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Liv Ullmann • Director and actress

“There must be a reason why I always think in terms of women”


- Last week, Liv Ullmann was the guest of honour at the 36th Bergamo Film Meeting, where we talked to her about her career and being a female director

Liv Ullmann  • Director and actress

Emerging as the muse of Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman only gave Liv Ullmann more momentum to develop into not only a unique, world-renowned actress in film and theatre, but also an established scriptwriter and director. Last week, Ullmann, whose love for cinema started as a child (and was sparked by three films by Italian master Vittorio De Sica), was the guest of honour at the 36th Bergamo Film Meeting (10-18 March), which dedicated a retrospective to her, including all of her films as a director, from Sofie (1992) to Miss Julie [+see also:
interview: Liv Ullmann
film profile
(2014), plus many of the masterpieces she brought to life as an actress, a monograph and an exhibition. Cineuropa chatted to the Norwegian actress and director about her career, being a female director and other topics. 

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Cineuropa: You started directing 35 years into your film career. Why (only) then?
Liv Ullmann:
 Because I never really wanted to be a director, or even thought about it. However, I was a literary author and made a lot of speeches, so I was asked to write a film for a Danish production. I did that, and they loved the script, and so they said: “Why don't you direct it yourself?” I replied, “Do you mean that?” but then I called Ingmar and asked, “Do you think I can direct?” and his answer was “Yes, you can direct,” and he kept on supporting me after that. And so I directed the film, and suddenly, actually the very first week, I understood that I had been an actress for so long that I had now learnt how to direct: everything that I wished for as an actress from the director, I could now do. 

Have you found it difficult, over the years, to be a female director?
Yes, there are difficulties to being a woman and a director, in terms of getting respect, but a lot of it also has to do with me as a woman, and I wasn't the best in the beginning. I ran around asking, “Shall I go and get you coffee? Is there something you would like me to do for you?” – because that's the way I was brought up to be. I understood after the first week that it was not what a woman was supposed to do, and certainly not a woman director. There was also the negative impact of the fact that I was an actress – I mean, if you are already looked down on as a weak person because you are a woman, it is even more the case if you are also an actress, so I had to fight against that as well, but the actors adapted very well to me. I gave them a lot of trust and freedom, and they liked the fact that I really depended on their creativity and believed in it, so once I got the actors on my side and started to behave like a grown woman, it worked out fine. I felt better as an actress, too, because of the respect I felt for the actors. I really love being a director, both in film and in theatre. 

All of your films have had female protagonists. Would you ever consider making a film based around a male character?
Maybe I focus on women because I tend to go a little autobiographical, like I do in my books – I tend to dig into my own story... But you know what? That is such a good idea! I am not going to direct anymore, alas, but no one has ever asked me that question, and now I'm thinking I would have liked to do that! There must be a reason why I always think in terms of women; it means that I always think in terms of what I know, but actually, yes, I would have liked to write a story about a man, the way I understand him. Unfortunately, it's too late to play with that idea, since I have decided never to direct anymore. 

As your career has been very international, you know both the American and the European scene fairly well. Do you find that the working environment is different on the two sides of the Pond?
In film, it is. In the United States, everything is so big; there are so many people involved, and the unions are so strong. If you are a director, you cannot look through the camera, and there are a lot of things that are complicated. I think I feel more comfortable in a European atmosphere, but as far as the theatre is concerned, whether it's in the United States, Australia, London or elsewhere, it's more or less the same. In Norway, of course, it's another thing entirely: there, I'm not only a woman, I'm not only an actress, I'm not only old, but I'm also Norwegian.

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