Since THE WOMAN IN THE FIFTH is suffused with ambiguity, there’s a real sense of discovery for a viewer; I imagine there must have been one for you as well in pinpointing how best to handle Tom’s conflicts and contradictions.
I’ve never really had this kind of experience before: I wasn’t really sure what kind of movie we were making. Pawel came to see me in a play in London and we got along really well. He talked about the idea of Doug Kennedy’s book but was clear that it would just be a launching pad for his own, and I signed on to take this journey with him. We discovered the movie and the characters by diving into our own subconscious. The language and vocabulary of cinema is something he’s deeply immersed in. We had a lot of ideas about how to make the movie fun. It’s a portrait of madness, you know? And though it’s told from Tom’s point of view, he doesn’t see himself that way or even understand his own failings. Normally in film you ask, Are the characters likable? Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Those concerns weren’t really present in Pawel’s agenda. There was no genre he wanted to imitate. And it was incredibly exciting to work with him because of that.
How do you walk the tightrope between trying to serve a director’s vision and creating something of your own when embodying a character like Tom Ricks?
Tom reminded me of a character I played when I was a kid. I kept thinking about Todd Anderson in DEAD POETS SOCIETY and the little [prep school] jacket I had to wear in that film. What would have happened to him 20 years later? I try to make a film as personal as possible, each time I go in front of the camera, even if it’s some corny entertainment movie. I like to have that going on, and it makes it interesting for an audience as well. Tom is a guy who’s reaching midlife and not sure he can go on or that he has the tools for how to grow into a fully mature adult. He’s hitting a crisis point—or at least that’s where we find him when the movie opens.
You’re a writer and novelist—and also a father—so his struggles must have resonated with you on many levels.
Absolutely. I could really relate to Tom Ricks: early success, trying to figure out how to be [a better person]. We all have these ideas about how to be a parent before we have a kid, and then when you do have kids and get slapped against the daily nature of everything, it’s much more subtle than you imagined it to be. I tried to use that and put it into the movie. Pawel loves that – he really encouraged us to make this movie together, and that’s the fun of working with him.
Was there something in your first meeting with Pawel that you made you think: “This is a guy I can work with. He’s got good instincts.”
To be totally honest, I was so blown away by the voice in MY SUMMER OF LOVE and LAST RESORT and how unlike other movies they were, I knew I wanted to work with Pawel before I even met him. So it was a relief when we did meet because we got along well. He and I are very simpatico about our love of cinema. We both feel slightly out of fashion in the kinds of movies we love.
Pawel likes to workshop with his actors to create characters and shape the story. How did that jibe with your own process?
One of the things that’s unique about the way Pawel works is that we’d shoot for a period of time and then he’d take off for 10 weeks or so. Then he’d come back and rewrite the script based on what he learned in the editing. We didn’t “re-shoot” anything, or do different versions of the same scene. It was more like: “This character is interesting to me and I want to know more about him, so let’s write another scene for her.” Or “This character isn’t very interesting, so let’s cut that part of the story out.” Pawel and I worked really hard on my character. I went up to Oxford and we worked on the letter Tom was writing to his daughter, thinking it would be included in the movie. It wasn’t, but I think it helped us to know this guy’s inner life. It helped shape the editing of the movie, too. That’s the unpredictable part of collaboration, when you’re trying to discover a process. Pawel doesn’t have a rule sheet about filmmaking. He doesn’t have a shot list. He’s old school in his attempt to tell stories with, for lack of a better word, poetry. He doesn’t have any more of a game plan than John Ashbery does. He has things he wants to say, words he likes to use, and expressions he chooses to articulate them, and then we would just go and play on set. It was fascinating. And it was also incredibly frustrating at times, because you would pour yourself into a scene and then he would decide he didn’t like it and we should scrap the whole thing—after you’d spent the day crying!
As an actress, Kristin was in a precarious position with this role because it becomes increasingly unclear whether she’s a projection of the author’s mind.
Pawel’s really working in symbols and madness and love and death. It was really challenging. We came up with a lot of those scenes on the spot. What is a sex scene with that kind of character like? Well, it becomes more of a masturbatory scene, doesn’t it? I was so impressed with Kristin—she’s such a powerful presence. There aren’t many people who could embrace that.
The way Pawel shoots Paris is unlike anyone else…
He makes Paris look like Bulgaria! [Laughs]
Was it different on the other side of the camera, too?
Yeah, because the headspace was so different. It’s an anti-romance. I think Pawel enjoyed taking this dark, romantic study and placing it in the City of Lights. Because wherever you are in your head is where you are. You could live in Detroit and if you’re in love, the place is magical. And if you’re depressed, Paris can be bleak place.
Films about writers and artistic minds and the creative process often get it so wrong. Rarely do we get a strong sense of the inner life of an artist.
The process of creativity is easy to glamorize to the point that it becomes ridiculous. You can show a boxer boxing, but how do you make a film about William Faulkner? What’s interesting about him is not his drinking and his relationships, but his poetry. Can you name any great films about enlightenment? There’s an endless library of books about spiritual awakening, but it’s kind of impossible to film, because it’s all happening inside, and so does real creativity. I think Pawel did a nice job of showing the torture of that experience. You sense the only way that Tom can do anything positive with his feelings is through art, because it’s not going to happen in his daily life.
The symbolic analogue to his writing process is a basement room that he’s locked into where there are some pretty unsavory things happening outside the door.
Isn’t that fascinating? That’s where Pawel’s kind of a genius: Tom’s trying to find his inner muse and around him something horrible is happening that’s he’s complicit with. Maybe that’s a larger metaphor about trying to tell stories and win the Pulitzer when all around us is war and famine and the whole earth is falling apart. Or maybe it’s just that his life is outside that door—and it’s in a shambles.