Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac reunite for the powerful reworking of an Ingmar Bergman original. Gemma Dunn finds out more.
Few dramas have had an impact as seismic as Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage. Detailing the breakdown of a couple’s once-happy union, the Swedish miniseries, watched by nearly half the population, caused waves upon its release in 1973, with viewers moved by its intense examination of marriage.
In fact, the late director (married five times himself) was blamed for spurring on a marital crisis, with experts attributing a sudden spike in divorce rates and an influx of people flocking to the country’s marriage-guidance service to the show (though neither link can be proved).
Now, the series, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival, has been resurrected with a modern reimagining written and directed by Hagai Levi. First for HBO, and next set to air on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.
And according to its standout stars, Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac it is no less intense five decades on. “I knew I was in trouble the very first week of rehearsal,” recalls Chastain, 44, who joined the project late, having heard of the remake via her co-star. “I thought I was going to be fine, and then reading the scripts out loud, a lot of things my character was saying were really hitting me.
“Hagai was asking us certain questions that were really getting into the psychology of the character and there was no way of hiding,” muses the Interstellar actress. “It just felt so exposed, so raw, and it was like living in it for months. Living, feeling like you really had no type of protection, no armour or anything. I think you see that in the work; it was tough emotionally, but incredibly fulfilling.”
The five-part limited series examines the original’s iconic depiction of love, hatred, desire, monogamy, marriage, and divorce through the lens of a contemporary American couple: tech executive Mira, as played by Chastain; and her philosophy professor husband, Jonathan (Isaac, 42). It marks a welcome reunion for the Hollywood pair, who go back some 20 years to having been classmates at Julliard, before teaming up for American crime drama, A Most Violent Year, in 2014.
While there’s no question the duo enjoys working together, there’s a lot to be said for such a dialogue-heavy piece, whereby the action takes place almost entirely in the home, and a limited supporting cast offers little distraction. “Because of my familiarity with Oscar, I realised it was going to be quite intense,” Chastain notes. “I would try to create moments on the weekend where I could spend one on one time with my family, and individuals, to try to make up for really not being super present during the week.
“I remember there was one time, we had just shot episode four and I was supposed to have a Zoom with Hagai and Oscar to talk about something and I’ve never done this, I’m such a type-A personality, I show up on time, I’m a workaholic, but I literally texted, ‘I just can’t’.
“I could not see their faces for the weekend!” she says, exasperated. “I was so disturbed by what we had just shot, I needed a break. So it was impossible to turn off from this – and it’s not like that all the time.”
“It was easy for me, it’s just really hard for everyone else that lives around me,” teases Star Wars veteran, Isaac. “But it was a [long] five-month situation…”
As for working with Levi, Chastain only has good things to say about the Israeli creator, who won a Golden Globe for co-creating and co-producing television drama The Affair. “Hagai trusted us; if we took our time, he never tried to rush us or push for any kind of rhythm. We were free to feel or do whatever we wanted to do. This is the most extraordinary experience I’ve ever had,” she adds.
“When my agent first saw it, she said, ‘It’s not like watching two characters, it’s like watching one’. Because the takes were so long, it was all about listening to the other person and the rhythm of what that flow was between us. That’s what you see on the screen; we were always connected.”
Whether this remake incites the same reaction as it did years earlier remains to be seen. However in the midst of pandemic which has reportedly caused a surge in break-ups and divorces, it’s certainly come at an interesting time.
“A lot of people came face to face with the reality of certain things they maybe were able to get away from by going to work, going to the office…” says Isaac of the last 18 months. “All those things that often in a relationship you can avoid, the messy stuff, the challenging stuff, because you’re so busy.
“So what happened during this time is people were forced to confront a lot of those things. So I think, yes, the fear is, ‘Oh my God, people are not going to want to see two people in a house dealing with their problems’, which is what everyone has had to do [recently]. And I’m sure there’s gonna be people that feel that way…” he accepts. “But then there’s also going to be people that feel there’s a cathartic quality of seeing those things dealt with in an honest way that can be relatable.”
Are the twosome, both of whom are married with two children each, still hopeful about marriage? “Well, I hope with a series like ours, that it reminds people that to live a stagnant life, whether or not you’re alone or with someone else, is not lived fully,” concludes Chastain. “So it’s important, if you find yourself in a marriage, that you’re continuing to evolve and you’re constantly curious, in the same way we all are when we’re young and we are out seeing the world for the first time, and trying new things and growing and learning. And so that’s what makes me hopeful about marriage, if you can find a partner who has that same desire.”
“Growth, evolution, that’s the key,” Isaac nods in agreement. “Him not busy being born is busy dying!”
Scenes From A Marriage is available on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV from Monday, October 11.