Writer-director Hagai Levi grew up in a small, religious kibbutz in Israel, which created, as he puts it, a metaphorical “double ocean to cross in order to get to the real world.” Televisions were forbidden in households, but there was one at the communal club. “I was running away from the yeshiva into this club late at night,” Hagai recalls, “and suddenly one night—I was 18, I think—Israeli television aired Scenes from a Marriage. I didn’t know what I was watching. I didn’t know anything about Bergman. I didn’t know anything about cinema or the arts in general, but it was shocking. I knew that I was seeing something big, and that this was art.”
Hagai was drawn to the Swedish miniseries for its brutal honesty and pared-down approach. It simply revolved around two people talking, taking viewers through their relationship and its dissolution, but “the effect was undeniable,” he says. The memory stayed with Hagai through film school, where he put himself through a crash course in Bergman. He watched Fanny and Alexander, his favorite Bergman film, countless times, “and then, of course, as everyone should do, and I had to do, filling all my ignorant years, I went to see 10 films of his in a month.”
Upon graduating, all of Hagai’s peers wanted to go into cinema. “We were the generation where, when you went to film school, you wanted to do film. And the one who doesn’t make it in film goes into television,” he says. “But for me, the memory of Scenes from a Marriage was very, very vivid. So I think it helped me choose television.” Hagai was drawn to intimate conversations between people and an outlet where writing upstaged visuals.
When Hagai was working on the idea for In Treatment (BeTipul), his original series about the personal and professional life of a psychologist, he returned to Scenes to find the confidence to pull off the framework of two people talking for an hour. That was his second encounter with the miniseries.
Then, when he began work on The Affair with co-creator Sarah Treem, he insisted that they rewatch Bergman’s project as a source of inspiration for their series about the effects of extramarital relationships on a couple.
It wasn’t long before Ingmar Bergman’s youngest son, Daniel Bergman, who was a fan of In Treatment, approached Hagai about adapting his father’s miniseries. Hagai’s reaction was “total fear and trembling”—but also deep appreciation. As the only member of Bergman’s family still involved in the film industry, to Hagai, Daniel was the family. Throughout the process, he was the only one Hagai worked with.
Specifically, Daniel wanted to bring the children back into the picture, as he himself had been a child of divorced parents. In the original series, Hagai recalls, “it’s not only that [the children] are not there, they’re not an issue … to the place where I wasn’t even sure if they had kids or not. For [Daniel], it was a very personal motivation to talk about, to reclaim, the kids aspect.” Hagai, a twice-divorced father of two, naturally understood this perspective. In his adaptation of the show, the couple has one child who is central to the narrative.
At the time of the original series, divorce was still taboo, and the couple played by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson can seem innocent by the standards of today, with 50% of marriages now ending in divorce. “People talk about the relationship to death, every day, in every place. We’re not innocent anymore, so I had to find a way where they can talk about it in a different way and where the conclusions would be different,” he says.
This meant that, while following the original flow of Bergman’s series, Hagai removed the second episode, which deals with the routine of married life, completely. “I wanted to talk a little bit more about divorce than marriage,” he says. “So it’s more like Scenes from a Divorce than Scenes from a Marriage.” The greatest challenge was thinking about two audiences at once: fans of the original and the 90% of people who have never seen it before. For the former group, he left references to the original as well as some iconic lines in each episode.
From there, Hagai’s series becomes all his own. The genders are swapped, so “suddenly, she’s the powerful, successful, free woman, and he is more like a stay-at-home dad, a softer person and kind of the victim.” In Academy members Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac, Hagai found his couple.
With Jessica, it wasn’t “like finding the new Liv Ullmann. It was actually finding the new Erland Josephson—in a woman.” Jessica, who had acted in Liv Ullmann’s film Miss Julie, is “very powerful and strong, but she’s very vulnerable at the same time,” Hagai says. And turning the “very masculine, almost sex symbol” Oscar into a Jewish neurotic intellectual felt transformative and impactful.
To Hagai, a cinephile and Bergman fan, film and television are still two distinct forms of storytelling. “In a way, television is more of a world of writers, and cinema is more a world of directors. It’s an awful generalization, but still—and it depends on the story. I think there are certain stories that totally can fit television and vice versa.”
“For me, television is more like exploring a world or a concept. Cinema is more about telling a story.” —Hagai Levi
Hagai is always compelled by concepts he wants to further understand, and ones that are often relevant to his own life. Plenty of shows involve therapy, but with In Treatment, Hagai wanted to focus on the process itself, “getting to the bones of it.” The same applied to The Affair. “Usually, an affair is a device to tell a story. I wanted to explore how it happened,” he says.
In Treatment was adapted by 19 different countries, but with Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, suddenly Hagai found himself on the other side of the equation. For years, he questioned why he would ever adapt it; people could just watch the original. He knew that, if he were to take this on, he wanted to create something wholly new. “Bergman did something very definitive in the ’70s about monogamy, about divorce. It was very, very provocative. People reacted to it with anger. The rate of divorce in Sweden went up. So I felt that if you do it today, you have to make it definitive again. And reality has changed so much. That was a reason to remake it.”
Scenes from a Marriage debuts on HBO Sept. 12.