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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

“Forget Sepia, It’s Garbage”: Maggie Greenwald on Sophie and the Rising Sun

Sophie and the Rising Sun

I first became aware of director Maggie Greenwald’s work in 1993, when her extraordinary Western The Ballad of Little Jo was released. That film, the story of a woman choosing to live as a man rather than yield to patriarchal society’s demands and expectations, established a number of ongoing concerns in Greenwald’s work: a richly observed sense of anthropological detail; a dynamic sense of light, color and composition designed to portray the past with immediacy rather than distance; and a concern with the intersection between the personal and the political that makes her films both timely and timeless. All of these strengths and more are evident in her latest film, Sophie and the Rising Sun, an interracial romance set in 1941. Julianne Nicholson plays the title character, a fisherwoman who falls in love with Grover Ohta (Takashi Yamaguchi), a Japanese-American gardener dumped into Sophie’s small Southern town after a brutal beating. It doesn’t take long for Sophie and Grover’s relationship to become the target of gossip and worse, especially after the bombing of Pearl Harbor incites bloodlust among white locals.

The parallels between the racism on display in Greenwald’s film and the current wave of Islamophobia that swept our Commander-in-Chief into office are obvious and unsettling, even more so today than a year ago when Sophie and the Rising Sun premiered at Sundance. Greenwald’s eloquent plea for inclusion and empathy is vital and devastating, and rendered all the more powerful by its integration with a deeply affecting love story and a vividly realized character study of one woman’s transformation. I sat down with Greenwald a few days before Sophie’s opening in L.A. (it premieres there Friday and spreads out across the country over the next few weeks – click here for dates and locations) to discuss her beautiful new film.

Filmmaker: One of the things that has always stood out to me in your work is your approach to period. It’s intimate rather than distancing. I feel like there’s a connection between you and the characters and between the characters and the audience that’s very intense.  

Maggie Greenwald: I’m interested in what living in a specific time really feels like; the details are very important. I don’t believe you can really write a character well without understanding the world they live in – if it takes three hours to do something, what does that feel like? When I wrote The Ballad of Little Jo, I was surrounded by photographs from the period, and they made me think about all kinds of little details about going out West. You can’t bring a lot of stuff because you only have a little wagon, or if you’re poor you don’t even have that – you’re on foot. What do you build a shelter out of? Where do clothes come from? That thought process really informs the script.

Filmmaker: And it informs the rhythm of the films. The pacing really gives you a sense of how the characters live day to day.

Greenwald: Yes, Sophie is set in the south. It’s set in a little town. It’s set in the 1940s. The main character is a little older. That means that to convey that life, the pace is just naturally going to be a little slower. And I decided to embrace that, though I have cut twelve minutes out of the film.

Filmmaker: Since the version I saw?

Greenwald: Yeah, I cut twelve minutes out after Sundance. I owe the producer a big thank you for funding it. You know how it is – you rush to get done for a festival, and you don’t have the time for the gestation that a film needs. And unfortunately it’s worse now with digital – it’s one of the few negatives. I think overall digital filmmaking is positively wonderful, but things need time, and with digital people think you can do without it. I think editing always needs time, that there are things that we just don’t see. It takes a while to say, “Oh, I don’t need that.” The first screening at Sundance was thrilling, but some distributors said it was slow – they thought it was beautiful, but really slow. I’ve been doing this long enough to know not to ignore it when more than three people say the same thing. I tried to think about what they weren’t responding to in the material, and a month later I was able to just sit back and see the solutions. I started having my editor try stuff, and realized what we could take out that would make it play better, and by the time we were done I didn’t miss a thing. But it takes a while to stand back from it and know what it needs and what it doesn’t.

Filmmaker: Getting back to the idea of period detail, how do you achieve the kind of texture that Sophie has on a low budget?

Greenwald: You have to focus on what’s important and essential – anything that’s excess has to go. It’s about using specific rooms rather than the whole house, and figuring out what life is like in those rooms. I have to ask if I need ten cars, or do I need one? How many outfits does the actor need? When I made a $200,000 film, a lot of things were representation. The one car, the one leather jacket. I can’t build the town, I have to find a town.

Filmmaker: Are there ways that working that way can be a positive creatively?

Greenwald: Absolutely – look at something like Moonlight. The magic of that film, and its perfection, are partly a result of its minimalism. In my case, I got so much from the town we shot in in South Carolina. I would love to have the money to work on a bigger canvas, but I don’t see myself ever building everything. I get too many ideas from reality and how tactile it is. Maybe having umpteen million dollars and an extraordinary designer would also allow those discoveries to occur, but I’ve definitely learned to be creatively inspired by reality rather than hampered by a limited budget.

Filmmaker: Does it help to do a lot of planning in terms of your shots and things like that, or do you need to wait until you’re on location?

Greenwald: Oh, I plan every shot very specifically. I didn’t earlier on in my career because I didn’t know how, but I’ve storyboarded every film and TV movie that I’ve made since Songcatcher (2000). My cinematographer Wolfgang Held and I talk through all the shots ahead of time, and we only modify what we’re doing if we’re inspired by something surprising going on with the actors. Even if you can’t do the shot because of some circumstance that arises on location, it helps you know what to approximate. And shooting digital really allowed us to achieve what we wanted in terms of color and design. A lot of filmmakers complain about using digital, but I’ve found it to be wonderful. I feel it gives me the opportunity to paint in a way that I couldn’t otherwise afford on these budgets.

Filmmaker: It’s a gorgeous movie. I love that the colors are so vibrant and not that drab look so many period films go for.

Greenwald: In the first conversation I had with Wolfgang, I said “Forget sepia, it’s garbage.” Even if it’s not a cliché, it has nothing to do with these people whose story we’re telling. On the internet I happened to find these color photographs from the teens and ’20s – some of the earliest color photographs. The blues and reds were really extraordinary due to the combination of the way color was reproduced at that time and the way it had aged, and Wolfgang and I fell in love with that and tried to replicate it. It’s funny, there was a costume designer we met with who came in with a lookbook that had pages of ideas that were exactly the colors we had been thinking about. I said, “Oh my God, this is amazing, I want it,” but then we couldn’t afford her, and we couldn’t have afforded the costumes she had designed anyway. So that’s one of those times when I was limited by the budget – a big budget movie would have been exact in every detail, which is great but also makes it feel more like a movie and less like life. In a way what we ended up with was probably better, because the wardrobe feels more haphazardly put together in the way a woman would really dress. For example, I figure a woman who’s sixty years old, she’s going to have clothes from when she was forty that she still wears. She might only have one dress from 1940, but wears other dresses from the ’20s or ’30s. If it was a big budget movie, I could have had more outfits and it would have been gorgeous, but it wouldn’t have been essential.

Filmmaker: The performances in the movie are uniformly terrific. What kind of work did you do with the actors in preproduction to help shape the performances?

Greenwald: I had no time with the actors. This is the downside of low-budget – everybody rides into town a day before production starts. They all have families and are busy, and nobody wants to just come hang out in the middle of nowhere. Luckily the actors were all generous and creative, and brought a lot of ideas to the table that we incorporated while shooting even if we didn’t have time to discuss them beforehand. We really ended up with the right cast, ironically because of how hard it was to get financing. We found out that no matter who we had involved, we couldn’t get money because the story’s about four women over forty and an Asian man. I would put these lists together and no matter who was on them it didn’t matter, we weren’t getting the financing. After a lot of rejection, we finally just decided to go after who we wanted. Margo Martindale was the linchpin. We wanted her, she loved the project, and once she came on board the rest followed.

Filmmaker: Does it work the same way on the other end? Did having a movie with these kinds of characters make it difficult to find distribution?

Greenwald: It was the same thing. Distributors are smart men, and in a few cases smart women, but they’re way behind the curve right now. Studies show that aside from kids under 18, the largest moviegoing audience is women over forty. The distributors know that – everybody knows it – but if they don’t feel a personal connection to it they won’t buy it. They will if it’s an exploitation film – they think of that as commercial without having to feel it – but with drama, if they don’t feel it they’re not going to buy it. And look, I understand the hunger to see yourself in a movie because women have it too – we all have it. But it doesn’t really make sense from a business point of view, and it gives you a narrow range of movies.

Filmmaker: And yet the movie is pretty suspenseful at times, which I think anyone can respond to. Again, this is something it has in common with The Ballad of Little Jo – you’re very good at creating a sense of romance as something dangerous. Being in love with the wrong person in your movies can get someone imprisoned, or beat up, or worse. I find the sense of menace in the movie quite unsettling and palpable, and I’m curious how you achieve that cinematically.

Greenwald: I’m not even completely aware that I’m doing it – it probably just comes from the fact that as a woman, I’m very aware of constant danger, particularly in terms of sexuality. I am just very aware of how dangerous women’s lives are when it relates to them choosing inappropriate partners or doing anything that they’re not supposed to in places they’re not supposed to be. I grew up in New York City in the ’70s, and it was really dangerous – I felt endangered every day of my life just leaving the house to go to school. I’m not trying to be dramatic, that was just reality. The TV episode I just directed addresses some of these same ideas. Women live lives of constant threat, that’s just something I’m tuned into.

Filmmaker: And unfortunately, there’s a whole other level of the movie that’s only become more and more relevant since you made it.

Greenwald: Yeah, when we started it was just a little bit obvious. That was the inspiration for our executive producer optioning the book – she saw us beginning to do the same thing to Muslim-Americans that we did to Japanese-Americans. But it wasn’t like this, like what we have now with a guy in the White House who keeps talking about a Muslim registry. People could probably watch the movie and think, “Oh, this is so heavy-handedly obvious,” but it really wasn’t when we made the film two years ago. I’m really sickened and disappointed by how things have gotten worse.

Filmmaker: As a politically engaged filmmaker, how do you keep from being discouraged by things like that?

Greenwald: It’s funny, after I made Ballad I was labeled a feminist filmmaker and I didn’t like it – it was actually kind of a death knell for my career, in spite of the acclaim the film got. I didn’t make a feature for seven years after that. There were a number of factors to that – among other things, the fashion of the time was white boy violence and mayhem after the rise of Tarantino – but over time I realized that just the very nature of making a film about a woman where she’s not solely defined through her romantic relationships made me a political filmmaker. Now, I love romance – it’s always a part of my stories – but it’s never the sole aspect to the character or what completes their arc. Anyway, maybe some of it is also being older, but I’ve become increasingly radicalized over the past five years. Instead of becoming bitter as a woman filmmaker, I’ve become very political. And that applies not only to my own films but to the TV shows I’m directing, like Madam Secretary and Nashville, which are about strong women and thus are very political works. Part of what I love about working in TV is that the most interesting women’s stories since the ’30s and early ’40s are appearing there – that matters more to me than the size of the screen.

Filmmaker: It’s nice that you can find TV shows that serve that purpose for you, because more people are going to see your episode of Madam Secretary the first night it airs—

Greenwald: Than will have seen all my films put together for the next hundred years! (laughs) Definitely. And that particular show, since November 8…yeah, it’s a mainstream show on CBS, but wow. Look at that show in the context of who’s president. It has become an incredibly relevant series, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. I’m at the point where I have totally owned being a political filmmaker and know that it’s what I was always meant to be.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD, iTunes, and Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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