Interview: Screenwriter Jenny Lumet of Rachel Getting Married
Tue, 30 Sep 2008 10:39:08
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Jenny Lumet may have a recognizable surname, but in penning Rachel Getting Married she has forged a creative identity wholly her own. The film stars Anne Hathaway as a recovering drug and alcohol addict wrestling with the weight of a horrible accident which altered the fabric of her family life. While Hathaway is earning the most vocal critical praise and has whispers of Oscar trailing her, it’s Lumet’s layered screenplay that birthed and shaped the unique project. Director Jonathan Demme credits the script with inspiring him to experiment with look and form, the result being a documentary-style feature whose emotional impact is profound, and even that may be an understatement. I spoke to Lumet one-on-one about seeing her words translated to screen and solicited screenwriting advice from the talented scribe. (A snippet of Lumet's counsel: stalk your director.)
The only word I could think of to describe the emotional ambiance of the film was “tapestry.” Where did you start to draw these characters from?
Jenny Lumet: It all sounds so wacky when you talk about process, because it’s kind of mythical and weird. And you try, honestly, not to sound like an asshole talking about something mythical and weird, but I’ll do the best I can. In my head I kept seeing…a young bride looking at herself in a three-way mirror in [a] room, and her sister bursts through. It’s either creating a moment or destroying a moment. That lived in my head and eventually I started listening to those two women, if that makes any sense. They revealed stuff to me. See, it’s hard, because I don’t want to sound like a maniac, but this is kind of what it was like. They kind of delivered their world and I wrote it down. All the voices and the people all came from people that would be in their lives, if that makes sense.
Why [write in] the form of the screenplay at this point of your life?
I don’t know how to write a novel. I don’t know if I would know how to write a play easier than I would know how to write a novel, but I wouldn’t know how to write a play that well. I understand movies in some instinctual way, which is not to say that I don’t have an enormous amount of technical work to do and to learn and to understand. I think a novel is a novel for a reason, a play is a play for a reason, a movie is a movie for a reason, and a T.V. show…works because you see it episodically. This just was.
Jonathan said there was something about the looseness of your writing, decimating form altogether, that attracted him because it allowed him to be more free as a director. How were the words you wrote translated on set?
First of all, the fact that he said that makes me get all giggly. An artist like that saying, “This particular woman made me feel free.” I’m like, [Squeals]. I don’t want to say this wrong, so I’ll say this the best I can because I don’t want to speak for him: I know that he wanted to shoot a feature like a documentary. He wanted to shoot this feature like a documentary, and the actors didn’t know what the shot was going to be. There was nobody with the tape on the nose and nobody saying, “Hold your head here.” There were no marks. The takes were 12 minutes long, with Declan Quinn, the D.P., with his handheld, so the sense of improvisation comes from that. A hundred percent of the script is in the movie, and this is his quote, Jonathan’s quote, “The script is 95 percent of the movie.” He let the cameras roll, and it’s hard, again, not to sound Pollyanna-ish, but I’m really grateful. These are some serious freakin’ art people. Bill Irwin contributing his stuff, and that means something. It’s not some guy from the street, it’s Bill freakin’ Irwin, and that means a lot. It makes me better. It makes me a better writer.
It seems like the script lent itself very well to the look Jonathan was striving for. Did you have your own stylistic vision in mind, and did you collaborate with Jonathan at all?
I thought I wrote something quite straightforward. It’s not like I had to struggle to trust the man. [Laughs] “Well, I’ll think about letting you…” It doesn’t work like that. I knew into whose hands…I was fortunate enough to place [the script]. He knows what he’s doing and it seemed to work out quite well.
What excites you about writing female characters, and what were you striving for?
I was striving to be a brave writer and to be an honest writer. I don’t know anybody who’s easy. Everybody I know is a pain in the ass. Yes, you can talk about the female character, but let’s talk about the fact that there are three billion of us on the planet and we’re all just completely impossible in our own way. I just thought that was true. I read somewhere recently, it was an actor saying, “Oh, one of the first tests of a screenplay is, I read it and I go, ‘Okay, who’s the girl? And it really makes a difference to me if it’s someone I can dig or someone I cannot dig or work with.’” And I thought, “Ugh. Who’s the girl?” As if you can just plug [women] in. First of all, “girl.” Yes, I’m sure you would say that to Debra Winger and watch her wipe the floor with you; go ahead. Families are nuts. I tried very hard to listen really carefully to friends and family. It seems like no one holds opinions for more than five minutes and everyone’s conflicted about everything. You blunder around and the big moments in your life. You know, they come when you’re pouring your cereal; they come when you can’t find your freakin’ earring and you’re under the bed. It’s never when you have the time to pull your shit together, so to speak. That’s what I think it’s like, and I tried to be accurate.
Revelations are profound, but they can be in the most mundane of moments.
Who makes the big speech revealing the family’s secret? No one. That never happens. It happens when, I don’t know, somebody smokes pot and they’re eating 18 freakin’ Reese’s Pieces and they go, “Oh my God, this reminds me of the time in high school…”
There is a shadow that hangs over the film: a sense of guilt. How did you begin to broach something with such emotional weight?
I have no freakin’ idea. I just thought, “What is the worst thing that could possibly happen in a family?”, with the sort of parameter of the possibility of forgiveness floating around. [If] an outside person, not a family person, is responsible for the death of a child in a family, I can’t see any forgiveness ever happening. Maybe that’s just me, and I don’t see it being an issue. When a family member is responsible…I think that brings [a] question into play. And I thought, “If you’re going to go there, you should just freakin’ go there.” No matter how awful the horribleness may be, it’s not as bad as, you know, Electra or Oedipus or anything. At least it’s not Greek theater! [Laughs] No one’s eating their own kids.
Have you ever been to a wedding like the one in the film?
I was once at a wedding where there were Brazilian girls, and I thought, “This is beautiful.” I didn’t think this was a particularly commercial movie, so I thought, “Have some Brazilian naked girls in it because they’re gorgeous and everybody would want to see them.” This is a particularly nutty wedding. Did you see the cake?
I did see the cake.
The wedding cake is my favorite. Ford Wheeler, who’s the Production Designer, decided on a color, and I was like, “It’s an elephant.” He has that elephant cake somewhere in his apartment…I wanted a sexy wedding. I wanted the food to smell really strong and great and the colors to be vivid, none of this, “We’ll have white roses and white napkins, and this is your white wine glass and your red wine glass and your champagne glass,” so if Kim screws it up you see what she’s screwing up. If you have a wedding that is [a] white glove wedding, you kind of want to screw it up. You want to blow it out of the water.
“I want to write more. It’s just me and my computer and I get to decide the fate of the universe.”
Does your experience with this film encourage you to write more screenplays?
Because of this there’s a lot of stuff going on, which is wonderful. I think [films] are hopeful and I think, honestly, we do them really well in this country. I’m so, by no means, a film snob. I will see planets blowing up and vampires; I love that stuff. I think we do [films] really well here. I am incredibly proud to have contributed, just, something to…an American movie. I wrote an American movie; that makes me proud, and sure I want to write more. It’s just me and my computer and I get to decide the fate of the universe.
When was the first time you saw the film?
I was pregnant during the production of this movie. So, how pregnant was I when I saw the first cut? About six months, I think? It took me four to five screenings so I could relax enough to see what was going on. [Nervous voice] “Oh my God, these are my words. This is really weird.” It’s completely exhilarating.
Maybe this is too grandiose a question, but do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I don’t think it is, and I’m flattered that you ask that of me because I am a novato. I’m new. I got my ass in the chair three hours a day no matter what and fucked up a million times and relentlessly stalked Jonathan Demme. You gotta stalk, and that’s the only thing that I feel qualified to say to another writer: I got my ass in the chair and I stalked. [Laughs] I stalked my director.