Rodrigo Garcia’s latest film, Mother and Child, is that rarest of rarities these days: a serious film about motherhood that does not resort to clichés and stereotypes but explores what is for many women the central experience of their lives without either denigrating it or dismissing it.
The director’s work, which here encompasses screenwriting as well, has long been characterized by intensely personal storytelling, and he’s famous for standing aside to actors to work freely in developing their charaters.
“I think if the script works and you’ve cast the right person,” Garcia says, “you’re probably well on your way to the performance working.”
From TV series including Big Love, Six Feet Under, Carnivàle, and The Sopranos, to films such as Nine Lives and Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, Garcia has shown, again and again, that his process works just fine.
Garcia spoke with MaryAnn Johanson in New York.
MARYANN JOHANSON: We hear female actors and movie fans complain that there aren’t lots of strong interesting parts for women, there aren’t a lot of interesting stories being made about women. Do you agree with that?
RODRIGO GARCIA: Yes. Of course, there are good ones. This summer Lisa Cholodenko and Nicole Holofcener are coming out with good ones. But sadly, yes. Actresses complain that often they are “the girl in the movie,” and that’s frustrating. And as actresses grow older, after the age of 40, good roles are harder to come by.
JOHANSON: Why do you think that is? Why aren’t people making more interesting movies about women?
GARCIA: I think it’s a combination of things. I think the market is driven by young boys who go to the cineplex to watch the same movie two or three times. So that might have something to do with it. These adult dramas that studios used to make, they don’t make them anymore. Adults over 38, 39 have so many ways to see entertainment: on demand, at home. And adult dramas are getting competition from some very good TV series, like The Sopranos and Dexter and The Wire, series that are often better than the movies that are made. I think the women thing is a problem, but I think it’s a problem now of the adult drama. I don’t think any studio right now would make Ordinary People.
JOHANSON: If there were more adult dramas in multiplexes, do you think that would draw more adults? Or is it something more than that?
GARCIA: I don’t know if adults like to go to multiplexes anymore, with what the movie theater has become. I know adults go to theaters that offer foreign movies, or speciality or arthouse movies, and multiplexes with bars or restaurants — these are a little more adult. That attracts a certain viewer.
JOHANSON: You’ve said that “women characters are the strongest tools you have” and that you like learning through your characters, that you like learning what it means to be another human being. And also that you learn from the actors about your characters.
GARCIA: I like male characters and I’m happy with the ones I’m writing now, but, overall it’s more exotic for me to write women. I get to imagine what they’re like. In my imagination I almost have a physical sense of what a woman’s mind might be like. Of course that’s bullshit, it’s just my imagination, but it’s rich enough in my imagination that I can say, “Okay, she’ll be this and she’ll be that and she’ll be the other.” It takes me somewhere. It’s fun.
JOHANSON: You’ve also mentioned the difficulties and the intrigue involved with working with nudity on film. Have you worked with male actors doing nudity, and is it different?
GARCIA: There’s a prudish element that you can show breasts and you can show women’s pubic hair but if you show a penis, then that takes your movie to another level. I don’t agree with that, but that is the way it is in the U.S. Actually, until I did Mother and Child, I had never had nudity in my movies, because they were about women and so I didn’t feel good having breasts shots in movies that are about the world of women: it felt exploitive. But in this case, I wanted to see that Kerry’s relationship with her husband was really hot, and it was just that thing with not having the baby that was driving the wedge, and in the case of Elizabeth, her body is her weapon. So I felt that that was a strong requirement. But until these two scenes, I’d never had any female nudity. Oh, in fact, in Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, I did have a man naked from behind. I thought that since the movie was about women, it was appropriate to have a supporting man naked in that movie.
JOHANSON: Your stories — TV and film — are very intensely told, from very much inside the characters’ psyches. Are you drawn particularly to those kinds of stories?
GARCIA: I’m drawn to the story where the conflict is between a person and the person they’re in love with, or their sibling, their child, their parent. I like what they used to call the kitchen-sink drama. You know, we don’t need to invade Poland, it can all happen here in the kitchen with the conflicts that we have at home.
JOHANSON: Mother and Child felt to me like what they used to call “women’s pictures,” the old studio melodramas like Douglas Sirk used to make. Was that a conscious choice, to harken back?
GARCIA: It wasn’t a conscious choice in relation to those movies. I don’t like movies that reference other movies. I’m not a movie buff in that sense. But when I did my research for this movie — reading memoirs and doing interviews with women who had gone through closed adoptions 30, 40, 50 years ago — I found so many real twists and turns in these stories that were melodramatic. The lost letter: that’s a staple of these stories. People finding out that they lived and worked in the same building for five years. Change encounters. Strong emotions. So yeah, it’s risky, and I’m sure there are people who see the movie and think it’s too melodramatic, but I didn’t think it should be dry, either. I thought it should be about big feelings.
JOHANSON: In this film, you’re working with three stars at different stages of stardom. Kerry Washington is just starting out, on her way to stardom. Naomi Watts is right in the middle: she’s hot now. And Annette Bening is like this goddess of cinema. Does that make any difference while working with them?
GARCIA:: It didn’t. When you take on a movie like this, everyone knows what they’re signing up for. There’s very little money — everyone basically makes the same money. We shoot very quickly. I think the way they work is more influenced by who they are than where they are in their career. All three were very hardworking. I always feel like I’m very disappointing when I’m asked about working with them, because I have no anecdotes. It was very easy. They came prepared. They bring their own personalities. With Annette it’s a lot of seriousness, a lot of preparation. She knew the script, not just her section but all three sections, incredibly well, spoke about them with a lot of authority, just had a complete command of the movie as she saw it. Naomi had had a baby five weeks before — she must have been exhausted but if she was, you couldn’t tell. She was also very focused. I don’t know when she found time to do her prep. And Kerry is a dynamo. She has many lives, everything from politics to sponsoring products to acting in the theater and movies. But she came in and was all ready to go.
JOHANSON: You actually photographed Naomi while she was pregnant. That must have been a nice bonus.
GARCIA: It was! We were gonna shoot the movie earlier, but then she became pregnant so we pushed, and before we started production, we came here to New York to shoot her. That’s her real belly and her baby kicking…
JOHANSON: Did her pregnancy change anything about how you wanted to make the film?
GARCIA: No. Just that one small scene, which didn’t exist before. It was nice to see her belly, and to see that something about her character had softened. When we left her, she was still very hardened, but now the old driven Elizabeth was now happy just looking at her belly.
JOHANSON: I was struck by that moment in the film because it looked fantastic, it looked so real. And I thought, How did he do that? Is it CGI?
GARCIA: We couldn’t afford CGI!
JOHANSON: You mentioned before how quickly you worked shooting this film. Is that a holdover from your TV work, or do you just like to work fast?
GARCIA: I have to, because the budget is too small, so we can’t afford to move slowly. But yes, working in TV, it takes away your fear of not being able to deliver.
JOHANSON: Do you think it gives a film a different energy if you shoot faster?
GARCIA: I like to shoot fast. We shot this movie in 29 days. I wish it had been 33, 34, just to take off that ugly edge. But I wouldn’t have done it in 50.
JOHANSON: What’s next?
GARCIA: I have a lot of what I call irons in the freezer. The most likely right now is a movie called Albert Nobbs, which Glenn Close cowrote, and she’s coproducing together with Bonnie Curtis, a good friend and producer, and Julie Lynn, who’s one of the producers of Mother and Child. It’s a movie set in 19th-century Ireland, and if we can get it all together, we’ll do it this summer with Glenn and Orlando Bloom and Amanda Seyfried.
JOHANSON: What actresses would you like to work with?
GARCIA: Well, there are many, of course. I’d like to work with Samantha Morton, I’d like to work with Queen Latifah, I’d like to work with Viola Davis. There are a lot of good actresses out there.
JOHANSON: Do you write specifically with actresses in mind, even if you don’t end up casting them?
GARCIA: Yeah, you always need a reference. it’s always helpful.
JOHANSON: You’re clearly drawn toward stories about women. Do you find yourself coming up with stories for male characters?
GARCIA: A couple of things I’m writing now have leading men in them. Or one of them might be about a husband and a wife. It’s balancing out a little bit. I don’t think I could ever move away completely from the trip to the woman’s head.