‘Scenes From a Marriage’ Showrunner on Remaking Bergman for HBO

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When it comes to exploring relationships, Ingmar Begman’s iconic television series-turned-movie “Scenes from a Marriage” is still as relevant today as it was when it first aired almost fifty years ago. Which is why, when showrunner Hagai Levi (“In Treatment,” “The Affair”) was first approached about re-making the series, which plays out of competition at the ongoing Venice Film Festival, by Bergman’s youngest son Daniel, he promptly said “Yes” before immediately wondering “What am I going to do?”

“’Why [remake it]?’ was the biggest question,” Levi tells Variety.

The problem with the original, Levi confesses, is that he felt “quite alienated” from protagonists Johan and Marianne. “[Johan] is an asshole and he’s a chauvinist and he is cold and you’re not supposed to [like him],” he says. “While the woman – she was very weak, dependent.”

“And I didn’t know what to do with it,” he says frankly. “I cannot put on a screen a character that [audiences] cannot identify with.”

Six and a half years after first receiving Daniel’s email, Levi finally came up with the solution – and an answer to his original question – when he hit upon the idea of swapping the lead characters’ sexes. In Bergman’s version it is the male character, Johan, who betrays his wife Marianne and upends their lives; in the HBO version it is Mira (played by Jessica Chastain) who walks out on her bewildered husband Jonathan (played by Oscar Isaac).

Swapping the sexes of the adulterer and the wounded spouse both modernised the story and made the characters more relatable. It “keep[s] the structure, the story, but it creates suddenly a totally different reality,” Levi says.

The change also made the villain (ostensibly now Mira) more ambiguous. In the original, there is a “more direct ascent and descent of two characters,” says Michael Ellenberg, an executive producer on the HBO series. In Levi’s version, “Mira declines in certain ways but she grows in others. And same with Jonathan.”

Ellenberg, a long-time Bergman fan, also has his own answer as to why the time was ripe for a remake (although he quibbles with the term “remake.”) “There’s remakes and then there’s adaptations,” he says. “And no one questions doing ‘Macbeth’ every 10 years, right?”

“What seemed exciting was to take the same DNA, same material, and see what resonates now and what doesn’t,” Ellenberg continues. “What’s changed in the world between men and women and husbands and wives and what’s the same from that era.”

Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain and Hagai Levi in Venice for the premier of “Scenes From a Marriage”

The biggest change, of course, is the ubiquity of divorce. In the 1970s it was still fairly rare and Bergman’s series (later turned into a film) was blamed for spiking divorce rates across Europe (although his film may have been a symptom of the new phenomenon rather than a cause.) With divorce no longer a taboo, Levi says he was minded to take the “opposite” view from Bergman when it comes to the topic of separation, one encapsulated in a scene between Jonathan and his religious mother, who matter-of-factly addresses its downsides.

“I wanted to talk about the price of separation not about the price of marriage,” says Levi, who has himself been through a divorce. “The fact that you’re locked in marriage – it’s not so true anymore. But what is true is this unbearable lightness of separation. People are just leaving and moving on, because this is the society we live in. I mean, if you change your iPhone every year, why not change your spouse?”

“And I wanted to say something about that,” he continues. “Isn’t it too easy in a way, considering the traumatic event which is divorce, which is separation? If it’s a promise that they’re giving us of ‘just go with your heart’ […] isn’t it too shallow a little bit? Because the price is quite high.”

In an effort to present Jonathan and Mira as “everyman” characters, Levi also took the unusual step of breaking the fourth wall at the beginning or end of each episode, giving the audience a glimpse of Isaac or Chastain as they walk onto set and into their roles. “It was a very late decision,” says Levi of the device, which gives the series a theatrical edge.

As Ellenberg says of the show, which is almost entirely set in Jonathan and Mira’s family home, the filmmakers wanted the audience to feel as though “you’re in the room, you’re seven feet away – it’s almost inappropriate how close you are to these people’s lives as you’re watching them.”

“When I came to America, started walking around the set, meeting with the actors, and I felt there is some kind of theatrical feeling in it,” says Levi, who is Israeli. “And also, you know, I felt that I’m not American, this is not my culture, it’s not my language, I cannot pretend that I came to tell a very specific story about this couple from Boston or whatever. I felt it’s much more abstract in that way. I wanted to say something about a couple from no matter where or when, and I felt I needed a kind of device to say, ‘Hey, this is not about [a specific couple] – it’s more of a fable.’”

It was, he said, also a way of acknowledging the pandemic era (the crew and occasionally cast appear briefly in masks) as well as reminding viewers that the show is “an homage to something else that’s been done before.”

Levi was, unsurprisingly, acutely aware of his predecessor throughout the process. Bergman’s son Daniel is an executive producer on the show and the Bergman estate was also involved in its making. “I sent them the scripts, they had the notes, and I sent them the cuts,” says Levi. “I felt, you know, their voice was there, it was always important for me.” (Ellman says: “[Levi’s] approach to this, emotionally, had the right blend of reverence and terror.”).

Given that Levi left “The Affair” over creative differences, was he worried he would run into similar issues on “Scenes From a Marriage,” which had even more stakeholders in the form of Bergman’s heirs, fans and estate? “Quite the opposite,” says Levi. “First of all, I did this one with HBO, which I feel so at home with and [with whom] I have the most creative freedom. So, that was different. And the fact that I directed it myself and wrote it myself. But mainly, you can see that this is actually the style I like, this is the way I want to approach [it]. ‘The Affair’ went to a different direction. This time I could really fulfil my own taste of how to do things.”

If anything, the input of the legendary Swedish director’s descendants was reassuring. “I felt that Bergman’s spirit was floating somewhere and keeping an eye on me,” smiles Levi. “Which was okay.”

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