‘Scenes From a Marriage’ Director on Big Changes, Fourth-Wall Breaks, and the Series’ Future

Writer-director Hagai Levi spoke to IndieWire about the 2021 version's ending, purpose, and how it argues "the opposite" of Bergman's original.
Scenes From a Marriage HBO Oscar Isaac Jessica Chastain
"Scenes From a Marriage"

[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “Scenes From a Marriage,” including the ending.]

The scene was set, and the set was seen — rather prominently, in fact, throughout writer/director Hagai Levi’s remake of Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage.” Each of the first four episodes began with behind-the-scenes shots of Jessica Chastain or Oscar Isaac as they prepared for the (primary) cameras to roll. Then, for the finale, we got to see the pair walk off the soundstage, holding hands, at the very end of the episode — a choice in direct contrast to how most episodes end, with detailed exterior shots of Jonathan and Mira’s house as it exists in reality, rather than how it’s been reconstructed for all those passionate, devastating, and thoughtful interior scenes

Among those moving domestic moments were plenty of further changes from Bergman’s 1973 miniseries-turned-movie. Levi saddled Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) with a similar narrative arc to what Marianne (Liv Ullmann) goes through in the original, while Mira (Jessica Chastain) follows in Johan’s (Erland Josephson) footsteps. Their child plays a prominent role in the new limited series, and their backgrounds are tweaked to fit an American setting. All of this and more was done so a remake would “make sense” to Levi, who dwelt with the “challenge” for more than eight years. With his 2021 edition of “Scenes From a Marriage” now complete, IndieWire looks back with Levi on the story, what’s been changed, and where it may go from here. The following conversation has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.

There’s an old interview with Ingmar Bergman where he describes Marianne and Johan as “emotionally illiterate” — since they know next to nothing about themselves, their marriage was bound to struggle. Would you describe Mira and Jonathan that way?

Actually, I think that was one of my obstacles when adapting it — because you could be illiterate or you could be unaware in the ’70s about the option of divorce, separation, or whatever. You cannot be innocent about that in 2020. That was one of the challenges in the adaptation: how people talk about all these things that are talked to death in our age. They are totally aware of the possibility of divorce, of breakup, of everything, and [we] still maintain some drama in it and still maintain some blind spots. So I wouldn’t say they’re illiterate. There is an episode called “The Illiterates,” when Mira says that they’re illiterate about breakups, not about divorce, not about marriage. So maybe that’s the difference.

In the series’ very first scene, Jonathan expresses skepticism about “working on a marriage,” in the modern sense. Was that position introduced to illustrate one of those blind spots?

I mean, that was exactly how I felt a couple of years ago, when everyone around me was working on their marriage and doing anything [to improve their relationship]. And I asked myself, “What’s going on?” This is not a goal. How can you spend your whole life and dedicate your life to working on your marriage? It should be a platform for something else. So that was actually totally my monologue. But yes, in the way he said it, it’s like it was to say he’s over-intellectualizing everything about their relationship and ignoring some emotional needs that his wife has — and that he has too, but he isn’t yet aware of that fact.

Their friends who come over for dinner, they’re experimenting in an open relationship. Then there are the affairs that happen over the course of the series, as well as the acceptance of Jonathan and Mira’s own affair in the finale. What are your thoughts about the sustainability and the practical, fulfilling nature of monogamy as we see it through a traditional marriage?

I think of what Mira said in the finale about the monogamy gene. [Mira’s mother once told her their family doesn’t have the “marriage gene,” while warning her daughter not to wed Jonathan.] I feel it’s not for everyone. It’s like, you have a psychological structure where it either works for you or not. And I think people talk about monogamy, yes or no, in a very general manner. Some people say, “Monogamy is over,” and some people say, “Yeah, you have to work on monogamy and your marriage.” I just feel that it’s very personal — it’s one option. How much can you maintain a long-term relationship? So this is kind of the bottom line I feel, by the end: It’s not for everyone.

Scenes From a Marriage HBO Oscar Isaac Jessica Chastain
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in “Scenes From a Marriage”

The original series inspired so many more honest, sometimes brutal, assessments of married life over the last 50 years. Why did this story, with this title, told this way, need to be resurrected and reinterpreted now?

It would never cross my mind to do that unless I would have been approached by the Bergman family. Around eight years ago, Ingmar Bergman’s son approached me after watching “In Treatment,” and he wanted to remake “Scenes From a Marriage.” His motive, I think, was to bring back the children into the picture; [that he] wanted to reclaim the experience he had as a child. In the original series, it’s totally neglected. You don’t even know that they have children. But for me, it was the most influential thing on my work. When I was approached by Bergman, it was like a combination of excitement and fear. What am I going to do with it? It was a kind of personal challenge — can I do that? Why? How?

I dealt with that for eight years. It’s a classic text, and it actually calls for a remake. It’s very simple. Unlike any other Bergman movie, it has no style almost. It’s very simple, very straightforward, and it’s totally realistic. There are no symbols, no religion, nothing that you know from Bergman’s films. And they are remaking it in theater every given minute. So it made sense [to remake it], I just needed a good reason to crack it in a way that I will have an answer for Bergman’s fans when they ask me, “Why did you do that?” And I felt that by swapping the genders, I had this answer.

What did that change bring to the story?

So one of the things that I couldn’t overcome is that I didn’t like the original characters anymore. I never liked [Johan]. He wasn’t supposed to be liked. He was an asshole, a chauvinist. In a way, it made it easier for Bergman because he was caring only about one character, which is her. Him, he’s just a villain. I found that re-watching it, I couldn’t relate to her anymore. She was so weak and dependent. So it aged in that sense. I couldn’t put a woman like that on screen.

It [became] two questions: How can I relate to both of them and keep the same story? And how can I attach to them personally? So I read the original script, flipping the gender while reading it, and suddenly something happened that I could not ignore. Suddenly I felt that she deserves [to do] what she’s doing. She cannot help what she’s doing. When he’s doing it, I felt that he’s such a cruel person. When she did exactly the same and said the exact same words, I felt, ‘Wow — yeah, yeah. I feel for her.” And that was so interesting. I felt that this experiment in gender has to be done.

One of the lines that struck me from Bergman’s original was when Peter (Jan Malmsjö) and Katarina (Bibi Anderssen) are in the middle of their emotional fight over dinner, and he defends having the argument in front of Marianne and Johan because “It’ll do their souls good to catch a glimpse of the depths of hell.” There’s a message there for audiences, especially in the ’70s when the darker challenges of marriage weren’t as widely discussed. With all the pain in your version, does that idea still apply?

The easy answer is if you watch it until the end, you can see [this is] actually totally the opposite of what Bergman did. If Bergman wanted to say something about marriage is hell, marriage kills love, marriage is awful, this [version] is basically: Breakups are so traumatic. Separation is an awful thing. People don’t talk enough about how traumatic it is to break away from each other, and mainly talk about the possibility to do it all the time. Just leave, just go — like for the new model of iPhone; just go look for a new model of a new partner. So if anything, I would say, [this version of “Scenes From a Marriage”] will say something about the horrible outcome of breakups — how it affects your life so much. All these consumer societies promise [to] fulfill you; [they encourage you to] have the freedom, to go find yourself. But there is another side of it.

I wanted to ask about the opening and closing shots of Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain before the scenes start and, in the finale, when they end. What do you want to say about including those behind-the-scenes moments in each episode?

Ultimately, it’s an instinct that you have — and that was a very late instinct. It wasn’t in the script. I worked all these months on the script. It was never there. It happened when I started walking on the stage and felt something stagey. We started working with the actors, and suddenly I felt that I wanted to say to the audience, “This is not totally realistic in a way that these two people from Boston live there and have their jobs like that. It’s much more generic. It’s much more abstract than this specific couple.” So in a way, when I’m alienating you a little bit, when I’m distancing you a little bit from the drama, I kind of want you to think about it in a more abstract way and in a way be able to project it on yourself.

When I did that, I looked at an example from the past, and I watched again “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” Do you remember that film with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons? It begins like that. It begins when Meryl Streep is in the middle of set, crew around her, and suddenly she walks into the ocean. It’s the same shot, the music is on, and in two seconds, you forget what you just saw. The power of the suspension of disbelief is so crazy, that by itself it was worth it.

Bergman eventually made “Saraband,” a sequel to “Scenes From a Marriage.” Would you consider revisiting these characters, or turning this into a sort of anthology series with different couples each season?

There is this idea — which is like– I’m not sure tempting is the word, but it’s there — of taking other couples, gay couples, old couples, other couples, and having the same journey with them. It’s a weird idea. I don’t know yet. Another idea could be to keep following them, because I think you are invested in this couple, and you’re very curious what’s going to happen to them. So it could be a sequel, not 30 years later, but just a couple of years later. Yeah. It is tempting.

“Scenes From a Marriage” airs its finale episode Sunday, October 10 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. All episodes will be available to stream on HBO Max.

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