Adapted from acclaimed author Alice Munro’s iconic 2001 short story, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” director Liza Johnson brings us the gripping story of “Hateship Loveship.” The story focuses on Johanna Parry (Kristen Wiig), a profoundly shy, unadorned woman who is hired by Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) as a housekeeper and a primary caregiver to his granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Despite her outgoing nature, Sabitha carries wounds from the death of her mother years before, complicated by the circumstances of that death for which her grandfather still blames her father, Ken (Guy Pearce), a hapless recovering drug addict with a certain ragged charm. In an act of mean-spirited rebellion, Sabitha uses technology to foster a pseudo-relationship between Johanna and her father, never dreaming of the potential harm to either party. Sabitha doesn’t understand that Johanna is not a demure cut-out, but rather a woman for whom the phrase “still waters run deep” could have been coined. The young girl’s interference provokes Johanna to indulge in something long missing from her life: the dream of a future and a home of her own. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with director Liza Johnson to discuss her career, the making of ‘Hateship Loveship’ and the challenges of bringing it to the screen.
I wanted to go back to your early years. What initially attracted you to the world of filmmaking?
I have always loved movies but when I was young, it wasn’t like I always wanted to make movies. When I was in art school, I studied more in a kind of tradition of video and film that you would see in museums or a gallery. Over time, as I worked in that tradition, I kept doing stuff with stuff with performers and things that had a bit of a story in them. At a certain point, I just thought “If I am going to push this work, it would be a movie.” [laughs] I started to think about it and it is a little bit of a different economic context and exhibition context, so I tried to learn. I did things like going to the labs at The Sundance Institute and that helped me understand some of the difference between the tradition I had been working in before and the one I am working in now.
Who were some of the inspirations who helped shaped see the artist we see today?
That is a hard question and always an embarrassing question too. I think it is fine to be aspirational but at times it makes me feel bloated and ridiculous. “Oh yeah, I really like Robert Altman?” If I say that then I am sure people will say, “Yeah, well you are no Robert Altman!” [laughs] For sure the cinema of the 70s has been influential to be, such as Altman and Cassavetes. I also really admire writers and filmmakers that take a really bold point of view. I am not sure I do that in the same way but I feel like writers like Lynne Tillman or directors like Kelly Reichardt inspire me with the way they take a very bold point of view with what they do.
Your latest film is “Hateship Loveship.” How did you get involved with this project and what was it about the material that made you want to pursue it in film form?
The screenwriter, Mark Poirier, who is also a lovely literary writer, brought it to me. I think he thought I would be attracted to the main character. He was right! I just really loved the way she comes from a world where it doesn’t do her any good to what the things she can’t have. Then when she has to move into this new world, she really lights on fire with desire for something and has to figure you how to realize her desire. I just found that to be really beautiful and tense when you she her struggle to do that.
Going into shooting, how did you prepare yourself to tackle this film stylistically?
I felt that in some ways it should be in a classical style. I really had a great team on this movie. I worked with the cinematographer, Kasper Tuxen. We looked at a lot of movies that have been shot with available light or work hard to create a style of a realistic, everyday world. I wanted to be accountable for the author of the source material, Alice Munro, who I think is so beautiful at writing the inner lives of everyday people who live in an everyday world. Her characters don’t live in styled, film noire world or a fantasy world. They live in the same world you and I live in. That was important to Kristen [Wiig] too. The first time we ever met we talked about what the world would look like. Kasper has a lot of range as a stylist and was really smart about how available light could make the world feel like the world I wanted to achieve on-screen. We also worked closely with two designers, one of which was Hannah Beachler. She is a production designer who also did the film “Fruitvale Station’. In the tradition I have been working in, I often don’t have an art department and I sometimes just shoot on raw locations, which always brings something to the situation. Usually, there is something accidental in the frame that is unexpected and that can be bad or good. When you have an art department, they can go in there and clean out all the dirt at the location and put back their own perfectly ordered dirt! [laughs] Hannah was a really good collaborator because she was interested in trying to make a controlled world that also feels like it has the randomness and sense of accident that real life has. We shot a lot on real locations. She designed, styled and dressed them but you try to be sensitive to the idea that everyday life has a lot of randomness in it. We tried to make a look that has the quality of realness and surprise. Likewise with the costume designer, she is a very character driven costume designer and she tried to really think about what kinds of clothes would be available to Johanna in the world she is coming from, how would she look different from the other people around her in the new world she goes to. I would say between the three of them, they made a coherent style to the movie that feels like the style of everyday life or something really real, you know?
Absolutely. Another huge part of the realism of this film is your very talented cast. Was it difficult to land the right mix of people to bring it to life?
Actually, it wasn’t that difficult. It was really a great experience. I felt like Kristen would be the right person to play Johanna. I love her work and I think she is wonderfully talented. I also felt that she would be interested in this role thematically. I say that because a lot of the characters she has created are often very funny or broad. From being on Saturday Night Live, you have to convey that character in very short period of time. I felt like the characters I had seen her create, I felt like she would understand this woman. Once she decided to do the film with me, it was not very hard to attach other actors because I think actors are really good observers of one and others work. The first person Kristen and I thought of for the role of Ken was Guy Pearce. Guy Pearce is a really serious, super smart actor and of course, he wanted to be in a movie with Kristen because, well, it is kind of like sports. If you play with someone who is as good as you are; it raises your game. I feel like Guy instantly wanted to do it because he felt like it would be exciting to work with her. I think that was pretty much true throughout the cast. With that said, people who are massively talented like Jennifer Jason Leigh or Christine Lahti were not only attracted to the script and source material but knew it was going to be an ensemble with an incredible level of talent.
You can serve as a terrific inspiration to young filmmakers. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to those looking to explore a career in filmmaking?
Wow! Well, for me, and it could be different for other people, the thing that has helped me the most is having a really good community of like-minded people who are doing their own project that others may find eccentric! [laughs] Living in a support world of other people who might be directors, actors, writers, scholars or painters and having them not be cynical, believe they can get their work done has been eye-opening. Sometimes it is hard to stay in the game and it really helps to build a world around you where people have common interest and common struggles. That is the thing that has helped me the most.
Thank you so much for your time today, Liza. I enjoyed the film and look forward to spreading the word on this and all of your future projects!
Thank you, Jason. It’s been a pleasure!
Liza johnson’s ‘Hateship Loveship’ hits select theaters and VOD on April 11th.