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The Mary Sue Interview: Liv Ullmann On Miss Julie, Feminism, And Her Half-Century-Long Career

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At one point during our conversation, Liv Ullmann refers to herself as “one of the last wonders.” She’s joking, but she’s also right.

At 75, the Norwegian Miss Julie director has been making movies for fifty years. Her colorful personal life and artistic achievements have made her a legend within her lifetime, and that’s fortunate for modern audiences—according to Ullmann, feminist filmmakers such as herself are now an endangered species.

Ullmann, regardless of how much she may equivocate over the word “feminism,” has a history of creating highly political art that challenges society’s treatment of women. In 1975, she made her New York theater debut starring as Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a Norwegian play criticizing the institution of marriage. (This was after her appearance in Young Escape, a controversial play that caused her family to disown her). In 1973, she starred in the Ingmar Bergman-directed Swedish TV show Scenes From A Marriage, which may have literally ended countless Scandinavian marriages—divorce rates nearly doubled the year the series aired.

For many people, Bergman is the first association that comes to mind at the mention of Ullmann, rather than her own extensive body of work as a writer and director.

Ullmann met director Ingmar Bergman when she was 25 and he was 46. The two quickly fell in love, and Bergman built a house for her and urged Ullmann to stay isolated with him on the island of Faro, where the two lived for years. In the early 1970s, Ullmann left the relationship and flew to Stockholm where she was met in the airport by an army of actresses holding signs congratulating her on her “liberation.”

Bergman and Ullmann continued their creative partnership even after their romance ended, and Ullmann is quick to admit that, as a woman, she might not have been allowed to direct if not for her former lover’s reputation. But she won’t allow critics to value her work solely through its association with Bergman, either. When a viewer at an early screening of Miss Julie responded to the film with “I think Ingmar Bergman would be proud of that,” Ullman’s reply was quick and, judging from our discussion, totally typical. “Sorry, did Ingmar Bergman make this film?”

The Mary Sue: As a female director with a large body of highly-respected work, you are, unfortunately, a rarity. Can you talk about what it’s like to be an exception in that sense?

Liv Ullmann: Well, you see, I’m maybe not so much an exception, maybe because I’ve lived so long that more is coming, more is there. Because it is tough to be a woman. Also as an actor, but more so as a director. And even more today, when distributors and producers are looking at different kinds of films and maybe not necessarily what a woman would want to do. And then the age, you know. A man can be wiser and wiser, and a woman is older and older. And we need feminist voices today, you know. In my time, we had incredible feminist voices and I’m sure we have it today, too, but in all the massive outlets, maybe the one or two or three voices are somehow disappearing.

TMS: Or they get shouted over.

Ullmann: They get shouted over.

TMS: Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Ullmann: You know, what is a feminist? I consider myself a realist who wants to stand up for women’s voices, not when they try to be the same, but when they stand up for who we are and what we see and how important it is that our voice is heard. Because yes, we are different. We are equal in every way but our voices are important to each other and our need to want to listen to each other and try to understand, because sometimes we are so difficult to understand. Men to understand us, and we to understand men. And we don’t. We don’t connect the way we should.

TMS: You see that in the movie a lot, for sure.

Ullmann: You see that a lot in movies, and today you see it more in movies that are made, because I feel more movies are made towards groups than towards individuals, and they’re made more for mass media than for sitting in a movie house allowing it to happen. And I realize that we’ve come to a different way of showing movies. But I’m still with the old ways, and I can’t change. So I can’t expect people to decide that they will change with me, so I can see why I’m on the old side.

TMS: If I can repeat a quote back that you said about Strindberg [August Strindberg, the playwright who originally penned Miss Julie in 1888] that I thought was really interesting, you said, “He was not very good in his thoughts towards women, and that’s why it’s good a woman adapted it [Miss Julie]. I wanted to remind him about something. He probably knew it but he didn’t want to face it.” What did you want to remind Strindberg?

Ullmann: That we are equal human beings, and we were born with evil and anger and misunderstanding of what a man is, and so we are as needy and wanting to be part of him, as he, obviously, was needing and wanting to be part of us. And that’s why I’ve really taken the freedom, because it’s an adaptation, to give her a voice. And I gave him [Colin Farrell’s character, John] a voice, too, at times, because he answers to her and she’s not always great at listening either. And in adaptations you are allowed. And I saw this movie, about Hawkings…

TMS: The Theory of Everything?

Ullmann: Yeah! Which I loved!

TMS: Me too. It was so beautiful, I didn’t expect it.

Ullmann: I didn’t expect it, either! I almost want to cry, “oh, my God, it’s good!” And that is the same, you know, you are listening and they’re so different, then you really hear the woman’s voice and it’s from the woman’s book! And you suddenly see him so differently, too! And I believe that’s a movie that people really will get and love and…oh, I forgot your question.

TMS: You answered it! I was curious about the adaptation. What drove you to adapt a Strindberg play that is often viewed as misogynistic?

Ullmann: Because he gave me the opportunity to have this incredible story, about the class system, about unfairness in life, but also this story about man and woman. What I wanted, because he gave me the freedom, to give her a voice that I missed a little in her.

TMS: It’s thrilling to work on an adaptation with that kind of potential.

Ullmann: Exactly. And I had the advantage, that I know Swedish. So I had the Swedish book and I had a lot of English translations, and German translations, and I did everything to make the best English translation I could. And then, there I went. “Oh! I think she’s thinking this, but I think she should say it!” And so on. It’s wonderful to do that.

TMS: One scene I was curious about that you added was the post-sex scene, where Julie is obviously in pain. Was that something that you had in your original draft of the adaptation?

Ullmann: Yes, I had…Strindberg doesn’t say…we know they “did it.” Was she a virgin? We don’t know. Was it the day of her menstrual thing? She’s touching her blood, and it can be both, and I wanted that to be there. I wanted the confrontation which is happening with a woman, whether it’s one thing or the other, that is there. The scares and uncertainty about who I am, and why am I alone on the bed, and why is nobody holding me.

And we know that, from the play, that he obviously was not doing that. And then we get to see him: “ahh! He’s washing himself! He’s washing her off his own body!” It’s the worst thing I ever heard. To wash yourself, of the most intimate thing, of being close to a woman. I wanted to show that.

TMS: All the acting is the best acting I think I’ve ever seen out of those actors. What was the casting process like?

Ullmann: Well it wasn’t difficult, because I asked them, and they said yes. And the only one I met before was Jessica, I met her in Los Angeles, and she is so incredible, and we had all these plans that she would have a scene with a bird, and she would try to make the bird do things, although the bird was in, like, a prison. But she knew. We learned that we couldn’t, because we had only two hours that we had to stick to, and I just thought “oh, she’s fantastic.” And she would quote things, and I was so impressed with her knowledge and literacy and so.

And Colin I talked to several times on the phone, and I said, remember, we have only twenty-five days of doing the movie, so you must know some of your text. I was a little un-feminist, I didn’t want to say [bossy voice] “learn your text!” But when he came, he knew all his text. All the actors knew all their text. And the same with Samantha [Morton], knew all her text. It’s the best they have done, they should all be shown, they should all be nominated, but I know it’s not going to happen, because people won’t see it. I wish someone would put into the marketing possibility for someone to see it, because they all deserve to be honored. But apart from that, you know, it will live long. Film is wonderful as opposed to theater, because it will always live there, and they will always be seen.

TMS: Do you think that, in general, films like Miss Julie are a dying breed?

Ullmann: Yeah, unfortunately. And that is sad, because we need these. Like we need books, we need classical music, we need ballet, we need opera, to remind us really of who we are and why we are, and we need in movie houses—even to be in a movie—where you sit and see not only excitement and man-hero, woman-hero, you need quietly, just like that Hawking movie we talked about, to know how people overcome. Or maybe don’t overcome. Know why we say “I’m feminist,” but we don’t really know. Connect.

I think I am one of the last wonders in this thing, and I wish it wasn’t so. Although I have to say that this year I’ve seen incredible movies, so I believe in my lifetime, it will still exist. But I don’t know how long it will exist, because it has to do with “what do you marketing people want to do, what do you distributors want to buy.” Is the risk so big that it’s difficult to do? And producers, where do you want to give your money? And we don’t cost a lot.

But also, what I want to stress—and I haven’t said this to everyone, I forgot!—it’s a film. It’s not digital. It’s a film. And there is a difference between film and digital. Because digital, you know, it’s perfect and whatever. But with film, you get depth. You get subject.

[Miss Julie opens today in theaters. Look for The Mary Sue’s review later tonight!]

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