There were days in the filming of Secrets of a marriage, a series limited to five episodes that premiered on September 12 on HBO (available on HBO Max), in which Oscar Isaac was upset by the film crew.
The problem wasn’t the team members themselves, Oscar said during a video call in March with The New York Times. But the work that was required of him and his co-star, Jessica ChastainIt was so starkly intimate – “And difficult!” Chastain added from a neighboring Zoom window – that every time a camera operator or makeup artist showed up, it felt like an intrusion.
In his other works, Isaac had felt a comfortable distance from the characters and their circumstances: interplanetary intrigue, evil artificial intelligence. But Secrets … explore monogamy and parenting, family territory.
Sometimes Oscar would film a scene when his on-screen daughter put his daughter to bed (Lily Jane) and later, he would go home and put his own son to bed on a bed of the same model as the one used on the set, with the same bunny lamp next door, and he didn’t know exactly where art ended and life began.
Chastain and Isaac, in the shoes of a married couple that reviews their needs. To flower of skin.
“It was just a lot,” he said.
Chastain agreed, though he implied it more forcefully. “I want to say that for four months I cried every day“he commented.
Isaac, 42, and Chastain, 44, have known each other since their student days at the private Juilliard School conservatory. And gather two decades of friendship, admiration and a shared and obsessive devotion in what Michael Ellenberg, one of the executive producers of the series, considers “five hours of raw and naked acting”. Nudity is mainly metaphorical.
“It was definitely incredibly personal to me,” Chastain said during the call in our spring, about a month after filming had ended. “That’s why I don’t know if I have something else like this in me. Yes, I can’t determine it. I can’t even talk about it without …” And he turned away from the screen.
The original series Scenes from a marriage, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman, premiered on Swedish television in 1973. It was his first series, and its six episodes show the dissolution of a middle-class marriage. Starring Liv Ullmann, ex Bergman, drew on previous relationships with him, though not always directly.
“In the case of Bergman, the relationship between the autobiographical and fiction is extremely complicated“said Jan Holmberg, CEO of the Ingmar Bergman Foundation.
Sensation in Sweden, the series was watched by the majority of the adult population. And yes, sure, correlation does not imply causation, but it is rumored that, after its premiere, Swedish divorces doubled. Holmberg remembers seeing a rerun when he was 10 years old.
“It was a rude awakening to adult life,” he said.
The writer and director of Secrets of a marriage, Hagai Levi, saw her as a teenager on Israeli public television, during a season of hers on a kibbutz. “I was shocked,” he assured. The series taught him that a television series could be something radical, that it could be art.
The remake that wasn’t
When created BeTipul, Israeli forerunner of In therapy, used Scenes … as proof of concept “that two people can talk for an hour and it can work,” Levi explained. So when Daniel, Ingmar Bergman’s youngest son, asked him to make a remake, Levi was immediately interested.
But the project declined, partly because the fact of loving a series is not reason enough to adapt it. Now divorce is common – in Sweden and in many other places – and the relationship scheme of the original series, in which the male character abandons his wife and young children for an academic position, has not aged particularly well.
So about two years ago Levi had a revelation. I would swap gender roles. A woman who abandons her marriage and her child in search of freedom (with a very sexy Israeli businessman instead of a visiting chair) could continue to provoke debate and interest.
In this version of Bergman’s classic, the characters are aggiornados: she is no longer financially dependent on him.
A) Yes, Marianne and Johan from the original version became Mira and Jonathan, with a suburb of Boston (recreated in a barn north of New York City) instead of the original Stockholm. Jonathan is still an academic, but Mira, a lawyer in the initial series, is now a businesswoman who earns more than him.
Casting started in early 2020. After meeting with Levi, Isaac wrote to Chastain to tell her about the project. She was not available. The producers cast Michelle Williams. But the pandemic rearranged everyone’s agendas. When production was ready to resume, Williams was no longer free. Chastain yes. “For me it was the most amazing miracle”Levi pointed out.
High tension in the journey through the delights of married life.
At the next window, Chastain blushed. “He was very talented,” he added. “But an unexpected talent, who challenged and pressed against concepts and ideas.” She introduced her manager, they celebrated each other’s early successes, and the two went to each other’s premieres. (Some of those photos are used in Secrets of a marriage as part of the set).
In 2013, Chastain was cast to star in The most violent year, by JC Chandor, with Javier Bardem. When Bardem walked away from the project, Jessica campaigned for Isaac to get the role. Weeks before filming they met to develop the story of their characters: a married couple looking to corner the heating oil market in New York in 1981.
An oiled couple
It was the first time they worked together, and each one felt a bond that went beyond the formation and the way of seeing parallels. “There is something that connects us that is stronger than any idea of character or story and all that, “said Oscar.
“There is something else that has to do with a shared existence.” The director noticed how they supported each other on set and also challenged each other, giving himself the freedom to take the relationship between the characters to dark and dangerous places. “They have spontaneous mutual trust,” Chandor observed.
That confidence eliminated the need for acting tricks or shortcuts., largely because they know each other’s tricks too well. The motto of both, according to Oscar, is: “Let’s figure out this (mess) … together, and see what is the most honest thing we can do.”
Moni Yakim, Juilliard’s celebrated movement instructor, has followed their careers closely, highlighting what he calls the “magnetism and spiritual connection” they convey in the film.
“It’s kind of chemistry,” Yakim added. “They can read the mind of the other and one, as an audience, perceives it”.
Telepathy takes work. When they found out that filming could begin Secrets of a marriage, Chastain bought a copy of All About Us (All about us), a guided journal for couples, and she filled in the sections to be completed in the book as if she were the character of Mira. Isaac took it home and showed it to his wife, the filmmaker Elvira Lind.
“Elvira told me: ‘You have finally found your match’“remembers Isaac.”‘Someone just as nerdy as you’“.
The acting couple rehearsed with Levi and on their own, talking about their journey through each long scene, helping each other through the distressing parts. When filming had to stop for two weeks, they also rehearsed then.
For Amy Herzog, screenwriter and executive producer of the series, watching them work reminded her of racehorses in full gallop. “They are two people who have a lot of preparation and ability,” he said. “Because what was asked of them is an athletic feat.”
But neither the preparation, nor the ability, nor the book All About Us they had been primed for the emotional effect of actually shooting Secrets of a marriage. Both actors tend to compartmentalize their work by placing psychic partitions between their roles and themselves. But this time the partitions did not reach.
“I knew in the first week that I was in trouble,” Chastain said.
Isaac didn’t know if he was going to see the finished series. “Really It is the first time that I have done something with which I am totally satisfied and that I may never see“He commented.” Because I really lived it. And in a sense I don’t want what they decide to put together change my experience of that, which was so intense. ”The cameras captured that intensity.
While Chastain is not Mira and Isaac is not Jonathan, each of them drew on their personal experience – their parents’ marriages, previous relationships – in a way they never had. There is a scene in the harrowing episode four where the two of them are slumped on the floor., with an identical bulging stress vein on each forehead.
“It is my move of reference, the vein that throbs in the forehead”Oscar said in a video call last month. Jessica joked, “That was our third year at Juilliard, the beat.”
By then, five months had passed since filming ended. Life had returned to something like normality. Pranks were possible again. They both seemed looser, more relaxed. (Oscar had already poured himself a shot of tequila and was ready for a second.) No one was crying.
Jessica had watched the series with her husband. And Oscar, despite his initial reluctance, had also seen heror. It doesn’t seem to have changed your experience.
“I never did anything like that,” Isaac maintained. “And I can’t imagine doing something like that again.”
The New York Times
Translation: Roman Garcia Azcárate