In 1964, Ingmar Bergman wrote a script for a film titled The Cannibals. It was to star Bibi Andersson, and included a small part for the up-and-coming Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann, but it was ultimately tabled when Bergman became very ill and it was unclear when the production could start. Some months later, after seeing a photo of Andersson and Ullmann together (they’d become fast friends), he came up with the idea for Persona, a story about two women who lose their identities in one another.
Bergman wrote the script for what would come to be called Persona in fourteen days, while he was in the hospital. Earlier titles for the film included Cinematography, Sonata for Two Women, A Piece of Cinema, and Opus 27.
The opening of the film includes Jörgen Lindström, who was also cast in Bergman’s 1963 film The Silence.
While Elisabet (Ullmann) is in the hospital, we see her watching a TV news broadcast, her eyes widened in shock. Ullmann says she’s never been satisfied with this acting performance. She felt it was “Liv being shocked Liv,” not something coming from her character. She never understood why Bergman chose to leave it in the film.
All the scenes involving Elisabet’s rehabilitation by the sea were filmed on Fårö Island, just a few miles down the coast from where Through a Glass Darkly (below) had been shot five years earlier.
Initially, Bergman was advised to cut from the script the scene where Nurse Alma (Andersson) describes to Elisabet a sexual experience on the beach with a girlfriend and two boys. Andersson convinced Bergman that they must at least film it, but first she should rewrite certain words that she felt no woman would say. They shot it, and Bergman was pleased enough to keep it in the film. However, he felt there was something wrong with Andersson’s audio. In the end, he had her dub the entire monologue in postproduction.
Ullmann has a particular fear of broken glass, and Bergman worked that fear into the script. It comes into play during the scene when Alma is sitting outside in the sunshine, bitter at Elisabet for what she wrote to the doctor about her. After Alma accidentally breaks a drinking glass on the stone patio, she purposefully leaves one shard in Elisabet’s path.
The scene in which Alma confronts Elisabet from across the table was shot in its entirety twice, once with the camera on Andersson and once with the camera on Ullmann. In the editing room, intending to cut between the two angles, Bergman had trouble choosing which shots to include or discard, so he decided to let each woman’s scene play out completely in the final film.
The idea of merging the faces of the two actors came to Bergman in the editing room. He then showed it to Andersson and Ullmann, neither of whom recognized herself in the morphed image.
During the seven-minute prologue of Persona, there appears a three-frame shot of an erect penis. Bergman was forced to cut this shot from the film for its theatrical releases in the United States and the UK.