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Hagai Levi’s 40-year journey to ‘Scenes from a Marriage’

CM 09/09/2021

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VENICE – Israeli writer-director Hagai Levi, 58, got his start in the film business at age 17. His mother, who was head of the culture committee, got him the job of projectionist at Sha’alvim, a religious kibbutz near Modi’in. He watched the movies in advance, in a miklat (bomb shelter), to make sure they were appropriate for the observant audience. 
“You were not allowed to see nudity, love scenes, or profanity,” he said, in the background of this year’s Venice Film Festival. “Most of the movies were Westerns, because Westerns are very clean.” 
If a scene was problematic, he’d block it out with a piece of paper, blur the focus, turn off the sound, or fast-forward. Seeing each film twice made him aware of the mechanics of filmmaking, and he began to think that he might become a filmmaker himself. 

Levi first saw Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973) when he was 18, on TV in the kibbutz’s clubhouse. Israel had only one television channel at the time, and the kibbutz had only one TV. 
“It was unbelievable, brutal, shocking,” he said. 

 OSCAR ISAAC and Jessica Chastain in ‘Scenes From a Marriage.’ (credit: Jojo Whilden/HBO) OSCAR ISAAC and Jessica Chastain in ‘Scenes From a Marriage.’ (credit: Jojo Whilden/HBO)

The miniseries about a dissolving marriage had an outsized impact on Swedish society. The divorce rate in Sweden ballooned from 16,000 in 1973 to 26,800 in 1974 – still the highest number of annual divorces in Swedish history.
Six years after he saw Scenes from a Marriage, and following his army service, Levi attended Tel Aviv University’s Film and Television department. His first feature film was August Snow in 1993.
In 2013, when Daniel Bergman, Ingmar’s son and a member of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation board, decided that the time was right for a new version of the series, he turned to Levi, based on his HBO series In Treatment, which was adapted from Levi’s Israeli series BeTipul. 
BeTipul has also been remade in other languages in Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Italy, France, Russia, The Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Japan, and China, with Levi serving as an executive producer and consultant for most adaptations.
The new Marriage series gestated for seven years, while Levi worked on other projects like Our Boys and The Affair
Levi worked with award-winning Jewish-American playwright Amy Herzog (4000 Miles, Mary Jane) on the Scenes from a Marriage script. They were introduced by producer Michael Ellenberg. 
“I knew from the beginning that if I’m doing a show in America or in any other culture I need to collaborate with a local writer,” said Levi. “When people don’t do that, the output is very generic because you’re not rooted in that culture.” 
“We were looking for an exceptional character writer,” said Ellenberg. “We were hoping it would be a woman, to bring another gender point of view and make sure that in this battle of the characters we keep everything honest. Amy specializes in incredibly precise details of human behavior, and that’s Hagai’s language, too.”
Levi likes to write in cafes. Unfortunately, during the pandemic his favorite Tel Aviv café closed. He’s looking for a new one. “It’s not easy to find the exact combination – a place that’s busy enough but not too noisy – where you can feel at home. It’s a big deal. I have zero self-discipline to work at home,” he said. 
Finally, in November 2020, the filming of Scenes from a Marriage started in New York, following rigorous COVID-19 safety protocols. Members of the production team were tested daily, and even the actors were required to wear masks when not performing.
Filming had to be halted for two weeks when two members of the production team tested positive. Everyone who came into contact with them was quarantined. 
The new five-episode limited series stars Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac. The actors have been friends for 20 years, since they were both drama students at the Juilliard School in Manhattan. They previously starred together in the crime thriller A Most Violent Year (2014).
Chastain plays Mira, a tech executive, and Isaac plays Jonathan, a university professor who works from home and has the primary responsibility for their daughter.
Jonathan is portrayed as a formerly observant Modern Orthodox Jew. His mother in the series is played by Tovah Feldshuh.
Why did Levi make Jonathan Jewish?
“I’m doing a series in America, and I’m not American,” said Levi. “How can I make this character a little bit closer to me so I can bring something of myself? It helped me to redefine the male character. I wanted to make him less of an alpha male and more like the ‘new man’ with complexities and inhibitions.”
Scenes from a Marriage screened at the 78th Venice Film Festival last week. A sexy meme of Isaac kissing Chastain’s arm on the red carpet has gone viral, earning more than seven million views.
The series premiers on September 13.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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