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Interior Spaces: Writer/Director Maggie Gyllenhaal on The Lost Daughter

Dakota Johnson, Panos Koronis and Oliver Jackson-Cohen in The Lost DaughterDakota Johnson, Panos Koronis and Oliver Jackson-Cohen in The Lost Daughter (Photo by Yannis Drakoulidis/courtesy of Netflix)

There is a moment early in The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s extraordinary debut film as writer/director/transgressive character whisperer. Leda (Olivia Colman) is on a solo summer vacation in Greece, lost in a reverie, walking on a rocky path. Then, something—a pinecone? a slingshot?—falls from above and pierces her back. Is this intrusion a piercing of persona, of psychic armor? Is it a portent of indignities to come, or perhaps, is it the shock to the system that triggers Leda’s ensuing momentum of memory? 

The occurrence speaks to everything and perhaps nothing at all. 

Leda is a British-born academic who has spent much of her adult life in the United States, a mother whose relationship to her two adult daughters is borderline estranged. She scrutinizes everything: the Italian literature she translates; her past as an ambitious student, competitive partner and harried mother (evoked in a gut-wrenching performance by Jessie Buckley) with small children underfoot and whose fractured connection to her own mother further complicates her vision of a self-actualized future; and anything (a moldy piece of fruit, a child’s doll, a hatpin) and anyone she encounters. The arrival—more like an invasion—of an unruly American brood staking their annual territorial claim to the beach upends Leda’s fiercely guarded emotional and physical reserves. She is at once repelled and fascinated, in particular with Nina (Dakota Johnson), seemingly suffocating under the literal weight of her own young daughter and the judgmental gaze of her pregnant sister-in-law Callie (a pitch-perfect Dagmara Domińczyk). These encounters with Nina and her clan disrupt Leda’s equilibrium (quite literally at times) and what follows is a tale of entanglement and transference.

Raised in a household of readers and writers, Gyllenhaal thinks deeply about the contours of language, moving in that liminal space between what is said and what is felt. Her filmography as a fearless actress—Sherrybaby, The Honorable Woman, The Kindergarten Teacher, The Deuce—teems with portrayals of women who defy an easy read, who navigate and traverse messy situations with equal parts steely-eyed resolve and myopic obsession. In adapting Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel and immersing herself in the complexities and contradictions of Leda, a character she has aptly described as both “fucked up and relatable,” Gyllenhaal has crafted a work that is very much her own, one that the author has wholeheartedly embraced. In a recent interview with The New Statesman, Ferrante praised Gyllenhaal’s “true cinema…. It’s wonderful how she can transform into a style of her own certain images from the book…. Every movement of the characters is ambiguous, reveals and hides, hides and reveals. Thus the story flows and yet sinks into its dark sides, digs within. Yes, it’s a great job.” 

Equal parts woozy psychological thriller and pathological character study, The Lost Daughter was no doubt informed by Gyllenhaal’s years in front of the camera, an attentiveness to detail honed by her commitment to inhabiting the text in the service of character, of creating atmosphere within and around states of being. Aided and abetted by cinematographer Hélène Louvart, editor Affonso Gonçalves and composer Dickon Hinchliffe; the femme power trio of Colman, Buckley and Johnson; as well as an impressive ensemble who explicate Leda’s present and past—Ed Harris, Paul Mescal, Jack Farthing, Alba Rohrwacher and Gyllenhaal’s own husband, Peter Sarsgaard, as the younger Leda’s lover, a catalyst for her “break” from domestic abyss—Gyllenhaal has crafted one of the year’s best films and one that only deepens with repeated viewings.

Winner of the Best Screenplay at Venice and four Gotham Awards, for Best Screenplay, Best Breakthrough Director, Outstanding Lead Performance and Best Feature, The Lost Daughter presents an alchemical articulation of women—daughters and mothers, friends and lovers, clinical observers and fragile hearts—under the influence. Gyllenhaal’s attentiveness to the nuance and fragility of flawed, shambolic, all-too-relatable bodies and psyches in rest and motion yields an intimate interrogation of public and private lives, past and present, that is both corporeal and cosmic. On the afternoon following a partial lunar eclipse, we discussed the telepathy of collaboration: surfacing the tension and the importance of creating space, on and offscreen.

Filmmaker: As a producer, I think a lot about the way in which bringing people together can ultimately represent itself onscreen. Each character in your film also has such a specific space, a space that is often threatened. How did you work to define that space? 

Gyllenhall: That’s interesting. I don’t know if I thought about it that way. As an actress for many years, I have felt that really all I needed was a little space for my mind. But I’ve learned over the years that there are exceptions to this. Most people really are not that interested in an actress who is full of ideas, right? I’m 44, as of a couple of days ago, and I have a lot of experience, and I’ve learned to be quiet about my ideas, to keep them to myself. They hold their own kind of power when they’re kept inside. But I do need a little bit of space in order to do my work and my own storytelling inside of someone else’s project. I remember reading that Meryl Streep said when you need to ask as an actress, ask for it with a spoonful of sugar. OK, I’ve learned how to do that. But the truth is, it takes a lot of mental energy to negotiate that. I think that actresses and women in all sorts of jobs all over the world have just gotten used to having to use those extra muscles. 

So, as a director, I was stunned by the amount of mental space that I was being offered. Early on, the movie was originally set in the States. I did the adaptation and set it in a kind of unnamed Eastern seaboard beach town—like, lobster rolls and a boardwalk. I wanted to shoot in Maine, and we scouted there, but Maine has a five percent tax incentive. As a producer, that’s just prohibitive. Maybe next time, but not at this time. We check out New Jersey because they have a 37 percent tax incentive, and the whole time in my chest, I knew it wasn’t right. But I wasn’t a director yet. We don’t have to get into the long story, but I said, “Of course we can’t shoot in New Jersey because of the pandemic, but it wasn’t going to work artistically.” I wrote, like, a treatise and said that we needed to go back to the drawing board. And everyone’s response was, “Great, let’s go back to the drawing board.” I think I hadn’t realized how much space I actually had as a director. So, when I finally had my own set, it was very important to me to offer everybody—particularly my actors, but to my whole crew—this space to express themselves in the work, because that’s how you get beautiful work from people. So, it’s interesting—I didn’t think of space as an aesthetic question when I was working, but as you say this, I think, “Right. Sometimes my characters have very little aesthetic space, and they have to make do with that”—which is my experience a lot of time in the world, you know?

Filmmaker: I’d love to hear about your work with Hélène Louvart, your incredible D.P.

Gyllenhaal: And a mother of five! I was a huge admirer of hers—I came to her through her work with Alice Rohrwacher. The first thing I will say about Hélène is she responded to the script. The people who are in, and involved in, the movie are all the people who heard in the script what the movie is. And that wasn’t everybody. Then, she was like, “I really believe in prep.” I didn’t know how to prep, and she taught me how. Because we were in the middle of a pandemic we had this time. She was in Paris, I was here [in New York], and we just went through the script. We hadn’t scouted, obviously. We weren’t shotlisting, but we were in our imaginary life, imagining our way through the scenes cinematically and learning each other’s language. I didn’t want to say, “This is exactly what I have in my mind, now recreate it for me.” No, I wanted to work with Hélène because I imagined she had her own personal attachment to this story that she also wanted to have expressed.

So, we were working together to understand what the scenes were about. I have worked on, for example, a dinner scene, where there’s six people at a table. And the director shoots two sizes on everybody, then my POV of everybody, then this person’s POV of everybody. By the end of the two days that it takes to shoot that scene, you want to shoot yourself. And that only happens if you don’t know what the scene is about. It might be about an unspoken thing that happens at the table, where one person takes another’s fork, and everything else spoken is just whatever. It doesn’t all need to be covered in two sizes and everyone’s POV.

So [Hélène and I] were doing work like that, really trying to understand. She would ask me questions about the light, but mostly, we were talking about ideas. Then we get to Greece, and we scout, which was amazing. I never directed on The Deuce, but I shadowed a director, Uta Briesewitz, and I was like, “Oh my god, this fucking sucks.” I mean, I cared about The Deuce, but I didn’t really care about what high school they were shooting in for some other storyline. But for my own movie, I could’ve scouted forever. Then, we shotlisted really intensely. I remember saying to Hélène, “Look, I am never going to have my actors come onto set and say, ’You’re sitting in this chair, then you’re going to go to the window and then you’re at the typewriter.’ We’re going to have to let them feel the scenes out.” And she said, “Oh no, Maggie, you will see. They will do exactly as you imagine”—which was totally not true! I had this folder full of all of our shotlists, and I never opened it, not one time. But we were so well prepared that we could pivot, we could shift. And I learned so much about lenses. I was like, “Hélène, I didn’t realize how much I would care about how much I hate a 50mm. I never want it in my movie.”

The other thing about Hélène is, obviously she lights beautifully, but she’s an operator, too. I’ve had such intimate relationships with operators as an actress, and I realized that when I was imagining a scene with Hélène, I was the character, which I think comes out of having learned about filmmaking as an actress. I’d be like, “OK, the camera’s here and she’s looking over at Dakota.” Or, “OK, now I’m Dakota, and the camera’s here over her shoulder.” A couple of times, we had a fantastic Steadicam operator, and yet I think there’s maybe only a frame or two of Steadicam in the movie because when Hélène wasn’t operating, we’d shoot it, but then I always had her go in and operate also. So, she’s in the movie in the way that Olivia’s in the movie. I needed that breathing and sense of movement, which is only Hélène. 

Filmmaker: This idea about someone who translates for a living, whose course of work is about decoding the text…

Gyllenhaal: I don’t think [Leda is] a translator in the book.

Filmmaker: Oh, interesting. 

Gyllenhaal: I think I made her a translator.

Filmmaker: I was thinking about how Leda demands absolute veracity from the people she’s dealing with, and knowing a lot of translators of text, that’s how they operate. They do try to get within the skin of the text, or who wrote it originally, but ultimately, it’s a dance.

Gyllenhaal: Well, it’s interesting to think I’m a translator, too, in a way, and my actors are translators of what I’m offering them. There’s an essay that Rachel Cusk wrote inside of a book, the last of her [Outline] trilogy, Kudos. There’s this little strange scene between the main character, who’s an author, her publisher or agent, and then this woman who’s her translator. The translator says to [the author] something I had never heard articulated before, which is my experience of many parts of Ferrante—she said, and I’m cheating [Cusk’s] words here, “When I was translating it, it was like an emergency. I had to be so careful to hold this thing and bring it alive into this other language. It was important for all the people who were going to read it in this other language that it be delivered alive.”

Filmmaker: The three women—Leda, Dakota’s character Nina and Dagmara Domińczyk’s character Callie—there’s a toll taken on their bodies for what they do. It really comes out with Leda, and I couldn’t help but think that it’s also in the script because you can see the way she’s been worn down. I keep thinking about that big bag she’s carrying everywhere, and of Dakota’s makeup for her Nina character—there are all these armors that these characters have put on themselves. I’d love to hear about your discussions with your keys during prep about these things.

Gyllenhaal: Well, I love my actors. I love their minds and I also love their bodies. I think I use their bodies in the storytelling, and that’s a combination of giving my actors space to feel really free, so that these brilliant actors can live fully inside of these characters, and also, me and Hélène being curious and fascinated by their bodies. Olivia’s body, Jessie’s body, Dakota’s body, Peter’s body, the little girls—physically, who they are and how they interact and touch. I mean, some of these things are actor things, like, for example, I don’t know how many times in a movie you see somebody carrying bags and there’s nothing in them or they don’t give a fuck what’s in them. Olivia is such a brilliant actress, and she had all her real stuff in her bag. Not like pretend actor stuff. Olivia put her stuff in her purse, so Leda’s bag is her bag. 

And Dakota’s makeup. She said, “I feel a connection to this material—there is something in me that I want to express by taking this role on.” And I said, “Look, you will be freer to express yourself if there is fiction. If you look just like you, you are less free. If you’re wearing something that belongs to Nina, it opens the door to endless possibilities. So, how do we make you look different?” I’m not going to say, “Do this, do this, do this.” That’s not my job. My job is to open Dakota’s mind so that she can make choices that are exciting. So, we sent each other images and pictures, and then, she got on a trip that was really exciting to her, and I just pushed and pushed. I mean, who is the person that wears black eyeliner on the beach, who has to go out and get waterproof black eyeliner and maybe some of it still comes down? And does that person put makeup on or no? You see her freckles and yet you also see the eyeliner—it doesn’t make sense. And she came up with the idea of dying her hair super dark, which I loved. 

With Ed [Gibbon, costume designer] and the costumes, particularly with the kids I was like, “Hmm, no, these kids look so perfect. I’d just mess them up.” They drew all over their arms for me and made nail polish with markers. The [hair and makeup team] would [bring them in] with these little dos, and I was like, “No, mess them up.” I have two girls, so I know.

One of the most exciting collaborations I had was with my editor [Affonso Gonçalves]. I do think that it’s unusual, in my experience, to have such an inspiring and exciting collaboration with anyone in any department. He’s brilliant, so I knew he would be a great editor, but I just didn’t quite know that we would read each other’s minds. I was new in the editing room and thrilled to be in there, you know? Because of course, I spent my career wishing I could be in the editing room. I felt like I was holding in my arms all of these beautiful performances, and that it was my job to take care of them until they were delivered onto the screen. I did feel like someone who was overly pregnant—like two weeks overdue—and had to get these things out. So the first pass laying it all out, I was a tiny bit impatient.

Filmmaker: Getting to that first assembly or that first rough cut can be laborious.

Gyllenhaal: I come in 10 days after I finish shooting, see his first assembly and I’m like, “OK, it’s cool. It’s not the movie, but it’s cool.” And then in the process [of the first cut], we wouldn’t move on [from a scene] until it had lifted off. So, our first pass was actually pretty far along, then we went in and tweaked. But I just loved working with him. There was a whole section in the beginning that we just immediately, within 20 minutes, both said, “Let’s just lose that.”

Filmmaker: I listened to your composer, Dickon Hinchliffe, on a panel yesterday, and he said that you came to him with the idea that the film music would be like a found recording from the 1950s or ’60s. Could you talk about that and the importance of those few cues that you use?

Gyllenhaal: Well, it’s interesting because Dickon was absolutely the last piece of the puzzle. I had never obviously worked with a composer in that way, although I had very strong feelings about the music. And Hélène, who I trust so much, texted me at one point, before even seeing [the cut], and was like, “Do not put music everywhere. And keep it low.” She actually was telling me that maybe the movie doesn’t need music at all. I thought about it because I think she’s very, very wise, but I was like, no, it needs music. I just don’t like film scores—or what I don’t like is feeling manipulated because I cry when they play that shit, you know! And I don’t like the “I’m not supposed to notice [it kind of music].” Sometimes, [film music] is very beautiful and moving, but that’s not what I wanted to do with my film. I wanted the music to be like another character, in a way, one that vibrated against what was happening in the scenes in a way that created something new.

So, I had this idea, and I listened to so much film score because I didn’t know quite what I wanted. I didn’t know how to articulate it. I was like, “Why don’t I like this [piece of music]?” Oh, well, it sounds really, like, digital. All the things I was responding to were almost like low-fi recordings, and I thought, what if [the score] could be like an album we found at a garage sale that you put on with the movie, and it just happened to magically be in conversation with it? 

Filmmaker: As opposed to dictating a character’s journey?

Gyllenhaal: With my brilliant actors, right? It’s not clear if Leda is feeling sad or elated or 25 things in between, and I didn’t want the music to shut out all of the massive gray areas of feeling and ideas that I was hoping would rise up to the top.

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