At the premiere of “Hateship Loveship” last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, Liza Johnson knew the audience might be inclined to laugh a bit more at her adaptation of Alice Munro’s bittersweet short story a little more than was intended because of the film’s star Kristen Wiig. The reason why, however, would surprise her.
“It was a very responsive audience and they made noise or laughed all the time, like when something would be silent,” recalls Johnson. “And I think that was because Kristen was there and they wanted to show her at every moment they could understand what was happening between the lines.”
Although known for her grand gestures as a comedienne, it is in fact Wiig’s ability to convey her character Johanna’s desire to get something greater out of life than her current station as a caretaker in mere glances that makes “Hateship Loveship” work as well as it does. That in turn is just one of many small details that the film draws on for the study of a quiet, introverted woman who only realizes her discontent when the granddaughter of her new client (Hailee Steinfeld), along with a friend, tricks her into thinking that the girl’s father (Guy Pearce) has taken an interest in her via an e-mailed thank you note.
But rather than play the situation for its comic potential, though “Hateship Loveship” certainly has its moments with even Nick Nolte looking spry, Johnson and screenwriter Mark Poirier (responsible for the similarly slow simmering “Smart People”) use it as the starting point for a more considerate exploration of coming out of one’s shell, with Johanna perhaps foolishly inspired to put herself on the line, but finding that there are outcomes beyond embarrassment that make it worth the effort.
While the film never demanded a similar compromise of Johnson, it also represents a leap forward for the filmmaker who previously made the intimate coming home drama “Return” with a standout performance from Linda Cardellini and shortly before the film hits theaters, she spoke about how she was drawn to the film, the first she didn’t write herself, and making a love story for grownups.
You’ve said that you actually received a script for this before reading Alice Munro’s original short story. Was that an interesting way to approach an adaptation?
The story is really lovely and if I had read it first, I probably wouldn’t have thought I should do a movie of this just because it’s so literary and it goes so interior into the minds of the characters in a way that you can do so beautifully – or I can’t, but Alice Munro can, in the form of literary fiction. The most important moments [for the characters] are the realizations they have inside their mind. So I was actually really glad I read the script first where it had been plotted out and I could really feel her characters doing a set of actions that you could photograph.
Then I was really excited when Mark brought [the script] to me – I worked with him a little bit before we sent it to Kristen – and in that process, we went back into the story a lot to make sure that we were giving the characters their due and be accountable to [Munro’s] tone because she creates such a strong atmosphere. There were a lot of things that must be different so that they can be a movie, but she’s a really beloved writer and it would just be really strange if we tried to go in a totally different direction than her intention.
You seem to strike a really nice balance between the influence of Munro’s Canadian gentility and the details of people hardened by American small-town life. Did you find that was an easy mix?
I’m from Ohio and Alice Munro is from Ontario and there are a lot of differences between Canada and the United States, but there are also some things in common in that kind of Midwestern regional context of people who are maybe a little bit taciturn, probably coming from a Protestant tradition. If we had moved it to a different part of North America like Miami or San Diego, I think the characters would do completely different actions. But there were a lot of regionalist traits in her story that I related to and thought made sense in a contemporary world, since her story is set in the ‘40s.
I’ve heard you say you liked the distance of not being a writer on the film, though obviously you did some work with Mark. What did that give you?
It gave me a lot. Mark is a friend of mine, so we did get to work on it, but it’s really refreshing to have another person with story skills at your service. Mark’s also a very good fiction writer and he’s just very good at story stuff, so that was great and in some ways, it’s also freeing. I wrote my other film and it was very hard for me to rethink it. You rethink a film when you write it, you rethink it when you’re shooting it and then you rethink it again when you edit it, and in this case, it was not as hard for me to rethink on set. Once we had a scheduling problem and we had to cut some shooting time, it was much easier to cut some things that Mark wrote than I would’ve [laughs] or to respond to what I was seeing. I had a little bit more distance from it than if I had labored on it for years, writing it myself. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t attached to what he wrote, but I’m just not as attached as if I had created it myself.
Aesthetically, this felt like a tighter, more controlled film than “Return” was – whereas that film embraced realism and “Hateship Loveship” exists in a real world, there’s the remove of watching a film because of its style. Did you want something a little heightened in that regard?
In both films, I wanted it to feel like a realistic world, so both of them use a lot of available light and work off of real locations. I had a really good collaboration both with the cinematographer Kaspar Tuxen and the production designer Hannah Beachler and in the film, we concentrated on trying to create a style of an everyday world that everyday people would live in. But although it’s still a very small movie, I had a lot more help [that “Return”]. I had a fuller crew and happier, more unionized workers, so I think I was able to control the style more. I quite love how “[Return”] is shot, but it’s definitely something that we shot in emergency conditions.
Is Johanna a difficult central character to hang a film on? One of my favorite things about the film is that she’s admirably average – not exceptionally smart or dumb or weak or strong, but I imagine that could be drummed out during the development process where boldness in one direction or another might’ve been suggested to appeal to a broader audience.
I think that the character is perfectly smart, but it’s part of the milieu that all of the people in it are everyday people. They have the same limitations and the same emotional blocks and same skills that we have. They’re not heroic, they’re not better than us. They maybe make some good decisions, they maybe make some bad decisions and for me, that’s what I really like about the world of the movie. It’s very easy to empathize with because in many cases, the people are a little bit blind to themselves. They don’t necessarily know what their intentions are or their intentions go way beyond what they thought would happen, like with the girls tricking [Johanna].
Even in the original story, it’s about how people affect each other, often not in the ways that they expect where they try to affect each other and get what they want, but [more in the sense that] as we go along colliding with each other, sometimes that generates horrible effects and sometimes it generates positive effects. In this case, it asks the question of whether we can accommodate one another as we bumble around together.
Has the meaning of the film changed for you since you finished it?
I just found more layers in it after we shot it. Alice Munro is not kidding around. She really put a lot of ideas into that story – it’s a very layered, complicated story and I went in there thinking about how interesting it was to see Johanna realize that she wants something and have to get it even though she really has to put herself at risk and potentially suffer humiliation.
Things have happened since then like [Manti Te’o] the football player who got the fake girlfriend. Then also everyone around me is always talking about their internet dating and the profile of somebody and whether they’re going to really be like that. Alice Munro doesn’t even have e-mail and I’m pretty confident that when she wrote the story [in 2001], she was not thinking about Internet dating, but it did make me feel like maybe that’s what love is — where you idealize someone in the beginning when you fall in love with them, then as time goes on, you either accommodate yourself to who they really are or you don’t.
I don’t think the story is an allegory. It’s about a very specific character and very specific things happen to her and she makes specific decisions, but as time has gone on, that has resonated for me as a problem that people are talking about every day. Johanna is tricked into falling in love with a false version of Ken, but it occurs to me that maybe that’s what we’re all doing all the time anyway. Having a grownup love story is what happens after that.
“Hateship Loveship” opens on April 11th in New York at the IFC Center and in Los Angeles at the Sundance Cinemas Sunset 5 on April 18th. It will also be available on VOD on April 11th.