Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 22, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. James Ponsoldt interviewed Rachel Getting Married director Jonathan Demme, as well as other principals from the film, to dissect the creation of the title character for our Fall ’08 issue. Rachel Getting Married is nominated for Best Actress (Anne Hathaway).
Jonathan Demme has made a career out of revealing the humanity in oddballs, eccentrics, zealots and rock stars. As a storyteller, Demme doesn’t judge. He trusts that if you listen to people and listen long enough — whether they’re a former President or a cannibal who enjoys “fava beans and a nice chianti” — they’ll say something interesting.
At the 2008 Venice Film Festival, Demme premiered his new fiction film, Rachel Getting Married. This exquisite, fluid, furious and forgiving film was shot by d.p. Declan Quinn, and the two aimed to create “the most beautiful home movie ever made.” The film succeeds, and is one of the few films depicting a wedding that actually feels like a wedding.
The family at the center of Rachel Getting Married is an amazing creation: Bill Irwin and Debra Winger play the parents, while Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt are their children (Kym and Rachel, respectively). Oh, yes: Tunde Adebimpe — of the sensational indie-rock band TV on the Radio — is the groom (this last bit of casting is a nice example of the hip streak that’s always run through Demme’s work, and his spot-on taste).
Rosemarie DeWitt has acted in film and television and is revered in New York City as one of the finest theater actresses of her generation. She’s spent the past year balancing her time between the Willamstown Theatre Festival, where she starred as Masha in Three Sisters, and top-tier television — on both Mad Men and The United States of Tara (the anticipated new show from writer Diablo Cody and producer Steven Spielberg). However it is her revelatory performance opposite Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married that will have most people asking: Who is that?!
I was fortunate enough to meet Rosemarie three years ago when I was casting my first feature film as a writer-director, Off the Black. I’d already gotten Nick Nolte, Trevor Morgan and Timothy Hutton to commit to the film. I was ecstatic at my good fortune, dizzy with disbelief. This was my first film! We still had a number of parts to cast, though, and I was most anxious about a very important supporting role. This is where my amazing casting director Avy Kaufman’s genius and vision for talent became clear to me. Avy introduced me to Rosemarie DeWitt, and I knew within 30 seconds of her audition that I wanted her to be in my film. Really, it was that easy. Avy told me I should act fast — Kenneth Lonergan had just cast Rosemarie opposite Mark Ruffalo in his new film, Margaret — and I didn’t hesitate.
Rosemarie was a director’s dream — she came prepared, did a tremendous amount of work, and she did what great actors do: She created a character in the moments between words. The face of an expressive, honest actor like Rosemarie can reveal so much more than any monologue written by a screenwriter. Rosemarie was remarkable in that while she had a supporting part in the film, she didn’t want more lines of dialogue — in fact, she was the first to suggest a line cut.
When I heard that Rosemarie had the title role in Jonathan Demme’s new film, I was thrilled — and interested to learn how he worked with an actress who I know well. Demme is famous for getting magnificent performances, especially from actresses. So, for the focus of this article, various people who worked on Rachel Getting Married have reflected on their work, and they were each asked about a common theme: the character of “Rachel,” and how they helped in her creation. Articles about film often focus on stars and directors, so it seemed appropriate and far overdue to focus on the contributions of all the people whose work allows audiences to fall in love with a character. Here are five of those people:
JENNY LUMET, screenwriter
Can you talk about how you began the script for Rachel Getting Married? I had a particular scene, a visual, that wouldn’t leave my head for close to a year. That was a scene of a woman in her bridal chamber wearing her wedding dress, and then the door bursts open and it’s her sister. It was just a fly that lived in my brain. It gestated without my doing any writing for a bunch of months. The putting words to paper part was actually quite quick.
Can you talk about creating Rachel and Kym? I have a sister, but this movie is not an exposé. I think the sisterly dynamic is really powerful and interesting. And, hmmm, how do I say this? I’m a drama teacher. I teach 7th and 8th grade drama — or rather, I did until about a year and a half ago when this writing stuff took over. I try to make the kids read a lot of theater by dead people. I really like Greek tragedy, because no matter how bad your family is, their family is worse. Family members kill each other. I like the idea that passions as strong as life and death exist in a family — everyone on Earth who has a sibling knows that’s [true]. And I thought the stakes in relationships between sisters haven’t really been explored as much as they could be. I’m not comparing my life to Aeschylus, and I’m not Electra, but I’m just saying that there are powerful emotions between sisters. It’s not about shoes or getting the guy. Knowing that, I listened really hard to Rachel and Kym. If I were a braver person, perhaps I could’ve gone further.
Can you talk about how Rosemarie came to be in the film? I wasn’t at Rosemarie’s audition, but I saw a DVD of it, and she was so freaking honest. I smacked Jonathan on the shoulder! She was so willing and totally brave as an actress. She got it — the ferocity that is Rachel, and at the same time… all the weirdness. And she has those enormous blue-green eyes, and you believe her. Kym is a big character, and if Rachel isn’t there, Kym will wipe you off the screen. And Rosemarie kicked ass because she’s brave.
Once Rosemarie was cast, did you say much to her? Nope. I gave my phone number to the actors, and said, “If you have any questions, give me a call.”
When you first saw a cut of the film, was Rachel different than how you imagined her? Yeah, she was tougher. And more dignified. I’m thrilled that Rosemarie found that dignity in the character.
So, if Rachel was tougher, did that change the power dynamic you scripted? Yeah. And I think “dignified” is the best way to describe Rosemarie. I was thinking a lot about anger, but unless Rosemarie’s character had that essential dignity, it wouldn’t have worked. And I guess I’m just figuring that out now as I talk to you. It’s a great question because you write things, and sometimes you don’t realize what’s inside them, you know? Actors surprise you. They’ll find things in there that you didn’t know were there.
When I spoke with Rosemarie, we talked a bit about catharsis. Is Rachel’s arc through the film about forgiving, or is it not that simple? I think Rachel, more than anybody, wants to forgive Kym. But as everyone knows, if something is going to be a big deal in your life… it unfortunately doesn’t ever happen when you’re ready. It happens in waiting rooms. It happens in bus stations, restaurants, it happens when you’re not looking. There’s a part of the movie where Rachel says to Kym: “I wasn’t sure you were going to show up.” There’s a part of her that probably would have been fine if Kym didn’t show up for the wedding. But I think Rachel rises to the occasion and takes an opportunity — her wedding weekend — to deal with her relationship with her sister. And she kicks ass, and at the end of it all, she is lighter. She did it. She did what she needed to do.
NEDA ARMIAN, producer
When did you first begin working on Rachel Getting Married? I had read a couple drafts of the script in 2005, going into 2006, but in May, 2006, Jonathan and I met and he talked about wanting to direct it, and his vision, and that is when I officially came on board.
What were your first impressions of the screenplay? I thought it had so much heart, and I thought it was bold, and by bold I mean, I felt like, in the best sense of the words, the script was all over the place. It had heart, but it was also funny, and it was suddenly very sad and dramatic. I thought, “It doesn’t know what it wants to be and yet it has its path.” And then, it does know what it wants to be — it wants to be like what it’s like in real life. And at the end of the day, it’s a story about characters. In reading it, I thought, this is a perfect project for Jonathan, especially when he told me how he wanted to shoot it, like a documentary, and in a way that harkens back to work from earlier years in his career. He wanted to shoot from the hip, very quickly, with all New York actors and a New York crew.
What were your first impressions of the character of Rachel? In earlier versions of the script, it was a smaller part. But then Jonathan and Jenny worked together and the character became larger. I think something that’s interesting is that it could be easy to say that Rachel is the “nice” sister, that she doesn’t cause any “trouble.” But both sisters are nice, and they’re both troubled. And Rachel developed into a character that’s relentless and forgiving. And she was fierce, not someone to be underestimated.
Can you talk about the casting process? Well, it’s worth saying this, because it’s complimentary to Rosemarie. Everybody wanted to play Rachel. And everyone wanted to play Kym, too. But Rachel was just as meaty and we had a lot of big-name actresses who were championing to play the part. Jonathan and I saw Rosemarie’s taped audition and we were wowed by it. So we had her come in mid-August to meet with Annie. At the end of that day, after people left, Jonathan said: “We’ve found our Rachel.”
JONATHAN DEMME, director
Can you tell your first impression of the character of Rachel when you read the script? I guess my first impression was of these two sisters. It’s interesting because it’s certainly a richly multicharactered screenplay and movie, but at the heart of the movie are the two sisters, Kym and Rachel. And they’re inseparable, as sisters can be. When Kym shows up at Rachel’s doorstep three quarters of the way through the script, all beat up, I expected Rachel to completely, justifiably lose it, once and for all. But instead, in a heartbeat, Rachel had Kym in the bathtub and was cleaning her up. And on my first reading of the script, I had tears coming down my face, which has never happened before. Until then, I’d found Rachel incredibly bright, fighting for her day, often selfish, yet I cared about her a lot and didn’t want to see her wedding day messed up. I thought she was being harsh and self-centered, but then at this key, pivotal moment in story, with this great act of human generosity I fell madly in love with her. Then I was with her the rest of the film. I wound up liking and loving Rachel much more than I ever could have anticipated on page 60 — as fascinated as I was by her. I think this is one of the great strengths of Jenny’s screenplay: she didn’t put a moment’s energy into that thing we do 90 percent of the time with screenplays, which is try to make the audience like the characters. Jenny made sure all the characters were incredibly bright and located in an intense, combustible situation, and then she followed the truth of these characters. I guess I found Rachel incredibly complicated. I was with her, I was against her. And then she broke my heart and I fell in love with her.
Can you talk about casting Rosemarie DeWitt? Once Anne Hathaway was cast as Kym, I told the casting directors we needed someone extraordinary for Rachel. Not just because you need someone extraordinary in every single part if you hope to make a terrific movie, but because we had Anne Hathaway as one of the sisters, and she was going to blow everyone’s mind. So the task for the casting directors was to bring in their favorite actresses. And I said not 20 people — more like 10, preferably five great actresses who you feel can hold their own with Anne Hathaway and be wonderful in the part. And to their credit, five extraordinary actresses came in to do “How do you do’s.” I don’t like to read people. First, I like to meet someone and get a general sense of how they view the script and then maybe meet them again to get a little deeper into things. Rosemarie was the fifth to come in, and I have to tell you, I was standing in the common area of this mixing studio where we were preparing our Jimmy Carter documentary, and the elevator doors open and out steps Rosemarie Dewitt. Which was a name on a sheet of paper with some really excellent theater credits and a couple great film and TV credits. She had a strong résumé, but I wasn’t familiar with her work. But as she walked up to me, I thought to myself, “If this young woman can act, this is Rachel.” I liked her before we shook hands. Rosemarie has a kind of radiance, an instant likeability. So Rosemarie and I sat and chatted and a week later we arranged for another meeting in my apartment in New York with the producer, the casting folks and Annie. When Rosemarie walked in, again, it was instant. The chemistry between the two actresses was instant — they were way ahead of the process, way ahead of me. They sat down for a relaxed reading and I had my little video camera. I couldn’t believe everything that happened in that room. It seemed so real, I thought I was watching something real happening, and I was thinking, “We should be filming this for real!” When Rosemarie left, all of us decided, let’s not see anyone else, let’s cast Rosemarie before she winds up doing something else.
Did you say anything specific to her at this point? The one thing I stressed, which I stressed with all the actors, is that you’ve got to be willing to bring a lot of yourself to this part, even as you’re creating an original character. I hope you draw on how you react to things that happen in the script so that you’ll personalize the part and personify the character. And ultimately, she did what I’d hoped she’d do: She brought all of her big heart and keen intelligence and spontaneity that she possesses as a person and channeled it into this very complicated character. The result was not a false beat in the whole performance.
How did you direct her and the other actors on set? Well, the way we shot the film was a different approach for me. We never rehearsed, we never blocked out a shot — the actors were free to be anywhere in the room they wanted to be. They could change what they were doing. There was never any worry about matching anything. In keeping with our desire to approach the film like a documentary, we strenuously avoided anything formal. I made a point to step back as much as I possibly could, and I was much more interested in seeing what Rosemarie and the others would do on a new fresh take from a new photographic perspective, armed with whatever they had discovered on a previous take. I was much more interested in seeing that than seeing their response to a note I might give them. I worked on the premise that this is an incredibly strong cast and everybody is fully responsible for their own character, and they’re feeling the relationships in a way that even Jenny and certainly I could never teach them or guide them towards, so I stayed out of the way. I spent 90 percent of the shoot sitting in my little chair staring, grinning at the monitor. I was just delighted with what everyone was doing.
I’m curious — when during your career did you develop the confidence to allow your actors this degree of freedom? I made a movie in 1977 called Citizen’s Band. I’d made three or four films before, and I was learning how to make movies on sets. To be suddenly told you can direct a movie — by Roger Corman — is really to conduct your education in public, even if you don’t have a clue how to do it. By the time I got to Citizen’s Band I was working with a very high-quality cast for the first time. And I hadn’t learned yet that it’s not the director’s job to tell everybody — actors and everyone else — what to do. I thought that’s what a director was supposed to do. But it was on that film, working with actors like Bruce McGill, that I learned you don’t take something out unless you first see if it works or not. The actors may very well have better ideas than you, so relax. After that, instead of sitting around and talking about the background of their characters, I only wanted to work with actors who took full responsibility for themselves. That’s when I completely learned the lesson to work only with great actors, to trust them and make sure they take full responsibility for their part and then create a set that lets them feel free to try everything they want to try. I’ve always had a spoken rule with actors, where I say, “Let’s get this straight up front: Anything you want to try on film, we’ll try.” But anything I want to try, you have to agree to try as well. We have to walk away from every scene feeling like we’ve gotten every idea we have out of our system. And that rule has served me well over the years.
One final question: there’s this lovely grace moment after Kym leaves where Rachel walks into the house, jumps up, and hits the ceiling with her hand. How did that gesture develop? That’s Rosemarie for you. We did a take, and it was going beautifully. She’d just said good-bye to Kym, then went up the steps, and when she did the gesture of leaping and tapping the ceiling, I got excited! I thought, on one level, that’s what Rachel has been doing her whole life, that’s the fun thing she’s done ever since she was tall enough to reach that thing. She must really be relaxed now. I asked Rosemarie about that, and she said, “Yeah, I just was feeling so relieved, and I thought I’d just up and hit it.” And that was it — that was the in-the-moment thing.
ROSEMARIE DEWITT, actress
What were your first impressions of Rachel and Kym when you read the script for the first time? It was good because initially I felt a lot of empathy for Rachel. I felt bad for her because this was happening to her the weekend of her wedding. And on my initial reading, I was like, “How do I make this woman not seem like she’s complaining about her sister all the time?” I understood why she was doing it but I was wondering if the audience would understand how difficult it is to be around Kym, who’s taking all the oxygen out of the room. For me the real turning point in the movie was when they got to the scene where we understood what happened to Ethan. I was just worried that the audience wouldn’t be able to bear our family until we get that information. But Annie has this innate goodness, this likeable quality so all that fear went out the window when I saw that first screening. You can root for her even before you find out what happened to her. When I watched the movie, I had so much compassion for her. I mean, did I feel like she was narcissistic, self-serving and doing lots of things that were hurtful? Sure, but it’s so hard for this character to survive. The thing that I loved about the script was that in any given scene, I thought each character in the movie was right, and I thought they were wrong, which felt a lot like life and family dynamics.
Did you want to rehearse? I don’t remember, but if you asked me a couple of years ago having done a lot of theater, I would have thought, “Yes, I love to rehearse,” but on this one I loved the spontaneity. You never knew where the camera was going to be, the camera movements tended to be different with every take, and in those huge group scenes, when sometimes there were five or six cameras, everybody was sort of electric and firing on all cylinders all the time.
The moment when Kym leaves, she gets in the car and drives away, and you walk into the house and you go up to the doorway and you jump and hit the ceiling — how did that little moment happen? When I was young I’d jump and hit the chain that pulls down the attic in the hallway. I must have had a reason the first time and then later it was probably like a superstition; every time I’d come in the house I would do it. When I did it on the film, Jonathan was like, “Oh, you can do that again if you want.”
It’s such a beautiful grace moment at the end. For me it’s the moment, even more than the wedding, when you actually feel like some weight has probably lifted from Rachel. Well, when I was in the wedding I very much had the notion that something could be released in the wedding. And for some reason that was one of the harder days of shooting. We had rain, and it was really cold in the tent. You know, you have an expectation of things, and I felt like Rachel was going to be really let go of something that she’s been carrying around for a long time. And, I mean, some great stuff happened at the wedding, but I didn’t feel [that release] until that scene [in the hallway]. You know, when you read the script you think you know where it’s going to happen and then on the day it happens in a totally unexpected place.
TIM SQUYRES, editor
What were your first impressions when you read Rachel Getting Married? When I first read the script, what was interesting to me was the dynamic of the family, and this speaks to what’s striking about Rosemarie’s performance. Oftentimes, when you have a conflict like this, one person is right and one person is wrong. But if you go through this script, there are long arguments, and everybody is right. That’s what’s so difficult about this conflict. You can’t really resolve it with words. You can’t talk through these things. Rachel goes back and forth between wanting to embrace her sister, and being pushed back by all the years of hard feelings and hurt that have built up. It’s a very hard thing to do as an actor, and I was interested to see how she would handle this.
Can you describe Jonathan’s style as a director? Deceptively casual. It was relaxed, which I think served the actors and the film very well. The actors then really had to rise to the occasion. There was no room in this film for an actor who was going to say, “Tell me what to do.” They really had to bring their own energy and intelligence and vitality to their performances. It was shot like a documentary. The actors were never really aware of where the camera was pointing, so they stopped doing the things that film actors do, which is have precise timing, hit marks, that sort of thing. They approached it, I believe, more like something on a stage, where you’re really always in the moment. It brings a life and vitality to the scene that not all film performances have — sometimes they feel constrained, aware of a frame line, and where the lights are. The performances in this film weren’t constrained in that way — they were full of life and reality. I think that’s what makes the film so extraordinary.
Do you like to visit the set during filming? If they start shooting on Monday, I start working on Tuesday. And if I’m on set I’m not working. So… I was on set the first day and I met some of the actors. But there’s no real value for me to be on set. If I’m on set, I learn too much about the actor’s lives, and none of that does me any good. The only thing I need to know is what’s on film.
As you got dailies, what were your impressions of Rosemarie’s take on Rachel? Was it how you imagined it in the script? Once the actors take over the roles, words and meaning begin to change, and good actors will find things that might not have occurred to you when you’re reading the script, and Rosemarie certainly did find those things. She brought much more humor to the role — physical humor — than I expected. She was very funny because of the things she did without speaking. Her presence, her way of carrying herself, brought a real life to the character that you couldn’t get from reading the script. That’s what a good actor can bring. An actor just simply shrugging will always be better than dialogue on a page. A good director will realize that on set and drop the lines and just have them do the shrug, or come up with a shortened version of the line.
In the scene where Kym shows up at Rachel’s doorstep after the car accident, how does the final version of filmed scene resemble the earliest versions? At the door or in the bathroom?
Well, I meant the bathtub, but I guess you could consider it a single sequence. It’s very similar to how it was initially assembled. That was a montage — a bunch of separate shots. The difference was that I had a piece of music I was using as score while I was cutting it. It was music from the movie — a jazzy version of “Rachel Loves Sydney,” the song that Donald Harrison did. Ultimately, though, in the actual film we didn’t use any score. But, as far as shots, I think we dropped one and added one. However, the scene at the door changed enormously. We dropped dialogue, we dropped an emotional blowup. What you see there is about a third of the scene. What we found is that keeping it simple was ultimately much, much more moving.