Ingmar Bergman: Unpublished letters show the Swedish auteur was courted by the American studios

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The Independent Culture

Cary Grant in The Seventh Seal? Laurence Olivier in Wild Strawberries? Jennifer Jones in Summer With Monika? Robert Ryan in The Virgin Spring? Harry Belafonte in Cries and Whispers? Jean Seberg in Persona?

Of course, such casting in the films of Ingmar Bergman would have been absurd. However, I have seen documents lodged in the Ingmar Bergman Archive at the Swedish Film Institute that show all of the above discussed working with Bergman at one time or another.

In a 1959 lecture entitled "What It Takes to Make a Film", Bergman told students at Lund University that film-makers were like conjurors, but that their ability to create magic was dependent on their films being able to make money. The moment films lost their audience, "the conjuror would be deprived of his magic wand".

We are so used to the idea of Bergman as a great European auteur that it is easy to overlook the battles that he – like every other director – had to fight with financiers, producers and distributors over which actors he used.

"To produce a 2,500m-long tapeworm, which sucks life and spirit out of actors, producers and directors. That is what making a film involves," he gloomily explained. "That and many other things, much more and much worse."

Bergman clearly found the "business" of film-making sapping and sometimes soul-destroying. "It would be of interest," he suggested, "if a scientist could one day invent a scale or measure which could tell how much talent, initiative, genius and creative ability have been destroyed by the industry in its ruthless effective sausage machine."

Part of Bergman's greatness lay in his uncompromising approach to his work – his refusal to be sucked into the sausage machine. Nonetheless, when you read his business letters to his American agents, you quickly realise how many temptations were laid in his path and how close he – like almost every other major European director before him – came to being co-opted by Hollywood.

By the early 1960s, Bergman was a major force in the US. The Virgin Spring (1960) had won a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries had both been successes on the US arthouse circuit. The Hollywood studios were desperate to work with Bergman and were ready to pay him huge amounts of money.

"My success depends on my making films, which I have written and directed all by myself," Bergman wrote to his US agents in 1959. With either naiveté or outrageous cheek, he asked if Hollywood could simply "order a film by me, in exactly the same way you order a picture of a painter, without first telling him what it is going to be like. I think that would be the best of all the ideas."

This was never going to happen. The whole point about the Hollywood system was that film-makers became part of the machine. They were pampered, flattered and paid outrageous amounts of money, but they were obliged to sacrifice their independence. That was the nature of the Faustian pact. As Bergman's agent wrote back to him: "At the present time I do not think that the major companies, and they are the only ones able to finance important pictures, will simply order a film made by you as one orders a painting."

Even so, the Swedish director was clearly intrigued and flattered by the interest that Hollywood showed in him.

One of the first – and least likely – proposals was for Bergman to direct actor and crooner Belafonte in a film about Pushkin in 1959. This was always going to be a non-starter. "I have now given up my mind to make the Belafonte film," Bergman wrote (in his idiosyncratic English) to his US agent Bernie Wilens at the William Morris Agency. "I think that B is not the actor who shall create the genius Pushkin."

Belafonte was ready to travel to Stockholm to lobby Bergman. Plans were made to screen Belafonte's latest film Odds Against Tomorrow for the Swedish director, but it quickly became apparent even to the thick-skinned Hollywood agents that Bergman wasn't going to be swayed.

Unabashed, the agents continued to suggest new projects that could present Bergman "to the American audience in your first American effort". Soon, they were proposing that Bergman should direct a film called "Jean Christophe", to star Hope Lange and to be produced by her husband Don Murray.

"Hope Lange has starred in quite a few pictures here. Undoubtedly, you must have seen The Best of Everything and Peyton Place," Wilens wrote to Bergman in a fit of misplaced confidence. One film that Bergman was highly unlikely to have seen was a Hollywood melodrama like Peyton Place. This project also quickly stalled.

David O Selznick (one of the most famous producers in Hollywood history) invited Bergman to spend a week with him in Nassau to discuss potential collaborations. Selznick was keen for Bergman to direct an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Victory or a project called "The Wall" to star Jones, his wife and the lead actress in A Farewell to Arms. Bergman was quick to dismiss such proposals. After all, he had worked with Selznick before.

"At that time I was very young and wrote a script on Ibsen's A Doll's House," Bergman recalled. "Mr Selznick ows [sic] me still $2,000, that I had the right, after our contract, to get. When I applied to the agreement, Mr Selznick's representative answered: 'You have to be thankful for what you get. If you want to bring an action you have to do that in USA, and I assure you that Mr Selznick has the economical possibilities to find the best lawyers.'"

Bergman was furious when the US trade press announced prematurely that he had struck a deal with Paramount. Nor was he impressed when the studio bosses came courting him in person. "I often cogitate over these American producers," he wrote. "When they meet an artist, the whole time they talk about how artistic they are themselves. They talk about their lives, their married complications, their practical jokes and their pictures. They uninterruptedly weigh and measure the artist they talk with... They believe that their power and their money make them interesting, and they unconsciously expose their amazing lack of spiritual quality."

The Swedish director admitted that his encounters with studio moguls invariably made him think about the famous encounter between Samuel Goldwyn and the playwright George Bernard Shaw. "Dear Mr Goldwyn, after our long conversations I now understand that you are interested in the art and I am interested in the money," Shaw is reported to have told the studio boss.

Nonetheless, there was one US project that really did tantalise Bergman – a possible adaptation of Albert Camus' The Fall (La Chute). The rights were in the hands of producer Walter Wanger (a Hollywood veteran who had worked with Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, and who had recently produced Invasion of the Body Snatchers and I Want to Live!).

When the project was first mooted in the late 1950s, Camus was still alive and Bergman was keen to work with him. The early signs were promising. The director was clearly fascinated by Camus' book (about a lawyer who falls from grace), and was determined to make the film "without compromise and with real ruthlessness".

There was no chance of that. The agents were already busy tinkering. United Artists, the potential financiers, wanted Grant and Ryan in the leading roles. Bergman immediately balked at such an idea. "It is a matter, of course, that I am choosing the actors myself," he protested. "Cary Grant is a very good comedy actor but has no qualifications at all to play the lawyer in La Chute."

It was even suggested that Grant (an admirer of Bergman's) should meet Bergman face-to-face in London to try to talk him round. The Swedish director was having none of it. Nor was he any more receptive when Laurence Olivier was suggested instead. After Camus' death in 1960, he abandoned any idea of making The Fall.

American projects continued to be floated, but now even the agents grudgingly accepted that he was not just another director for hire, ready to be made part of the latest Hollywood star-driven "package". He did eventually make films in English (The Touch and The Serpent's Egg) and work with American actors (Elliott Gould and David Carradine, respectively). However, the idea – which seemed a possibility in the early 1960s – that he might follow the example of his fellow Swedes Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller and have a stab at working in Hollywood was soon abandoned.

Nonetheless, Hollywood figures remained intensely curious about Bergman. Among the most poignant business letters in the Bergman archive is one written speculatively to him in January 1979 by the American icon Seberg, who was to commit suicide later that year. "You are a very busy man and I shall be brief," she scrawled in blue biro in a letter addressed to Bergman at the Opera Company in Stockholm. "For so many long years, I have been wanting to work with you. Maybe you know my film work, for example Breathless, Joan of Arc [directed by Otto Preminger] and Bonjour Tristesse."

Her weight, she informed Bergman, was 47 kilos, her age 40. "I look a bit like Bibi Andersson," she suggested. It was true – she did have an uncanny resemblance to Andersson, one of Bergman's best-known actresses. Both were sylph-like, with close-cropped blond hair. She adds a postscript: "Have you ever gone through psychoanalysis?"

The letter is written in Swedish, a language Seberg had just begun learning (perhaps expressly with the idea of approaching Bergman). "Wouldn't it be possible, I humbly beg of you, to try and make a film together?" she asks, signing herself off as "the most devoted friend you have".

Bergman, it seems, didn't send a reply.

Ingmar Bergman's 'The Image Makers' is released alongside Victor Sjöström's 'The Phantom Carriage' by Tartan on 12 November; Geoffrey Macnab's book on Bergman will be published by IB Tauris next year