It’s the first Directors UK Podcast of 2022!
This episode follows an insightful and exhilarating conversation between two directors, as Maggie Gyllenhaal discusses her debut feature, The Lost Daughter, with Amma Asante.
In a fascinating conversation, Maggie spoke to Amma about how she approached her source material, her process of working with actors, and about the sisterhood of directing.
You can also read a full transcript of their conversation below.
Amma Asante: Hello, everybody, I am Amma Asante, I am a black woman with shoulder length hair. I am really happy and really excited to welcome Maggie Gyllenhaal, to talk about her directorial debut. I’m going to hand it over to her, because I know for accessibility we have to do a description and our pronouns: I’m she and her. I’ll hand over to Maggie and then I’ll jump back in with the interview.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Okay, so for a description I’m also she and her, I’m a white woman with quite short brown hair and a red blouse.
Amma Asante: Maggie, thank you so much for taking the time, we know how busy your schedule is. I loved the film. I saw it just the weekend that’s gone by. I didn’t know what to expect, and I absolutely adored it. I think just to begin, I’d love to read a quote from Elena Ferrante, who is the author of the book that this film is based on. It’s quite long, but I think it’s going to frame our conversation brilliantly. So, she said, “Another woman has found in that text good reason to test her creative capabilities. Gyllenhaal has decided, that is, to give cinematic form, not to my experience of the world, but to hers, starting from The Lost Daughter. It’s important for me, for her, for all women that her work be hers and turn out well. Mine already exists with its strengths and defects. In the great warehouse of the arts, set up mainly by men, women have for a relatively short time been seeking the means and opportunities to give a form of their own to what they have learned from life. So, I don’t want to say you have to stay inside the cage that I’ve constructed, we’ve been inside the male cage for too long, and now that cage is collapsing. A woman artist has to be absolutely autonomous. Her search shouldn’t encounter obstacles, especially when it’s inspired by the work, by the thought, of other women.”
I just thought that that was such a beautiful sentiment, for you to be standing on the platform of something that somebody else has started, and to make it your own in the incredible way that you have. It’s such a visceral piece, it’s such an intimate piece, it’s a vast piece in so many ways, and so I really want to start from the beginning with you. Why this book and why your directorial debut now?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Well, I think those are two separate questions, you know? I’ve done a lot of thinking about why it took me so long, because I’m 44, I’ve had a whole career as an actress. Why it took me so long to realise something I think is really true, which is that really I’m a director. I think it’s a better job for me. I think looking back on it now, I was always bumping up against the edges of what was open to me as an actress, but in response to that I think I really also tried to create a set where I didn’t have closed boundaries on my actors, a set where I truly was interested in the ideas of my actors. I found as an actress, there are very few directors who are interested in actors with ideas, and I also think what drew me to acting was, well, an opportunity to be really honest. I think without even knowing it I wasn’t seeing very many portrayals of women on the screen, especially when I was younger, that felt really like me. At first when I was really young as an actress I tried to fit myself into a fantasy of what I was expected to be. I just saw a clip of Secretary in some career retrospective thing, and I thought it’s interesting to watch me there, because I’m both struggling to fit myself into the box that I think I’m supposed to be in, and I’m, like, ‘Fuck this box, I’m both’ — a lot of people when they’re 23 feel like that, and I did too.
I think I was that age that meant if you loved storytelling, if you loved films, if you had ideas about women in the world — then probably the easiest way to get them onto the screen was as an actress, and a thinking actress. There were definitely models of women who were that. There were very, very few models of women who were directing, so I had access to Jane Campion and I remember being fifteen or something and seeing The Piano, and I was totally blown away. Not in an intellectual way. I was blown in a way in an unconscious, totally visceral way, like I don’t know what this language is. I think women, when we’re honest with ourselves, do make movies differently than men, and something about the way she was using what is really primarily a male-created cinematic language, got into something about my experience as a woman I had never seen before. So, I think, okay, I saw her. I didn’t know Agnès Varda, I didn’t know Lucrecia Martel. I didn’t know Claire Denis until much later.
So, I think I just went, ‘I’m an actress, I’m going to do what I feel I’m here to do through acting.’ And then, I remember I read this thing that Meryl Streep said — who knows if she really did — but I really took it to heart. She said, ‘If you as an actress, as an actor, on a set, if you need an idea, if you need something artistically, ask for it with a spoonful of sugar.’ I think it’s good advice, and I took the advice, and I did that, but it’s a lot of extra work.
Amma Asante: It’s a lot more acting, it’s like acting on top of acting, because you have to be someone else to try and get what you need.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Exactly, right, and you have to do it perfectly, and maybe especially as a women, you have to be a little bit funny and very kind and self-deprecating or whatever, and I got to be a master at that in order to protect myself.
Amma Asante: Whereas a guy just says it.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Yes! When I was a producer on The Deuce — very collaborative group of people, really interesting — I remember I would see early cuts of episodes and I would write four-paragraph-long essays as to why you can’t cut the orgasm, because that’s what makes the scene feminist. But again, gentle, funny, just perfect, and maybe you get 20% of what you’ve asked for. I think at a certain point I just got tired of it. I was, like, ‘I want 100% of what I’m thinking about to end up on screen, and I want to create a space where the people who are collaborating with me don’t need to bother with a spoonful of sugar.’
Amma Asante: I think there is a link between why now and why this book, because everything you’ve just said there tells me why this book had to be your directorial debut out of all the things that are out there. This book, it’s not telling a story about a director who’s finding her space in the world of directors, but it does speak, obviously, about who we are when womanhood meets other things — and what the facets of womanhood mean to each of us as women individually. As you talk about that as a director there are so many things that I recognise, so many things that I get, having been a child actor who just did as I was told, because you had the authority of an adult telling you what to do on top. And I love this space that we’re coming into at the moment where we’re finding the words to articulate our experiences that we previously couldn’t quite articulate. We couldn’t put the words together in a way to talk about an experience that was actually common.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Well, that is the thing that drew me to this book. So much of Ferrante’s writing was talking about things clearly, intelligently, compassionately, that I had never heard expressed before. Yes, about being a mother, but also just in general about being a woman in the world: being a lover, being a thinker, being an artist. And some of them I didn’t even know I felt, because we’ve made this agreement not to talk about these things, and it gets so entrenched that I think we agree also not even to think about them. But of course, that doesn’t work. You still have the feelings, you still have the need, and so, I don’t know how you feel, but I would see very interesting films with brilliant actors in them that got something right about my experience, but really just a piece of it — the middle piece — and then all the strange stuff on the outside, on the outskirts, I never saw represented. It made me start to wonder, ‘Is there something wrong with me? I’ve got all these other feelings too and needs and desires and questions, and I’m never seeing it reflected back at me.’ I think there’s something inherently dramatic about telling the truth, and in particular about telling the truth about something that’s taboo.
Amma Asante: Which you’re kind of doing now in many ways. Even though we’re in the space where those of us as women who are directing are finding more space to talk about it, I think that there’s something really new and unique in not just what you’re saying, but the way you’re saying it — and the fact that you are articulating the experience of many women who haven’t necessarily even acted and then decided to go into directing.
Even just as a director, you are the chief of your domain. As a child actor I want to create a really open, collaborative space — but where you are the person who is leading in the vision is interesting. I do remember the first time I completed my first shot, and I was so elated that I’d just done my first shot, and then realised I had the entire day to go through, and I remember just everybody looking at me. I said to my AD, ‘Why are they all looking at me?’ and he said, ‘Because they want to know what to do, where to go next. ‘What are we moving on to next?’ So, stepping into that space as leader as well as collaborative individual I think is an interesting space for women that haven’t been used to being given those reins.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I was asked this question — it felt like it was 1975 or something, someone was, like, ‘Can we have it all?’ — and you’re, like, ‘What?’ ‘Can we have it all? Can we be wives and mothers and professional people?’ and I was, like, ‘I don’t even know how to answer this, it’s an old paradigm.’ I do think that that thing that you’re describing, I also was elated when I finished my first shot or that first day, just absolutely elated, but ironically maybe or not, one of the things that prepared me so well for being a leader was being a mother.
Amma Asante: Ah, interesting.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I’ve been a mother for fifteen years.
Amma Asante: Yes, and that makes sense, of course, that really makes sense.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Of course you can be a leader without being a mother — and we’ve seen leaders who are not mothers for forever — but I think it’s interesting. I believe, as you can see from my film, that parenting will bring you to your knees. It’s a job that’s designed to school you and grow you, but for real. And growing hurts. I believe growing, real growth, can be terrifying and include despair and anxiety as well as the ecstasy of opening up. All of those things that I went through for now fifteen years have made me so much stronger and so much more loving and so much more compassionate about the ways in which people are deeply flawed and imperfect, including myself.
Amma Asante: That’s the wonderful thing. I became a stepmother many years ago, and I got to a space fairly quickly of what you’re talking about in terms of being brought to your knees. What the film expresses so brilliantly in so many ways, is I had to get to a point really fast in understanding this about my journey, about the challenges of being a stepmother. So this brings me to in the challenges of the book. What were some of the challenges in translating so much of what we get from the book into what we see on the screen, but also, what were some of the joys? They may be the same thing.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I’ll say two things. One was this age difference, just on a very logistical level, it’s not like Philomena, for example — which was beautifully done — where you have a much, much younger women, she’s fifteen or sixteen or something, and then Judi Dench, who’s in her seventies at the time.You could actually maybe believe when you watch that movie that those are the same person. Unless you’re four years old, and this movie is not meant for four-year-olds, no one is ever going to believe, for example, that Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman are the same person. That’s ridiculous. So, when I wrote the adaptation, I decided I’m not going to worry about the logistics of this. I’m going to write it as if I could easily stretch an actress’s age, you know, like magic. I’m not going to worry about that, like a novel. Then, when it came down to it, I thought it’s goofy to age an actress, one actress. It’s like lying to the audience, and they see it, and they’re pissed off, I think. Sometimes I guess it can work if you do it acknowledging that there’s makeup all over someone’s face, but to me, my audience is intelligent and adult — and so I decided I want to hire two formidable, phenomenal actresses and not put any restraint on them to imitate each other at all, or to look like each other at all. Because really, we all know they’re different people.
So, really it’s about making a poetic agreement with the audience where we say, ‘Look, we’re not going to fake anything with you, we’re not going to put contact lenses in people’s eyes, we’re not going to have an eye twitch or neck tattoo or something, we’re going to just agree for the purposes of telling our story for two hours that these two actresses are the same person.’ So, once I came to that I felt free, but that was a challenge. I was a little bit concerned about that. I guess I also felt a real responsibility. Actually, I read this Rachel Cusk essay — it’s in her novel, her last novel in the trilogy of novels — I think it’s called Kudos, and she’s writing about a writer who ends up at lunch with her translator who’s translating her into another language, we don’t know what language. The translator says something like, ‘I felt that something had been expressed that was so precious that it was almost like an emergency to get it into the other language, it was with great caution and care that you’re birthing something into another language, so I felt a responsibility to get the truth that had moved me so much.’ I liked that, and plus, I put a bunch of things in that aren’t in the book at all that I just thought were interesting.
Then the pleasure was… I’ve been an actress for so long, and with any kind of rewriting, so much of the work happens so fast and so communally, and like I said, how do you get what you need quickly? Writing I found so pleasurable because it was quiet and I had as much space as I needed, and I can knock things around in my head. I actually did this writers’ panel with a few other really interesting writers, and some of them were saying that they’re just always writing, that something’s not working, they just throw an alien in — they’re just always trying to keep it moving. I’m the opposite. I think and I take my time, and I try to create space, and I see what floats up, and I don’t actually sit down to write until I’m pretty clear about what’s going to come out.
Amma Asante: Wow. When you talk about not trying to squeeze Jessie and Olivia into boxes, it’s really interesting how that evolves exactly the way you wanted it to actually, because there’s more authenticity. There is something that is so authentic about the fact that they’re not pretending to be other than they are, which is really wonderful. Then the second thing, I had a question which was for a bit later down the line, but I think it makes sense now, which is your voice as a director, as a storyteller, as a film-maker, is so distinctive. It’s so clear and distinctive and complicated all at the same time — and my question was going to be how have you developed that?
When you talk about the space, for me that space is some of that distinctive voice, but nothing is hurried, everything takes the time that it takes, that’s part of your voice. So, I guess the question is, when you stepped onto set, when you finished development and you stepped into prep, do you leave the writer behind? That voice is still developing as a storyteller, as a film-maker. Does the writer come with you? Do you make any decisions against the writer’s will, if that makes sense? Are there things that once you become the director and you realise, ‘Okay, these are the real parameters that I’m working with now on this set, in Greece, on this island,’ or is one thing just a continuation? Are you on a continuum, I guess I’m asking.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I think it’s probably more the second way. I try to create a script that would do two things. I’m not even sure I was conscious of this at the time, but I see it now. I wanted to create a script that was the kind of script I’d like to receive as an actress, and also to watch. I don’t like movies where they tell you in the scene what the scene is about. I think ideally the scene is about something that’s only articulatable in the vibration of this person’s needs next to this other person’s needs, and these are the circumstances, so I don’t like when things become very literal. For instance, I love Lucrecia Martel. Or Matteo Garone, for example, or Caryl Churchill as a playwright, these are people who never say, ‘This is what it’s about.’
Amma Asante: It’s about subtext.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Yes, what it’s about is created by the vibrating of different people’s needs and the circumstances of the story. So, that meant that key elements of the storytelling have to happen in the directing. What I had to do was create a really strong groundwork for myself as a director structurally, that I could really rely on. Then also I think, hire brilliant actors and get involved with them on set. Ideally in a good script, the needs, the events, are clear and the expression, how it is expressed can be any way. If the script doesn’t totally work then it’s the job of an actor; ‘Oh, you have to cry here,’ or, ‘You have to be scared and let everyone know you’re scared, otherwise we won’t know they’re scary.’ That’s if a script doesn’t work, then the onus is on you as an actor to do the storytelling. If the script is strong and supports you, you’re free in terms of expression.
Amma Asante: Ah, that’s interesting.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: So, I think it was like a continuum. Nothing changed on set script-wise, and it was very reliable. When there was a weakness in the script or a vagueness in the script it totally emerged even in pre-production. In the movie it’s one second, because we clarified it, where she’s walking and she’s eating a sandwich, a Greek sandwich, and she’s in that pink dress, and she walks up to the dance and this little girl runs by and says, ‘Mama,’ and she turns her head, but it’s more like David Lynch, kind of trippy. There was a carnival and the street was vague, it was vague. When we got to prepping it everyone was, like, ‘What do you mean?’ I was, like, ‘I don’t know, so let’s clarify, and if we can clarify we don’t have to waste time,’ we had no time, we had no money. In the editing the script, there were little sections I took out, but mostly the structure also stayed the same.
Amma Asante: That’s so interesting. Later on down the line, because I act like we’ve got two days to have this conversation and we haven’t, but later on down the line, the one thing I was going to put to you is that so many of us, as directors — and I always like to say, ‘Us,’ to include myself — for me, more-so when I haven’t written the script but when I’m directing somebody else’s, I’m afraid of moving away from my roadmap, moving away from my blueprint. So, that balance between collaboration and allowing actors the kind of space that we feel in the characters, versus holding onto the direction that you’re overall going in, the overall sentiment of the moments that you want to convey. I think you’ve kind of answered that question in many ways, because what you’re saying is, for you, it’s in the writing. You get that right and suddenly there’s freedom on-set because the writing completely works. When I have a snapshot in my mind of the film, what I see is how beautiful it was, how it made me feel. I said to my husband ‘It will make you have different conversations with yourself about your mother, about your wife,’ and I really loved that.
What I was really interested in was how you let the camera just hang — you and your DoP just will hang on a face, and it’s so much about what isn’t said, as much as it is about what is said. There’s so much being expressed to us between the lines. I said to you, when we were just having our pre-chat, ‘So many of us, as directors, don’t get to go onto each other’s sets and see how we each do it,’ and we all do it differently. So, I’m interested in digging in with you and to ask about that space, how do you get to that with the actors?
I think about that moment where Olivia and Dakota’s characters meet, not meet but really have their first proper interaction after the little girl is found and there’s going on between them. What were the conversations you were having with them?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Well yes, first of all, like you were saying, that you, as a director — even though you were an actress when you were a child — you want to dig into the process of other directors because you haven’t had much access to that. Me, on the other hand, I’ve been on tonnes of other directors’ sets, even on The Deuce, you know, there was a new director every couple of weeks. So, I really have spent a lot of time with other directors and I have a sense of what works in terms of creating that kind of space and life. It’s rare, in my experience as an actress, to feel really free, or else you have to just carve out your tiny space, nudge up against the edges, where you can be free, and also try sometimes to let other actors know when they show up, ‘Hey, you can be free.’ It’s hard to figure out how to do that sometimes, as an actress, but one of the key things, I think, because I’ve worked with directors who were brutal…
Amma Asante: I hear this a lot. I hear this a lot from actors and, I will be honest, mainly from actresses, who will tell me things that shock the living daylights out of me in terms of things that have been told to them, I hear what you’re saying.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Just brutal, and then I’ve also worked now and then with directors who were full of love and respect and curiosity about me, as an artist, as a collaborator. So, I was pretty sure, and now I’m 100% sure, that a huge part of my job, particularly with the actors, because I know how vulnerable it is — let alone in a fucking bathing suit —a huge part of my job was to hire people I was curious about and actually have respect for, and then love them. You can’t fake it, and actors need to feel not just loved but also seen. Like, I was looking at every sixteenth note of what was happening on my beautiful monitor and I was fascinated by it, and you can tell, you can feel that. Then the other trick is, I think, if you hire people and you can feel will have to grow in some way in order to play the part. Not that you know for sure, I don’t know how Olivia Colman, Ed Harris and Jessie and everybody needs to grow for this, but you have a little sense of people. ‘I think maybe this part mixed with this person will mean they’ll have to take a step in a very interesting direction in order to feel it.’ Then you’re watching somebody actually learn something on-screen, instead of watching them pretend like they’re learning something on-screen.
I love that scene that you’re talking about and I find it really compelling, what can I share with you that we were talking about? I mean, for instance, Dakota was having a really interesting experience because she signed on to this movie to express herself and to express herself in a way that I don’t think she’d been allowed to express herself before. And then she spent the first five days — all the stuff at the beach was five days — being a gorgeous woman in a bathing suit, being observed. I think it was really difficult for her. I think she was chomping at the bit to get in and do something new, and so that was the first scene she even opens her mouth. So, with Dakota, I remember saying to her… well, we say a lot of things but I’ll share these two things with you that just make that scene so interesting. So, first of all, we’ve set up these women watching each other, we’ve shot that for a few days. We didn’t shoot in order but it did happen that we’d shot some of that work, and then, to Dakota, I said, ‘So, you know, you say to her, the first time they’re alone really, “I like your bathing suit.” I said, ‘I mean, of course that doesn’t just mean, “I like your bathing suit,” it means-,’ and she said, ‘Oh, I know what it means.’ She said, ‘It means I love you.’ I was, like, ‘Great.’
Then, with Olivia, I just remember one thing I said to her, that I really moved her and it was so beautiful to see her moved, I said, ‘You know when you’re doing an emotional scene on a set and makeup comes and touches your face, you know, to fix your makeup or something, and your heart is already open, and just somebody touching your face makes it like you’re almost just going to cry, you have tears in.’ I said, ‘When Callie touches your back like that, and nobody’s touched you in so long.’ Then you watch, I used that take, you watch her, like, soften. I’m still moved by that. Anyway, you’re right, they say nothing to each other.
Amma Asante: Yet they say so much.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Exactly, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about in terms of the writing and then the mix of these parts with these actresses. Then, you’re right, I linger on Dakota for so long because it has nothing to do with what she’s saying. I stay on her past her lines and I hold on her because what she’s expressing is taking longer to express than the lines.
Amma Asante: I know, and that’s what I talk about when I talk about your voice and the appearance of that voice in the scenes, where everything takes as long as it takes. When I was mentioning that earlier, that’s one of the moments that I was talking about. You get it a lot with Ed Harris as well. I’m feeling it with him too, in those moments between him and Olivia, where it’s just like, ‘You know what, it’s going to take as long as it takes to express what he wants to express in this moment, what he doesn’t understand, what he does understand. What he gets of this woman who’s not trying to be anything other than she is.’ I love all of that. In translating that voice to your Director of Photography — who just did such a tremendous job — and also to an editor later on down the line, who you don’t want cutting things after one and a half seconds, what was the process? Obviously, again, you’ve worked with Directors of Photography in different ways. Probably, with The Deuce, I imagine you visited the edit at time. I know that it’s quicker with TV, right?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Just a little. There were times on The Deuce where I was just, like, ‘Can I just come in the editing room? I can’t write these essays anymore,’ yes — but rarely. When I got into my editing room, I was literally feeling like I had won the lottery. I was, like, ‘Woah, I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to write anything. I don’t have to convince anyone, no spoons of sugar, just expression.’ I was like a kid in a candy store. I was so into the edit. I loved the edit.
Amma Asante: Then, as you meet your DoP, you’ve obviously met other directors of photography and you settle on this one, and does she get it from the get-go? Does she get, from day one, what your voice is going to be, what your vocabulary is going to be in unfolding this story? Or is it something you’re finding together? How is that relationship working — because it’s always unique. I think it’s unique to the film as well. You might work with the same DoP on a different film and the relationship has evolved and it’s changed slightly. So, what was that relationship on this film?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I learned so much from my DoP, Hélène Louvart. She has five children. I don’t know how old she is but maybe in her early 60s. She has so much experience and done so much work that I think is gorgeous. There were two things that drew me to her initially, and I met with a lot of DoPs because I had never been through that process before and I think I wanted to learn about it. She was really clear with me that she felt that prep gives way to freedom, which was exactly what happened with us — and I learned how to prep with her — but also I think it was very important to her to put her ear to the ground and really listen to what I was hearing. So, yes, of course it was a collaboration and she operates too — so her body, her breath, her mind is another character in the movie. But also I think it was valuable to her to understand my mind and what it is I’m trying to say.
In fact, we did an interview together the other day and she was reminding me that we kind of invite the audience into Leda’s unconscious mind. Yes, there’s a thriller narrative, but really that’s a sort of scaffolding. The way through the movie is through her mind, and so we do things to show that early on. For instance, we’re shooting over her, facing onto Dakota and we see that Dakota’s 30 feet away. Then, immediately, we cut into so close on Dakota that you see droplets of water dripping down her neck. You see the details of the pen-marks on the doll. She would never see that from 30 feet away. So, what we’re saying is, ‘I think you’d better get inside her mind.’ Yet Hélène reminded me that a lot of the talking we did meant that sometimes we’re in my mind — those images of what’s happening with the doll, what’s happening with Dakota’s skin, that’s my mind — but I think my mind and Leda’s mind are all mixed together.
Amma Asante: It feels like it. It feels like I’m on the journey of a combined voice, and Leda’s emotions that you’re articulating through he. I can’t even explain it and that’s why it’s so visceral, and that’s why the way I’ve related to it is that it’s your voice as film-maker. You take us into this woman’s gaze. We see the world through her gaze but you show us her mind.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Right, and so it is kind of mine. I mean, I wanted to shoot on film and they wouldn’t we didn’t have the money, so we shot on digital — but, in a way, I’m really glad because, first of all, I never like to cut. I don’t care about how tall the wine is in the wine glass, and nobody cares about that in a movie. Also, I found it so interesting how, watching something, just watching it, versus watching it framed, with the lens and a frame on a clam-shell is an utterly different experience. And that’s where all of our minds are together, creating the storytelling.
Amma Asante: It’s what’s in the frame, you know, and that’s what makes you a filmmaker, is because the audience cannot see it without the frame. They can only see what you show us within the frame.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: It becomes magic, with a particular lens on and a particular frame. I was doing this thing with Hélène where they were showing us stills and asking us questions about them, and one of them was that beautiful reveal about what has happened with Olivia in the flea-market. There are tears in her eyes in this still and Dakota’s hat is cutting off a piece of her face in our frame, and it’s so gorgeous to me, and we had had a Steadicam operator, that we had hired for a few days. I did that scene, which was much longer actually, from start to finish every time. You can’t expect Olivia to get to that place or Dakota to get to this place without doing the scene — I mean, that’s just ridiculous. So, you can set up your workflow so that that’s possible. So, that meant we were doing it all the way through, every time, this five-minute long scene, and so Hélène wanted a Steadicam operator. So, we have him and we’re doing the scene and I’m, like, ‘It’s not working. I don’t like it. It feels like TV.’ I mean, there’s amazing TV, but ‘It feels like bad TV.’
Then I was, like, ‘Hélène, I think you have to shoot it.’ She says, ‘No, no, it will look like an elephant.’ I said, ‘No, you have to shoot it.’ Then she shoots it and she frames like that, and I’m, like, ‘That is what we were just talking about. That is what it looks like.’
Amma Asante: I look at the time and I can’t believe it, and my iPad decides to start falling... but I can see that we’ve got ten minutes left and I promised that I would leave time for the audience to ask questions. Can I just ask one quick question before we go to audience, because I’m desperate to hear the answer to this one, which is, you have referenced the idea of trying to create a script that you could offer to an actor, and one where they could find growth in themselves, as the actor playing the character. So, I’m really interested in hearing from you: how you have grown through directing this piece of work?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I think I’m too close to it to know. I feel like a different person. I feel like I shed a skin and I’m like a butterfly. I’m totally different, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know exactly what I’ve learned. I’ve learned 100,000 things about — this is going to make me cry — about gratitude, about collaboration, about love, about putting down things you don’t need to carry around anymore. I mean, I was so grateful. I keep buying gifts for all these people in my life. You know, I’ve bought, like, ten Christmas present for my husband because I’m so grateful to his support of me. I mean, I don’t even know what to say. I’m so glad, it’s like I jumped over into where I was supposed to be standing. I feel totally different.
Amma Asante: I understand that. I get that. I mean, I always know, when I start a film, that I’m going to be different by the time I get to the end of the entire process. That’s the process of making it and then putting it out there to have its own conversation with the audience.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: My film hasn’t even come out yet, that’s the groovy thing.
Amma Asante: You’re still on that journey and it’s not over. You know, you’re still on that journey and there’s a long period left of it, as it does start the conversation with an audience, which I think is just fabulous.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I’m just going to add one more thing that I’ve really learned. There are a few other women who have films coming out at the same time that I keep running into, like Sian Heder, and, of course, Jane Campion and Rebecca Hall, to name a few, and I feel this kind of sisterhood that I’m really grateful for. Or even Olivia Wilde, she interviewed me last night, another actress who moved into directing so excellently, and I’m really into that. Or Emerald Fennell, so generous, so loving, so insightful, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I was like, ‘I want to just be a sisterhood with all these women.’
Amma Asante: It’s a kind on extension to your community because I know, you know, previously, that world has been about actors and yes, you’ve known directors but now you are a part of this directing community — and there are so many women in it who are doing amazing things now. I just think it’s wonderful.
I’m going to read this verbatim, so I don’t get it wrong, but Sammy says: ‘I’d love to know about Maggie’s editing process, the way she interlays some of her scenes. The octopus dinner, for example, was really bold and intriguing. Was that fluid approach to cutting always the intention or did that route emerge over time. Great movie, by the way, loved it’.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I’m just looking at the time, and just to say, I’m running to the airport, so I’m going to answer it quickly. First of all, I loved the editing process and that is a very interesting scene to pick up on because that scene was actually two scenes. They were excellently acted by Ed Harris and Olivia Colman, and, I thought, beautifully shot. We put it together in the way that we put together everything up until then, trying to make it lift off, and it was just boring. It was so weird. I was, like, ‘All the elements of this are really good. I really feel they are,’ but somehow it was boring, and my editor, who really is a brilliant, wonderful editor, he had been sort of schooling me without even meaning to, mentioning this film, mentioning that film, that I hadn’t seen. He was, like, ‘Oh, the tone of this is kind of like The Tenant, the Polanski movie.’ I’d been watching all these movies at night, and he had mentioned Don’t Look Now, and I had seen that movie but not in a long time.
When we were struggling to figure out why these two scenes weren’t working, which should have worked, I said, ‘Why don’t we cut them like the sex scene in Don’t Look Now?’ You know, in the sex scene they’re making love and getting dressed at the same time, they’re intercutting it. My editor was like, ‘Okay, give me half an hour.’ Mostly, I sat with him every moment of the editing process but I was, like, ‘Alright, I’m going for a walk.’ I came back in half an hour and he’s intercut it, the cooking of the octopus and the eating of the octopus, and it lifted it, you know, and it kept its mystery and its interest. I love the stuff about how old she is and how she makes him say every number. So, here, we’re moving, we’re shifting, it’s like kind of a waltz, I think, in the music — and then we stop and she just says, ‘No, not 42.’
Amma Asante: I love it. Sammy, that is a great question, by the way, because I love that it got you to give a real-life example. I love these examples of how it actually worked for you and that’s such a great one. That whole thing of your editor telling you to go away for a walk when normally you never leave them, I recognise it so well. Maggie, I swear I’m not just saying this, I mean this sincerely, I could talk for another hour or more with you.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I agree! I know — they’re ringing my doorbell to get my suitcase right now!