This week we had the great honour of speaking with legendary actress, writer and director Liv Ullmann about her film, Miss Julie. Any introduction would be too short so read on as we discuss adapting Strindberg, filmed theatre and women in the film industry…
Why did you choose to adapt Miss Julie? What attracted you to this particular play?
Well, I met some producers who wanted me to make a movie about a woman, either something I made up myself, or adapted, and they asked two other women from two other countries as well… I don’t know if those films will ever be made but I said yes, I thought it was exciting. I was thinking of Miss Julie because I never got to play her and I had been reading a lot about her, so I suggested that. They said yes and I did it! And it was very much about reading what August Strindberg himself wrote about women, so full of hate and anger. I wanted to defend her because I saw so much more in what he had written. I thought maybe she needed some other words here and there to express what she’s feeling, and what others are feeling about her. Because if you adapt you have much bigger freedom.
Talking about Miss Julie, in the play’s preface Strindberg clearly identifies Miss Julie’s man-hating nature as an abomination. In fact, death seems to be her only option. However, in the film I never got the impression that Miss Julie was the victim – I started thinking that her tragic death was her plan all along, with Jean being just a puppet caught in her strings…
You’re actually very right, that’s what I was thinking. First of all, I don’t think Julie is a man-hater because she didn’t see that many men in her life. I think she had a death wish, a wish of complete isolation, of peace. Maybe subconsciously she came into that room, in the cellar, where she was not supposed to be and she sees the two unlikely people what will set her plan into motion. Maybe she doesn’t even mean to be bad, but she doesn’t know how to communicate at all, and in the end, yeah, she succeeds. I’m not for suicide, I don’t believe that people should commit suicide but I know that allowing herself to die in that last scene, she found some peace there and that’s why I used that last image which resembles Ophelia. I think Shakespeare wrote the same.
It was a very poetic image and it definitely reminded me of the Ophelia painting by John Everett Millais.
Yeah, exactly… she faces rejection not only from him [John] but from everybody. A rejection she allowed to happen because somewhere she rejected herself. The people, they make choices in their lives, whatever happens to them, they make choices, and will always make choices. She doesn’t make choices, she allows these things to happen and while I wrote I thought about that so much. I mentioned her death wish on the first day to the actors and I thought I said too much, but nobody commented on it then. But when I met Jessica in Toronto when we opened there she said, ‘you know what you said about her death wish? I suddenly understood something’ and I was so happy because I always regretted it, because mostly the actors create, you know. I give them the script, then they create.
John’s also a very interesting character. In the film we learn more about his history and we realise that he’s trapped just as much as Julie is. Despite his strong masculine presence we see his weakness too because in the end he’s the one who lacks the courage to set himself free. Was that something you discussed with Colin?
Oh yes, that’s absolutely how he meant to portray him, and how I meant it too. People who played Jean [John] are usually very muscular, big beards and so on…servants didn’t look like that! If you look at pictures from the time all of them have their hair combed back, and look like this, and they did their nails, that’s who they were. And in the end she [Julie] is the one who hypnotises him to do whatever he’s doing. She talks about the heath and this and that and she’s hypnotising him. And Strindberg said he was hypnotising her but no, he was really wrong there, because she’s the one driving the story – she’s the one that says ‘this is what I wish. If you really love me, you will give me the knife’ although she doesn’t use those words but suddenly he’s giving her the knife. But in fact, she’s the one doing it.
As a director, how do you work with your actors? Did you rehearse for Miss Julie or was it ever left to improvisation?
We had rehearsals were we did all the blocking. I didn’t tell them about their feelings, never, because the actors are the creators. I’m an actor myself and I hate directors who tell me what I’m feeling. They have to see what I’m doing and tell me if I’m doing too much, but then I have the chance to tell the director and thus the film what I know about life. So that’s what I do. That’s where actors like them [Chastain, Farrell and Morton] can give their best. Somebody here mentioned the scene when John kills the bird. I mean, look at her face [Julie] when the camera comes up at her. I almost screamed, I got so scared…
It must have been very intense. For the actors and everyone in the crew, to play with such anger and such intensity…
Oh tremendously, and I didn’t understand it until I met Jessica again much later and I thought, ‘this is such a young sweet little girl, how did she know everything she did?’
Another interesting aspect of the film is that it was shot on location and even the exteriors are always behind these closed walls. We don’t see the outside…
You see, I didn’t really know that when I finished writing the script. We thought we were going to do it in a studio but then they lost some money, so we were going to do it in on location. The production designer transformed it into a real kitchen. And the stone walls… people then didn’t want to see the servants, they didn’t want them walking on their grass; they had to use a tunnel to come in so the upper class people would not be disturbed by seeing the underclass walking there. Through the tunnel, and from the kitchen and from their bedrooms, this was all through hidden passages. So I had to change my script because I had them in the kitchen, looking outside at the sun and everything, but in reality it was much more dramatic than that, and I almost didn’t know it… They could never look out, and they never questioned it, and so if you say that this is a period piece it’s not the truth, because what do we know about the people we are denying asylum in our countries now, why should they come to us? We have the good time, we don’t want to share with them. They’re still on the other side of the tunnel. So, that’s very modern at the moment.
What made you decide to adapt the play to 19th century Ireland?
Oh that was easy, because the story takes place in Sweden but I couldn’t use English actors in Sweden. That would be really fake you know, and it’s an English-speaking movie, so Sweden was out. Then, the choice was England or Ireland. You don’t do a lot about Midsummer’s Eve here, but in Ireland they do, and it’s really important for the story. And then there are some incredible castles there, and we found Castle Coole that gave so much to the story. The script I wrote after we knew we were going to shoot there was somewhat different from what I had written before, because that castle told me what I had to write, what the rooms looked like, which I didn’t know…
Shooting on location is occasionally difficult but in this case it sounds like it enriched the story…
Yes, it was enriching and I didn’t think it would be. Caroline Amies, who is an incredible production designer, got very upset because when we were told we would be shooting on location because we were really happy with what she had proposed to do in the studio. But in the end she did magic! And occasionally we had problems with money, for example the ending scene where Julie dies and sends some flowers down the river. We needed flowers there but we didn’t have the money for it, so I of course said ‘I’ll pay for the flowers.’ But then Caroline said I could send her home a week earlier than scheduled, just as long as I could have the flowers. That’s how dedicated she was. And then of course they gave us some money for the flowers. Women would do that, you see, because we want the best results. You can’t stand there quarrelling about money.
It seems like nowadays there’s a greater interplay between films, stage plays and filmed theatre. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s all art, you see. You have music in the film, that doesn’t mean that music can only be performed in concert halls. Music may be there when you write, or maybe when you talk to somebody and you hear music. Film, it’s incredible. I come close to you, I see who you are but film is also looking at the details, the surroundings. But then, it’s also interesting for an audience to sit back and watch events unfold, and that you can do in the theatre. I do filmed theatre, because I find people are the most interesting. And I’m not ashamed of doing filmed theatre, I like it. Other people make wonderful movies that are not theatre and that’s wonderful too, but comic book movies aren’t… they’re not about people, they’re not about animals, they’re not about nature; they’re about caricatures.
What I enjoyed about Miss Julie is that you take the time to stay with your characters, with your actors, to see them become alive. I guess another film would have cut much faster between shots…
You see, if you hold your wrist, that is the rhythm of a pulse and anything quicker than that, that’s not us; that’s not human anymore, we don’t recognise it anymore. Some great filmmakers lose that audience because they want to see this [she claps mimicking the fame many filmmakers aspire to].
Often you have talked about the challenge a woman director faces in what is still a male-dominated industry – what would you advice be for the young female writers and directors who are just starting out in the industry?
I’m not the best example but I would say ‘to thine own self be true’ because men want to handle you if they can, because that’s what they feel like they should do with a woman, although they may know much less than you, and be lazier than you, and work less than you. That may happen and you have to be strong enough to believe in yourself. I have the tendency at times to say ‘oh please don’t get angry, that’s OK’. You have to be true to yourself and to believe in what you’re doing yourself. Women…we are really strong, you know, and we’re really creative, and good men will like us and trust us, but only if we trust ourselves.
I’ve read in an interview that Miss Julie might be your last film?
It could be, but I’ve spoken to some really nice people today and they gave me good ideas, something I said many years ago I’d like to make a movie about. Suddenly that was so inspiring to hear that. Already I’m starting to make notes. But you never know… acting yes, but directing, that’s 2 or 3 years of your life and you don’t look at me at my age and think ‘oh yes, in a couple of years, shouldn’t we spend three years making a movie?’