Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility screens Sunday, August 4th at Christie Pits Film Festival as part of Toronto Outdoor Picture Show’s summer-long Dynamic Duos programme. Sense and Sensibility centres sisters Elinor and Marianne and their opposing virtues. Paired with the feature is Erik Anderson’s short film Scenes from Another Marriage, which follows a gay couple and directing duo, Alex and Chris, as they attempt to adapt Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage to the present day. But things don’t go so smoothly…
We sat down with Erik Anderson to talk about his very funny short film.
TOPS: This year’s festival theme is titled Dynamic Duos. The lead characters in your film are an off-screen couple as well as an acting and directing duo. What do you think all of those types of partnerships have in common? Is there much difference between them at all?
Erik Anderson (EA): Good question! I suppose there are some loose similarities – that actors and directors collaborate, as do partners. And even some idealistic similarities – that directors try to get the best out of actors and partners should try to get the best out of each other. And there are egos involved in both as well, which are best left untrodden upon. But in a practical sense, I don't know if there's really much. I think there is more compromise (hopefully) in partnerships. You hope to compliment each other as individuals. You don't necessarily need that for a director-actor relationship (although it's certainly nice). Whereas tension can be destructive in romance, it can be constructive for creativity. It depends a bit on the artistic process; I don't think any two processes are exactly alike, but generally, the director should have a vision of how they want the material approached, which includes saying yes and no to what gets put up onscreen from the actors. So there is still ultimately a hierarchy in decision-making there, even if it's a respectful and collaborative one. In my film, this is complicated by the fact that the couple are co-directing each other, and the tension generated from that process then leaks into their romantic life, since they're doing double duty.
TOPS: The two lead characters in your film are attempting to make an LGBTQ version of Scenes from a Marriage. What inspired you in Bergman’s TV series?
EA: Scenes From a Marriage is brilliant. It was the first Bergman film I ever saw, and it felt like I was coming home, in terms of sensibility. We're inundated with American-style media here; sensationalist, violent, and escapist, with a massive dose of wish fulfillment (like superhero movies). Personally I've never met a superhero, so I'm not particularly interested in them. Maybe it's an atheist thing. Scandinavia is also largely non-religious, so perhaps it's no coincidence that there seems to be more interest in humanism in their art, a focus on the lives of realistic people.
Bergman himself had already cinematically worked through his feelings on religion about ten years prior, so maybe it's no coincidence he subsequently made something based on a distinctly human subject that others might assume would be too banal for entertainment: marriage. But there's so much depth in what he did, despite its ostensible simplicity. It's nearly five hours of two people running the verbal gauntlet of marriage, and yet it's totally gripping. I read that in Scandinavia, when the original series was being shown each Sunday, crime would go down during those hours, and when the series finished, divorce went up. It was so affecting. And I think to make anything so personal and profound is an inspiration to any artist.
Of course, my little short isn't really any of these things! Ha! It's more of a reflexive homage. But it was fun to redo some of the original shots and channel my love of Bergman through the work.
TOPS: Your film is screening with Sense and Sensibility. Screenwriter Emma Thompson made some changes to the story so that it would work better for a contemporary audience, which the characters in your film attempt to do for Scenes from a Marriage. Do you like to revisit classics in this way?
EA: I've only really revisited one classic before, which was to make a faithful adaptation of the First Book of Plato's Republic, and in that case I did change the language to contemporary parlance and tweaked what I felt was the minimum amount of material needed just to make things more fluid and comprehensible to a modern audience, including setting it in modern times as well. But I didn't want to stray too far, as it would've defeated the purpose, which was to illustrate how the source material is still resonant and vital. If you go too far you're effectively implying it's not. In that regard, The Republic was sort of a special case because it's a book of philosophy, as opposed to a narrative like Sense & Sensibility, but I imagine to some extent that's still the balance Emma Thompson tried to find, as there must have been things she found resonant (is this a bad time to admit I've never seen Sense & Sensibility? I'm really looking forward to it, though!). Regardless, any time you adapt a book to cinema it's a transformation in medium, so I think some serious creative changes necessarily have to occur.
That said, I think it can be a little different than when you're simply remaking a film. Sometimes they're transformative, like Oslo: August 31st to Le Feu Follet (though that was a book first, as well), but a lot of classic films are being revisited or rebooted these days with cosmetic changes to make them more en vogue that aren't particularly inspired; they're mainly superficial or on-the-nose. Some are simply enhancing them with CGI, or making them more graphic than they were previously, and some remakes simply come down to recasting with different demographics as their only method of transformation. The feeling there being that recasting itself is enough to revitalize the original material or to make a point of it in some way, like previous normative biases. And that can work, but often in just a facile or didactic way, because the idea itself is a little facile.
Ultimately, what is being made is still a derivative of an original creative piece. And without really reshaping or creatively transforming the original, it's tantamount to karaoke. Obviously karaoke is popular, and that's fine, but I don't personally find it all that satisfying artistically or intellectually. The boys in my film are doing just that – redoing the original film like a karaoke version, with the notion that simply putting themselves in the roles is creative enough to make it both pertinent and their own. I'm not sure that'd be enough. So, I suppose with Scenes From Another Marriage, I never thought of it as revisiting a classic in any genuine way, as it was always a conceptual film-within-a-film parody about revisiting a classic. For me, it's the reflexive deconstruction of their own remake which makes the film fun, as it becomes something transformative and new. And if it makes anyone interested in watching Bergman's original (which it actually did for Anders and Matthew, who hadn't seen it before), that's a happy side effect!
TOPS: Who is your favourite cinematic duo, and why?
EA: Here I was naysaying the influence of American cinema, and yet all I could initially think of were American movies for this question. Buddy cop movies of the 80s (basically anything with Eddie Murphy), Inigo Montoya and Fezzik in The Princess Bride, Walter & the Dude, etc... but I'll be patriotic and say Bob & Doug McKenzie from Strange Brew. It's not really a "good" film, but it has Max Von Sydow (a regular of Bergman's) and it's actually based on a classic (Hamlet). Plus it includes a reflexive film-within-a-film, and it's shot in the GTA. Sooooo... beauty.
Scenes from Another Marriage screens alongside Sense & Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1995) on August 4th at Christie Pits Park.