Raw and real. That’s the tone of writer-director Hagai Levi’s (In Treatment, The Affair) five-part adaptation of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s groundbreaking 1973 miniseries about a disintegrating relationship.
In HBO’s Scenes From a Marriage, Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac deliver brilliant performances as an American couple: tech executive Mira and philosophy professor Jonathan, whose loving marriage is poisoned by resentment and anger.
We talked to Levi about the emotionally complex series, which takes place over several years.
What influence did the original Bergman version have on you as a young artist?
Hagai Levi: [The series] was shocking. The effect was undeniable. It was built mainly on the power of words, and that was my world. I grew up in a small village in an Israeli Kibbutz, a religious Jewish community where, most of the day, what you do is sit with someone and study the Talmud or the Bible and have a dialogue. When two people talk, they create something like a third entity. I re-watch it again and again every five or 10 years. It was inspirational when I created In Treatment and The Affair. Dialogues are my favorite scenes to direct.
For this update, you flipped the script from the original with Swedish couple Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and had the woman want to leave the marriage first. Why?
It was totally terrifying, but very tempting to revisit [this series], so I needed a very good reason to adapt it, something quite different and modernizing. [In the original], he was very old-fashioned, a chauvinist, cold, cruel, absolutely the bad guy. She was dependent, begging him [to stay]. I needed to do something radical to feel closer [to the story] and put them on television in 2021. The moment I had the idea of swapping characters, everything fell into place. It wasn’t a political decision, it was personal. The women I know and love are independent, strong and passionate. Today’s man is more sensitive, in touch with his feminine side, not necessarily the provider. He’s more like me in a way, not necessarily an alpha male.
Did you put some of your personal background into Jonathan’s character?
Absolutely. I made him an ex Orthodox Jew, which is exactly my story. His psychological structure, I took from my own experience.
What was it like working with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac?
Jessica was in my head for years to do this part. I met Oscar and he had this rare combination: masculine but also very sensitive — exactly what I wanted. [Those two] had also been friends, which helps a lot. We had an unheard-of long rehearsal period — six weeks — and [during that time had] a lot of discussions about relationships and families. My job was not to interfere with their chemistry, but to create the right, safe atmosphere for them to fine tune. They have great instincts, owned the characters and created something together.
It’s such a devastating series: the fights, the tears, the desire for and impossibility of reconciliation. It must have been an exhausting shoot, especially because you were also dealing with COVID.
Yeah, it was a very, very intense experience. We were isolated, spending 90% of the shoot in quite a small studio [the interiors of the couple’s house]. We felt all the time that we were on another planet and doing scenes without feeling the outside world. It helped to create [the film’s] atmosphere, this specific mood. But it took Jessica some time to recover from it. It’s very difficult to dive into this darkness, and then go back from it.
Ingmar Bergman’s son, Daniel, is an executive producer. How important was the family’s involvement?
Very. Daniel is the one who approached me and wanted to work on it together. He read scripts, gave notes, and saw cuts. At the [annual] Bergman Festival I showed a couple of clips from the new show — I screened the original and then, next to it, my interpretation. I was very nervous and so relieved when they liked it.
Does this version have a happier ending than the original?
Well, talking about original, it’s quite an optimistic ending. I follow it in a different way, but it’s much more optimistic, loving and even romantic sometimes.
Scenes From a Marriage, Series Premiere, Sunday, September 12, 9/8c, HBO