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Director Liza Johnson on Exploring Kristen Wiig's Dramatic Side in Hateship Loveship

Interviews
by Melissa Silverstein
April 9, 2014 10:00 AM
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Still from "Hateship Loveship"

After receiving rave notices for her feature debut Return, director Liza Johnson has followed up with a second film about an outsider protagonist desperately wanting in. Return starred Linda Cardellini as a shell-shocked soldier coming home after a tour of duty from the Middle East; her difficult struggles to ease back into the roles of wife and mother eventually lead to a breakdown. 

The stakes for the dramedy Hateship Loveship are much lower. Kristen Wiig plays a naive, sheltered nanny who is deceived into falling in love with her charges' drug-addict father (Guy Pearce). Johanna (Wiig) grew up isolated and friendless, which makes her an easy target for teenage rebel Sabitha's (Hailee Steinfeld) spiraling prank. 

Johnson spoke to Women and Hollywood about the types of stories she likes to tell, the challenges of adapting Alice Munro, and how Wiig's writing led to her being cast in this leading role. 

Hateship Loveship opens on April 11.

Please describe the film in your own words. 

Kristen Wiig plays Johanna Parry, a caregiver and housekeeper who moves to work in a new household. The kids there trick her into thinking that their estranged father is in love with her, and she falls for him, experiencing the demands of her own desire for the first time.

The character is very specific: she's a person who is very intense and insular and trying to operate in a world where other people may have a more conventional and open emotional range. But the things that happen to her are the same as the things that happen to the rest of us when we fall in love. We all fall in love with the idea of a person, and then as time goes on we either accommodate ourselves to the real person or we don't.  

What drew you to the script [by Mark Poirier]? 

I was really drawn to the way that the character changes. She comes from a circumstance where ambition and desire and longing don't really get you anywhere. But when she finds out what she wants, she really has to put herself at risk to get it.  

How did Kristin Wiig come to the project, and why did you feel she was right for this? 

Kristen is an amazing actress, and I really, really love her work. Of course most people are used to seeing her in comedy, but even in Bridesmaids, which is a very funny movie, she demonstrates her capacity for dramatic acting.  

The main reason I thought she would be the perfect person for the role is thematic. When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, Margaret Atwood wrote a very beautiful tribute to her, in which she claims that shame and embarrassment are a driving force for all of Munro's characters. I think you could say the same thing of many of the characters that Kristen has created, and because of the body of work she has already created, I thought that she would really understand the ways that the character has to move through risk, embarrassment, and the threat of humiliation in order to realize her desires.

I understand that comedy is a special thing, but let's not forget that comedy is meaningful -- that's why it's so great! And drama doesn't have to be humorless. Alice Munro has a very wicked, dry sense of humor, even though no one would ever say she's a comic writer.

What wisdom did you take from your first feature into your second?

The more I am able to work, the better I become at responding to the situations that come up. I don't know if I have importable "wisdoms," per se, but I think I'm getting better reflexes. 

You have an amazing cast for the film. Talk about how that came together. 

Actors are very fine observers of acting, and other actors truly recognize Kristen's strength as a performer. My sense is that the rest of the cast was galvanized because Kristen's the kind of performer who raises your game. 

Guy Pearce was the first person that Kristen and I discussed for the role of Ken, and we were thrilled that he wanted to do it. Hailee Steinfeld is an amazing, earthy actress with a long career ahead of her, and Nick Nolte is an icon for a reason, so it was a big honor for me to get to work with him. Jennifer Jason Leigh loves Alice Munro, and she's also a careful observer of other actors, and I know she was interested in working with Kristen. I had met Christine Lahti a few years ago at the Sundance Labs, and I thought the piece might fit her sensibility after some of the lovely projects I've seen her in like Housekeeping. I met Sami Gayle through casting and she was very diligent and really studied the Alice Munro source material to show me how she wanted to treat the character.

What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

Perhaps the most interesting challenge was when I was working on the script with Mark Poirier. It's very bold of him to take on such an interior writer and to work with source material that is so brilliantly crafted. The story is exquisite, and although there are a lot of elements in it that you can photograph (like when Johanna buys a dress or moves the furniture), the most important elements of the story are all aspects of the characters' inner lives that can't be photographed. 

Do you see any similarities between the two leading women in The Return and this film? 

When we premiered the film in Toronto, the programmer observed that they're both characters who "find themselves teetering on the sidelines of a society she will risk everything to join." Which I hadn't thought of, so perhaps there's some therapy material in there!

I do know that Kristen Wiig and Linda Cardellini shot a film together in the fall called Welcome to Me, and I couldn't be more excited to see it because they're both incredible performers and both very dear to me personally.

What kind of stories are you drawn to? 

I like stories that feel like I haven't seen them before, where I don't know what's going to happen. 

Do you have any thoughts on the continuing challenges for women directors? 

I think we just have to keep doing our work. 

Those challenges are real, and I'm not making a radical claim when I note that they're exponentially realer for women of color, and most especially for those of us who might be working on content focused on minorities. It's disturbing to me the ways that material about people of color, or at the intersection of racial and sexual minority, is presumed to have a low foreign sales value and is thus extremely difficult to make.  

I have not encountered a lot of personal obstacles in terms of people taking an interest in my work, or respecting my vision, or vividly and personally dismissing me because of my gender. On a personal level, maybe I've been very lucky but I've felt really respected by the men and women I'm working with.  

But the ways that people understand the marketplace can be severely limiting for what kinds of stories get made. In order to change that we have to prove some things economically. I'm hopeful that maybe movies like 12 Years a Slave are helping to advance a sense of possibility around what the market can bear. (Or Bridesmaids, for that matter!)

Please share any advice you have for women directors. 

It's mostly the same as what I would say to men who aspire to direct. For me, the most sustaining thing has been the constant support of a community of interest, which includes other directors, artists, writers, and actors. A lot of people think that there's a scene or a community that they can go join or that they're being excluded from, but at least for me that's not how it works. It's something people make actively, and it involves noticing people in the world who have common interests and then doing the work that it takes to stay in touch and be supportive of one another. And that kind of support and mutual interest is incredibly helpful, sometimes pragmatically. It means I have someone to call for a recommendation when my editor moves to Los Angeles. And sometimes it's less specific but materially helpful -- it helps you stay in the field when you are surrounded by people who think your crazy enterprise is not that crazy!

Watch the Hateship Loveship trailer:

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