Have I got muse for you

Have I got muse for you

By Michael Pickard
June 14, 2024


After a string of demanding projects, actor Alex Wolff and director Øystein Karlsen were looking for a change of pace. As they tell DQ, they found it in So Long, Marianne, a dramatisation of the love story between Canadian musician Leonard Cohen and the woman who became his muse, Marianne Ihlen.

The relationship between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen is immortalised in his song So Long, Marianne, which was released as part of his 1967 debut album. Now the track lends its name to a television drama that explores the love story between the Canadian singer and poet and his Norwegian muse, who would inspire much of his work.

Set against the backdrop of locations in Oslo, New York, London, Montreal and Hydra, the Greek island where they met and lived together in the 1960s, the eight-part drama follows the romance between two lonely people who fall for each other at a time in their lives when they are still discovering who they are and how they fit into the world around them. Cohen, of course, would go on to become a world-famous musician across a 50-year career.

The series comes from creator, writer and director Øystein Karlsen, who describes it as a coming-of-age story about a group of young people going out into the world without a safety net for the first time, often against their parents’ wishes. Other real-life characters on Hydra include Norwegian author Axel Jensen (Marianne’s first husband) and Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston.

“Leonard’s mum wanted him to work for his uncle in the garment factory. Axel Jensen, the crown prince of a meatpacking empire, ran away. Marianne wanted to be an actress but her mum and dad wanted her to be a secretary,” Karlsen tells DQ. “So all of them are throwing themselves head first, heart in hand, into life and trying to find who they are and what they want to do.

Øystein Karlsen

“They end up in this strange little community on this island where there were hippies five or six years prior to the hippie movement ever existing, and everyone was sleeping with everyone and drinking and doing drugs and all of that. And along the way, they found themselves. That’s basically what it’s about. One of them just happened to be Leonard Cohen.”

Cohen was a familiar figure to Alex Wolff (Oppenheimer, Hereditary), the American actor who plays him on screen opposite Thea Sofie Loch Næss (The Last Kingdom) as Marianne. Anna Torv (The Newsreader) and Noah Taylor (Preacher) co-star as Charmian and George.

An accomplished musician, Wolff himself was inspired by Cohen’s poetry at a young age, and the chance to play him on screen gave Wolff an opportunity to rediscover much of his work.

“This role came at a time when I needed someone like Øystein to embrace me in the way that he did, and make me feel like I had a reason for doing this,” he says. “Then Leonard, there was a shared melancholy with him, and I needed that too.

“Maybe it’s seen as unmasculine to expose yourself in such a vulnerable way, and [Cohen] did expose himself much more than a lot of those rock ‘n’ roll guys. But that inspired me to be more fragile and open, and it just made me a richer person through getting to know him. Everyone could benefit from diving deep into his work.”

Though he has been acting since an early age, Wolff says he isn’t a “studied” actor, “so I really don’t know what I’m doing.” But he threw himself into the role and immersed himself in every aspect of his character.

“Leonard has a quote that says, ‘If you don’t become the ocean, you’ll be seasick every day.’ I just thought I’ve got to become the ocean as much as I can, because it’s the least I can do for someone who means so much to the world and me. The least I could do is go for it as much as I possibly can.”

Hereditary star Alex Wolff as Leonard Cohen in So Long, Marianne

In practice, “most of it is just finding the right pants,” he jokes. He also hired a classical guitar teacher to improve what Karlsen says was already “perfect” guitar playing, worked with a voice coach to develop Cohen’s Canadian accent and even used a handwriting tutor to learn to write like Cohen. As Karlsen acknowledges, “He did the work.”

For the director, work on the project started several years ago when producer Ingebord Klyve suggested he listen to a radio documentary about Ihlen that was made by Norwegian pubcaster NRK in the early 2000s and resurfaced after her death in July 2016. Cohen died less than four months later.

Diving into Ihlen’s life, and particularly the time she spent on Hydra, Karlsen discovered an entire expat community that he was previously unaware of. “The universe [of the series] started populating itself, and it became much more multi-layered than we thought it was,” he says.

Just like it did for Wolff, the project came at a good time for the director, who was coming off the back of three seasons of hit Norwegian drama Exit, a study of excess in the lives of a group of male bankers.

“It was super cynical – capitalism on steroids – and it was just so beautifully different to dive into something that is the total opposite of that,” he continues, “which is [a story about] people that are broken, but trying to the best of their ability to fix that by giving each other love, for better or worse.”

Drenched in the Greek sunshine, So Long, Marianne is a slow-paced but thoughtful, melancholic and emotion-driven series. But Karlsen – who has previously featured in the DQ100 – admits he didn’t know exactly what kind of show he would make when he first began development. “It’s a collaboration,” he notes. “You try to put together the best team you can and then you saddle up and go for the ride.”

The series focuses on Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, played by Thea Sofie Loch Næss

That team includes fellow creators Klyve (Exit) and Tony Wood (Marcella), co-writer Jo Nesbø (Harry Hole), cinematographer Ronald Plante (19-2), production designer Hallvard Hellem (Exit) and costume designer Karen Fabritius Gram (State of Happiness). The series is produced by Redpoint Productions, Buccaneer, Tanweer Productions and C3 Media for Norway’s NRK and Canada’s Crave, with Cineflix Rights handling international distribution.

“I’ve never met a director who so elegantly combines real artistic ambition with a complete lack of pretentiousness and complete freedom for the actors,” says Wolff, who became close friends with Karlsen during the country-hopping shoot. “I’ve never seen that level of trust of a crew and cast ever. But it wasn’t a free-for-all. It was very well constructed – he’s one of the great directors.

“People like Christopher Nolan [Oppenheimer] and Ari Aster [Hereditary] know how to encourage you to be as good as you can be. That was him and Ronald and Andre Perron, the steadicam operator.”

The nature of the storytelling in So Long, Marianne was apparent early on to Wolff, as Karlsen directed him and his fellow cast members in takes that would run to 18 minutes long. One such scene dramatises an intimate moment between Leonard and Marianne, with 10 pages of script, “just talking,” the director says.

“You don’t want to pick up the pace while shooting because you want the actors to have the emotional leverage of going through all the things they’re saying, and then you pick up the pace in the edit,” he continues. “It just feels more organic, especially with that scene in particular with just those two in this strange little place by a lake, with very loud frogs. It just seemed better to let them do what they want to do.”

Karlsen doesn’t ask his cast to repeat the same scenes numerous times to get the right coverage, however, as he always works with multiple cameras rolling at once. “No two takes are alike if you have good actors who follow each other. I always shoot with two or three,” he says.

Already an accomplished musician, Wolff took extra steps to embody Cohen as a performer

Jumping between the locations and years in which the story is set, Wolff had to constantly keep track of where each scene took place in Cohen’s story. But he says the hardest part of the shoot was making sure the character he played was as authentic to the real person as possible. One example is changing his voice slightly after Cohen has a tooth removed – another sign of the actor’s devotion to the part.

“These are details that no one would care about but it’s helpful as an actor to know where the person’s going from,” he says. “What kind of depression is he going through? How happy is he? How many people is he sleeping with at this time? Is he not sleeping with anyone? How holy is he feeling? How musical is he feeling? Where is he with Marianne? It was tough because he was always pivoting, or maybe that actually made it easier.”

Working with Karlsen is a collaborative affair. “There is no hierarchy” on set, according to the director, whose approach to filmmaking is to work with people who know more than he does.

“Then we just had a playground where everyone brings their own mind to the table and I try to steer it in some sort of direction,” he says. “We always do this little speech on the first day of shooting where we say the best idea wins. We don’t care if you’re parking cars or making coffee or if you’re the DOP. If you have a better idea than I had then that’s what we’ll do.”

Behind the scenes, Karlsen also had to work closely with the various international partners attached to the project, who naturally all had ideas about how they wanted the series to develop with their own audiences in mind.

“It’s a weird dynamic because the Canadians obviously feel this is a story about Leonard Cohen, and NRK, who put up the first money, thinks this is a story about Marianne,” he says. “Then somewhere in between, you have the Greeks who want Greece to shine as much as possible. It’s a weird balance, especially when you get editing notes from 16 executives. Sometimes we just send the same version [of an episode] back and they say, ‘It’s good.’”

The show’s debut will coincide with what would have been Cohen’s 90th birthday

Of course, no series about the life of Leonard Cohen would be complete without a soundtrack worthy of the award-winning singer-songwriter. In fact, the show begins with a rendition of one of his best-known tracks, Hallelujah, and as the series progresses, we follow him into the studio and see him making his first two records, Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967 and Songs from a Room, which was released two years later.

“The great thing, of course, is that Alex plays and sounds like Leonard,” Karlsen says. The director was always aware of trying to avoid the series becoming “pretentious” as it mixes Cohen’s music and poetry to tell the story of his relationship with Ihlen. “But I think we found a balance for that,” he says. “There are six or seven songs, and then some of Leonard’s originals that are on end credits. There’s 16 altogether, but mostly from his first two albums. That was the period of time we’re covering.

“Some of it is, of course, written in Hydra and about Hydra, like Bird on a Wire – where he sees the birds sitting out on a telephone wire when they’re putting in the first telephone lines – and So Long, Marianne. Some of it is a great reflection of where he was in his life there.”

Cohen’s influence on the music industry over the last half century is undeniable, and the series is scheduled to debut later this year to mark what would have been his 90th birthday following its world premiere at French television festival Series Mania earlier this year. Yet when it comes to making So Long, Marianne, Karlsen says his only aim was to create a show with characters viewers want to spend time with.

“We’re competing for people’s time. Either you put on a podcast or you put on a TV show, or you read a book, and that’s the competition we’re in,” he says. “You have to create people they want hang out with so that when they come home from work and they’re tired as hell, they want to turn on that show and hang out with these people for a while in this beautiful, strange little world. If we don’t manage to do that, we lose.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , ,