Overcoming challenging adversities to fully realize and achieve your goals and find fulfillment can often become a daunting experience for many people to overcome. Academy Award-nominated actress Liv Ullmann made her triumphant return as a writer and director with the new drama, ‘Miss Julie,’ after last helming effort, the romantic drama, ‘Faithless,’ was released in 2000. ‘Miss Julie,’ which is based on August Strindberg’s 1888 play, captivatedly allowed Ullmann to fully infuse her adaptation with her relatable views about the ever-changing dynamics between classes in society in the independent film that was filmed entirely in 28 days. The drama also grippingly chronicles how both men and women can uninhibtedly capture their personal longing for intimacy, even if their different places in society discourages a personal relationship between them.
‘Miss Julie’ depicts a fierce battle between a man and a woman, and their struggle for power and dominance enacted through a cruel and compulsive game of seduction and repulsion. Set on a country estate in Ireland in 1880s, their seduction unfolds over the course of one midsummer night, in an atmosphere of wild revelry and loosened social constraints. Miss Julie (Jessica Chastain) and John (Colin Farrell), her father’s valet, dance and drink as they charm and manipulate each other. While she is longing for abasement and he is polished but coarse, they’re both united in mutual loathing and attraction.
By turns seductive and bullying, savage and tender, their intimacy leads to desperate plans and vision of a life together, even though John is engaged to Christine (Samantha Morton), a cook in Julie father’s house. Unsure if the morning brings hope or hopelessness, Julie and John find their escape in a final act as sublime and horrific as anything in Greek tragedy.
Ullmann generously took the time recently to talk about writing and directing ‘Miss Julie.’ Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how she has inspired to make a new film adaptation of Strindberg’s play because she believes the title character represents a lot of what both men and women are still feeling today, including not being seen for who they really are; how she was drawn to cast Chastain and Farrell in the lead roles because not only is she a fan of their previous films, but she also appreciates that they planned out their characters’ entire trajectory before they arrived on the set; and how she valued her close working relationships with the cast and crew, as they regularly communicated their ideas every day, which helped them accomplish their goals during the film’s short shooting schedule.
ShockYa (SY): You wrote the script for the new drama, ‘Miss Julie,’ which is based on the 1888 play by August Strindberg. Why did you decide to adapt the play for the screen, particularly since it has had multiple incarnations around the world since it was first penned?
Liv Ullmann (LU): Well, I knew of three previous movies that were based on the play, but there have been more productions in the theater. I became involved with this film because of a play I directed by Tennessee Williams, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ which I did in Australia, Washington and New York with Cate Blanchett. Tennessee Williams wrote a lot about how ‘Miss Julie’ had inspired him. So I read the play again, and I could see how much he had been interested in ‘Miss Julie’ when he wrote ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’
I then became more interested, too, because the female lead, Julie represents a lot of what both men and women are still feeling today. She embodies the fact that people feel like they’re not being seen for who they really are. People look at them like they come from another world, and don’t see them as human beings.
So when I was asked to write a script for a movie by two producers, I said, “How about I adapt ‘Miss Julie?'” They said, “Great,” and that’s how it really happened. My interest was really awakened when I directed ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’
SY: Besides writing the script for the drama, you also directed the movie. Was it always your intention to also helm ‘Miss Julie’ when you signed on to pen the screenplay?
LU: No, not really. I write a lot, and many years ago I was asked to write a movie that was based on a book in Denmark. I wrote the script, and I went far away from the book. They said, “Oh, we love the script. What if you also directed it?” But I never even thought about being a director.
So I called Ingmar Bergman (with whom she worked on such films as ‘Hour of the Wolf,’ ‘Shame’ and ‘The Passion of Anna’) and asked, “Do you think I can direct a movie?” He said, “Sure you can.” So that’s how I started in directing. The movie was (the 1992 drama,) ‘Sophie.’ After the first week of directing the movie, I thought, this is where I’m meant to be. All my acting has just been a great schooling for directing.
Since then, I’ve directed several other movies, as well as many theater productions. After being an actress, I really feel like it gave me a good education to be a director. It also led me to have a great appreciation for good actors, and how wonderful it is for me to be there, and allow them to create.
SY: Speaking about how you’re also a film and theater actress yourself, how have your experiences as a performer with filmmakers who helmed you influenced the way you approach working with actors when you’re directing?
LU: I know what a bad director can do; they talk a lot, gives the actors too much homework, tells them how to feel and what their background should be. If you go in as a bad director, you destroy the whole fantasy of an actor.
In my experience, good directors have a lot of trust and respect in actors. Good directors also believe in the creativity of the actors, and will leave their fantasy and experience in peace. When the time comes, the director will watch what the actor is giving, and build on that.
SY: Jessica Chastain plays the title character of Miss Julie, while Colin Farrell portrays her father’s valet, John. How did you decide to cast Jessica and Colin in the two lead roles?
LU: Well, they were both really my first choices. I met with Jessica in Los Angeles, and I’ve seen almost all of her movies. I was struck by how she managed to be different in every movie. She really understands the inner emotions of her characters. When I met her, she of course didn’t audition for me, because there was no need; I just wanted to see if we had a good rapport, and we did.
She’s a theater actress, just like I am. So while she’s making films, she thinks the way theater actors do. She sees her character within the whole play. For me, that’s the most comfortable way to work with an actor.
I’ve also seen many of Colin Farrell’s films, and I fell in love with one of his movies in particular, ‘In Bruges.’ He played a murderer in the film, but he was so fantastic.
I spoke with him on the phone, and I loved the way he talked. We didn’t know each other before this movie. But to talk to each other for the first time over the phone, as a woman to a man, and listening to what he had to say, I asked, “Will you please be in this movie?” He phoned back after he read the script and said, “I love it.”
We then had a few more telephone conversations after that. He also told me, “I would sit on planes and learn my lines. People would think I was crazy because I was saying them out loud. They’re very strange lines to be saying on a plane.” Both Jessica and Colin knew every word of the play when they came to the set and we started the movie, which is also very rare to experience.
SY: What was the process of developing the relationship between Julie and John before, and while, you shot the film? How closely did you work with Jessica and Colin during that process?
LU: Well, we had about seven days of rehearsal where we did the blocking. We had less than 30 days for the entire shoot, so the blocking was very important. I had discussed all of that, including how I wanted to frame the scenes, with the cameraman.
I don’t go into the characters’ background and histories, because I feel like the actors should build that on their own experiences. So we sat around a table and read, and the actors came with their experiences and input. They knew the play and their lines very well. We also discussed what it means to be loved, as well as what it means to not be seen and listened to at all.
So when we started our first shooting day, we knew each other, so we weren’t shy around each other. We had a very good relationship. They were tremendously difficult parts for them to do. They were heavy roles because they frequently shifted in their moods and relationship. So we also took care of each other by quietness when one shot was done. I would say, “I think this is so incredible.” Then to see how happy they were was great, because they felt they were good, which they were.
SY: What was the experience of filming ‘Miss Julie’ independently on location in Ireland during the 28-day shooting schedule?
LU: It was tremendously difficult, as I was very much alone. Sometimes people say it’s difficult to have the producers on the set all the time, but I had almost the opposite experience. They weren’t on the set, which made it hard when decisions had to be made. I had to make those decisions on my own, so it was a lonely experience. I was making a movie about connection and communicating, and I missed a lot of that communication with my producers. Maybe that’s how they worked, but I would have loved to have much more communication with them.
But I had really good communication with the actors and the cinematographer (Mikhail Krichman). We worked closely on the set, and he’s a master in light. We would start each day by discussing how many scenes I wanted to film, and what the framework would be. The actors would go through the whole scene, and then we would go into different shots of each one. Since there was very little money, if there were things I felt were necessary, I would say, “I’ll pay for that.” All the artists on the set had very good relationships, but I would have loved to have had more communication with the producers.
SY: ‘Miss Julie’ had its world premiere in the Special Presentations section at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. What was your experience of showing the drama at the festival?
LU: Well, I saw the film for the first time with an audience. I saw it with a few people for the first, second and third cuts. During the screening of the first cut, the main producers weren’t there. But I was used to seeing the film with some friends.
But I was afraid to see the movie with such a big audience during the festival. Jessica and I agreed to sit there and hold hands. It was incredible because it was so quiet, but during the scene when a little bird was killed, the scream that came from the audience was so special to me. With so much violence and so many terrible things happening all around us, we don’t know what to do, so we’re screaming within ourselves. Since we don’t know how to communicate that to each other, hearing that scream showed how bad it can really be for us as human beings.That’s the only time I sat through one of my movies with a large audience, and I won’t do it again, because it’s scary.
That’s why film is so important, because you can show your emotions that you can’t share in real life. I’m so proud of Jessica, as well as Colin and Samantha, because what they did in the movie is fabulous.
Written by: Karen Benardello