Interview: ‘Wildlife’ screenwriter Zoe Kazan talks making a female character ‘feel like a whole person’

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

Zoe Kazan

Zoe Kazan isn’t particularly surprised by some of the criticism that some have leveled at the main female character in “Wildlife,” the acclaimed period drama she penned with her partner, Paul Dano.

“I think some of the criticism about ‘Oh, is she unlikable? Is she unsympathetic?’ feels really misplaced to me. It feels like it has more to do with the way we as a society think about who and what a mother should be and what a wife should be than it is really about this character,” Kazan told me in a recent phone interview.

“I think that we have impossibly high standards for women, and we treat them as sort of like sacrosanct or like imaginary in some ways, when, really, everybody in this world is just struggling to get by.”

The directorial debut for Dano, a Golden Globe-nominated actor (“Love & Mercy”), the 1960 period drama centers on a teenager named Joe (Ed Oxenbould, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”) who watches his parents’ marriage crumble shortly after the family moves from Idaho to Montana.

The film is based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel “Wildlife,” with which Kazan said her partner felt a “huge surge of self-identification.” The couple optioned the book themselves and spent three years co-writing the script — Dano’s first and her second after their 2012 collaboration “Ruby Sparks” (in which the couple co-starred) – between acting projects.

The film introduces Joe’s father, Jerry (Oscar nominee Jake Gyllenhaal, “Brokeback Mountain”), when the man is literally on his knees, charmingly tending to members at the local golf course. Jerry is soon fired for not knowing his place among the big-wigs.

Carey Mulligan in “Wildlife”

Joe’s mother, Jeanette (Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan, “An Education”), reacts to the news with falsely cheery optimism that doesn’t conceal her been-there, done-that frustration; it’s clear this isn’t the first time that her impractical and perpetually beer-buzzed spouse has lost his job and left the family in a tough spot.  Her happy-housewife facade crumbles when Jerry, tired of pride-busting menial jobs, joins the team of amateur firemen dispatching into the nearby mountains to fight wildfires.

Left to fend for herself and her son, Jeanette meets Mr. Miller (Bill Camp), a divorced and wealthy used-car magnate, while teaching swim lessons. She sets about to find her own version of a better life by pursuing an affair with the richest man in town.

The film has earned widespread critical praise, especially for Mulligan, who is considered a dark horse to earn her second career Oscar nomination.

But not everyone has been a fan of the Mulligan’s character. During a Q&A at the New York Film Festival, one male audience member criticized Mulligan’s character Jeannette as “completely reprehensible” and “unsympathetic,” reports.

“We’re all too used to only seeing women behaving really well (in movies),” Mulligan responded. “When we see them out of control or struggling it doesn’t ring true because of everything we’ve been brought up to understand that women are always perfect and can do anything. That’s an unrealistic expectation of a woman. Seeing real humanity on-screen can be really jarring from a female perspective.”

Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano

During the writing process, Kazan and it was vital to her and Dano to make Jeanette “feel like a whole person.”

“It was a challenge because she’s seen through the eyes of her son, and her son doesn’t really understand her or understand what either of his parents is going through,” said Kazan, whose acting credits include “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “The Big Sick.”

“That confusion, that sense of the mystery of one’s parents, is integral to the story we were trying to tell. We couldn’t explain her to the audience – it would be breaking with the source material too much – but we did feel like we had to bring a sense of empathy to her and allow a little window into who she was and what she was going through. So that was a very delicate balance to try to strike.”

In addition, Kazan said they also wanted to treat the struggling parents equitably, to not judge Jeanette’s actions more harshly than Jerry’s just because she is the wife and mother.

“One of the reasons that I haven’t been surprised by some of the reactions to that character is because I guess I anticipated in some ways that they (some audiences) would hold her to a higher standard than they hold him,” said Kazan, who with Dano recently welcomed her first child.

“When in reality, both of these characters – Jake Gyllenhaal’s character and Carey Mulligan’s character – are both sort of dropping the ball on their parenting duties in this. He’s dropping it rather literally by leaving. She doesn’t have the option to leave, so she is trying to find herself while still trying to be present for her son. … I think that really the (Jeanette) character is struggling with the expectations that are put on her to perform a certain archetype of wife and mother. I think she is having that trouble herself.”

Having both male and female screenwriters on a project isn’t necessarily required to achieve that sort of equality in storytelling, Kazan said.

“I have written a lot of male characters, and I would say that Paul has very highly developed feminine side. So, we definitely weren’t, like, each just representing the character of our gender,” she said.

“How we came at it differently is that I think Paul had a very strong sense of self-identification with this boy, with Joe … remembering what it was like for him seeing his parents struggle and their marriage go through real challenges and the impact that that had on him. … For me, reading it, I felt much more aligned with the parents, just based on my own life experiences. So, I kept reminding him that we had to see things from their side, too.”

Although they didn’t write “Wildlife” with Mulligan specifically in mind, Kazan said she and Dano are thrilled their friend took the role.

“As we were starting to put the film together, as soon as we realized that Carey was at a viable age for the part, we focused on her because she’s such an extraordinary actress,” Kazan said. “Obviously, getting to work with a friend is a wonderful feeling, but above and beyond that, I think she’s just this really remarkable talent and unbelievably hard-working. We were so lucky she signed on to this – I still can’t believe how lucky.”


0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 0 Flares ×
explore: | | |