Being in the presence of a great actress is intimidating enough; having to talk
to a great actress who's on her way to becoming an outstanding director is far
worse. Especially an actress/director who, in her 50s, is still beautiful. But
the Liv Ullmann who was so intelligently unpretentious in Ingmar Bergman's
films is just as intelligently unpretentious in real life, sitting in the Park
Plaza's tea room and stealing bites from a piece of apple pie while explaining
why it took some 75 years to turn Sigrid Undset's classic into a film, and how
she came to direct it.
"For 50 years a lawyer had the rights, and he never would sell them for some
reason. All of Hollywood wanted the rights, but then they forgot. But suddenly
this man died, and then some Swedish producer bought the rights, and for two
years it was in preproduction with a man director from Sweden who also wrote
the script. After two years he said, 'I can't work with you guys,' which I
understand now. And then he jumped off and I got the offer almost by accident
because I was in Sweden at the time, I had just had a great success with
Sophie, my first film, and I was offered it.
"I wrote a completely new script because the other script had very little to
do, I feel, with Sigrid Undset's world. The old script was also only
Kransen ["The Garland," the first of Kristin's three volumes],
but there were a lot of poetic licenses. And you can do that, but they weren't
licenses that went to her fairytales. The dvergmøy [troll
woman], the woman coming from the ground, was a young girl coming in naked and
dancing for her and making Kristin naked -- I mean, it was very strange. I
wrote a new script, and then we started all over again with a new costume
designer and a new cinematographer [the peerless Sven Nykvist]. Preproduction
was three-quarters of a year and I wrote the script all the time, many drafts.
And it turned out to be, no comparison, the greatest success Norway ever had in
"I love everything about directing and writing the script except that it does
take two years of your life. And if you really want to do it, and believe in
it, that is your life. I love it while it lasts. But then it's finished,
and everybody wants your baby. The producers want to dress it differently; the
distributors want to sell it differently, and it's very tough."
Ullmann's original version, as seen in Norway, ran three hours and 20 minutes
-- not excessive for a novel as packed with insight as Kransen is. But
for international distribution the producers, being producers, insisted on a
shorter version. "For a year I resisted to cut it, and then they cut it, which
was a catastrophe, and I said, 'I'll take my name off that.' But then a year
had gone by, and I thought, okay, I will walk into her life without showing her
childhood so much -- there was very much of the childhood, because in the
childhood it's the forces, it's God, it's love. I cut a lot of the people who
lived at Jørundgârd [Kristin's farmstead], Bentein [the
priest's son who tries to rape Kristin], and Arne [Kristin's childhood friend].
I had to say goodbye to them, and to some of the people working on the farm.
The community had to go. But that's the world of cinema today."
Any chance Ullmann will make the other two parts of Kristin
Lavransdatter, Husfrue ("Housewife") and Korset ("The
Cross")? "No, because I will never work with them [the producers] again. And
they still have the rights. But I don't think anybody will take over, because
it was such a big success. I think they had somebody else on to continue but it
didn't happen." Memo to Kristin's unnamed producers: your director is a
smart lady who played Kristin on stage back in 1957 and has this novel -- a
Norwegian national treasure -- down cold. Already she's made a miraculous film
that will go down in history. Let her do the rest of it. Then you can go down
in history too.