Savage Love: How Scenes From a Marriage took Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain 'to hell and back'
Fittingly, Oscar Isaac began his journey into Scenes From a Marriage with a proposal of sorts. After his very first meeting about potentially starring in a remake of Ingmar Bergman's 1973 miniseries, Isaac wrote to his friend Jessica Chastain and said, "I can't imagine doing this with anybody other than you."
"This is someone that knows me," the Star Wars actor remembers thinking. "We have a similar language, and there's just total trust. And when I read [the script], I felt like this whole story is about that. To do this with someone who knows all your tricks, there's no way but to be honest."
Not only had Isaac and Chastain played a married couple once before, in 2014's A Most Violent Year, the actors have been friends for two decades, since attending Juilliard Drama School together in the early 2000s. And, Isaac recalls, "She dated a really good friend of mine at the time, and we would talk a lot about relationships and the nature of monogamy. So we had a language about those things when we were young."
It undoubtedly came in handy. Like the emotionally devastating original, the new Scenes From a Marriage (premiering Sunday on HBO) puts love, marriage, and divorce under the microscope in an intimate two-hander. Isaac and Chastain play Jonathan and Mira, a Jewish professor and corporate executive whose union unravels, but whose bond remains palpable, over five searing episodes that make Marriage Story look like a cheerful romp. It would ultimately take a global pandemic reshuffling her schedule for Chastain to become available for the series (she came aboard after Michelle Williams dropped out), but as Isaac knew right away, their shared history would prove invaluable.
"That was the best thing that could happen to this production," writer-director Hagai Levi says of Chastain joining the project. "The chemistry between them, from the first day, was unbelievable." (As anyone who saw that viral video of the duo at the Venice Film Festival would expect.)
Levi had spent years trying to figure out how, or even if, he should adapt Bergman's series, which he regards as "the most influential work that I've seen in my life, in terms of inspiration for everything I've done." (Levi previously co-created The Affair and BeTipul, the Israeli series that inspired HBO's In Treatment.) After the legendary filmmaker's son first approached him about a remake, "I played with a lot of ideas," recalls Levi, who worked with playwright Amy Herzog on the series' scripts. "One of my main problems was, I felt that I didn't like the characters of the original anymore. I felt like he was an [old-fashioned] man; a cold, chauvinist a--hole. I couldn't relate to him. And she starts the series as a very weak, dependent woman with no self-confidence. I couldn't see myself putting such a woman in current television."
Finally, he hit on the idea to reverse the original series' gender dynamics, flipping key plot and character elements along that line; for instance, Isaac's character is the primary caregiver for the couple's young daughter. "One day, my story editor and I just started to read the original script while flipping the [characters'] genders," Levi recalls, "and suddenly the same text started to feel like something totally different. That was the starting point to understand that it could be done, with the same story, but a new perspective." From there, he says, "everything fell into place."
Composed largely of long, wrenching dialogue scenes between its two leads, which often veer from cutting verbal warfare to smoldering flirtation and back again, Scenes From a Marriage is an emotional wringer for viewers, and was for its cast and crew alike. Levi made the unusual decision to shoot each episode chronologically, in order to "take the whole crew into this journey for real, from moment to moment," he says.
"It wasn't easy for all of us to go all the way to hell, and go back from there," the director adds. "That was a very, very intense experience, emotionally and psychologically."
The series was filmed this past winter, amid one of the worst COVID surges in the U.S., primarily on a New York soundstage with a tiny crew. (Most of the series takes place inside Jonathan and Mira's house.) Both Levi and Isaac look back at the months-long shoot as a surreal experience that hit close to home for all involved: "We all felt like we were on another planet for a couple of months," the director says. Adds Isaac, "I think everyone on set felt quite vulnerable. Crew members would come up and talk to me about breakups they had had. It felt incredibly intimate and strange."
That's also an apt description for the experience of acting in the series. "There wasn't a lot of reaching that had to happen," the actor says of his performance. "Sure, Jonathan has a very different background than I do, and that took some work, but there wasn't that gap to bridge between who I am and who this character could be."
He continues, "It was also a little uncanny to shoot a scene where I'm reading a story to my daughter in a little Danish bed with a rabbit lamp, and then drive home, get into a little Danish bed with my 4-year-old and read him a story next to the exact same lamp. That speaks to how close a lot of the scenes we were playing out felt."
There were also plenty of "grueling days" for Isaac — episodes 2 and 4 in particular were "incredibly exhausting," he says — that required immense trust in his collaborators, especially Chastain. "We didn't plan in advance how we were going to play it," Isaac recalls. "We just showed up present, and played, and trusted each other. That made it a very unique experience, at least for me. I had never had a situation that felt quite as surprising."
The question now becomes whether Scenes From a Marriage can still surprise viewers, who have become accustomed to both widespread divorces and intense studies of relationships and their challenges on screen. (The influence of Bergman's series is visible in everything from Richard Linklater's Before Midnight to the aforementioned Marriage Story to the recent third season of Master of None.) It seems highly unlikely, for instance, that a TV show would now be blamed with boosting a country's divorce rate, as the original Scenes was after it first aired in Bergman's native Sweden.
"What was revolutionary back then is now almost a cliché," admits Levi. But, he adds, "I'm saying something which is sometimes the opposite of what Bergman said. He wanted to say, very explicitly, 'Marriage kills love.' [The remake] is saying, 'Marriage is not easy, but separation is also very, very traumatic.' "
Muses Isaac, "I do think it says that love is real. And I think it's possible that [viewers], like a lot of the people that worked on it, will see aspects of themselves or aspects of their fears reflected [in the series] — the challenges with this thing that we all so desperately want and dream about, and then the actual confrontation of it, and how that dream backs up against our ideas of self and who we are as people and as partners."
For Levi, that kind of introspection is the goal: "I hope it's going to raise some discourse — debates, discussions, arguments, attacks. This is not just a private story. It should say something more than that."
Scenes From a Marriage premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.
A version of this story appears in the September issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain explore the lows and lower lows of marriage and divorce in HBO's remake of Ingmar Bergman's devastating miniseries.