"Scenes from a Marriage" boss Hagai Levi on empowering the wife to leave: "I have to fight for her"

Salon speaks with the filmmaker about remaking Ingmar Bergman's classic for today and flipping its gender roles

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published October 3, 2021 3:30PM (EDT)

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in "Scenes from a Marriage" (Jojo Whilden/HBO)
Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in "Scenes from a Marriage" (Jojo Whilden/HBO)

Hagai Levi didn't plan to remake Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" but was invited by Bergman's son Daniel to do so, which makes sense. At that point Levi had built a reputation for creating stories about intimate relationships and agonizing truths: He was in the midst of making "The Affair" for Showtime, which followed his American adaptation of "In Treatment" for HBO. Each wears the influence of Bergman's "Scenes" on its skin.

"I just got an email from a person who said, 'I'm the son of Ingmar Bergman,' which was just unbelievable," Levi recalled. "He felt that it was about time, and he had some ideas, so we started to speak."

The product of that conversation is currently airing on HBO, Levi's remake of Bergman's seminal series about the dissolution of a marriage. It stars Jessica Chastain as the soon-to-be-ex-wife of the couple, Mira, with Oscar Isaac playing Jonathan, her estranged husband. Together the actors carry most of Levi's "Scenes" with intense dialogues that take place inside of the home the couple shared, similar to how Bergman shot his 1973 series. But Levi made one key change by flipping the story's gender roles, making Chastain's character the one who initiates the divorce. 

Levi's "Scenes from a Marriage," like the original, is an intimate, painful portrayal of how long-term relationships fall apart and why some couples who decide to split up can never entire let go of each other. In the same way Bergman's piece elicited highly emotional responses among viewers, Levi's remake has stirred up strong emotions as well, more than a few of which revolve around Chastain's Mira.

Plans for this production may have been in progress for most of a decade, but the confined setting makes this interpretation of "Scenes from a Marriage" feel particularly timely. That wasn't intentional, although Levi notes it was one of the first shows to go to production.

"It's a very COVID-friendly show in a way," he explained, referring to production being limited only to a small number of people and taking place in a small, remote studio.  

But as Levi explains in a recent video conversation with Salon, what makes Bergman's story so timeless are its universal themes.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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Let's talk about one aspect of the production you've spoken about before, which is the conceit of showing that dividing line between those moments when the actors are coming on to the set, getting ready with the crew and then saying action.

First of all, what you wrote about acting and about that device was so interesting for me to read.

Oh good! Well, now I get to ask you about it and find out the real answer.

Well, you have a better answer than myself, from what you wrote. Because I'll tell you the truth, it started from kind of distress. I was close to shooting and I saw the sets in the building. We started rehearsals, and everything was great. But I felt suddenly, very vividly, that this is not my language. And it was a big issue for me – that this is not my culture, and everything that I know about my own culture, and all these nuances that I know very, very precisely, when I direct in Israel, I know in America, like 95%, but not 100%.

When I did "In Treatment," it wasn't exactly like this specific characters from Israel . . . it  was more like archetypes of characters that I wanted to discuss. The couple, a girl coming of age, these very, very basic archetypes.

So here too, it was a way to say, there is something a little bit artificial about it. And I'm not going to hide it. Actually, quite the opposite, I'm going to put a focus on it. To tell you this is more of a conceptual of abstract discussion about monogamy.

I don't know if it all makes sense to you. But that was like the instinct I had. And then I thought . . . it was a nice way to remind us that we are in a COVID time. Because we had this question, we didn't know if we should put it in the series or not. But yeah, and it's not, but then there was like, not ignoring the time. And it was also a way to say, this is not an original show. It's an homage to another show. A lot of things came together, and it felt right. But it started as, you know, just kind of an instinct.

Sometimes artists commit to a conceit for a reason that can be, as you say, very practical. And then in the execution of it something's revealed to them that brings an unexpected element to their work. What did the execution of that conceit, where you have this divide, what did that reveal to you?

One of the things that was very surprising is like what I can call the power of the suspension of disbelief. The fact that after a minute, you forget about that. You see this device and I tell you very clearly, "This is a show," right? And then after a minute or two, you just forget about it and dive in as the viewer. I didn't expect that to be so effective. And so this is something I could reveal only in editing when I saw it.

I think afterwards it said something about Jessica and Oscar, because of the relationship they had before, what happened during the production and afterwards . . . I wanted to show them, in a way, to show something about themselves, as people, to say something about the relationship between them, and probably about the state of mind that they were in during the shooting.

The way that I thought about it was just this idea that setting it in one space, as you said, is not only COVID-friendly, but it also makes the setting of the house that they share into a canvas. And I was wondering how much of that idea went into your decision to place all the action in one space versus depicting locations beyond the boundary of the home?

We shot it in one place, but of course it represents different places. You know one of the first moments that I had this idea was, I divorced five, six years ago and I'm living in the house where we lived together. It's my ex-wife who designed this place with a very specific design. And then I'm here alone and it was an experience of living in a place which is not totally mine. I felt this uncanny . . . weird.  So I did some changes, and when she visited at some point, I saw on her face how she experienced it, how the house is changing, and what did it say? There was something sad about it, but maybe something new about it too. It really came from a personal experience. Then I thought yeah, a house is a character.

I want to briefly return to something that you mentioned, that stuck out to me. You said that when you were filming this, you had this acute sensation that, "Wait a minute, this isn't my language." Can you elaborate on that? I ask because you did "The Affair," a long-running but very different show about how a marriage comes under pressure. What was it about this particular treatment of relationships and marriage that made you feel that sensation of, "This is not my language"?

Well, you know, with "The Affair"  I had an American partner, Sarah Treem.  At a certain point, she took over. That was for me, like, a safety net.

I feel that in American shows, which is the way it should be, they're always about specific American phenomenon and American places, and American types. I think about "Succession," or I think about "White Lotus," or every other show. Or think about "The Wire." The sense of time and place is very evident. I think this is the power of television, that it says a very particular, specific story which is totally rooted in a place and in a culture.

I've been experiencing that since "In Treatment." It's been adapted to many, many languages. This year, I had the 19th adaptation of "In Treatment," which was the French one. Which was amazing.

Did you say 19th? That's impressive.

It was really crazy over the last 15 years. Yeah, the American was the first – not even the first, the second. So again and again, I came to a specific culture to help them adapt it. And we had to crack how can we do the adaptation, culturally, adapting it to a different place.

Here, I wrote it myself in Hebrew, and then translated it and then rewrote it. And then I had another American writer, Amy Herzog, who helped me with the whole process. But the show itself was abstract ideas as it is, originally. We wanted to make it a little bit more local. So just before the shooting, I felt like, "Yeah, I mean, I know a lot. I research a lot, and I have an American writer with me, but still feel it's not 100% that I know."

There are some elements that I want to kind of dive into now specifically with regard to Jonathan and Mira. First of all, I don't know if you've noticed the response to the show, but there have been very specific responses to the gender flip, in terms of Mira as being the one who has the high-powered, high-paying job – and Jonathan being a professor, the stay at home dad, and an intellectual. So let's talk about that. What's your impression of how people reacted to it?

I read here and there. It's very different. It's very interesting because their reactions is very different in America, and they're different in Europe or Israel as well. Maybe you mean something specific, so why don't you say exactly what you mean about that reaction?

There have been specific reactions to Mira and to her decisions. I think that within the original Bergman, with the husband, Johan, making the decision to leaving the marriage, and being very cold about it, the reactions to that seemed almost like, "Oh, of course, that's the way it goes." But when that's turned around, and you have Mira doing the leaving, and you have Jessica Chastain playing that role and allowing us to view it from from a perspective of a woman doing the leaving, that has a very different impression on some people.

This whole thing is kind of a gender experiment for me. That was actually the decision that helped me to start working on it. Before I didn't know what to do exactly with it. But I knew that I'm going to do a remake and not something else.

I felt some people wrote about it with the idea that this is loosely based on or inspired by [the Bergman series]. The idea was totally to make a remake, and that was, for me, the essence of it.

And one of the problems that I had when I started working is that I couldn't live with Johan. I couldn't identify with him. I couldn't stand him, you know? I didn't know what to do with this kind of character. And whenever I tried to make him nicer, it just didn't work.

So I just read the parts as the opposite gender, and suddenly something started to happen. And what happened for me is that immediately I identified with the woman who leaves. With the same text, I felt she has to. I felt she deserved to, I felt she's struggling with something big, and I felt so many strong feelings about how she should liberate herself, how she repressed something for many years, and she cannot do that anymore.

. . .  I know many stories like that and researched this specific idea of women who in order to, like, to keep their home stable, their family stable, just repress something very, very important and essential that we can learn we cannot really live without. In this series, it's overnight. It's very extreme. But the idea by itself is totally common.

. . . I have to say that women get it more than men. I feel a lot of time that men kind of . . . I shouldn't say this, probably, but sometimes their own chauvinism is projected on me in a way that they say, "What kind of woman is this?" But maybe it's your problem that you think about women as this and this and this. Jonathan is, of course, representing myself very much. I made him Jewish and ex-religious and put a lot of biographical elements in his character. But for me, she's the character I've invested so much in, and in a way that I have to fight for her.

I wonder if you're coming up against something else that's very typically American, and it's a combination of the binary thinking of, there's the right person, the wrong person in these situations, and unless you're in that situation, or you've ever been in something like it, that's never the case.

But you're also coming up in this idea we have about celebrities. These are two very famous people that people have projected their feelings upon, even before they go into this production. There is this kind of casual comedic nickname that people once assigned to Oscar Isaac, describing him as "The Internet's Boyfriend." There may be some sort of compulsion of people saying like, wait a minute. Mira is leaving not only this person who doesn't seem to have done anything wrong, but she's a woman leaving a man played by . . . Oscar Isaac. And it goes the same way with Jessica Chastain.

But I have to say again that a lot of people, and a lot of women again, could identify with the idea that he's too restrained and sometimes too cerebral and you know, probably too soft in a way that they were angry at him. Personally, I have to say that I know very much this feeling of, yes, I'm a very nice person myself, but sometimes it's not what you what is needed from you by a woman. You need something more vivid, more sensual, more passionate. And that, he doesn't have at this at this phase in his life.

. . . In a lot of research it's very obvious that these days divorce most of the time is initiated by women – I'm talking about statistics – and most of the time is because of kind of emotional dissatisfaction. Men can somehow just keep going, keep on, with limited emotional communication but it's OK. For women, they just can't live with that, so they're the people who would initiate the divorce.

This is what I had in mind. Sometimes I think it feels, especially in America, it's not easy to speak about the differences between men and women. It's not very, maybe, correct to say.  I feel in Europe they're more open to it, but I love Mira.

The thing about Jessica is very tricky because I always dreamed of Jessica for that role for years. She wasn't available, and then she was, so that was totally a miracle for me. But I think Jessica can be very vulnerable and, at the same time, very tough. And she can be very passionate and desirous but at the same time she can hold this façade you know.? And this combination, it's not always easy to like her because she's a very strong woman. But I always see her vulnerability in a second.

You were saying like you more or less just remade it, but there's the interpretation of it through a cultural lens is what changes a lot of the feeling about it. And when I say the cultural lens I'm not talking about from your end, I'm talking about from the people who are receiving it, from audiences. That's one thing that's really interesting is that you can take this work, keep the essence of it the same, save for a few changes. But through those minor flips people see completely different things about what it says about not just marriage, but marriage in a certain culture.

And in a time. Because you know, I probably know a lot about American culture because it's everywhere. So that's why I felt that I can do something in America. But still, I felt a foreigner and not only in the language, but also in my conceptions you know it was. 

What is it about this format that makes it so both adaptable to different forms and to different cultures? For instance, the "Master of None" interpretation involves two Black women. That has an entirely different meaning to me and has a different feeling than this. It can say very different things about relationships by doing essentially the same thing. So what quality makes it so adaptable, and what makes it so open to interpretation by the people who are receiving it?

It's a very conceptual show. It's not very specific. I could see it in Israel and connect with what happened there because unlike a lot of other Bergman films which contain a lot of religion and symbols, this does not. This is very, very bare.

And, the format, as you say – when I did "In Treatment," I went to see again the original "Scenes from a Marriage." It was totally influential about everything I did, because of the idea that two people can talk in real time, for a lot of time, it was to me a revelation that it can work. So I think this is very, very appealing for people who like dialogue and long scenes, and who like some theater.

My first rule in "In Treatment" was that every episode should be non-stop, like continuous, real-time dialogue for half an hour. There shouldn't be any cut in it. When you don't have this device of "cut to," you find yourself having to get into the bone of something very much, because you cannot leave in the in the peak of it. You just need to find out what would happen if it were a real conversation. And that takes you to different places than you're used to.

"Scenes From a Marriage" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO with previous episodes streaming on HBO Max. Ingmar Bergman's 1973 film version of "Scenes From a Marriage" is currently streaming on HBO Max.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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