between friends

All the Things That Went Unsaid During the Making of Bergman Island

Mia Hansen-Løve and Vicky Krieps on motherhood, the bad-dad allure of Ingmar Bergman, and the instinctual connection that made their latest movie possible. Photo: YouTube

Mia Hansen-Løve and Vicky Krieps have just arrived in New York City by way of France when they sit down in front of me, both clad in Chanel, to talk about their new film, Bergman Island. Their exhaustion and excitement are equally obvious: Hansen-Løve is sniffly and quiet with round, watchful eyes; Krieps laughs as she mimics herself lying rigidly in her hotel bed, desperately trying to force herself to sleep before the movie’s New York Film Festival premiere. They’ve just introduced the first screening, and they admit that they both cried as they did it, the sheer shock of standing in front of an audience after nearly two years of relative isolation getting to them.

A pensive, funny, sexy Russian doll of a movie, Bergman Island is about women making art, the creative process, the undoing of a long-term relationship, and, of course, the elusive, brilliant, bitchy Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Hansen-Løve’s seventh film follows a writer-director couple, Chris (Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth), who’ve traveled to Bergman’s beloved island of Fårö — where he made much of his acclaimed work, lived, and died — to work on their respective screenplays, chase Bergman’s ghost, and incidentally fall out of love with each other. Tony makes popular movies about bad men chasing innocent women through the woods; Chris makes smaller, stranger films and is vocal about having a harder time making them. While Tony spends much of his time on Fårö breezing through a script draft, going on the Bergman safari, and giving panel talks about his films, Chris goes on a sort of existential safari. She wanders the island with a local, questioning her inspirations, her own protracted process, and her fascination with the aloof absentee-father Bergman.

About halfway through the film, Chris comes up with a good idea, and we see it play out on the screen as she describes it to a half-interested Tony. Her fledgling film, called The White Dress, is about Amy (Mia Wasikowska), a young director and fellow Bergman fan also vacationing on Fårö, attending the wedding of an old friend and getting drawn back into the seductive spiral of her first love (Anders Danielsen Lie). Both Chris’s and Amy’s stories bear similarities to Hansen-Løve’s own: they are artists and mothers wrestling with their relationships to their work, to men they’ve loved (Hansen-Løve split from her longtime partner Olivier Assayas back in 2017), to Bergman. Hansen-Løve, Krieps, and I spoke for awhile about why Bergman draws us all into his spooky bad-dad orbit, how both women try to exploit their so-called “weaknesses” as full-time parents to make good art, and whether or not it’s possible to ever get over your first love.

Why Bergman?
Mia Hansen-Løve: The first idea of this film was not Bergman, but at some point, there was the idea of setting it somewhere that would mean a trip, and Bergman’s island, Fårö, became the obvious idea. It’s hard for me to summarize what Bergman means to me because he means so much. Ever since I started getting into his work in my 20s, when I read his autobiography.

It has to do with the integrity of his work, with the way it captures human relationships with a degree of freedom and independence. His radicality, although the word doesn’t mean anything anymore because it’s used too much. But when you speak of Bergman, it does: He invented his own way of making films. For me, he’s an absolute model. And some weird father figure, too. I don’t pretend to imitate anything of his cinema, but he’s kind of a bad father — he represents something that’s attractive to me.

That relates to the way Vicky’s character talks about how his films are like “horror movies without catharsis” — this idea of loving something kind of fucked up without completely understanding why. His movies are so dark.
Vicky Krieps: Yes. I agree. He hurts you! It’s true. And I love what Mia just said. I think about it a lot as a woman lately, how we grew up having this father figure and being taught to be the perfect daughter. In the ’50s, it was worse: You have to be nice to daddy so he gives you candy. And it’s true — if I think of Bergman, he always had this image of a bad father. It’s something dark that pulls you to it. Maybe this is what we were brought up to think, This is what a father is supposed to be, a strange person you connect to only in a way.

In the movie, they sit around a table in an early scene and talk about him being quite literally a bad father. About how he had all of these children with different women and essentially abandoned them. The curator says, “He was as cruel in his life as in his art.”
VK: Yes! Why are we drawn to it?

MHL: It’s not the only purpose of Bergman Island, but it’s an exploration of why we are attracted to this aura. What does that mean? Does it have to do with creativity? Does creativity mean not raising a family? Abandoning your kids? Or is there another way to be an artist? There’s this mystery, the power of creation that he represents. The creativity that was Bergman’s is unique. He made so many films that he wrote, and he was the director of theaters, and he made so many kids. It’s fascinating. How can you make a living and raise a family and be an artist and not be a monster and create this great body of work?

Have you figured that out as it pertains to your own work and life?
MHL: No! But we keep talking about it. We both have two kids, and it’s a constant question for us: How can we manage doing both?

VK: And then we wonder if it’s a downside or an advantage. We feel it’s a struggle, which it is. As a woman and a mother, there’s already a war going on just to arrive where other people start working. Which is fine because we choose to be mothers. But it’s always with us. Today we were like, maybe it’s an advantage, because it forces us to stay awake. To realize, Oh, this is what I’m doing because I know it was so hard to get here. When we presented the movie [at the festival today], that’s why we cried: We know how hard it was, what it takes. For Mia, for instance, I can’t imagine how to write a script having two children. Between the groceries, the cooking, the washing, taking the responsibility for these children when they’re sick.

MHL: It’s also, even more crucially, the space that it takes in your head. The space for dreaming, inventing, for yourself. This private territory you need to have in order to make films, be an actor, a director. You need to have your own private world. But when you have kids, and you raise them and take care of them, it’s really, as she said, a struggle. I’m not judging Bergman here. I’m not a moralist. But I meditate on that. How women — who are more concerned historically, even if it’s changing, with raising and being present for their kids — does that mean we’ll be less present as artists?

I ended up having this faith that the time that I give to my kids and my family will actually enrich my work, instead of making it more weak. Because I make an experience of life that’s also deep.

Vicky, when you say being awake, do you mean there’s a serious intentionality involved that wouldn’t otherwise be there?
VK: The average kind of preparation you do as an actor, I almost can’t do. I do probably 50 percent of what I should do to prepare for my role; I can’t do more because I have kids. Fifty percent, to cut this out of a normal day, is already hard. It means getting up either at five, so I do it before they get up, or I do it at midnight. And that’s tough. So I think twice about what I’m doing. It keeps you awake in the sense of, What am I doing, and why am I doing it? It can’t just be for free — as we say, gratuit, in French. You can’t just be like, “I’m going to the gym.” We laugh about that.

Both: The gym!

Is that what made you cry while introducing the movie, Mia?
MHL: Yes. Being back in the theater after the two years we just spent, too. Seeing the public. The warmth of the theater, that made me cry.

Earlier you said Bergman wasn’t the germ of the idea of the film for you — what was?
MHL: I think for me the first idea was about a couple of directors, a portrait of them that would progressively become a portrait of her. The idea was to make a film that would at first look like a portrait of two directors, and he would be in the front, and that progressively it would reveal to the audience that the real portrait is of a woman who is emancipating artistically from her husband. Years later, the idea of Fårö came up. Fårö was a mythical place for me, as for many directors. But people who had been there told me about the residency that you can do, that you can stay in these Bergman houses for a few weeks to create something, and about Bergman Week. And I got extremely curious about that. And then at some point, these two ideas met.

I love the scenes where your character, Vicky, is speaking about how she experiences the process of writing versus Tim Roth’s character. He brushes it off like it’s easy, but you’re suffering, and you say, “It’s like drawing blood from a stone.” Mia, is that your writing experience?
MHL: It’s my whole life here!

VK: Maybe this isn’t true, because we never talked about it, but I also thought it was about the female and male energy. Men have more of a need to put things down, and it can be their force. But what I love about the movie is that it shows that, because it’s blood from a stone, she needs to find a different way by letting go. And she finds the story by letting go. So actually, this female “weakness,” in a way, of not being able to, like, set your rules and all of that, allows you to be lost a little bit. To venture out and think, I have to let go, because I can’t find it. And then you find it.

MHL: Yes, it’s about finding another way. And there is another way.

VK: And it’s not just for writers or creators. It’s for everyday life.

At what point in your career did you have that realization?
VK: I was being this actress, doing this thing, and I wasn’t able to play the game. I could feel, This is not what I can do. I thought maybe I wouldn’t be an actress then. I’d suffer. Then came this Phantom Thread thing. I remember being on set and having this actor, method actor. I remember accepting my weaknesses. I remember thinking, This is my only chance. I can never be as strong. No way I can meet this guy. He’s prepared his world for a year. He’s like, this overactor. I remember sitting inside of my weakness and thinking, Okay, I’m weak. So what? 

I remember standing in front of him and the camera, just going, Okay, this is me. This is all I am. You can look at me in my weakness. This was my mantra which kept me going throughout the film.

Have you read Brit Marling’s piece on how the “hero’s journey” is shaped like the arc of a male orgasm? She writes about how she’s trying to rethink story structure and to get away from these classically hypermasculine ideas about the creative process. It strikes me that what you’re saying is on a similar track — getting away from this idea of artistic creation as necessarily intense and lonely.
MHL: Yes. For Tony, it’s about efficiency. He writes and he keeps everything for himself. Whereas Chris needs to talk, to open up. He’s “stronger” in that way; he seems like he doesn’t need anybody. He has his own fragility that the film doesn’t explore. But he seems more confident, and she needs to be reassured, she needs more time, she needs to lose time, she needs to go for a walk. That’s what I mean when I say, “That’s her weakness.” She’s not as efficient as he is.

And suddenly, and you don’t really know why, and it’s almost enigmatic, you see her in a moment where she seems lost and discouraged, and the next day, she’s writing. Something happened within the night or between two scenes, and you don’t know what. It’s invisible. You can’t really catch the moment when that happens, but at some point, something unfolds, and what wasn’t possible becomes possible. That’s how it works for me. I can spend a year with no idea, feeling empty. There’s a feeling of being weak and an inability to decide. And then at some point, there’s something happening.

What kinds of conversations did you two have about the more meta aspects of the movie, the fact that it mirrors, in many ways, Mia’s life and career? Did you talk about it as “Chris is an avatar of Mia, and Mia Wasikowska is an avatar of Chris”? Or was it more nuanced than that?
VK: You did tell me about it. You told me that you do your movies kind of out of your life, and it’s not something you hide. It’s just how it is. It’s not a replica of your life; it’s fueled by your life.

MHL: It’s a reinvention. It could have happened like this, but it didn’t. I was never on the island with my husband, but it could have been like this.

VK: This is something I could feel. I can’t say how. But I felt a connection between me, Mia, and Mia. But it’s not something we talked about. It was deeper. The scene where I cry in bed — there’s no reason I’m crying. It’s not like you told me I would cry. But I knew exactly why. We never talked about it, but I could feel a deeper something from you transmitting to me.

And Vicky was cast later in the process, right? The role was already cast with Greta Gerwig but then she dropped out to do Little Women. How did that affect shooting?
MHL: I had to stop before shooting. When it all got stopped, it was really shortly before what was planned to be the shoot, and I had seen Vicky in Phantom Thread a few months before. She was in my mind since, but of course the part was already cast. I never thought I’d need her so early, but I wanted to work with her one day. The first thing I’d done when I’d seen Phantom Thread was check which language she speaks. I was like, “Wow! She speaks French!” It was like, how do you say, a crush! I couldn’t imagine anybody else now.

Vicky, what was your initial reaction to the script? Did you know you’d do it instantly?
VK: I got an email that said, “Mia Hansen-Love wants to send you a script.” And I read the name, and I thought, Uh oh, I’m in trouble. Because I knew I was going to do it for sure. But I knew the father of my children would give me a hard time. And he did. There’s always this fight of, “What?! You’re going to do another movie?! There was nothing planned here and it was on such short notice.” But I knew the minute I saw it.

I saw one of your movies quite early, when I was not yet an actress. I went into the film not knowing what it was going to be. I came out, and I will always remember that I stood in front of the poster, and I said to my friend, “I can see the handwriting of the director.” I had no idea she was so young. I was sure it was someone older. So when I read your name, I gasped. “It’s the woman!”

The film within a film feels very much like one of your first movies, Goodbye First Love. It’s almost like a sequel to it. 
MHL: Yes. It is. That’s the way I see it. Goodbye First Love is like the source for me. It’s not my first, but it could have been. It’s about the difficulty of turning the page of your first love, and it really determined who I became as a director. I also filmed it in the place where I spent all of my holidays as a child, in the south of France. It symbolizes the source for me, for many reasons. So it makes sense that it somehow came back within this film. Bergman Island is really an achievement of my previous films — it’s a meditation of what it is to make films for me.

VK: How do you ever get over your first love?

MHL: It took me ten years and many films. You never really get away. It’s in phases, but it comes back and back. And in years and years …

… you’ll make another installment?
MHL: Probably.

Well, to that point, there’s a scene in Mia’s movie within the movie where Anders Danielsen Lie says, “I saw your movie. I saw the person who plays me. I’m better than that guy.” Did you ever speak to the person who inspired Goodbye First Love in that same way?
MHL: That’s too personal! I’ll let you imagine that and make your own answer.

VK: I don’t even think I know the answer. I have many theories.

MHL: I’ll tell you later.

The method actor was Daniel Day-Lewis.
Everything That Went Unsaid on the Set of Bergman Island