Saturday, February 11, 2012

Five Cool Women on "The Women"

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Five Cool Women on "The Women"

(from 1/10/08)

The 1939 version of "The Women," directed by George Cukor, scripted by Anita Loos, and starring the marvelous and underrated Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, and Mary Boland is such a classic that diehard film fanatics may be resistant to the new version that goes into wide release this Friday. But writer-director Diane English (the creator of "Murphy Brown") has assembled an irresistible group of actresses that you-and I'm talking about men as well as women-may find yourself being to the theater to see Meg Ryan (whose husband has left her for a Sachs sexpot), Annette Bening, Jada Pinkett Smith, Debra Messing, Eva Mendes, Bette Midler, Carrie Fisher, Cloris Leachman, Candice Bergan, and Debi Mazar (as a gossip-spreading manicurist). At this Wednesday's New York press junket for the film, I participated in the following three roundtables, with Diane English, Eva Mendes and Debi Mazur, and Meg Ryan and Jada Pinkett Smith. I my questions:
Roundtable with Diane English
Q: How do you feel that comparisons already are being made between "The Women" and "Sex and the City" movie?
Diane English: We came way before "Sex and the City." My script was in existence even before Candace Bushnell had the idea for the series. But we're very happy to ride its coattails because we struggled to get this film made. The financing was really hard to come by because it has an all-female cast and we didn't have a television series to proceed it. We were ready before "Sex and the City," but it came out before us. That proved to be beneficial to us because they ran our trailer with it and introduced audiences to our movie.
Q: This film was associated with a lot of directors over the years. How did it finally come to you?
DE: Some great directors came and went because of scheduling reasons. Imagine putting all these women together in one movie. For the original movie all the actresses were under contract with MGM so they were assigned to the film. This was a whole different situation, just trying to get the women together when their schedules jived. And guess who was available to direct it? Okay, I'll do it.I just kind of took it on myself and then I cursed the writer every day I was directing the movie.
Q: What about the sheer moxie of re-doing a classic?
DE: It's always a challenge and a risk to re-do a movie that is beloved by many people. I did a lot of homework and discovered that George Cukor didn't particularly like the film he made. That gave me permission to re-imagine it. You can remake a movie if you have something new to say, and I think we did. So much has changed since 1939. The old movie was very negative toward women. It was very much women against women. The tag line was: "'The Women'-It's All About Men." Our movie is really about the women and it's a celebration of women. The story is the same, because it's universal: What happens when a woman finds out her husband has been unfaithful? The reaction of the women in the original starring Norma Shearer was, pretty much, glee. They took a lot of pleasure in the dissolution of her marriage. But our women rally around Meg Ryan. That's the big change. Because if you're modernizing it, you have to do more than put the women in modern clothes. You've got to change attitudes as well.
DP: Speaking about jobs. In the original, the women who are the idle rich don't work. So did you think it important to give them jobs to make it current?
DE: Well, one of them doesn't work. Debra Messing's character is one of those ladies who's looking for her thing in life and doesn't realize that being a mom is the greatest thing for her. Women have very big lives now-we're mothers, daughters, and wives, and have jobs, and have many options that make our lives more complicated. In the original film the women didn't work so couldn't so easily walk away from their marriages.
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Q: In the original, Sylvie is a nasty busybody who is actually related to Mary. Why did you separate them and give Sylvie the whole subplot of being a magazine editor?
DE: In the old film, Rosalind Russell was the Queen Bee backstabber. I crafted Annette's Sylvie in a very different way. I was much more interested in when best friends break up than when a man and woman break up. That was another spin I put on the movie. A breakup between friends can be even more painful, so in the writing I had to craft a very strong friendship between Mary and Sylvie so that Sylvie's betrayal of her has resonance. I wanted you to care more about whether the friends get back together than if Mary lets her husband back into her house.
Q: Did you want Eva Mendes's character to be a stereotype of a Latin spitfire?
DE: Sure, I wanted to create a stereotype! That was my intention! No, not at all. We auditioned lots of actresses for that part and it just happened that Eva, who is Cuban-American, was the right one for the role. So, why not cast her?
Q: What was it like coming from television to make your first feature, starring many film actresses?
DE: Actors go back and forth. On "Murphy Brown," we'd have great actors like Colleen Dewhurst, so working with movie actresses wasn't intimidating to me. But it's different, no question about it. Television is such incredible preparation for directing a feature. The show-runner on television is the one who makes all the decisions the director makes when making a feature. Having a hundred and fifty people in the crew staring at you and asking what they should do can be very daunting to someone directing a feature for the first time, unless they've had similar experiences. There's no borderline now between television and movies. But boy, you get a lot of toys when you direct a feature. We couldn't afford them all but we did get a crane. I used to deny cranes to my directors on television because they were too expensive. But the first thing I said I wanted was a crane and I wanted it twice! Now I have empathy. It's really nice to have a crane. We had a steadicam, a hand-held camera, a helicopter; we had some bells and whistles. We didn't have trailers so we had to sit on chairs to the side. We tried to put all the money on the screen. The budget was only $16.5 M. We went into production with $15.7 M. We seemed to be doing well with our dailies so they gave us a little more.
Q: What was the biggest challenge?
DE: It was shooting in New York City. Our first big shot in the movie is a crane shot on 5th Avenue between 49th and 50th. We had twenty-five production assistants stationed on each corner trying to keep men out of the shot. And you know that in New York nobody wants to be told that they can't walk from here to there. So we'd just about get it right and then...a bicycle messenger would pass through. And we'd stop and get on the walky-talkies and ask if it was a male or female messenger. Male. In this film, even the dogs are female. So we'd set up the scene again.
DP: Have you had or do you anticipate having a different reaction from men and women?
DE: We did have that anticipation, but something's happening that we weren't expecting. We've previewed the movie for what is called "integrated audiences"-and women bring the men. We see them come into the theater moaning and groaning and wanting to sit in back so they can leave early. But it turns out the men love it, sincerely so, especially the end. There are a lot of teary-eyed men at the end. That was a surprise.
Q: People say women don't go to movies. Do you think "The Women" can prove them wrong?
DE: The whole reason to make this movie was not only to put women up on the screen, where they often aren't, but also to bring them into the theaters. Because it is the conventional wisdom that women over twenty-five don't go to the movies. But guess what? "Sex and the City" did double what anyone thought it would do in its opening weekend. "Mama Mia" did the same thing. To some degree, so did "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2." Now it's our turn, hopefully. It's so important that if women are interested in seeing this movie that they go on the opening weekend, because that's when it's determined how long they'll keep the film in theaters. We want men to come to-it's not a man-bashing movie; we embrace men, too. We don't want this film to be a fluke hit; we want it to set a trend.

Roundtable with Eva Mendes and Debi Mazur
Q: Eva, what was it like to step into Joan Crawford's bubblebath?
Eva Mendes: That's a good way of putting it. I knew by accepting the role I was going to get a lot of criticism. But I was not going to try to please anybody. And of course, I wasn't going to try to emulate anybody-of course, she's Joan Crawford, for God's sake. Once I thought like that, the pressure was off. Diane and I came up with a different spin on the character and we made her less a vixen and more desperate and pathetic, which I had a lot of fun with.
Q: Did anything surprise you about working with an all-female cast?
Debi Mazur: The press junkets are really fun! We had only thirty-six days to shoot a movie, so we arrived to be in the movie in our characters, ready to go. So it wasn't like we had time to sit around discussing our periods. We were there to do our jobs,
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like on any other movie. The lead actresses had a little bonding pre-shooting session in Martha's Vineyard with Diane where they really discussed their characters and tried to tried to modify an old script and keep it modern.
Q: Playing the character, did you worry what Latin people would get upset?
EM: I can't put that pressure on myself. I can't worry about representing Latin people all the time. But I think they'll be proud that I played a character named Crystal Allen. Diane didn't change her name when I got the part.
Q: Has any female ever done to you, what you do to Mary?
EM: It has happened, not so blatantly. But I'm not a vindictive person. People think I'm fiery but in those kinds of situations I actually become very, very methodical and dangerously quiet, and I keep you closer than you should be.
Q: What do you think makes the bind between women becomes so strong?
DM: I don't believe men-your husband or boyfriend-need to know everything. I talk to my girlfriends more on a private level. Women ground each other. We can talk about everything. We give birth, we're a different animal.
EM: Well, I think we're the better species! Seriously, there is a sisterhood in my life that exists between my girlfriends who I've had since seventh grade that no man can come between. It's a great feeling knowing your girls are going to back you up no matter what. They will love you even when you're a total moron.
DP: When we met on the set of James Gray's "We Owned the Night," you said you went home and suffered every night. Did you suffer at night while making this film?
EM: Yeah, but I suffered with Joaquin Phoenix and James Gray. I loved suffering on that film but that was fitting for my character. That film was completely different. "The Women" was fun to make! It was just me and the girls. And it was me being fearless. You may think, "Oh, this is just a sexy character," but no, there had to be a sense of fearlessness to play her. It takes balls to play a character like her because I had to be okay with people not liking me. I went to the premiere and saw people's response to me. They were horrified. If they had tomatoes, they would have thrown them at the screen. I was fearless and had fun, and I took nothing home with me.

Meg Ryan and Jade Pinkett Smith Roundtable
Q: How frustrating has this journey been for you, having been attached to the film from the start?
Meg Ryan: You're giving me a lot more credit than I deserve. What it takes too be "attached" is zippo. It's Diane English who deserves the credit. For all those years, it would come together and fall apart and come together and fall apart and she had the same level of enthusiasm all the time. It was incredible to behold. She just loved the project and somehow it just all came together last year. Suddenly we were ready to shoot. We knew we had very little money and only thirty-six days to shoot.
Q: Jada, what was it like playing a lesbian?
Jada Pinket Smith: I loved it. I have a lot of gay friends but didn't need advice. It's been part of my world for a long time. I grew up in a huge arts community.
Q: Meg, what was it like to work with Candice Bergen?
MR: She was in my first movie, "Rich and Famous," which was directed by George Cukor, who made the first "The Women." I couldn't remember one line. I hadn't really seen her from then to now, so it was quite a little journey we've taken.
Q: What did you think of the original 1939 movie?
JPS: My mother loves the original one. She and my aunt went threw the roof when they found out that I might do the remake. What I liked about this new version is that Meg's character Mary can look at her situation and actually take responsibility for her happiness and pain. It's not only about pointing the figure and blaming her husband, but asking herself what she did wrong, too.
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MR: I love the original. I saw it a really long time ago and then purposely didn't see it again in anticipation of being in the remake. What I remember is how campy it is and how much fun it was to watch. The women all seemed to be having fun together. What I didn't want to do was that "noble suffering" that Norma Shearer did. I love that Mary in this version suffers in a messy way. She finally has to say to herself, "How did I help bring all this on myself? My father fired me from the business. My husband is cheating on me. My best friend is betraying me. I'm a failure as a mom. I don't know who I am." She gets into a crisis situation and realizes that she has to make some changes in herself. I think that's a modern view. It's also modern that the women need each. That wasn't really true in the 1939 version, where everyone is enjoying each other's misery.
Q: On the 1939 film, the cat-fighting back stage was legendary. It seems like there was a big love-in on this film. How did it happen?
JPS: It's the new woman, who takes a modern approach to how she sees herself and relates to other people.
MR: None of us knew each other more than casually, but during rehearsals we immediately got how we were all really different and we all had something to say that was different. By day two, we were all sharing ideas about what each other's characters should be doing! It was fun realizing we're different comediennes and have a real serious respect for one another. The secret joy of the whole experience was to watch how Annette Bening and Debra Messing did things. They were free to interpret their roles as they wanted. And I'd say, "Wow, how did they do that!"
Q: Was there anyone you worked with whom you always wanted to work with?
JPS: For me, it was wonderful to have the opportunity to work with Annette. In the scene we're all the car and I found myself getting caught up in watching her and I'd have to remind myself that I was in the scene, too. I'd have to snap out of it. I'd have to catch myself several times. She's such a veteran and she's seamless in her performance.
MR: There's a scene with the four of us where Sylvie confesses what she did to Mary and cries. That scene took sixteen hours to shoot because of all the camera angles and she cried ever time. She is a pro and unflappable. She's amazing.
DP: I think a key line in the film is when Mary's mother, played by Candice Bergen, tells her that her regret in life is that she didn't accomplish anything. Did that line resonate with you?
JP-S: That was a powerful line for me. That was one of the moments that really struck me. I know women in my life who get to forty and feel like that. They wonder where all the time went. Every day I wake up so blessed in every way. I've made good choices and bad choices and I feel you can't have success without failure. You've got to get up every day and grab the reins and go for it. And I'm just happy I've had the pitfalls I've had and happy I've had the success I've had. I embrace it all. If I left this planet today, I would leave fulfilled because I've done everything I've wanted to do up to this moment. If you talk to me tomorrow, there might be something missing. I've experienced everything I've wanted to.
MR: When she says stuff like that I want to stand up and applaud! I have to say that I also feel like a very satisfied and very happy person. However I've gotten there, and I've had ups and downs, I feel grateful.
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Q: Is there a difference working with Diane than the male directors you've had?
MR: I don't really think so. I've been directed by a lot of women who have masculine approach and a lot of men who have feminine aspects. It's not gender-specific. The difference in working with a woman is that you're the protagonist and they're interested in what your subtext is. With a man, you're more likely an object.
JPS: I did feel there was a difference. With Diane, there was an ESP thing, a fluid communication that went on. She could give me a look and I'd understand exactly what she needed from me. Sometimes I find it difficult when a male tries to explain to me his perception of what a female would do in certain situations. And I'd be skeptical. But with Diane it was different. And working with Cher when she directed "If These Walls Could Talk" for HBO was different, too. She wore a different outfit and changed her hair every two hours. I loved it. I love working with women because of the common language we share. Which isn't to say I don't also love working with men. Because with men, we have to dive in and dissect everything and we always learn something about one another. But I'm glad to be in this movie to support Diane and films directed and written by women. What I've learned most having written and directed by own film,"The Human Contract," is that you really have to understand the business and how it works to have real success. It's not enough to be a creative force--you have to get on the inside to make important change. I watch my husband. He understands the industry as a whole so he can manipulate it. So I think, "Okay, I'm going to do that. I'll figure this out." Because it's really not rocket science. It's doable, but we have to be smart about it to get more of these films made. We're still trying to figure it out. "The Women" will tell me a lot, coming after "Sex and the City" and "Mama Mia." If it does as well as I think it will, then I'll talk to you about my formula for the future.


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