FEATURES | fall 2004
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Liv Ullmann was called the emblem of art-house cinema, a stunning and talented actor who brought to exquisite, poignant life the tormented female characters created by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.
After the success of her early starring roles with Bergman, she embarked on a less than stellar run of Hollywood films before returning again to European cinema. But Ullmann, now 64, was never simply a movie star: She also excelled on the stage, wrote two internationally bestselling memoirs, served as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and raised her and Bergman’s daughter Linn, now a journalist and author.
Ultimately, the actor owned up to the fact that she was also an auteur. Since 1982, she has directed four full-length feature films (and parts of two others), writing the screenplays for two of them. Ullmann is currently preparing to direct a film version of the Ibsen classic A Doll’s House, starring Kate Winslet.
Robbert Emmet Long: Directing films used to be pretty much a men’s club, with here and there some quite brilliant women directors such as Leni Riefenstahl in Germany and Lina Wertmüller in Italy. In recent years, though, an increasing number of women have found success as directors, such as Jane Campion of New Zealand, Mira Nair from India and Sofia Coppola, an American. Have there been women directors whose work in the past you have admired, and do you see increasing opportunities for women to become film directors?
Liv Ullmann: Well, there are increasing opportunities, maybe specifically in Europe. The women there have a higher standard than they have had in the United States. You have a wonderful director in, for example, Barbra Streisand. I believe that maybe the one failing she has had in the past is that she has had a leading role in movies she herself directs.
I don’t believe that you can direct a movie where you play the lead yourself, because sooner or later some vanity will take over when you are editing the film or when you are making decisions about what you would like the theme to be. But I think she’s a wonderful director, and I hope that she will come back and make a movie in which she is not an actor.
In Europe, the women directors have been very strong. In France and Scandinavia there are some very good women directors. In Norway , in fact, there were better women directors than there were men directors. In Sweden , though, they were not better than the men because there were always very great men directors in Sweden.
What happened in Norway is that if you are a woman director, and if you become strong and might even become successful, you don’t belong to the boys’ club. So you lose friends and the film company that will give you your next movie. Some of these really good women directors in Norway will disappear — this has happened.
REL: I was just about to name two Swedish actresses who became directors — one is Mai Zetterling.
LU: Yes, well I think that also happened to her. She made beautiful films — I’ve seen two of them — and suddenly it became quiet. I think it is the men’s club taking over, not funding them, not allowing them to happen. And who was the other Swedish actress who became a director?
REL: Ingrid Thulin, another Bergman actress. She made at least two feature films, I understand.
LU: I haven’t seen the films. But somebody from the same school, Gunnel Lindblom, who had a lot of parts in Ingmar Bergman’s films and was a wonderful actress, she made two, maybe three very fine movies, and the same thing happened to her. She got acclaim and then suddenly it was quiet.
Strangely enough, media attention when women make films is very negative, perhaps by the very fact that they are women. Even, for example, with Sofia Coppola. A lot of people are saying, “Oh, her father wrote the script, her father was over there directing her film, she didn’t do it alone.” Sometimes slighting rumors about women directors become so strong that in the end women are dismissed.
REL: I’ve seen you described in print as a “feminist film director.” Is this a good description of you?
LU: I don’t really know what a “feminist film director” is. I am a woman, and all my life I have been surrounded by women’s issues. Things happen within my body because I am a woman. I give birth because I am a woman. I fall in love in a woman’s way. Even as a director I have a different way of approaching those I work with because I am a woman. I know, because I have worked with so many male directors, that my language is at times different from theirs.
When I made my first movie, I tried at first to be very people-pleasing so that I would be accepted, and that didn’t work so well. I even asked the technicians, “Can I go out and get you some coffee?” so they would like me and respect me.
When I began to speak on a set, I didn’t have a commanding voice like a man’s, and there were many practical things about filmmaking I had not yet learned. I’m not good with technical terms which maybe I should use with cinematographers, so I would say something like “Slow down the camera.” It’s almost like a dance in the way it slows down, a very slow, beautiful dance. And this is not the language a man would use.
REL: You must have learned a lot about directing from being directed by Ingmar Bergman.
LU: Yes, of course I did, and I made so many films with him. But if I were to be very honest, the ones I learned from the most were the bad directors. Bad directors make you see, or feel, what you shouldn’t do. They talk too much, they describe too much what is happening inside your character. They kill your fantasy and interfere with your ability to feel cleanly.
I did learn about cutting when I did a movie for Bergman as an actress last summer [Saraband]. I saw the way he was cutting the script again and again, before we shot. I wish that knowledge had been clear to me before, because I am always forced to cut [after shooting] and I hate it. You see the exciting things the cast and crew are doing, and suddenly you have to cut the scenes from the movie. It’s like inflicting little deaths to their creativity.
REL: Was making your first film, Sofie, an intimidating experience for you?
LU: No, it was a wonderful experience. I think the first week was intimidating, but that was because I allowed myself to be intimidated by myself. I was middle-aged, I was a former actress — or an actress — and I was a woman. I felt that these were three things that the crew would not like in a director, so I allowed myself to be intimidated by believing everybody had these negative feelings toward me.
But once I threw these notions overboard, and once I stopped being people-pleasing, I loved directing. I loved to be on the other side of the camera and to watch great actors and actresses create.
REL: How does the heroine of the second film you directed, Kristin Lavransdatter [the story of a strong-willed woman in 14th-century Norway who defies her father to marry her lover], compare with the heroines of your other movies?
LU: I think that Kristin would compare to the other women in that she believed her life was her life, and that she couldn’t live it according to the rules of the generation before her. So if you talk about feministic films, yeah, so maybe that’s where feminism would come in — a way of thinking that “I have a unique life. I am a woman, and my life has to be lived according to who I am and not who my parents were.”
REL: Both Private Confessions (1997) and Faithless (2000) were scripts written by Ingmar Bergman which he asked you to direct. They both involve marital infidelity and tormenting guilt. The film historian David Thomson calls Faithless “a vital extension of Bergman’s work, and a magnificent picture in its own right.” Is it your favorite of the films you have made?
LU: It is in some ways my favorite film, because I put so much of what I believed into the work. Ingmar’s having written it in the form of a monologue made it in some way a very personal film for me. There was a story in it I wanted to tell — to tell about the director, whom I saw as Ingmar, and to tell about the actress, who was also me.
I also wanted to put the child prominently into the movie. In all the movies I’ve done with Ingmar, you only hear about the children, you never see them. But if you are to tell his family story, you have to tell what happens to the children when the grownups are behaving the way they are behaving, because in Faithless he is telling a story about faithlessness that had once affected him as a child.
I was really proud of that movie because it stirred up a lot of other people. It stirred up Ingmar to the degree … [Ullmann begins to laugh] that he liked what I had done. You know, I believe that the reason Ingmar gave me these two scripts to do … well, I know that he gave me the first one because he said that I was religious. And he did not know anyone else who believed in God and was the way I was.
About the other movie, I really don’t know why he wanted me to do it except that he must have liked what I did with Private Confessions. And I think there were things he knows I know. He would never have made the film himself, he could never have done it, would have resisted doing it. But he knew maybe deep down that I would do it, and he wanted it done.
REL: You’ll next be directing a new film version of A Doll’s House.
LU: Yes, I have finished a script. Kate Winslet has said “yes” to do Nora, John Cusack has said “yes” to do Helmer and Stellan Skarsgård will do Dr. Rank. We are supposed to start the first of January in Norway .
REL: You’ve played Nora at various times in your life, including as your Broadway debut, with Sam Waterston [in 1975]. I wonder if Nora might be conceived in your film in a different way than she was when you played her.
LU: Yes, absolutely. I’ve played her once on the radio, once in the National Theatre in Oslo and once on tour in Norway , in addition to Broadway. Each time it was different for me because with age comes new knowledge and new experiences of my own that I can use. So when I was asked to write the script and to direct, I think, “I’m the best director for the play.” [She laughs.]
REL: You’re an expert on the subject.
LU: I’ve done her, I know her, I’m an actress and I’ve directed movies. I can put so much in the script of what I know, and at the same time, for example, I can give an actress like Kate Winslet tremendous freedom to go with her experience. I haven’t changed Ibsen, because why should you change an incredible genius?
I have also added things that are very much part of today, although the play takes place at the turn of the [19th] century in my movie. There are things that we know today that I am sure were part of those days, too, but that Ibsen didn’t write about.
I’ve also removed the stagy part: To be a doll today is not the same as being a doll then. To be a doll today is to be a people-pleaser, a woman who will never reveal that she is too capable or too strong because she doesn’t want to emasculate the man she is with. We women are playing the same game, only we do it a little differently.
I mean look, the first week I was directing Sofie, I ran around and asked everyone if I should bring them coffee. That’s a Nora. She dances when she doesn’t know what else to do to keep their attention, when she could sit down and talk about something more serious instead. She dances and dances until she has to say who she is. And then she is so surprised by who she is that she has to leave the house until she has grown up herself.
Robert Emmet Long is the author of Ingmar Bergman: Film and Stage (Harry N. Abrams, 1997).
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