Maggie Gyllenhaal on directing The Lost Daughter: 'Are domestic stories great art? To me, they're like an opera'

'I think that when women express themselves honestly, it looks differently than when men express themselves honestly. This is really dangerous to talk about,' says Maggie Gyllenhaal.

The New York Times December 31, 2021 14:11:57 IST
Maggie Gyllenhaal on directing The Lost Daughter: 'Are domestic stories great art? To me, they're like an opera'

Maggie Gyllenhaal. Photo by Daniel Arnold c. The New York Times 2021

Maggie Gyllenhaal has never shied away from difficult roles. The actor has been pushing boundaries for years with performances of complicated characters like an assistant playing sadomasochistic games with her boss (Secretary), the daughter of an arms dealer caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (The Honorable Woman), and a sex worker in 1970s New York (The Deuce).

But it is the job of director and screenwriter of The Lost Daughter, an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same title, that may be her riskiest role yet.

The film, set on a sun-drenched Greek island, stars Olivia Colman as Leda, a middle-aged literature professor on a solo working vacation who gets entangled with a young mother, Nina, played by Dakota Johnson. As she becomes more involved with Nina and her sprawling family, Leda’s past and the decisions she made as a younger woman seep into the present, with strange and at times deeply disturbing results.

Like the novel, the film confronts complicated questions that women face at different stages of their lives. At its center is the intensely fraught push-and-pull of motherhood, but it also touches on ambition, sacrifice, ageing, and art.

Already, the film, which won best screenplay at the Venice Film Festival, has attracted awards season attention, including a raft of nominations from critics groups and others. Last month, the film won four Gotham Awards, including best feature. Over a long lunch in New York, Gyllenhaal — dressed in various shades of appropriately Aegean blue — talked about being a female director today, taboos around motherhood, and what it means to translate Ferrante to film.

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

What drew you to Ferrante?

I started with the Neapolitan novels. She was talking about things I had almost never heard expressed before. Oh, my God, this woman is so messed up, and then within 10 seconds of that, thinking I really relate to her, and so am I so messed up, or is this something that many people feel but that we’re not talking about? I found it ultimately both disturbing but also really comforting because if someone else has written it down, you think, oh, I’m not alone in what I thought was a secret anxiety or terror, or even the other side of the spectrum, the intensity of joy and connection.

Then I read The Lost Daughter, and I thought, what if instead of all of us having that experience of feeling alone in our rooms, what if I could create a situation where it was communal, where these things were actually spoken out loud?

The film shows the joy of being a mother but also the frustrations. Why do you think it is so rare to see that tension on screen?

I think it’s a combination of two things. Partly there hasn’t been a lot of space for women to express themselves, so an honest feminine expression is unusual. But there’s also a kind of cultural agreement not to talk about these things because we all have mothers. We’re all like, “I don’t want my mother to have been ambivalent.”

I just tried to be as honest as I possibly could be. This is about normalising a massive spectrum of feelings. I think especially for young Leda and for Nina, their desire — their massive intellectual desire, artistic desire, physical desire — it’s bigger than what they’ve been told they’re allowed to have or need, and I definitely relate to that.

The scenes with the young children are so powerful. How did they relate to your own relationship with your children?

Bianca, one of the daughters of young Leda, she’s like a mind matched for her mother. My children are like that, too. They are the most beautiful challenge to me — like, “Wow, I can’t believe you understood that and saw that.”

The film can be seen in many ways as a horror film. Was that a choice?

I wanted it to be a thriller. The book is not really a thriller, but I amped that up because I thought it would ultimately give me more artistic freedom. I wanted to even dare myself to move it into horror, a horror movie about the internal workings of her mind. She’s not bad; she’s like you. And I liked the idea of having a classic structure to hang my hat on. I have found in the past that I get the most freedom of expression as an actress when there is really clear structure.

I’m not sure I’ll do that next time. I was on the jury at Cannes this year, probably two or three weeks after I finished my final mix. Looking at some really, really interesting films, I realised, oh, you can do whatever you want if you’re following something truthful, and I don’t think I knew that.

Maggie Gyllenhaal on directing The Lost Daughter Are domestic stories great art To me theyre like an opera

Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter

What was the hardest part about adapting?

I found that adapting actually used a similar muscle to the one that I have used as an actress in terms of taking a text, whether it’s excellent or has got problems, and figuring out the essence of this piece of material. There are some things that are literal, but they’re so strange. Like the line, “I’m an unnatural mother.” That’s just 100 percent Ferrante, a straight lift, but a lot of people told me, “Take that line out.” I also really did do what (Ferrante permitted), and changed many, many things, but I really believe that the script and the film are really in conversation with the book.

Leda is a writer, and showing her ambition in her early years is a big part of the movie. Did you see Bergman Island this year? Both movies wrestle with the question of whether you can fully be a woman and an artist at the same time.

I do believe there’s such a thing as women’s writing and women’s filmmaking. There are really interesting feminist women who do not agree with me.

I think that when women express themselves honestly, it looks differently than when men express themselves honestly. This is really dangerous to talk about.

When I am let loose, given a little bit of money and space to tell the story I want to tell, it’s about motherhood. It is about the domestic, and it does include a lot of scenes in the kitchen. Can stories about the domestic really be seen as high art? Because to me, it’s an opera. I do not come from women whose apron strings were tied to the kitchen. My mom is a professional person (Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal is a screenwriter and director), my grandmother was a pediatrician in the ’40s, and my great-aunt was a lawyer. I’m educated and I’ve got a professional life, and yet my identification as a mother is a massive part of me.

What was it like to work with Olivia Colman?

Olivia really didn’t like to talk about much. I wonder, actually, if it’s because it was relatively recently that she got power as an actress, if she feels similarly to the way I feel as an actress, which is it’s very rare that somebody values my ideas. They will say they do, but people are irritated by actresses with a lot of ideas. I’m not an idiot, and so I mostly keep them to myself. I remember asking Olivia if she likes to rehearse, and she said, “I don’t, actually,” and I totally relate to that.

Maggie Gyllenhaal on directing The Lost Daughter Are domestic stories great art To me theyre like an opera

Olivia Colman and Maggie Gyllenhaal

Who inspires you as a director?

Fellini and Lucrecia Martel, who is also not ever literal. I love Claire Denis. I’ve talked a lot about Jane Campion and David Lynch. And then I didn’t really work with him, but I did a weeklong reading of a play with Mike Nichols. He loved his actors, and he taught me. I remember reading (in the recent biography Mike Nichols: A Life) about him saying, “I’m so sorry if you don’t want to shoot Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in black and white. Then you should find another director. I’m going to leave.” There were a couple of times with this film where I had to say, “This is wrong.” We were going to shoot in New Jersey, but that was wrong. I’m like, “I don’t know what to tell you.”

The theme of translation is obviously important to the characters. Leda translates Italian literature, but also, you are translating Ferrante. What does the role of translator mean to you?

There’s this little section in Rachel Cusk’s book Kudos, which I’ve pulled up a few times because I’ve been thinking about adaptation in general. Here is the quote: “I translated it carefully and with great caution as if it were something fragile that I might mistakenly break or kill.” I loved that. She’s saying, “When I read your book, something was communicated to me that was so valuable that I had never heard spoken out loud before that electrified me, that made me understand something about myself, and I had to hold this idea in my hands and carefully bring it over to the other side.”

The Lost Daughter is streaming on Netflix.

Julie Bloom c.2021 The New York Times Company

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