|Cries and Whispers (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)|
The great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman held a seminar with the Fellows of the Center for Advanced Film Studies on October 31, 1975 in which he openly discussed his approach to writing, his preparations for shooting and his relations with his company of actors while filming. He had recently completed the masterly ‘Cries and Whispers’ – set in a manor house at the turn of the century where a spinster (Harriet Andersson) is dying, attended by her two sisters and devoted servant. Superbly photographed by Sven Nykvist in an elemental style with scarlet backgrounds which give a tremendous force to the anguish of the characters. Bergman was later to comment that ‘all my films can be thought in black and white, except for Cries and Whispers. In the screenplay, I say that I have thought of the colour red as the interior of the soul. When I was a child, I saw the soul as a shadowy dragon, blue as smoke, hovering like an enormous winged creature, half-bird, half-fish. But inside the dragon everything was red.’ The film is lustrous and hypnotic with the power of a dream. Light breaks in occasionally from beyond illuminating the characters and their dark lives until the final breakthrough into the exhilarating openness of the world outside.
Please tell us how you work with actors.
BERGMAN: It can be a very complicated question, and it can be a very simple question. If you want to know exactly how I work together with my actors I can tell you in one minute: I just use my intuition. My only instrument in my profession is my intuition. When I work at the theatre or in the studio with my actors I just feel; I don’t know how to handle the situation, how to collaborate with the artists, with the actors. One thing is very important to me: that an actor is always a creative human being, and what your intuition has to find out is how to make free – do you understand what I mean? – to make free the power, the creative power in the actor or the actress.
I can’t explain how it works. It has nothing to do with magic; it has a lot to do with experience. But I think when I work together with the actors I try to be like a radar – I try to be wide open – because we have to create something together. I give them some stimulations and suggestions and they give me a lot of stimulations and suggestions, and if this fantastic wave of giving and taking is cut off for any reason I have to feel it and I have to look for the reason – good heavens, what has happened? – and I know if we try to work with those waves cut off it is terrifying; it is the hardest, toughest job that exists, both for me and the actors. Some directors work under aggression: the director is aggressive and the actors are aggressive, and they get marvelous results. But to me it is impossible. I have to be in contact, in touch with my actors the whole time. Because what we first of all create when we start a work together is an atmosphere of security around us. And it’s not only me who creates that atmosphere; we are together to create it.
But you know, all those situations, all those decisions, all those very difficult decisions, you have to make hundreds of them every day – I never think. It’s never an intellectual process, it’s just intuition. Afterward you can think it over – What was this? What was that? You can think over every step you have made.
Do you write in the same way?
BERGMAN: Yes, yes, yes. The best time in the writing, I think, is the time when I have no ideas about how to do it. I can lie down on the sofa and I can look into the fire and I can go to the seaside and I can just sit down and do nothing. I just play the game, you know, and it’s wonderful and I make some notes and I can go on for a year. Then, when I have made the plan, the difficult job starts: I have to sit down on my ass every morning at ten o’clock and write the screenplay. And then something very, very strange happens: often the personalities in my scripts don’t want the same thing I want. If I try to force them to do what I want them to do, it will always be an artistic catastrophe. But if I let them free to do what they want and what they tell me, it’s OK.
So I think that is the only way to handle it, because all intellectual decisions must come afterward. You have seen Cries and Whispers, yes? For half a year, I went around and I just had a picture inside about three women walking around in a red room in white clothes and I didn’t know why. I couldn’t understand these damned women – I tried to throw it away, I tried to write it down, I tried to find out what they said to each other, because they whispered. And suddenly it came out that they were watching another woman who was dying in the next room, and then it started. But it took about a year. It always starts with a picture with some kind of tension in it, and then slowly it comes up.
In your films you often confuse reality and dreams, and I wonder if you feel that they are of equal importance.
BERGMAN: You know, you can’t find in any other art, and you can’t create a situation that is so close to dreaming as cinematography when it is at its best. Think only of the time gap: you can make things as long as you want, exactly as in a dream; you can make things as short as you want, exactly as in a dream. As a director, a creator of the picture, you are like a dreamer: you can make what you want, you can construct everything. I think that is one of the most fascinating things that exists.
I think also the reception for the audience of a picture is very, very hypnotic. You sit there in a completely dark room, anonymous, and you look at a lightened spot in front of you and you don’t move. You sit and you don’t move and your eyes are concentrated on that white spot on the wall. That is some sort of magic. I think it’s also magic that two times every frame comes and stands still for twenty-four parts of a second and then it darkens two times; a half part of the time when you see a picture you sit in complete darkness. Isn’t that fascinating? That is magic. It’s quite different when you watch the television: you sit at home, you have light around you, you have people you know around you, the telephone is ringing, you can go out and have a cup of coffee, the children are making noise, I don’t know what – but it is absolutely another situation.
We are in the position to work with the most fascinating medium that exists in the world because like music we go straight to the feeling – not over the intellect – we go straight to the feeling, as in music. Afterward we can start to work with our intellect. If the picture is good, if the suggestions from the creator of the picture are strong enough, they’ll give you thoughts afterward; you’ll start to think; they are intellectually stimulating.
After you have written a script, do you continue to develop the characters during the shooting?
BERGMAN: No. You know, I have always worked with trained actors; I have never worked with amateurs. An amateur can be himself always and you can put him in situations that give the situation a third dimension, as Vittorio De Sica did inThe Bicycle Thief [a 1947 classic of Italian “neorealism"], but if you work with trained actors you must know exactly what you are going to do with the parts. We make all the discussions before and then we work in the studio, giving each other suggestions. But the whole time we must have in mind what we meant. And it’s very dangerous to go away and suddenly start to improvise. You can improvise, of course, in the studio, but if you improvise you have to be very prepared, because to improvise on an improvisation is always shit. If you are very prepared and know how to do it, you can go back if your improvisation suddenly one day fades away, which it does. Of course it does. Inspiration, enthusiasm, everything like that is beautiful, but I don’t like it. When we are in the studio we have to be very strict.
What is your relation to the camera? Do you feel you have to overcome the technical limitations of the camera?
BERGMAN: If intuition is our mental instrument, the camera is our physical instrument. I think the camera is erotic. It is the most exciting little machine that exists. To me, just to work together with my cameraman, Sven Nykvist, to see a human face with the camera and with a zoom to come closer, to see the scene, to see the face changing, it’s the most fascinating thing that exists. The choreography of the actors in relation to the camera is very important. If the actor feels that he is in a good position, in a logical position, he can be with his back to the camera; it doesn’t matter. The camera has to be the best friend of the actors, and the actors have to be secure with our handling of the camera. They must feel that we are taking care of them.
Are there many young directors here? Very good. We who are directors must never forget that we are behind the camera and the actor is in front of the camera; he is nude, his soul is nude. If he has confidence in us, we have enormous responsibility. We have something fantastic: we have somebody in our hands and we can destroy him or we can help him in his creative job. To be behind the camera is never difficult, but to be in front of the camera is always a challenge, a difficulty, to be there with your face and your body and all the limitations you have in your soul and all the limitations you feel of your face and your movements, I don’t know what. What is strange is that we must not lie to the actors; we have to be absolutely true to them. Better actors like the truth more.
When is the moment you stage the movement or position of camera? When I read the screenplays you write, they always say only what the actors are saying, a bit like a play. When is the moment you state, “The camera will be here"?
BERGMAN: The evening before. When I come home in the evening I just sit down with the script and I read the next day’s schedule very carefully. Then I make up my mind about it and I just note the choreography of the actors and the camera. And then in the early morning when I meet Sven – you know, we have worked so many years together – we just very shortly, in five minutes, go through the scene, and I tell him about my ideas for different positions of the camera and the different positions of the actors and the atmosphere of the whole scene. Then we can go on the whole day; it is not necessary to have any discussions. He is a marvelous man. He is very silent and very shy. He is nice. And suddenly everything is there – without any complications – and I can look in the camera and everything I wanted is there.
Do you rehearse with the actors on the set before you plan your shots?
BERGMAN: No, never. That is a very good question. Because if you rehearse with trained actors they go from the mood of intuition to what they are trained to, to stage acting every evening. It’s very difficult. If you go on rehearsing with the actors too much, more than just to learn their lessons, and if you rehearse with them several days, some new process in the actors’ minds starts. An intellectual process, I think, and that process can be very good, but it’s very dangerous for filming because you have something in his eyes suddenly, some sort of “Now I do that“ and "I do that" and “I do that." He’s conscious of what he’s doing. He has to do it intuitively.
Just before you start filming, when you get to the set, you said you know as little about the film as the actors do.
BERGMAN: But remember, I have written the script. I have lived with this script perhaps for one or two years. The preparation for the next day, in details, I wait with it as long as possible. Of course, when I made The Magic Flute [his film of Mozart’s opera] we had to prepare everything before.
You use women as your main characters quite a lot, and I was wondering how you relate to them, how you identify with them? Your male characters aren’t very much in the foreground.
BERGMAN: I like more to work with women. I have many good friends who are actors and I like tremendously to work together with them, but in filmmaking it’s a job for good nerves and I think the women have much better nerves than men have. It’s so. I think the problems very often are the common problems. They are not, on the first hand, women; they are human beings. And God forgive me, but I have the feeling that the prima donnas always are male. I think it has to do with our whole social life and the male part and the female part that they have to play, and it’s very difficult to be an actor; it’s not so difficult to be an actress in our society.
Would you just talk a little more about what you say to an actor? Do you do exercises with them?
BERGMAN: No, no, no, no. Good heavens, no. I say nothing. I promise.
Do you tell them the message of the film?
BERGMAN: No, good heavens, no. No, no, no, no. I don’t know anything about messages or symbols or things like that. Sometimes when I have the message everything goes wrong. So we don’t talk about those things. We just talk professionally: “Be careful. Be slower. Don’t be in a hurry. Listen." You know, the most important of all is the ear – the ear for the director and the ear for the actors. Listen to each other. Very often when I see a scene I just close my eyes and listen, because if it sounds right it also looks right. It’s very strange.
Now we have only a minute to conclude this, to me, wonderful meeting, but I wanted just to add something. Perhaps it sounds like an old uncle, but I am, so it doesn’t matter. May I give you an advice?
BERGMAN: It is a relief to me to know that if I have an intention, if I have a passion and an obsession, if I want to tell somebody something and if I want to touch somebody, the film helps me. But if I have nothing to say and I just want to make a film, I don’t make the film. It’s so stimulating, the craftsmanship of filmmaking is so terribly stimulating, dangerous, and obsessing, so you can be very tempted...but if you have nothing to come with, try to be honest with yourself and don’t make the picture. If you have something to come with, if you have emotion and passion, a picture in your head, a tension – even if you aren’t very technical – the strange thing is that having worked on the script and having worked with the camera for days and days, suddenly when you have cut it together, the thing you wanted to tell is there.
I have a very good example, Antonioni’s L’Avventura (Italy, 1960). The picture is a mess – he had no idea where to put the camera; he had no money; the actors went away; I think he had enormous problems the whole time – but he wanted to tell us something about the loneliness of the human being, and I can see this picture time after time and I don’t know what touches me most: how he succeeds without knowing how to do it or what he wants to say. That is very important; that is the most important of all. You have to have something to come with, to give other people.
Picturemaking is some sort of responsibility, that is what I think.
– Originally published in American Film, January-February 1976