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

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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.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

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........

© Salon

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