What Makes a House a Home in Scenes from a Marriage
Series writer and director Hagai Levi and production designer
Kevin Thompson break down the set design for Scenes from a Marriage.
By Cande Duran
In HBO’s limited series Scenes from a Marriage, based on the original Swedish miniseries by
Ingmar Bergman, writer and director Hagai Levi examines the relationship between husband
and wife Jonathan (played by Oscar Isaac) and Mira (Jessica Chastain) at different stages of their relationship over the course of five episodes.
HBO spoke with Levi and the show’s production designer, Kevin Thompson, about the challenges and intentions that went into making a space that would evolve with each episode and serve as the primary setting for the story.
HBO: I’m excited to be talking about this sort of character of the house. When you first started thinking about this adaptation, what was important to both of you about the setting? What were you looking for in a house?
Kevin Thompson: The brief that I got from Hagai early on, and also something that organically grew out of our conversations, was the socioeconomic class of the family. We wanted the house to have a tone that was of professionals, but not too rich, so that they would be relatable. We didn’t want it to feel too suburban either, because we didn’t want to do that stereotype. So we went on a hunt for locations, and we came upon one that felt right.
It was in a neighborhood that felt like it could be right on the edge of a town like Boston (we shot it in Mount Vernon, New York, about half an hour north of New York City). And then we took that house and the style of that house, as our starting point for designing the interior.
We wanted the interior to be very camera-friendly, so that we wouldn’t always have the same shots...It was a really great collaboration between the director, designer, and cinematographer.
Hagai Levi: I had this idea from the beginning that we wouldn’t jump from room to room or location to location, but [instead] move from place to place, so it kind of feels like you are in real-time. The result is that we have all these very long steadicam shots that give you a feeling that the house is very present, and part of what’s happening.
It created a lot of problems for Kevin, of course, but I think they were worth it.
HBO: Like you say, most of the episodes unfold in real time, but the series itself spans about five years. How does the house change over the course of the series, and how are those changes used to tell the story?
Kevin Thompson: We wanted the house to have these five different periods of feeling. The first period was establishing a house that had enough character in its detail that it felt like a home. It had a certain level of taste, but it was a home that a child lived in. It was just a fine line that we sort of kept for the first act. But we wanted details to help define that this was a nice house that had a happy family in it, and had a history.
And then slowly as the relationship evolves and goes through changes, the house would reflect a lot of those changes. So every episode was almost like a different period in time and the house slowly changed and evolved to suit what was going on in the chapter of the story. Then ultimately, in the last chapter, after they’ve moved out, they come back, and it’s an Airbnb, and the house has lost a lot of the soul that was there.
Some of the details are taken out, the walls are opened up, it becomes a little bit more generic and kind of stripped of personality. But the in-between acts show the bedroom in disarray and being used as a storage area, while Jonathan and his daughter move downstairs and live on the first floor. So it went through physical changes, and then it went through cosmetic changes. My feeling about the [set] was that it should always inform the story without being too much about the design.
Hagai Levi: It was a big production challenge. It forced us to shoot chronologically because we couldn’t come back to a certain place. And Kevin sometimes had to turn over the house overnight, right?
Kevin Thompson: Sometimes, haha. But we split up the house — the second floor was on a different set, and the attic was on a different set — so we could work on one part while they shot on the upstairs [set], for example. But my memory was that it all worked out very well.
HBO: You touched on the finale and how the house really goes through this whole transformation, but the characters feel especially uncomfortable when they go into the bedroom, which hasn’t changed very much. What went into the decision to keep the bedroom so similar, when the rest of the house had changed so much?
Hagai Levi: This is the essence of the word “uncanny,” which is something that feels totally familiar, but different. The whole idea is that you’re there but you’re not there. We wanted that scene to demonstrate that idea of the uncanny, that you’re in a place and suddenly you feel that you don’t know this place.
HBO: Mira really seems to have a strong attachment to some of the objects and the arrangements in the house. How would you characterize her relationship to her space and to the objects in their home?
Hagai Levi: Yeah, so she has an attachment to furniture, to design, but she kind of denies it in the beginning. And then there’s this turning point in the second episode, about the idea of renovating the attic. They have this argument about it and [Jonathan] says, “It’s part of the house, how come you’re not interested in that anymore?” And the answer to that becomes very, very clear. Then, later on, the furniture is actually a symbol of her longing to come back.
She says in Episode 3, “Soon there’s not going to be any trace of me here,” which is very painful for her.
So it totally symbolizes her attachment. And of course, the main object that it evolves around is the green couch. The green couch was an homage to the original.
Kevin Thompson: Yeah, I liked the slight suggestion that it was holding them. It has a slight curve, and the back becomes an arm that was kind of wrapping around them a little bit, which was also something that was in the original. It kind of curved around them and held them, and it was almost like it was a safe place at one point.
It’s so interesting because the bed that we ended up with, for the master bedroom, also had sort of wings that held them in on the ends, a very subtle similarity to the couch.
Hagai Levi: A lot of times [Ingmar] Bergman had kind of irony and parody elements in the series. The green couch in the original was over the top because it was in the shape of a huge heart, and was a little bit ridiculous. I wanted to treat the series more seriously in many places, so Kevin’s idea of how it wraps around them and becomes like a safe place was very important, and it encouraged me to give the couch even more importance in the scripts.
HBO: As for Jonathan, the study really seems to be where he gravitates in the house. Can you talk a little bit about that room for him?
Hagai Levi: I remember we had a long discussion about the study, because Kevin came up with the color red for that room. And it took me a lot of time to digest it and to understand. And I’m so happy that I agreed to that.
Kevin Thompson: It was almost like it was his space, so it needed to be distinguished in my mind, from the rest of the house. I felt that it should have a passion to it, and a richness, and the red for me represented passion and emotion, and it also distinguished it from everything else. This is an area of the house that is very different from the rest, because it was really Oscar’s area, in which Jessica had no say in the design and the furniture and things like that. It was the most textured, layered room because it had a wall of books and shutters on the windows. And it became a playroom, too, so it had a different kind of life and use to it.
HBO: Aside from the iconic green couch, did the set include any other references to the original Scenes from a Marriage?
Kevin Thompson: A few little things are thrown in there. You have to watch closely. We had
corn flakes in the kitchen.
Hagai Levi: And the notebook that he reads his morning pages is exactly the same notebook,
Kevin Thompson: That’s right, yeah. And the costume drawings in the dining room, of the historic characters are a slight reference to the costume drawings that were in Liv Ullman’s office.
Hagai Levi: It was like our private joke all the time to include more references.
HBO: What other inspiration did you draw from in the design?
Kevin Thompson: I think in terms of the decoration, and the furnishing, we did lean toward a kind of clean, Scandinavian design, without it being something that hits you over the head. Like the wallpaper in the hallway was Swedish, and some of the lamps and furniture. There was a recognizable appeal to Scandinavian furniture and furnishings.
HBO: This house is essentially the only set in the series. What do you think the effect is of using not only a single location to tell the story, but a single interior?
Hagai Levi: For that, we went much further than the original series, because the original series has at least three main locations: the house, the summer house, and the office. I wanted to explore the idea of a house and how it changes. I’m kind of used to doing it, because with In Treatment I did a whole series in one or two rooms. I think I like the play between claustrophobia, which sometimes I want you to feel, and then the huge effect when you go out.
HBO: What do you think makes a house a home?
Kevin Thompson: For me it’s putting your history and your personality into it, and having it build stories inside the house, with children or with your relationship, or bringing things from your outside experience into that home by having reminders of travel or influences and making it your own by caring about the things around you and loving them and having experiences there, that’s what turns it into a home. So it’s different for everybody, but for these characters, it was about the objects they had around them, the memories they built in the kitchen, the layers of history, and the days and months and years they spent there. That’s what makes it.
Hagai Levi: Kevin asked me at a certain point to bring my own family pictures. You can see my grandparents’ pictures on the walls in the study and the kitchen, which for him was important, to bring these personal touches.
Kevin Thompson: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s just the meaning of things. Those kinds of details, that
makes a home.
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