From Hagai Levi (The affair, In treatment) and adapted from Ingmar Bergman classic Swedish TV series, HBO -restricted series Scenes from a marriage examines marriage, monogamy and divorce, as follows Mira (Jessica Chastain), an ambitious career woman who feels unfulfilled, and Jonathan (Oscar Isaac), a philosophy professor who tries to keep their relationship intact. As individuals, they both look at that relationship very differently, but they also both realize that there is not one thing that will tear them apart, make them heal, or help them figure out what’s next.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, writer / director Levi, who developed the project for American television, told how he came to retell this story, why he chose to break the fourth wall with each episode and wanted to stick to the structure. in the original series, why he feels that multiple seasons is not the ideal way to tell a story, see what Isaac and Chastain brought to their roles, how the ending of the story unfolded, and what he hopes to do thereafter.
Collider: I appreciate you talking to me about this. I had all the emotions when I saw this, which I definitely am very important. What made you decide to include behind the scenes moments before each episode and show the crew in their masks? I’ve never seen anything like it and I just thought it was fascinating, so I’m curious why you thought it was important?
HAGAI LEVI: It was an instinct. I already felt like there’s something a little artificial or not quite realistic in the show for some reason, and I would make it a point each week that this is actually not a couple living in Boston. This is a set and it’s actually true for everyone. It is much more abstract than that. It is in a way a fable. It’s like saying, “Hey, let’s discuss monogamy. Let’s discuss marriage. Let us not just focus on these specific circumstances and make it more of a discussion of a general principle. “There were many reasons [for doing it]. It was weird to shoot a show at the time without showing the pandemic. Many things came together and we decided to give it a try. If it did not work, we would just remove it, but it was so much fun. The whole crew became part of the production, so that was nice.
It’s especially interesting when they’re in this house that’s so important to them, but then you pull away and it’s just a room on the set. It’s fascinating to see everyone in their masks while telling a story that is so intimate. It’s weird how much it makes you feel more connected to the characters and the actors.
LEVI: I’m so glad to hear that. Thank you.
How did this happen to you? Was it specifically you would give your own bid on Scenes from a marriage, or did someone approach you with the idea?
LEVI: That was not my idea at all. Scenes from a marriage was the most influential piece of my work ever. I first saw the series on TV, on Israeli TV when I was 18. I was shocked. It was totally shocking. In a way, it made me study cinema. It inspired In treatment and The affair. It was there, all the time. At one point, seven or eight years ago, I was approached by the family, by Daniel Bergman, son of Ingmar Bergman, who had the idea to do it about and for some reason thought I might be the right person to do so, even though I’m not American at all. I could not resist the thought. But at the same time, I did not know what to do. Why? Why should we do that? It took some time to get the answer to why. But he pressured me and trusted me, which was very, very important. I had the support of the Bergman family and the Bergman Foundation. They gave me their blessing.
Is it scary? Is it scary? Is it exciting? Are all these things at the same time?
LEVI: Exactly, all of them. But it lay on my desk for seven years until I found a way to do it. I had to have an answer as to why I should do it and why I was the one who should do it.
You explored marriage and infidelity in The affair, but you had a much longer period. That show continued for five seasons, and here you have five episodes. What is it like to tell a story in five episodes and really explore this relationship in the five hours you have?
LEVI: Each time I would do less. I’m starting to feel like five seasons is never justified. I like the British way more in six hours, and then another six hours, and that’s it. The season is a very commercial decision more than anything else. That’s how I feel. Here I had the original, so it was very easy for me to just follow what is. I took an episode out. Originally it was six. Mostly I had this very specific structure that I wanted to follow. I wanted to experiment with the idea of updating it or having a different interpretation to it, so I took it even further than the original. It is even more radical, in the sense that it is only one place, unlike the original. It’s in a house and most of the time it’s in real time without jumping in time at all. It was a good experiment to do.
Everything is centered around this relationship, but we don’t see them at work, running errands, hanging out with friends outside the home, or really anything they do outside of their dynamics. How did you find the experience of telling their story that way? Are there particular challenges in containing such a story?
LEVI: I had the experience with me In treatment, and this was pretty much the same. You saw a person every week where he only told what happened and you never saw him outside the clinic or under any other circumstances. It is against everything they teach you in school, that is, do not tell it. And I do not tell and show, which is totally interesting to me. I feel that the way people tell something is often more important than what really happened. It was something I had experienced and I liked it. I feel good when I have rules. Probably because I grew up as a religious person, I feel that every time I have a project, I set some rules and laws, and then I feel free to work within those rules. It probably has something to do with it.
This was originally supposed to be Oscar Isaac and Michelle Williams in the roles. When you wrote this, did you write that role with her in mind, or did the casting come after you had written the show?
LEVI: No, the casting came afterwards. I started the casting process four or five years ago, just to start noticing it, and then I had some names, theoretically. Jessica [Chastain] was always at the top of my list. When I wrote the pilot and we were green for a series, the process started. Even before Michelle Williams, there was another. Jessica was not available. I was crushed by that. And then COVID started, so many projects were canceled. And Oscar was there and he was hoping for Jessica. They are very good friends. They know each other from Juilliard. To me, it was a miracle that a month and a half before the shooting, Michelle suddenly had another engagement and she had just given birth, and Jessica was suddenly available between something else.
What was it like as a director to see Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain together and see what they brought to this?
LEVI: I think watching them is a very good way of saying it. Many times I felt that my job did not do much except watch them do it and not disturb them and create a safe atmosphere for them to do it. It was very important to all of us. They had this incredible chemistry between them. We had a lot of practice. We had more than a month of practice and we shaped the text. Once it was there, most of my work was done. They did not act. It was so crazy. Afterwards, we all felt the same as if we had been on another planet for a few months, in this COVID world, on this little stage, out of town. Everything felt so strange, but at the same time contributed a lot to this intensity.
Did you always know what the end point of the story would be?
LEVI: Well, I had the original, so I followed the original. I would not distract from the original. In each episode, the story always followed the original, changing everything but retaining the structure and story of each episode. So I had this structure from the original, but I felt I had to do something other than the original ending, which said something different about relationships, marriage, and divorce. Instead of saying how awful marriage is and how this institution kills love, as Bergman said, I would say something about how difficult it is to separate from each other. That idea came through the writing. It was not there from the beginning.
Do you know what’s next for you? Do you want to continue working in television, or do you also want to direct a feature film?
LEVI: I feel very much at home on television. I feel that it allows me to play with structures, to play with conceptual ideas and to be very intimate. But my next project may be a film that takes place during World War II in Amsterdam, based on a diary of a Jewish woman. It’s a book that really changed my life.
Scenes from a marriage airs Sunday night on HBO.
Hagai Levi’s recording of an Ingmar Bergman classic is reinforced by two incredible performances by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain.
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