Nearly 50 years ago, a young actress with a handful of screen credits and her more illustrious friend ran into a formidable film director on the streets of Stockholm. The friend, Bibi Andersson, introduced the ingénue, Liv Ullmann, to the auteur, Ingmar Bergman, and this chance encounter would lead to one of the most fruitful director/actor collaborations in cinematic history (Persona, Cries and Whispers, and Scenes from a Marriage among them). The 75-year-old Ullmann has continued to work in the theater to great acclaim, and now she adds a fifth film to her résumé as a filmmaker. Her latest is a screen adaptation of Miss Julie, the 1888 August Strindberg play about an aristocrat’s daughter, his manservant, and their behind-closed-doors goings-on. Ullmann transplanted the plot to 1880s Ireland, with Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell playing the leads, and adapted the naturalist, arguably misogynist, play with a keenly humanist eye and feminist ear. On the eve of its release in the United States, I sat down with Ullmann to discuss her unique struggles as a filmmaker, the relevancy of Miss Julie for contemporary audiences, and Chastain’s awards-worthy performance.
It’s been almost 15 years since you made Faithless. What drew you to adapt and direct Miss Julie for the screen?
I’m sorry it took me so many years to make another movie, because with my age it would have been great to have done something earlier. I don’t have a world of time in front of me. But it took that time to get this one made, and maybe that was good. I was going to do A Doll’s House some years ago. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the money, but I directed and acted in the theater in the meantime. I directed Cate Blanchett in Australia, Washington D.C., and New York in A Streetcar Named Desire, and that’s really where I got so interested in August Strindberg, because Williams admired him so much and stole a little from him for Streetcar.
Do you think that your age was a hindrance in getting this produced?
Today, for me to produce new movies, my age and sex is a hindrance. But this is the world I live in and I’m very proud of what I’ve done in my life. I just remind other women, and remind people in interviews, that this is the situation.
How was it as a woman adapting what many critics would say is a misogynist play?
Strindberg wrote very badly about women. So I thought, well, I’m adapting it so now I’m going to let you know what Miss Julie was thinking. Obviously if you read the play, you know that Miss Julie feels she’s nothing, but wouldn’t it be nice to see her say it, and wouldn’t it be nice to see her watching as she says it, and wouldn’t it be nice to see John listening to or not listening to this? So, for me, it was very, very important to let us come behind the faces to their thoughts.
To bring their humanity forth, and their perspective in such a way, in terms of casting, did you think of Chastain and Farrell from the very beginning? Especially as Farrell, compared to other interpretations of John as straightforward macho, brought a different complexity. Similarly, Miss Julie is normally also very straightforward with her haughtiness and weakness, but Chastain brought more to the role. A certain humanity between the two of them.
Yeah, I love that you said that because it was important [to reinterpret] John, or Jean, as Strindberg says. [The actors who’ve played John are so] macho, and when Miss Julie comes to the kitchen they’re full of protests. But that’s not the truth. It would never happen that way. She’s the mistress of the house. She comes down to the kitchen. What can you do? He’s ordered around. He has to do it. His whole body is stiff and full of anger and displeasure. But he’s not denying. Strindberg doesn’t let him deny it. But his whole body is showing it. And his hair is slicked down. Every servant you see in pictures from that time, they’re hair is slicked down. They look effeminate. And Farrell dared to do everything and keep his nails wonderful. All the other Jeans have beards and are a little dirty. That never happened, but no one criticized [the play for] that. Colin did everything so right, and I admire him so much for doing the part that way. And I think Jessica is fantastic. She has said in some interviews that we did it together, but that’s not true at all, because when I said, “Camera,” she went and she did things that I know, as an actress, I would have done differently, and her choices were all absolutely fantastic. When she kills the bird, and her reaction after, I would have done something very moving and had you all crying. She did the opposite, and she was incredible. And when I said, “Stop the camera,” I had to because I couldn’t stop sobbing myself. I was so amazed by her.
In previous interviews, you had mentioned that she doesn’t cry, but that she sobs from such a deep place and that as a director that affected you.
It did. Very seldom in your life do you hear somebody sob from such a deep place. And it reminds you maybe of sometime in your life when you’ve heard someone sobbing like that. She sobs in a way that, oh my God, I want to hold her, to mother her. I kept thinking, “[She’s] phenomenal,” and then I become upset when I think that this film won’t be shown and marketed everywhere.
I was talking with a few critics in Toronto who were surprised that the film hasn’t been given more of a promotional push.
They want to save money. In the end, when she’s sitting by the brook and she’s sending down the flowers, she says, “You’re little pieces, but you belong together.” It’s so beautiful. But the producers come and say we don’t have money for flowers. I paid for the flowers with the designer. We paid for them. And who’s paying for the flowers to give Jessica this chance? And Colin? And Samantha [Morton]? I am so upset because they deserve more. Chastain hasn’t done anything this year that [she deserves an Oscar for more than this].
Exactly. Because she’s so stripped bare emotionally, compared to other interpretations that depict Miss Julie as a petulant little girl. She actually shows all of the different sides of womanhood. Going back to how you said that you didn’t collaborate so much on her performance…
I didn’t tell her what to do. How could I? Because I don’t like that either. If I started to tell her, “Your heart is really beating, and you’re thinking about John, but you’re also thinking of your mother,” what could she have done? [Maybe] nothing. I hate it when directors have told me what [to think].
This play tackles socioeconomic issues. Do you think it has more relevance now than when it was released?
Yes. We need it more now. We need it much more.
Speaking with the Guardian, you compared Miss Julie to Donald Trump.
I didn’t say she was Donald Trump, but that she was in Donald Trump when he said that people with Ebola should say where they are. And about the doctors who go to heal the nurses, he said that if they made the choice and go to West Africa to heal them, they should go there but not to come back and put us in danger. That’s what I said. No, he could never be Miss Julie. Miss Julie had nuances which I don’t think he has a lot of.
With industry trends going toward superhero movies and blockbusters, it’s refreshing to watch a film about the interrelationships of three people in an intimate space.
Exactly. I think more than ever we need human relationships on film so we can be reminded not only of who we are, but who other people are and that we aren’t alone. And that there are so many people out there who have nothing, so we can be interested in them and understand why we act the way we do. We have to connect, E.M. Forster said.