Interview with the director of Mother and Child
Rodrigo García, the 51-year-old writer/director and son of Gabriel García Márques, has earned himself a reputation as a women's director over the past decade, thanks to projects--2000's Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, 2005's Nine Lives, and HBO's In Treatment--that delivered strong performances from a multigenerational cast of actresses. Most of those projects also feature exceptional performances from the male cast members, too, but given mainstream Hollywood's business-as-usual focus on youth, it's a little understandable that creating interesting, complex female characters over 40 might brand a grown-up man's interests in grown-up stories a "women's director."
"I think difficult women are intriguing, not all guys do," he says during a Sunday night interview at last month's Maryland Film Festival, where he was on hand to introduce his new Mother and Child. "A lot of guys are just plain afraid of women, so if you make them difficult it's even worse, but I find difficult women intriguing."
Mother offers another superb showcase for powerful acting. The stories of three Los Angeles women--physical therapist Karen (Annette Bening), independent careerist lawyer Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), and bakery owner Lucy (Kerry Washington)--interlock over 125 minutes, winding through personal calamities and intense emotional displays en route to exploring their lives: One woman had to give a child up for adoption when she was young, one wants to adopt because she's incapable of becoming pregnant, and one who finds herself pregnant despite never considering motherhood before. It's calmly poignant, casually humorous, and disarmingly moving at times, and despite its subtle temperament, clings to the memory long after you've left the theater. (Bret McCabe)
City Paper : How did this story come about? Did it start out being about three women and their relationships?
Rodrigo García: It didn't, and it didn't even start off being about adoption. What interested me was this idea of people who live with an absent person in their lives--a ghost, someone who moved away, or left you, or remarried, or was exiled, or died, or whatever. People who sometimes have this presence with all those questions--where are they now?--at anniversaries, birthdays, all that stuff. That's what interested me.
CP : In that process of writing, is that where you developed who these women were, what their backgrounds were, and how their stories were going to interlace? Because one of the things I like about the movie is how you're constantly learning more and more about the women as the movie progresses.
RG: Usually my point of departure is a situation like this, and I know I want to go to 35 years later, and then I start thinking about what the main twists and turns are going to be, and I have a good idea of how it's going to end. But as far as who the women are and how they behave, I discover that as I write scene to scene. I could not have told you what Karen was like at the beginning. I knew she was a woman who had never recuperated, but that harsh behavior of hers, the way she had sort of shut the door on life, is something that I discovered as it unfolded. That, of course, is difficult, but it's pleasurable.
CP : How did you go about working with the actresses to realize those characteristics onscreen? Was it a rehearsal process or just they take what's on the page to inform their decisions?
RG: I had a couple of conversations, of course, you want to have a conversation even before people agree to be in the movie. But I don't like to tell them how it should be played. I think the biggest piece of direction is the script, provided you agree on the script. If there's disagreement or the script is undercooked, then you risk all sorts of misunderstandings. That's when sets get ugly. But I agreed with all three of them. It's almost as if I say to an actress, "These are the facts, these are the events, this is the behavior," and if an actress can tell me, "I understand her, I can make sense of her," that's enough for me.
CP : I was asking primarily because although it's a movie made up of a number of short scenes, none of them are throwaway, none of them is inconsequential or insignificant, and they're all fairly personal and emotional. I was just curious how that was as a shooting process.
RG: That was in the script. I knew that I had a long and complicated story, and I didn't want it to be a four-hour movie, so I really wanted to just have--you know, the average scene in the movie is less than a page, often they're half a page. I was thinking let's get going, make the point, and move on--not in an effort to movie quickly, but just in an effort to say, How much can I say without saying it?
And, you know, it's always risky, and I don't want to point to a moment because I don't want to spoil it for the audience that hasn't seen it. There are things that I'm less happy with in the sense that the line between things that you don't say that contribute to an interesting mystery and things that you don't say that get confusing--[laughs] you know what I mean?--that's a very thin line and I think in the movie I'm mostly on the side of intriguing, but I didn't want to push that. How much can we not say and have people come to that thought--and the same thought?
CP : I take it Lucy was the last woman brought into this storyline? Because she's my favorite.
RG: She was, but years ago--I started writing the script 11 years ago. For a year, it might have been just Elizabeth and Karen, and then Lucy was discovered and then there was the three of them for a long, long time. But Lucy gave me that counterpoint, and Lucy had a more active pursuit. The other women, I was just sort of seeing their behavior, how they face the world. But they did not have an active pursuit. They wanted to avoid connection--a passive active pursuit.
CP : And Lucy introduces another set of mother-daughter type relationships--her relationship with her mother, her mother-in-law, the young pregnant woman.
RG: And with the nun, she's dealing with four mothers, but none of them is a maternal figure, I think. I really enjoyed, and I think this is something that [S.] Epatha [Merkerson] did very well--there was some of it in the script but she really developed it beautifully--is that the mom starts off as fairly frivolous, a little ditsy. She's this mom in the bakery being a bit of a pest. And that woman grows at the end, when she puts Lucy in her place, you see the dimension, the maturity.
CP : And she does put Lucy in her place, flatly telling her to show up and be the mom.
RG: I never thought of that as a funny scene, but people think it's hysterically funny. Together with that clumsy courtship between Karen and Paco, those are the moments that people find the most funny.
CP : I also like the first meeting between Lucy and Ray [Shareeka Epps] in the nun's office. It's the first time Lucy is, in that room, herself instead of who she thinks she needs to be.
RG: She's forced to be herself. And I think, also, David Ramsey who plays her husband and hardly has a word, is so good at letting us know how vulnerable they are, how worried he is for his wife, how worried he is that this woman may not come through, and also his own doubts. You wonder if he's already on board.
CP : And you're reading it entirely on his face. So when you say you don't like to give too much direction on set, how do you go about achieving such a clarity of vision? Are you just trusting the actors?
RG: That scene, in particular, I remember seeing a rehearsal on the set and feeling that they had nailed it. It was just there. You know, I think one of the good things about having such good luck with casts, everyone comes at the top of their game. Everyone knows who else is in it. It's a little ruthless to say, but I do see that. People come in and it's Cherry Jones--and you come in prepared.
CP : It was also nice to see some of these people somewhat against type. Samuel L. Jackson as this subdued, elder statesman figure is very refreshing. Did he come to mind for this role?
RG: I honestly, for a long time, didn't think it could be Sam. Obviously, anyone would be lucky to have Sam in their movie, so it was a disturbing thought for me. Julie [Lynn], my producer, always thought it should be Sam, and I had doubts just because I didn't quite see it. And I was also agonizing over, Really? You're not going to ask Sam Jackson to be in your movie? He plays so many larger than life characters, and he does it beautifully. Sam can play these incredibly egocentric extroverts and he never overacts. He's one of those few actors who can act to the roof, but never through the roof. It's miraculous. But then I was reminded of this movie he did, Changing Lanes, which I really loved and he played a man really beaten up by the world. And that was nothing like this character, but so different from those other winners that he plays that I thought, Oh, I'd forgotten about that. And we offered him the script and the next morning he called back to say, "Yes, I want to do it." And, again, we didn't need to talk about it, he just saw it and understood it cold.
CP : It was also nice to see a multi-ethnic and racial Los Angeles that didn't feel the need to remark about that aspect of itself.
RG: It came out of the characters. I first wrote Karen and Elizabeth, and they were Caucasian women. Paco just came to me as a Latin guy--he was always called Paco. When I wrote that scene between Elizabeth and her boss, I just thought he should be an African-American man of 60, which just gave him a nice gravitas and something good. And later when I invented Lucy and her husband, they just seemed to me African-American, because I like seeing a sort of yuppie, bourgeois African-American couple with a lot of success in some areas but I wanted to see them face what a lot of bourgeois couples face, whether you're black or white.
Once I had everyone's age, sex, and color, I started seeing how that could play into it. So it wasn't written for it, but I did take it into account, but I always wanted it to be in the background. I didn't want it to speak, and as it turns out, it speaks more loudly by being in the background. I was scared of it--I didn't want it to be the Benetton movie. That's probably why I pushed it to the background.
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