Fifty years after their first collaboration and twelve since their last, the personal and professional relationship between Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman stands as perhaps the most towering and productive in all of film history. Ullmann is often described as Bergman’s “muse,” a term that somewhat applies given her appearance in twelve of his films, yet it inadequately captures the mutual exchange in their creative interaction—Ullmann directed two films written by Bergman, and the two were able to maintain a lifelong friendship and creative partnership after their romantic engagement had ended.
Ullmann will be appearing at this year’s Virginia Film Festival, accompanying Dheeraj Akolkar’s documentary Liv & Ingmar, a sensitive and inventive film that explores the nature of their enduring artistic relationship. We caught up with her ahead of the festival to discuss the film and the story that inspired it.
Is there an intensity in relationships between creative collaborators than there are between most of the world?
I think a romantic relationship is not really the best for working together. We had that for two films. You can carry something of your private life with you to the set, then you are directed by the one who was part of your private feelings when you came to the set, good and bad. But [Ingmar and I] stopped living together and did most of our movies together, and I directed some of his scripts long after we lived together. That can be fantastic, if you know how to make a relationship of passion into a friendship. And we had an incredible friendship, and we recognized each other, and we felt safe with each other.
The friendship, yes, is a great way to work together. I think there I have been lucky, and so has he, that we had this friendship, because it’s not normal that people, actor and director, work so long together—and also then that I could be a director for some of his movies. But that is based on absolute friendship and admiration. And love, of course.
How did you come to direct scripts by Bergman?
That, to me, was a big surprise, because when I got the first script—which actually was Private Confessions—he was directing theater, and I really didn’t know why he gave it to me. He said, “Because you believe in God, and I don’t believe in God.” He had written a script, and God was involved in it. I really don’t know why he did it.
Though Liv & Ingmar focuses on the films and stories from your relationship with Bergman, was it at all difficult to put such a personal story on the screen?
I said no [to Liv & Ingmar] at first. Then I met [Akolkar] and his plan, and his view. I thought that was interesting….For me, it was also kind of storytelling, not about the relationship, but about the long artistic being together. And that has been my life—I had a passion in life, which was what I chose to do, and I followed it all my life, to communicate with people. I think that movie does communicate with people.
Was there an exact moment that made you want to move behind the camera?
It wasn’t an exact moment, because I wasn’t really thinking of it. I had written books, and I started to also write scripts ordered from producers. [Kristin Lavransdatter] was a script I wrote for a Danish producer, and he said, “Why don’t you direct it?” That was incredible. I actually did call Ingmar at that time and said, “Do you think I can direct?” “Yeah, you can direct.” And it was like the first week I thought oh my God, this is what I really, really want to do… I would have liked to do more directing than I’ve done, but I started so late. Now, I’m finishing. I don’t want to do it anymore, but I’ve had incredible times directing, both in the theater and on films.
What led to the decision to retire?
I have decided, and probably I’ll stick with that. The last thing I directed, which opened in January in Norway, it was an adaption that I had done from Private Confessions. I adapted that for the stage, and it played incredibly in Norway, and then it was in Sweden at the national theater there. Now they’re going to Helsinki, and next year they are going to Kennedy Center. It was very special to do it, because I also had Ingmar’s diaries from the time when he wrote that script, which he gave to me, so I could also use his own diaries for my adaption.
It was an incredible time, but I thought, this is it. I don’t want to do it again, because it took a lot of strength… Directing films, I did Miss Julie, and it was great to do it from my own adaption. Fantastic actors. And I thought that’s it. And then what is left is to do? Some old woman on a movie, if somebody writes an interesting thing for such a person.
If the right project came along, is there something that would make you reconsider your retirement from directing?
Oh, sure. I make a decision, and I’ve done that many times in my life, and I can break them if it’s part of my passion, part of what I like. But I think it’s good to stop when you want to stop, and not stop when other people want you to stop.