A few years back, when Maggie Gyllenhaal was making The Kindergarten Teacher with Pie Films’ producing partners Talia Kleinhendler and Osnat Handelsman-Keren, the idea arose that Gyllenhaal herself should direct a project. Securing the rights to Elena Ferrante’s novel, The Lost Daughter, Gyllenhaal re-teamed with Pie Films, crafted her first feature script and cast Olivia Colman as Leda, a middle-aged woman whose past haunts her when she meets a young woman on vacation. Amid a Covid-driven location switch to Greece and quarantine with her film-family, Gyllenhaal crafted a feature filled with eviscerating but necessary truths about motherhood and all its complexity.
DEADLINE: How did you and Talia and Osnat start talking about you directing on a project together?
MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: It’s funny. Looking back on it now, after having made this film, which I love, it’s clear to me that I always wanted… well, that I always probably was a director and that I was always bumping against the edges of what was available to me, as an actress. And I was always looking to be a storyteller, and my favorite actors are all storytellers, who all have a point of view, and all have an artistic agenda. And so, I was like that, but I think it was more than that. But I think there weren’t very many models of women directors in my life. And obviously there are people, like Jane Campion, who went ahead and were able to do it without many models, but it was harder for me. I think I just didn’t even let myself know how badly I wanted that. And, in so many ways, the years that I’ve spent just acting were amazing school, an amazing kind of film school for me. But I think, probably it was a combination.
DEADLINE: When did the idea first come to you that you would go for it?
GYLLENHAAL: I think, in some ways, playing a director in The Deuce and having a hand in making that character a director. Originally, she was supposed to be a producer, a very money-minded woman. And I was, “She has to be a director because someone who’s basically willing to risk their life for money is a very, very different person than someone who’s life or death is about the art they’re making.” So, she became a director, and then I had all this time to really deeply fantasize about directing because I was playing one. She’s a porn director, but that’s because she was a street prostitute, and she had no access to anything else. And so that started to crack me open, in terms of wanting to direct. And then yeah, Talia and Osnat. They were, “You’re a director.” And I had sort of opened the gates a little bit and was talking about it with them a little. And they were, “Run, don’t walk. This is what you should be doing.”
DEADLINE: You introduced them to Ferrante’s work didn’t you? Didn’t you take them to a New York bookstore?
GYLLENHAAL: Yes, the day I met them, I gave them The Days of Abandonment, which is another Ferrante novel, which was the novel that I first asked for the rights to. Ferrante’s publishers, because she’s anonymous, so [I was] not interacting with her at all, except for by email, they said, “Well, the rights to that are really complicated, tied up with this Italian film that was already made, that owns the rights in perpetuity. But would you consider The Lost Daughter?” They thought that me and Ferrante would be a good match. And I read it in a weekend. And I thought, yes, this is the same. This is articulating the same… this is truthful, wildly truthful, terrifyingly truthful, in the same way The Days of Abandonment is. And that’s what was attracting me to her. I think there’s something inherently dramatic about telling the truth, and in particular about telling the truth about something taboo. So, yeah, that’s how it started.
DEADLINE: This film says some pretty taboo things about parenting and very few people tell the truth about how hard it is. Were you concerned about how people would respond?
GYLLENHAAL: Well, first of all, that was part of my incentive for wanting to make it, was, OK, it’s one thing to read these incredible Ferrante books, alone in my room; it’s still in a cone of silence. She’s telling the truth, and you’re, “Holy shit, did you just say that out loud?” I didn’t even know I thought that. I wish that’s something I didn’t think, but in fact it is something I think. And it’s kind of terrifying and very comforting at the same time. But still, I’m alone in my room with a book.
DEADLINE: No, one’s watching your face as you read it.
GYLLENHAAL: Well, and it’s still a secret, even if you’re comforted by knowing that some wise, feminine, anonymous person out there has obviously felt something like this too. I thought, what would happen if you actually heard these things said out loud, if you actually saw them? And what if that could happen in a communal space, so that the secret is 100 percent out of the bag? And you’re sitting next to your mother or your husband or your daughter or your best friend? I thought that could be a really radical thing to do. To be honest though, I’ve been surprised by the response. It feels like everyone is going, “I understand what you’re saying.”
DEADLINE: There’s relief when people talk about it, maybe?
GYLLENHAAL: Well, it’s not just about mothering. I think it’s about all sorts of things about being a woman in the world. Things that, even the most interested, curious, talented men can’t possibly know. I do think women make movies differently than men. Even tiny things. One of my favorite parts in the whole movie is when we’re super close on Jessie, and she’s just come out of the conference with the professor, and she says, “I haven’t even read his recent work.” She says, “It was all my own idea. It was all my own thinking.” But before that, she’s taking her bra off under her shirt and unbuttoning her skirt and taking the pins out of her hair. Just tiny little details. But if you’ve been in that outfit all day, going to conference after conference, that’s what happens when you get home. And even those little moments of truthfulness I think are valuable because we see them so rarely. Whereas for men, who’ve made most of the movies in the world, those kinds of little details are in them all over the place because that’s their experience.
DEADLINE: Something I really appreciated was when we see Leda so isolated. And there’s this feeling of, where does a woman without her family go? Who is she? What is she doing?
GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, yeah. She’s sitting at that weird bar, having dinner by herself.
DEADLINE: Honestly, so awkward. And when she’s with Paul Mescal, having that weird conversation with him, and you’re just thinking, “What are you saying to this boy?”
DEADLINE: Talia and Osnat told me you wrote this extraordinarily quickly. You just burned through it.
GYLLENHAAL: I was acting in The Deuce and doing tons of press for The Kindergarten Teacher while I was writing. So, I don’t know if it was fast, but it was very focused. And I would take a section of the book, consider it, take it apart in a very similar way to the way that I take apart a piece of text as an actress. What do I think is the essence of the scene? And usually, if it’s a good piece of work, in my opinion, it’s not something that’s articulated directly in the scene. That’s just not my taste. I shouldn’t say “good” or “bad,” but it’s not my taste. So, I was doing the same thing with the book, and I followed the structure of the book originally just because I thought this is a good way to do a first draft. I went, what is the purpose of this scene at this moment? And is there a purpose? Then there’s the riddle of, not only, what is the essence of the scene? But how to make it cinematic and compelling in a film. And then-
DEADLINE: Put you in her head.
GYLLENHAAL: Put you in her head.
DEADLINE: Without her verbiage in your head.
GYLLENHAAL: You’re absolutely right.
DEADLINE: So hard.
GYLLENHAAL: Because the way through the movie is through her mind. So then, I finished the first draft. I didn’t show it to Talia and Osnat. I showed it to two writers, Amy Herzog, who’s my age, and she’s a really interesting writer, and my mother, who’s also a screenwriter. And they both gave me the same note, which was the reveal, that she left her kids, happened much, much earlier in the book. It happened in the toy store. And they both said to me, “You can’t do this. It doesn’t work in a film.” I was, “But I love that you have to live with her for so long after knowing that she’s done this.” And they were, “Really, cinematically, it doesn’t work.”
I thought about it for a minute, and I really thought they were right. But what that did was it exploded my script. The whole structure was then in tatters on the floor, which was great because it was like it had cracked open into many pieces, and then into the cracks came me and my own expression. And I think the script is very different from the book. There are all sorts of things that aren’t in the book. There are a lot of things that are in the book and aren’t in the film, but they are, without a question, in conversation with each other.
DEADLINE: The fact that Covid forced you to move the production to the Greek island of Spetses, to me, was an amazing gift to the story. I really, really related to her taking a solo trip in Europe. It doesn’t seem like a crazy, exotic move to me. It seems very much like something any woman might do.
GYLLENHAAL: Sure. I agree with that. And she should be kind of every woman. Because if she’s an outlier… the really important thing is she can’t be is crazy. First of all, there’s a whole tradition of fascinating, really excellently made movies about crazy women. It’s like porn or something. People love to watch powerful, intelligent women play crazy people. But… also, because we are told that if we have any feelings outside of this pretty narrow spectrum of what’s acceptable, that we’re crazy or sick, or we’re way out of line. When in fact, I think the spectrum of what is normal, in terms of mothering, but in terms of everything. Desire and intellectual life and artistic life, is way bigger. And it includes despair and terror and anxiety as well as heart-wrenching joy. It’s just, we don’t see depictions of that very much. So yeah, she had to be every woman. Really functional. But she’s so anxious when it starts, she can’t even really walk down the street without feeling dizzy. Poor thing.
DEADLINE: Jessie Buckley is fantastic as the younger Leda here. How did you cast her? And Olivia came first, correct?
GYLLENHAAL: I cast Olivia first. And I realized, because of all the reasons I said, I needed a sane actress with a strong working mind.
DEADLINE: And gravitas.
GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, exactly. I thought of Olivia. And also, because Leda does so many things that are hard to take, even tiny things… well from tiny things to things that cause her and her family almost unbearable pain, I wanted there to be some humor and levity. And she offers that, of course. And I wanted her to have blood in her veins. Not anemic. Not metaphorically, obviously. And so, I thought of her, and I asked her, and she did it. She keeps joking that I got her drunk at lunch, and she said, “Yes,” but, we all know who got who drunk at lunch.
And then Jessie. Olivia asked me if I knew her at that lunch, if I knew her work. And we talked about a few actresses. Obviously, an important partnership, even though they had nothing to do with each other. And Wild Rose was coming out in New York that weekend. And I went by myself to see it, and I thought she was fucking amazing. And she read the script and the book in a weekend, and we had a great talk. And I was really clear that I wanted her in it. She’s so buoyant and so honest. And then, in terms of the two of them together, which is an interesting thing to talk about, I think, that was probably the biggest risk about doing this film, about doing adaptation and then the whole thing, because what do you do about this 18, 20-year age difference?
So that was a risk. When I was writing, I thought, I am not going to worry about the logistics of this. I’m going to write it as it would be, if I could stretch an actress’s age, magically. And then, I thought at one point, oh, could I age an actress or something? And I was, no, that’s really goofy. That rarely works out well. Especially if you’re after truth, truth, real truth. And then I thought, OK, the thing is that nobody is going to believe. It would be an insane thing to ask an audience to believe that Jesse Buckley and Olivia Coleman are actually the same person. They’re not, they’re two different people, and we know that. But so, the question is, can we make a kind of poetic agreement. For the purposes of watching our movie for two hours, can we do a kind of magic together, to say, “We’re going to agree that they’re the same person, for the purposes of telling our story.”
DEADLINE: I believed it.
GYLLENHAAL: Because I wasn’t trying to trick you. I was, “We all know they’re different people.” And so then, both the actresses, too, are totally free to express themselves however they want. They don’t have to have an eye twitch or a neck twitch.
DEADLINE: I asked Jessie that. I was, “How did you align yourself with the Olivia?” And she goes, “I just didn’t.”
GYLLENHAAL: Exactly. It’s true. But look how beautifully it works.
DEADLINE: What about casting Dakota?
GYLLENHAAL: Dakota found me. She had read the script, and she really responded to it. And she reached out to me. And we had a really amazing lunch together. And I really realized, thinking about her and her work, well, first of all, how much she wanted to express herself and how much she wanted to play in the territory of what the movie is about. And it was a very good match on that level. But also, now that I’ve seen her work, I can’t think of very many people who are as vulnerable and as powerful, at the same time, as Dakota Johnson.
DEADLINE: What are you thinking about next? Are you writing? Are you thinking about more directing?
GYLLENHAAL: I think I am honing in on something that I want to write and direct. I’m really trying to go from that same unconscious place that guided me throughout a lot of this film, in terms of what I want to do next. I do miss acting, but not as much as I am drawn to make another film as a director.
DEADLINE: And are you feeling especially drawn to these themes of truth telling and breaking taboo? Do you feel like that’s still coming up for you, or is it leading somewhere else?
GYLLENHAAL: I’m really drawn to telling the truth. Like I said, I think it’s compelling. You tell the truth to a little child, and their eyes widen. You know, really the truth, that they can manage and digest? So yeah, I’m interested in telling the truth, but I’ll tell you one thing, when I was on the jury at Cannes, which I did less than two weeks after finishing my final mix, so I was really open and really curious and really humble, I think, after having made a film, looking at all these other films. Humble, is that the right word? No, respectful. I don’t know. Curious. Maybe that’s a better word. I was watching this one film. It was this Israeli film, that Nadav Lapid made, called Ahed’s Knee. And I was, “Oh, wow. If you’re telling the truth, if you’re following something truthful, and it can be many things; it can be the line of a story; it can be a character’s mind. But if you’re following something reliable and truthful, you can do whatever you want.” The cinematic language can be way out there and wild. And people will understand you, if you’re not trying to fool them or cover something up.