Filming With Generosity

An interview with the lead actors and director of `Kristin Lavransdatter'

One of the great joys of film is that nothing stands between the viewers and the most subtle emotions that flicker across a face on the big screen. Film allows for total immersion in the heart and life of another human being.

What we forget in the dark of a theater is that actors and directors often spend their lives learning how to create the illusion that we find so fascinating.

How does a director help an actor find just the right glance or reveal the depths of his or her heart? What keeps the enormous structure necessary to make a film - millions of dollars, countless creative people, tons of equipment to be moved from location to location - from crushing the delicate emotions it is supposed to record on celluloid?

These were several of the many questions that I took this fall to Trondheim, Norway, where I spent a week on the set of ``Kristin Lavransdatter,'' a film being directed by Liv Ullmann. It's a medieval love story adapted from a novel by Nobel prize winner Sigrid Undset.

I was willing to travel so far because I knew Ullmann would bring unique solutions to the problems of filmmaking. Jesper Christensen, who several years before had acted in Ullmann's directorial debut, ``Sofie,'' told me that she makes actors ``feel brilliant, and who doesn't want life to be like that.'' He went on to say, ``I rarely, if ever, have been surrounded by so much love.''

It quickly became obvious that what enabled actors to give so freely of themselves on the set of ``Kristin Lavransdatter'' and what prevented their talent from being crushed by the difficulties of filming was a largeness of spirit among cast and crew. It was characterized by wonderful jokes (that were translated for me), a willingness to put the good of the film ahead of self, and an abundance of warm affection for everyone.

When ``Kristin Lavransdatter'' opens at the Haugesund Film Festival (in Norway) this August, and shortly afterwards in other countries, the love and skill with which it was made should be apparent.

What follows are some specific insights into filmmaking from Ullmann and two of her actors: Elisabeth Matheson and Erland Josephson.

Liv Ullmann, director and screenwriter

What kind of direction do you give actors when you are rehearsing or filming?

I choose actors who I believe have their own fantasy, their own creativity, their own experience, so I am there to be the best audience. We met a lot before we started shooting and talked about my vision, what I would like to see. And they said what they would like to give.

But on the day when they are going to do it, I am looking for their offer. If there is something that I think will really add to their offer, I give them a little cue, a little word or whatever. But I want them to build on the best that they are, and if they do it too big or too small - if they are too theatrical or too anonymous - I can say so. But it is their offer. They are the creators, and I am there to allow their creation to look as good as possible.

I love to make the pictures. And I am very well prepared on the movements. Because I'm an actor myself, I know how you can move and it will help you. So I [make sure that I] have prepared, and that [I know what] I want them to follow. That's the only thing [time] where I say, ``Okay, this is where you go, and sit, and stand.'' The creation, the fantasy, belongs to the actors and always should. But you have to make it bloom. A bad director makes a wonderful creative person die because he gives it too much or too little water. He doesn't allow it. You just have to give actors love, and you'll get love back.

Elisabeth Matheson, actress who plays Kristin Lavransdatter

Does Liv Ullmann speak to each actor in different ways? What's her method of communicating?

She's very personal. I don't really know what she's saying to other actors. That's something I appreciate very, very much - that she's not loud in her directing. She's very polite. She's feeling the situation, and when she gives me direction she comes to me and says it like a secret. Then it's very exciting to see if I can make it in the next take. I like that very much. It's awful when a director yells so everyone hears what you're going to do in the next take and then everybody's looking to see, ``Is she making it? Can she make it? No.'' So Liv is kind of telling secrets.

Erland Josephson, actor who plays a monk and friend to Kristin

What are some of the challenges of being an actor?

In the actor's mentality, he or she in one way has to be superficial. Because you can't survive if you're not superficial. For example, when making ``King Lear'' you have perhaps 12 weeks of rehearsals, and you play it for 12 months. In this period you are in contact with the deepest experience a human can have, King Lear's experience. And you have to leave it to go to another character two months later. Of course, playing King Lear has given you some experience, but you couldn't take the whole experience. And this is not only a problem for an actor, it's also a human problem. If someone you love dies, you don't want to live anymore. But you have to live. You can't get too deep into it. You have a parallel there. And that's an experience I can write about in fiction (Erland Josephson is also a novelist.) That is some sort of paradox and problem that interests me very much.

What would you say to a young actor starting out today?

I should say, but it's not to the young people, it's to the actors and to directors, all directors, don't use negative examples. I really saw when I worked with Peter Brook (English director and author of several books on theater) that he never did that. And there was a fantastic feeling of generosity. Everything he said as an example was positive. Nothing was ``don't do like this,'' or ``don't play up this.'' It's so easy in this profession to get envious, and it's such a temptation not to be generous.

I think one advice would be [to] try to be generous. It's not easy, but try, really try, to be generous. If you look at a theater performance and see that it's not good, then it's a boring night. But if you see this is a good thing and that is a good thing, the night is good. You learn things. You get something. A very bad movie is easier than bad theater. Bad theater is difficult because you are in the same room as the actors. Bad movies can be very funny. Suddenly, there is an actor there in the corner who is very interesting. Even in the theater you can have that. That's good advice. And it's very sympathetic to say that. (He says with a puckish grin) I'm almost a saint when I say, ``Be generous, young actor.''

Liv Ullmann

What do you hope for from an audience?

The audience has to be a poet, has to have a heart, has to have compassion. Because if you don't have that you won't understand ``Kristin,'' and lots of films you won't understand. A film is really like a good book, if it's a good film. The reader has to put in his experience. And that's why I have been in films such as (Ingmar) Bergman's where people see so much that he never thought of, but that is in the film, too.

That's what you have to make clear in your film, that the audience can experience. You don't tell them. You allow them to experience it somehow.

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