NY FILM FESTIVAL INTERVIEW: Liv Ullmann Talks About The 'Pain' Of Loving Bergman In Liv & Ingmar

Liv Ullmann Interview -- 'Liv & Ingmar'

It's too bad they don't give Oscars out for individual performances in documentaries because Liv Ullmann's work in Dheeraj Akolkar's Liv & Ingmar would be worthy of consideration. The Norwegian actress and filmmaker discusses her 42-year relationship with the late Swedish filmmaking legend Ingmar Bergman with such emotional candor and poetic economy that the movie becomes something much more than just a re-telling of one of the most famous work-love relationships in  cinema.

Although Ullmann and Bergman — who was 22 years her senior when they fell for each other on the set of Persona in 1965 — lived together for only five tempestuous years, the friendship that they built  in the aftermath is very much a love story. And Ullmann's remembrances of their time together and apart until Bergman's death in 2007, combined with Akolkar's sumptuous and artful telling of the story, make Liv & Ingmar a story that can be enjoyed without an immersion course in their work together. Liv & Ingmar is at its essence a story of two people who love each other but cannot live with each other.  (Think of it as a real-life Celeste & Jesse Forever.)

Ullmann, 73 will attend the U.S. premiere of the film at the New York Film Festival on Monday night, and the Oscar-nominated actress spoke to Movieline about her initial reluctance to participate in Akolkar's film, her happiness with the result, her rollercoaster relationship with Bergman, and Johnny Carson's flirting during a Tonight show appearance. Note: The door to which she refers in the interview is located at the house on the Swedish island of  Fårö where she and Bergman lived together.  On the door's surface, the couple kept a kind of hand-doodled calendar of their good — and bad days together, and Akolkar repeatedly depicts the drawings as a document of their union.

Liv Ullmann Interview -- 'Liv & Ingmar'

Liv Ullmann and Dheeraj Akolkar

Movieline:  Liv & Ingmar was clearly an emotional experience for you. Your decision to talk so candidly about your relationship with Ingmar seems pretty brave to me. Was it a difficult one to make?

Liv Ullman: Well, I did say no at first, but then I met with the director and the producer here in Norway. They really convinced me I would like to be part of this, but only on a very limited basis: two days to be interviewed and to produce my readings from my book. That was it.  I did not have anything to do with how the movie was made. It wasn’t a brave decision because I’ve done so many interviews in my life about Ingmar or Ingmar and me. It was only when I saw the finished movie and saw what it was about that I thought, Oh, if I had know this before, I would maybe would have been more scared because it is so much deeper than I thought based on the interviews I did.

The director is a tremendously creative person, and I believe that if Ingmar were alive, he would have liked this version. It’s not how I would have described this relationship, or how he would. But nonetheless, it’s terrifically true.

 You’re saying that if you had directed this movie, your interpretation of your relationship with Ingmar would have been different?

Mine would be different, yes, but I’m not saying that mine would be truer or closer to the truth. It would be my kind of truth. I would have talked more about the memories and the longing, but this is true in a way that I never thought about our relationship.

To me, this film is interesting because the person telling the story never met us before.  [Dheeraj] only knew me through reading my book Changing and through our brief work together. He never met Ingmar.  And yet, Liv & Ingmar may be closer to the truth in some ways because he’s looking in at us and he sees us in a different way than somebody who was completely involved with the experience.

That’s interesting.  The film left me with the impression that you had worked very closely with Akolkar.

No!  This movie is his creative work. Except for the interviews I gave, I had absolutely nothing to do with it.  We had no discussions beforehand about it. We did not talk while he was editing it or finishing it. We did not talk about music. It was his film.

How did Akolkar contact you?

He wrote me [to ask if I would participate], and I said, “No.” And I was so glad that the Norwegian people who have money in the film called me and convinced me to meet with him. Sometimes you need to see a person and listen to a person to make your decision. When we met, I saw this young man who was very different from me — a different country and a different religion as far as I know. But I could tell that he was hearing me. We met for one hour, and that’s it. And then we shot two days in Fårö. That’s how much we knew each other. And then when I saw the movie, I just knew this man knows me in so many ways.

One of aspects of the movie that I found fascinating was that when your on-camera comments are interspersed with scenes with the Bergman movies you did, the films seem remarkably autobiographical. Was that apparent to you when you were making them?

No,  I’ve never known this. But that is Ingmar’s genius. The movies may be autobiographical for a lot of people.  It’s easy to say, “Oh God, this movie is about us..” But maybe some other woman can say, “Oh, it’s about me, too.” I know a lot of people who’ve said they recognize themselves in these movies.

That’s another thing that I really liked about this film: You don’t need to have seen your work with Bergman to feel the emotional impact of this film. It’s a story about a very intense love affair that works on a universal level.  

Other people have said that to me -- that you don’t have to know Ingmar, or me, or our movies to enjoy this movie. That surprises me because the first time I watched it, I thought, maybe this will only appeal to people who have seen the Bergman movies.

Liv & Ingmar leaves the distinct impression that you couldn’t live with each other but you also couldn’t live without each other.  

Exactly.  But one thing is true: if we had continued to live with each other, we probably could never have been together as friends afterwards. For some strange reason, it happened at the right time for us. It was so painful — so painful. I hope I’ll never have that pain again.  But it led to a deep friendship and often those friendships don’t happen either.

When you’re on camera, you really communicate the emotional complexity of your relationship with Ingmar. The scene where you learn that he kept one of your notes tucked away in a favorite teddy bear is pretty devastating.

 I’m so happy you’re saying that, but the credit goes to the director.  The moment with the teddy bear that you talk about – no one knew about it until the housekeeper in Ingmar’s house [in Fårö] said, “Do you know what’s in that teddy bear?”  It was kind of a friendship letter that I wrote Ingmar around the time that I did Faithless [in 2000.] And he took the letter and put it in his teddy bear that was always at the house.  When I learned about the letter, it was like Ingmar saying again:  “I love you –but, of course, not like when you were in Persona.  I love you in a different way, and your throwaway letter is so important to me that I’m putting it in my teddy bear.”

If I hadn’t done this movie, I would never have learned that. The housekeeper would never have told anyone.  The same goes for the door at the house with our drawings.  Since I left Fårö, I was so scared that Ingmar would take away the door, or his wife would take away the door. And when Ingmar died, I was sure I’d lose the door.  But if you see the film, you see that every year, he did things to keep the sun from bleaching our drawings.  Now that there’s no one there anymore to do that, in a couple of years you won’t be able to see what we did very clearly. But now I’ll never lose the door. It’s in the film.

That door symbolizes so much. There’s a hand-drawn image of two side-by-side hearts with faces, but they’re both wearing frowns. Was that the essence of your relationship –that you had this great love and yet struggled to make each other happy?

You always hope that the other one will make you happy before you think of all the ways that you can make the other one happy.  It’s so strange—those doors came just before it was all over. Why we made the hearts, I don’t know.  The other thing I noticed when we made the film is that Ingmar put airmail stamps over some of the dates.  I don’t know what’s under them. It’s probably sad. But again, it’s another sign of him saying he cared.

Do you still feel his presence?

Yes, I do. In this movie, people might say, ‘Ah, he’s not here. He probably would not have made this movie. That happens not to be true. I am so sure that Ingmar would smile and care about this film. I even made a contract with the producer: if I don’t like the movie, I’m going to badmouth it and just say, "I spent two days on it and what a shame."  I made a contract:  no payment but I am free.  So, why do you think I’m talking about it?  I think this is a great movie about a relationship.  It’s a great movie about love.

In the movie, you talk about struggling with living in Bergman’s shadow.  Do you feel free of that now?

I’m will always be proud of having worked with Ingmar.  But at the same time, I’m directing Uncle Vanya in Oslo now and an English film version of Strindberg’s Miss Juliet.  I will also probably direct Ibsen’s A Doll’s House on Broadway. So, I feel my life has always been apart from Ingmar’s but always connected to him. If I didn’t have him, I wouldn’t have the deep satisfaction of having worked so often with one of the great people of cinema. He has given me so much knowledge and trust, and I use so much of what he taught me.  When I was in Hollywood and maybe doing things that weren’t the best of the best, I could smile because my luggage were some of Ingmar’s great movies. So nobody could say, ‘Ah, she shouldn’t be filming.”

What are your favorite performances in non-Bergman movies?

My favorite films are Jan Troell’s The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land, (1972) about Swedish immigrants to the United States. I was nominated for an Oscar for the first one. I just love those two movies.  It’s been 40 years since they were made, but they still reflect the attitudes and the realness of why the Swedish came to the United States. I think they would be very important to show now that you are having a new election.

I have to ask: I loved the clip in the movie of you being interviewed by Johnny Carson on the Tonight show.  He seems genuinely smitten with you. Did he continue to flirt with you when you were off-camera?

My husband thought the same thing. He watched it.  No,  [Carson] didn’t flirt with me after the show, but he did have me on his program a number of times. And the strange thing is that he didn’t want me at first.  He said, “Oh God no, she’s so serious. I don’t want someone like that.”  He was talked into having me on because I was so open. And then I was there a lot. And no, he did not start, though I wouldn’t have even minded.  My husband was very jealous.

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