“When we watch ourselves portrayed on screen only a piece of our experience is usually expressed. I wanted to get to the edges of not just motherhood, but a woman’s experience in the world.”
Oscar nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut with The Lost Daughter, which she adapted from Elena Ferrante’s novel, is an assured and poetic reflection on secrets spoken out loud. Following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, the film, which features powerhouse performances from Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, and Jessie Buckley, has already accumulated significant recognition as one of the best movies of 2021.
The Lost Daughter follows Leda (Olivia Colman), a middle-aged professor vacationing by the greek seaside, who becomes consumed with a young mother (Dakota Johnson) and daughter, triggering her own memories of the terror, confusion, and intensity of early motherhood. Jessie Buckley plays a younger Leda who is struggling to create space for her own desires while raising two daughters who demand her undivided attention.
The beauty of the film lies with Gyllenhaal’s reluctance to spell out exactly what each character is thinking and feeling, loading each line of dialogue with enough ambiguity to suggest a number of directions. The Kindergarten Teacher actress’s style of filmmaking is established from the film’s first moments, absorbing the spacious atmosphere of the seaside and encouraging the talented cast to intuitively explore their character’s beyond the screenplay.
“I never like a film where what the scene is about is articulated in the scene,” shares Gyllenhaal. “I’m much more interested in something that’s beyond words and how two ideas, or needs, vibrate against each other to say something that can only be said on film.”
Gyllenhaal spoke with Awards Focus about finding her voice as a director, the decision behind casting Coleman and Buckley as Leda at different ages, and the catharsis she found while bringing this story of motherhood to the screen.
Awards Focus: The Lost Daughter author Elena Ferrante recently gave a rare interview where she said the success of your adaptation is its faithfulness to betray. How did you balance remaining faithful to the novel while also finding your voice as a filmmaker?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I also read that Ferrante piece. She’s anonymous, you know that, right? I’ve never been able to speak with her. She wrote to me about the film after having seen it just a couple of days ago, but it was so much more extensive what she said in that piece. I love how she talks about the beauty of betrayal and I think she means that I found myself in the work, which is what she asked me to do from the beginning.
The book is in the first person, and it’s somebody explaining and describing how they feel, which rarely works cinematically. So I went about it the way that I go about working on the text as an actress. Why is this scene in the film and how can I use it to express what’s important to me to express?
As someone who watches movies, is also an actress, and now a director, I never like a film or scene where what the scene is about is articulated literally in the scene. I’m much more interested in something that’s beyond words and how two ideas or needs vibrate against each other to say something that can only be said on film. So that’s what I was trying to do. That’s what I was trying to create. That kind of puzzle of how do you distill what this scene is really about and then turn it into something cinematic.
AF: How did you land on Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley to play Leda, and what were the discussions about how they would play each version of the character?
Gyllenhaal: What became clear to me was that the biggest risk was the 20 year age difference. How do you deal with that? When I was adapting I realized to not worry about the logistics and write that you can stretch an actress’s age in any direction and deal with the logistics later.
I considered aging an actress up or down, but that seemed really goofy to me. Then I decided that I wanted the two most incredible actresses. I didn’t care if they looked alike. What I realized is that no grown person is going to actually believe that Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley are the same person. They’re two totally formidable, formed, brilliant artists. So, trying to trick the audience I think would piss people off and would make them revolt.
Instead, I thought the thing we have to do is make a kind of poetic agreement where, for the purposes of our film, we’re going to ask you, intelligent people, to believe that they’re the same person for two hours, knowing of course that they aren’t. Then they can totally express themselves freely, and the actresses had nothing to do with each other. Jessie basically shot her stuff first in a little mini-movie, and then Olivia came and did her scenes.
The differences between them I think are really helpful in the storytelling to see someone go from being this buoyant bright light that Jessie is to all the complications of what Olivia is, and it tells you a lot about a life.
AF: It seemed like the way the film is edited was to build a connection between the two time periods so it was unquestionably the same character.
Gyllenhaal: I love my editor, Affonso Gonçalves. I think what we were trying to create was the way memory actually works, that something pops in and you don’t even know that it’s popped in sometimes. The path through the movie is getting inside of this woman’s mind. There is this thriller structure that you can hang your hat on, but if you try to follow that as your roadmap through the movie I think you’ll be kind of bored (Laughs). Really if you want to get in and take the trip, you have to get into her mind, so I think then it’s fair enough to trip out on a memory here and pop back in here.
AF: The scene where young Leda meets the hikers seems to be a turning point. Do you think the trajectory of her life might’ve been different had she not seen them as examples of how she could live her life, no matter the consequence?
Gyllenhaal: Yes, I think that’s why it’s in the little library of memories that pop up. What’s so beautiful about what those actresses did in that scene is that they created a real connection. There’s a really intense vibration between them of understanding each other and I think it does open some kind of door for young Leda. It really does have an impact.
AF: As an artist, did you find catharsis in bringing a story about lesser vocalized truths of motherhood to the screen?
Gyllenhaal: There’s something inherently dramatic about telling the truth, and in particular telling the truth about something that you’re not supposed to talk about. It’s like, “Can I tell you a secret,” and everyone’s ears perk up. There’s something disturbing about it too, but also comforting about hearing things that you know to be true spoken out loud by somebody else.
AF: For those who haven’t read the novel, what do you hope that audiences take away after viewing this film?
Gyllenhaal: I think that there are a lot of interesting women in film and television, but often they’re kind of kept inside of the small spectrum of feelings and thoughts and ideas that are allowed to be expressed. When we watch ourselves portrayed up on the screen, only a piece of our experience is usually expressed even if it’s expressed well. I wanted to get to the edges of not just motherhood, but a woman’s experience in the world.
As a lover, as a thinker, as an artist, and also as a mother, I believe that despair, terror, confusion, real anxiety, as well as a kind of heart-wrenching ecstasy, are normal parts of being a woman in the world. I think if you see those things on screen, it’s comforting.