial film, the shuddering, stifling, powerhouse “Miss Julie” starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton (review here). And so this time, she happily let the conversation spin back to her impressions of directing, her future plans and mostly to Bergman, about whom she speaks with amused affection. She is simply a delight to talk to.
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Tell me a little about directing your “Miss Julie” cast to such frighteningly intensity. It feels like they give tremendous but very atypical performances. Chastain is so uncontrolled and Farrell so forcibly restrained…
Well, I had seen Jessica in many different movies and saw she has this great ability for change. I’d seen Colin often and knew he can be magnificent as an actor. Directing actors is about sharing creativity: I share by giving them the words and what I would like this thing to be about —here, it’s about to talk and not be heard and to love and not be able to love. And then when the camera goes, that’s when they create from what they have on the inside and what they know about people.
It’s a very different way of being to the way they usually are in a movie, but I feel that adds to it. So much of it is not film theater, but you see the way it would have happened on the stage, and that’s what I wanted. And I also wanted it to be a picture book about a man and a woman and the one who is in charge and the one who isn’t, and how it changes one to the other.
But I don’t say “now you are in charge.” Bad directors do that, and I have been an actor for so long that I know what you don’t say.
Have you had that happen to you with bad directors?
Oh yeah. But you learn. Many people say “oh you learned so much from Ingmar Bergman!” Which is stupid, but they say that to women. I’d been an actress seven years before I met Ingmar and I did so many movies and theater and wrote books and travelled the world before I met him. And nobody ever asked that of him, who only worked with the same actors and the same photographer. Nobody asked him “can you do all of this without these people?”
Anyway, I would say I learned much more from the bad directors I worked with. They say “you come into the room. Your heart is banging, and you count to three and then you say with everything you can, ‘I love you.'” And you try not to listen, but it goes in and then the camera goes and whatever you do, you have these words inside you. So you come into the room, and you count to three and you try to say everything that you know about love…and you can never do it.
It’s interesting that you bring up people’s perceptions of you in relation to Bergman. Was that even more of an issue when you directed his scripts, like “Faithless”?
Actually, that movie had an incredible following. It had a really great life as cinema, so I am not aware of [any negativity]. And he could never have done that movie, which was one of the reasons he gave it to me. Like another one of his scripts, “Private Confessions.” He was strong, he could have made it, and I said “you have to make this, it’s your most personal story.” And he said “I can’t. I don’t believe in God and you are the only religious person I know, and that’s why I am asking you.” [Here Ullmann rolls her eyes]
Stupid things —he wrote it, so obviously he knows it. And he longed for heaven when he knew he was going to die. But there were unsaid things in both the scripts that he knew I understood and could maybe do when he could not. Also because I was a woman.
And I know that from working with him for so long in the movies that he directed, I was Ingmar. I didn’t take the place of any other actress, because he loved all his actresses, I took the place of Max von Sydow or of Erland Josephson. If I hadn’t been there, he would have done a different script and it would have been a man. “Scenes from a Marriage” would have been much more focused on the man and would have been a very different story —he would have maybe defended the man more. Anyway, I am Ingmar, and I think that’s why he gave me “Faithless” and “Private Confessions” —he wanted me to talk about him.
And was it smooth sailing then between his vision and yours?
Oh, I made choices that he didn’t agree with! He was never allowed on the set —he came in after it was edited. In “Faithless,” when the old man is sitting and writing and he goes to the window and looks out and there he sees himself walking on the beach? He said “I absolutely refuse that you have that scene —he does not see himself walking there.” And I said “no, that’s what I want.” And he said “Actually, you’re invited to Cannes, but if you keep that it’s not going to happen.”
So I took it out, because I wanted to go to Cannes. Then after Cannes, he said “Ok, put it in again.” And then I saw a documentary he made some years after, where he sits at the table and goes to the window and looks out… and there goes Ingmar Bergman on the beach. If he had already had this thought, I don’t know —I don’t think he stole it from me, but either he did or he already had had that thought and didn’t want anyone else to have it.
Also in “Faithless,” I know the [real] story [it was based on]. It happened long before me, with another woman. And Erland Josephson, who played the man sitting in the workroom, called Bergman. So I said that’s very clear that it’s you, Bergman. People will understand that it’s you, and he said “no, it’s not me.” It’s not you? His name is Bergman! And he said “I couldn’t think of another name.”
But there’s a line in the film: “I cannot forgive myself, I was unfaithful to this woman.” And it’s the worst scene I’ve ever done. Within me, there was “ha ha ha!” but you don’t do that to Ingmar. But he’s never done a sin bigger than having once been unfaithful? Not true actually! So I said “okay, but put in some lines about how you forgive yourself and it will still be the same movie, but more true.” And he said “no, I will never forgive myself for being unfaithful at that time. “
So the young man David is sitting in front of a mirror saying, “I did this, I don’t know what happened or why” to the mirror. And I changed it. I let him come into the room of the old Bergman (who is really him) and he says it to himself, not the mirror. And then when the monologue is over, I let the old man Bergman reach over the table and pat him [here Ullmann reaches a cool soft hand over the table and strokes my cheek], and say “It’s okay.”
And that he loved.
But isn’t that exactly the forgiveness he said he didn’t want in the movie?
Yes! But he loved that he denied me this, but that I found a way! And in another scene, I got by being a woman, you know. He saw it … and said “that’s going out.” And I thought that isn’t going out, it’s not yours anymore, you gave it to me, I’m the director. I didn’t talk quite like that but inside… so what I did instead? I started to cry.
You turned on the waterworks?
I turned on the waterworks! And even though he knew me and knew women, he fell for it! He said, “oh Liv, you feel so deeply, keep it.”
He doesn’t strike me as someone easy to fool in that way…
And usually it didn’t work —not that I did it so much. But it could be that he knew I was right and it was right for the movie, and this way he could blame it on the waterworks… because genius is never “wrong.”
Next up, in fact you’re mounting “Private Confessions” on stage, is that right?
Which I look tremendously forward to because [back when we were making the film version], faxes had just become widespread and he faxed me so much about his thoughts and his memories of his mother. And he gave me the diaries he wrote when he was writing this thing. I have four beautiful books that I will have on the stage… I have really good ideas —maybe I won’t manage them all— but I have so much that was not in the movie.
You are clearly excited by that prospect, yet you’ve said “Miss Julie” will be your last film?
My last film directing —I would love to act again in a film. I’ve finished acting on the stage: I did “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which was enough to do each night and be on coke and morphine… never more. But I will continue directing in the theater and playing in the movies if somebody wants me.
And why I want to direct in theater is that I find enormous satisfaction that you can make people still see that they can sit in a theater and listen to what people are saying to each other, and that it means something about who we are and why we are. Because in our time, with all the machines and the horror in the world, we get more and more apart from other people, and in theater I find a connection. Until they start tweeting!
So you are not a fan of social media?
When I directed “Uncle Vanya,” in the National Theater, there was somebody press-related to the theater saying “what if we have two benches for journalists and people who want to tweet during the performance?” I thought I would faint. But one day… things go very quickly and it probably will come there too. I don’t know how long it will last, but right now still we can listen to music, we can watch ballet, we can read books without all the interruptions. I have a year before this will open and we will see if I can do it without twittering.