The Israeli Director in Bed With Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac – and Ingmar Bergman

After remaking the Swedish master's seminal miniseries ‘Scenes From a Marriage’ for HBO, Hagai Levi, the co-creator of ‘In Treatment’ and ‘The Affair,’ reveals why he is drawn to exploring the topic of infidelity

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Hagai Levi, at home in Tel Aviv. 'I received an email from a man named Daniel that read ‘Hello, I’m Ingmar Bergman’s son.’'
Hagai Levi, at home in Tel Aviv. 'I received an email from a man named Daniel that read ‘Hello, I’m Ingmar Bergman’s son.’'Credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv
Niv Hadas
Niv Hadas
Niv Hadas
Niv Hadas

Hagai Levi vividly remembers the first time he saw Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage.” He was still attending a high school yeshiva in the religious kibbutz where he lived with his family.

“I knew nothing about anything,” he recalls. “And one night I found myself alone in the clubhouse – the only place with a television. The presenter announced the screening of a Swedish series, and everyone around me left immediately. There I was, watching this thing all by myself. Luckily for us, Israeli television did not have the budget to purchase American shows, so they’d buy series from international broadcasters – and that’s how we ended up with all kinds of BBC dramas and Bergman. And then this thing came on and I was stunned. The brutality, ugliness and nudity shocked me. I clearly remember telling myself, ‘This is art! Television can be art.’”

The realization that this ridiculed medium had artistic qualities would inspire Levi, 58, to embark on a career in television. A brief summary of his work makes this very clear: In the 1990s, he conceived and produced “Short Stories About Love,” a short-film anthology that spawned, among others, Doron Tsabari and Dorit Rabinyan’s “Shuly’s Fiance” and Eytan Fox and Gal Ohovsky’s “Gotta Have Heart.”

Hagai Levi, at home in Tel Aviv. Credit: Avishag Shaar Yashuv

In 2005, together with the Israelis Ori Sivan and Nir Bergman, he created “Betipul” (“In Treatment”), a series that changed the face of Israeli television. Its unique format – each episode is a session between a psychologist and one of several regular patients – saw it become the first Israeli show to be adapted by a major U.S. network (HBO; it recently returned for a fourth season). In 2014, together with producer Liran Atzmor, he experimented with the mockumentary format when he wrote and directed Israeli show “The Accursed.” Simultaneously, Showtime aired the first season of “The Affair,” which he created with Sarah Treem and which won the best TV series (drama) at the 2015 Golden Globes. And in 2019, together with Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu Wael, he created “Our Boys,” a joint production by Keshet and HBO.

Bergman’s significance – particularly “Scenes from a Marriage” – during key moments in Levi’s professional life goes beyond distant inspiration. “It’s a piece I always find myself coming back to,” he says during a Zoom call from his hotel room in Lille, France, while serving as a judge at the Series Mania international TV festival. “That’s how it was when I made ‘In Treatment’ and ‘The Affair.’ It was a very formative moment for me. It truly is the piece that had the biggest impact on my professional life.”

Now Levi has come full circle with his remake of Bergman’s acclaimed 1973 miniseries, starring Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Jessica Chastain (“Molly’s Game”). It airs on HBO in the United States on Sundays and on Hot, Yes and Cellcom TV the following day in Israel.

“As part of the promotional tour for the American adaptation of ‘In Treatment,’ I came to Sweden,” Levi says, describing the cosmic coincidence – or in his case, simple cause and effect – that led him to Bergman.

“I was talking about the massive impact ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ had on me, and then while I was editing ‘The Accursed,’ I received an email from a man named Daniel that read ‘Hello, I’m Ingmar Bergman’s son.’ He told me how much he loved ‘In Treatment’ and offered to remake his father’s miniseries for U.S. television. The truth is that I also did not bother to correct him about me not being American, and went to meet him at the Fårö film festival held annually on Bergman’s favorite island. He himself is Bergman’s youngest son and the only one working in film. He directed a movie based on a script his father wrote called ‘Sunday’s Children’ and worked as key grip on Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘The Sacrifice.’ Working as a grip on a Tarkovsky production is a serious job.”

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in HBO's 'Scenes From a Marriage.'Credit: HBO

Daniel Bergman says that when he first saw “In Treatment,” he was “amazed by the close-ups and character focus: Only two people talking to each other in one location, with no external action, and I thought to myself, ‘He really shone under these conditions.’ It made me think Hagai might be the right person to remake ‘Scenes from a Marriage,’ so I wrote to him. To my delight, he thought it was a good idea.”

Levi has said he revisits the 1973 miniseries before almost every project he makes, but I put it to him that since most relationship dramas somehow reference Bergman, why not actually try something new?

“This question tortured me for seven years,” he says. “I had to get to the point where I could justify why I’m doing this. For example, there have been theater productions of ‘Scenes from a Marriage,’ also in Israel, and it’s incredible – they aren’t considered remakes. After all, they perform Shakespeare all the time and don’t ask themselves, ‘Why do Shakespeare?’ The same for productions of the classics. But I think we, in our industry, need more justification.

“I didn’t want to repeat Gus Van Sant’s [shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s] ‘Psycho,’ which was a fascinating but puzzling event. On the other hand, I also didn’t want to go too far. So, for me, if I was in the theater, it would be like directing ‘Hamlet’ and staging the play during World War II. Over the years, I have also written a pilot that others liked but I didn’t. Then, toward the end of my involvement with ‘Our Boys,’ I started working with my regular screenwriter, Osi Nishri, and told her that [Spoiler alert!] I had an idea to reverse the genders in ‘Scenes from a Marriage.’ I started writing notes for myself in my copy of the Hebrew translation of the play based on the film [Levi holds up a tattered book to the camera], and from there we moved onto the screenplay and read it as is, just with the genders reversed. And suddenly something clicked. After the reversal, the same text sounded different, and I decided that was a good-enough justification.”

Nishri, Levi’s screenwriting accomplice for more than a decade, says the director told her about “all kinds of ideas he has. There were all sorts of reflexive things there, including the gender reversal – which sounded the most interesting to me. It was preceded by countless bouts of self-reflection: Why should I even go near this? And if there’s a remake, then why me?

“Some artists find answers as part of the artistic process, but if Hagai isn’t satisfied with the answer, he won’t start the process in the first place. Therein lies the dissonance,” she says, “because on the one hand, this is a masterpiece and it would be a shame to mess with it. And on the other, it’s obvious that it lacks much relevance from a contemporary perspective. So it needed updating culturally. So, how do you stay faithful to the original, make it relevant and add Hagai’s unique and original take? We realized that gender reversal could address all these issues. We used the text of the play, and Hagai had to go all the way – he wasn’t satisfied with the fact that it was obviously working after one chapter – to understand that he was bringing a fresh take.”

Levi needed this fresh take, especially since at the time he was working on the screenplay, echoes of “Scenes from a Marriage” were reverberating in various cinematic and television productions, most notably Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson.

“For Baumbach, it’s more of an adaptation; Bergman is there as a reference,” Levi says. “But he’s far from alone now: he was followed by the latest season of ‘Master of None,’ which directly references Bergman. Andrey Zvyagintsev, who directed ‘The Return,’ also approached the Bergmans to produce a Russian adaptation of ‘Scenes from a Marriage.’ That ended up as ‘Loveless,’ which won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Woody Allen has done it too, as well as starring in Paul Mazursky’s ‘Scenes from a Mall.’ Ingmar Bergman is lurking at the end of every sentence of relationship dramas.”

Didn’t you have a panic attack when you approached such an iconic work that is so significant for you?

Ingmar Bergman's 1973 'Scenes from a Marriage.' 'It’s a piece I always find myself coming back to.'Credit: Kinowelt GmbH © 1974 AB SVENSK

“Obviously there was fear and nervousness. It paralyzed me. In the end, I had to get to the point where I hated the original version and told myself, ‘This isn’t good, this isn’t working.’ Beyond that, in contemporary television you can’t start with two endlessly expository episodes and only get the plot going in the third episode. The first episode was difficult in this sense, because I knew I was doing things that aren’t done anymore. It’s exposition in the most literal sense: they sit and tell us who they are. For me, the enriching thing about the process is that I was committed to Bergman – I always like rules; I have rules – and I stayed true to the narrative structure: the scenes are structured the same, the plot is the same, and that’s it. I was not, however, committed to the dialogues. He wrote scenes that I would never imagine writing.

Ori Sivan worked closely with Levi on “In Treatment,” and confirms that commitment to structure. “Working with Hagai is fascinating,” he says. “On the one hand, he’s very organized. And on the other, he knows how to follow his impulses and flashes of insight.

“We’ve had an intense relationship for over 30 years and know each other deeply,” Sivan continues. “Working with him can involve impulsive elements, decisions made on a feeling, a sensation. However, there are lots of processes of reexamination and waiting. He has this wonderful sentence – ‘The idea gains purchase’ – that he brought from his religious background. In other words, the idea takes time to brew. So, he’s both a formalist and terribly organized and creative. Without both sides, he couldn’t have been so special and groundbreaking. It also suits me very well: I’m someone who works solely on intuition, and Hagai balanced me out.”

HBO's 'Scenes From a Marriage.' 'I had to get to the point where I could justify why I’m doing this.'Credit: Jojo Whilden/HBO / yes

New man metaphor

One of the challenges of this fresh take on a masterpiece was updating the two protagonists. The old Bergmanian division between “masculine” and “feminine” seems outdated, clichéd and almost irrelevant from a contemporary perspective. Then there’s the fact that the horribly narcissistic male character is unbearable in a way that does not generate a drop of audience empathy. “This is a character Bergman despised,” Levi claims. ‘He made life easy for himself here, creating and directing a character you’re not supposed to like, a villain. Erland Josephson plays a ridiculous pig, an asshole and alienated person who is totally inaccessible. But it’s part of what Bergman always does with male characters who are portraying him, and he was the first to say it about himself: that he’s like that. I wondered what I would do with this.

“Then, on closer inspection, I also thought the female character in the original series, played by Liv Ullmann, is also problematic. Who is this woman who’s so weak and dependent that, when asked what she does, answers that she has two daughters? And when she finds out that her husband is cheating on her, she helps him pack his suitcase? This is not a character I wanted. And that held me back for quite some time.”

And this is where the gender reversal comes in.

A scene from Bergman's 1973 'Scenes from a Marriage.' A seminal miniseries. Credit: Kinowelt GmbH © 1974 AB SVENSK

“That was the key: suddenly he became a new man, a stay-at-home dad, sensitive and neurotic with complexes. And at the same time, she has become the kind of woman I can relate to more easily – an Israeli woman, in a way. It worked out very well. When she would say things that made me hate the man [in the original] when he said them, I suddenly understood her. I felt she deserved the liberation she was fantasizing about. She deserves it, she needs it, she has to do it.

[SPOILER] “I’ll give you a seemingly trivial example. What I did with the suitcase scene [in episode 2], for example, was to imagine myself in it. Because I travel so much, I’ve reached the point of becoming an expert packer. I can pack two and a half weeks of life into a single trolley. If I see someone badly packed, I can’t help but intervene and help them. And that’s what Jona,”than, Oscar Isaac’s character, does.”

The resemblance between Jonathan and Levi does not end with efficient suitcase packing – not even when he arranges for [Spoiler alert!] Mira, played by Chastain, to have an affair with an Israeli startup guy named Poli (short for Poliakov), and sends her to live in Tel Aviv. To generate empathy for his protagonists, he included significant parts of his personal biography in the characters, especially in Jonathan.

Like Levi, the Modern Orthodox-raised Jonathan abandons his faith, despite religion still playing a central and meaningful part in his life. Like him, he also studied philosophy (Levi is a graduate of Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan), and he also struggles internally with his attitude to sex.

The result is a deep, revealing and reflexive observation of masculinity, femininity, intimacy, loyalty and infidelity.

Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman in 1963.Credit: AP

The five episodes of Levi’s “Scenes from a Marriage” are neither a blow to the head nor an arrow in the heart: they are a dull ache that gradually sharpens, erupts suddenly, subsides into distress, and repeats. Levi alternates between sprinkling his cuts with acid and talcum powder, takes the Bergmanian frame and conducts a blood-soaked examination of modern monogamy.

“Look, it’s weird,” he admits. ‘It’s an adaptation, but it’s the most personal piece I’ve ever made. There are moments when there is no distance between [Jonathan] and me. I had to make the characters accessible and that was my way – not only out of empathy, but also out of a desire to know and understand. I had a writer who fine-tuned every episode: the [American] playwright Amy Herzog. I can write in English, but it’s not good enough. So I write in Hebrew, get it translated and then rewrite the translation as much as I can.

“We entered a very long process of making it as American as possible, with nuances and fine details in the characters. I got to a point where I know about 95 percent, but it’s not like Israel, which I know 100 percent. I had to relate it back to myself. Beyond my biography, this is also a bit of a metaphor for the ‘new man,’ who is more complicated, has inhibitions and is going to therapy. I brought these complexes from religion, but they’re a metaphor for the kind of man I wanted to talk about in general.”

There’s a scene where Mira returns home and is surprised to find Jonathan has gone back to saying kiddush. Is this autobiographical, too? In times of crisis, do you find refuge in religion?

“When I’m abroad and Erev Shabbat comes around, I’m always in a synagogue. I’m in Lille right now, and I’m already planning ahead because Friday night will come and I’ll be sad about being alone without my family. I always get the organizers to understand what’s going on and find a place to pray, and this weekend I ended up going to the synagogue in Lille. There’s something powerful in that no matter where you are in the world, you can read the same text and sing the same melody, and you’re part of something. I have an Instagram hashtag #my synagogues around the world, and there are already over 40 in there.”

Hagai Levi and Jessica Chastain. 'Jessica has a rare combination as an actress.'

Nishri observes that of all the projects Levi has worked on, “Scenes from a Marriage” is his most personal – “not only because of the impact of his childhood, but the way he managed to bring parts of himself to the characters of both Jonathan and Mira. He went pretty far with things that make him uncomfortable: weaknesses, anxieties, immoral desires.

Given his exploration of the subject in “The Affair,” “In Treatment” and now here, I wonder what Levi finds so fascinating about infidelity. ‘It’s archetypal. Infidelity involves a primal conflict between desire and morality, which is what interests and motivates me the most: the most basic desire and the most basic prohibition,” he explains. “My whole life revolves around questions like ‘Are you doing the right thing?’ And ‘Are you in control of your desire?’ With Jonathan’s character, I wanted to depict a man who loses this balance and becomes a little more egocentric and a little less driven by moral-religious codes.

“Let me give you an example: I watched the HBO show ‘Succession.’ It really is great, but then I realized these people are repulsive. They aren’t morally conflicted; they’re psychopaths. So then I can’t relate on a personal level. I might want to know what’s going on, and the craft is exceptional, but they lost me at the level of emotional connection with the characters. When we made ‘Our Boys,’ the moment came when you could no longer really identify with [yeshiva student] Avishay, that all the empathy you’d developed for this boy had been exhausted – he was a murderer. So I think that’s where it came from.”

Do you feel we live in a time where this needs to be reexamined? Beyond archetypes, there’s also the Zeitgeist.

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain at the screening of 'Scenes From a Marriage' at the Venice film festival, this month.Credit: MIGUEL MEDINA - AFP

“I have a 25-year-old son and I see his generation. We were supposed to be in a place where monogamy no longer meant ‘Let’s fall in love and live together forever, and if we break up it’s heartbreaking.’ There are a million other models, and we all know breakups happen, your parents are separated, and yet it amazes me that, ultimately, there’s still this mainstream thing that a man wants to find his partner and spend the rest of his life with her.

“For all this talk about the death of monogamy, the alternative models still only exist on the margins. It will take a long time for this model to become just one among the many. What interests me is that though it’s obvious that this model doesn’t work for everyone, those who break up still experience it as a kind of failure.

“Look, I’m kind of friends with Prof. Eva Illouz, who published a book called ‘The End of Love: A Sociology of Negative Relations,’ which accompanied me on the series along with Eva herself. Her contention is that consumer culture entices you to move on. Replacing an iPhone and replacing a spouse and exchanging a job is not a big deal: you must ‘realize’ yourself, and strive for freedom and happiness, and separation is no big deal because you must keep moving. But the truth is that a breakup is a traumatic event.

“She also includes studies on the impact a separation has on a person’s life, how it affects health, mental health and their next relationship. For me, it was very enlightening and when I got to the last episode and thinking about what the whole point was – because Bergman actually said, simply put, marriage kills love. And I felt I needed to say the opposite: Instead of talking about the price of marriage, we need to talk about the price of separation in a world where this thing is so easy and accessible.”

For me, too, it seems like part of the culture of self-fulfillment at all costs.

Oscar Isaac, left, Hagai Levi and Jessica Chastain at the screening of 'Scenes From a Marriage' at the Venice film festival, this month.Credit: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE - AFP

“Behind every person who stands and says ‘I deserve more,’ there’s a therapist who tells them ‘Yes you do, you’re right.’ In the series, Jonathan goes to therapy and at first it really helps him. And what happens during therapy? You’re told that you need to be more attentive to your needs and to yourself, to be a more egocentric person and not feel guilty about it. To me, Jonathan is a man guided by very moral values, to the point that this may have screwed up his marriage because he was very inhibited. And now he’s become very emotionally connected to himself, but he also becomes a bit nasty.”

The fourth wall

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain previously played a married couple on screen in 2014’s “A Most Violent Year.” How do you take two actors who are used to a certain dynamic and coax something new out of them?

‘They’re two great actors with a deep awareness of each other. They’ve been friends since college and were very happy to be able to work together again, so it wasn’t a challenge. Jessica has a rare combination as an actress of being vulnerable – for example, in Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life,’ there’s something almost spiritual about her – and then in ‘Molly’s Game,’ you see a stormy, sexual type, but one that can really control their swagger. I really liked Oscar in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ and ‘Ex Machina.’ Once he became Jewish [the actor himself is non-Jewish], I felt it was very, very appropriate. Oscar also has a sexy masculinity on a level where, even if I make him have a beard and everything, he’ll never be Woody Allen.”

Hagai Levi at the screening of 'Scenes From a Marriage' at the 2021 Venice film festival, this month.Credit: Joel C Ryan/AP

Why did you choose to break the fourth wall before the start of each episode and show behind the scenes?

“A month before we started filming, I lost a little confidence. I’ve never been to Boston, where the series takes place, and my knowledge of this couple’s culture is limited. I could not, as in Hebrew, say that I knew exactly who these people were, and I felt I had to say: This isn’t about that somewhere; it’s not about this specific couple. Just like the original was not about a middle-class couple from a particular neighborhood in Stockholm but a much broader discussion about intimacy and monogamy. And I wanted to say to myself: Forget the small details, it’s a little more abstract – and somehow this idea of going behind the scenes at the beginning of each episode was born.

“Eventually, it just felt right to show that we were filming during the pandemic, and suddenly it also seemed interesting that we were dealing here with a homage to something else. There were a lot of discussions about it. We thought, worst-case scenario, we could cut it out but it worked in the end.

“The really amazing thing is that I went to see ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ [Karel Reisz’s 1981 film, adapted from the John Fowles novel by Harold Pinter], which I really liked when it came out. Not many remember this, but it starts with Meryl Streep getting her makeup done by someone, the camera moves back from the scene for quite some time, and the movie begins – and after 10 seconds you forgot it ever happened. I didn’t really want to use an alienation effect like Jean-Luc Godard, but to emphasize the power of ‘suspension of disbelief.’ It’s crazy.”

There are very few artists who have maintained such a close and loyal relationship with HBO as Levi, keeping good company with the likes of David Milch (“Deadwood”) and David Simon (“The Wire”).

“It’s just amazing,” he says of the network that has become his artistic home. “It’s a nature reserve; it’s unclear how it can still survive in the world as it is today. This is something that’s already part of the fabric of the place regardless of the people. Chris Albrecht, who made the network what it is, once said he was like the Medicis in the Renaissance: he supports the artist, and the artist does their thing. It’s such a non-American idea that I don’t understand how it even exists.

Credit: Jojo Whilden/HBO / yes

“Don’t get me wrong, they give you piles of notes on everything you’ve done, and great comments. But they’ll always add, ‘This is how we see it, do what you think is right.’ There was, for example, a very serious debate about showing the fourth wall. Every other network would have told me, ‘Forget this shit and let’s move on.’ And this is all happening when they’re actually owned by Warner, who are part of AT&T. Netflix strived to be HBO but gave up on that idea, and they’re still there.”

We finish by briefly discussing “Our Boys” and the reaction to the show, which focused on the murder in July 2014 of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, in the wake of the abduction and murder of three Jewish yeshiva students in the West Bank. Asked how he looks back on the series, Levi admits it was “a bit of a traumatic experience for all of us – but not in the way you think. What happened at the end with all the reactions [including complaints from then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] was the easiest thing about it. It didn’t really get to me, and in a sense it was good publicity for us too. The difficulty was in the production itself and the complexity of telling this story.

“If ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ is the most amazing production I’ve ever done – hard, but fun and quick – then ‘Our Boys’ was the most difficult. Not just me, the three of us [Levi, Cedar and Abu Wael], for all sorts of reasons, and it took four endless years. Personally, I was agonizing for a long time over why we were even doing that series. It’s not any of our areas of expertise. And we all came out scarred, even though the end result is synergistic: We made something none of us could have done on our own. How it managed to end up as a unified thing that we’re all happy with is a miracle.”

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