My grad advisor in British Romanticism, Brad Mudge, had this thing where he'd ask, after reading a poem, where the poem "breathes." I always loved that question; I love it still. It speaks to me of understanding that art will, when it's done well, cease to become something extant and begin to become something internal. The Romanticists--Shelley, I think it was--talk about the words of poets as seeds that engender new ideas in the heart of the reader. The moment I'm Your Woman "breathes" for me is in a diner sequence midway through where our hero, Jean (Rachel Brosnahan), tells her temporary protector, Cal (Arinze Kene), how after a series of miscarriages, she "burned" all the desire for a child out of herself to protect herself from more heartbreak. Already a good film, I'm Your Woman becomes a great one here in this open, vulnerable conversation about something that happens to as many as 20% of known pregnancies. It's so prevalent an event that common wisdom dictates you don't share your pregnancy news until well into a pregnancy in anticipation of it. My wife and I suffered three miscarriages (one more traumatic than the others, all of them a death of hope) before we successfully carried our first child to term.
What I learned is that, at the time, miscarriage was not a topic of grief with which most people were comfortable. Even close friends would sometimes respond with, "You're young, you can try again." For us, childless and yearning, the point wasn't our continued fertility. As a culture, we're generally uncomfortable with grief beyond general platitudes. Miscarriage is an area where that grief taboo intersects with the taboo attached to any dialogue concerning female sexuality. In fact, the only topic not taboo about a woman's reproductive process is pregnancy. Being pregnant, after all, is the fulfilment of what for many in a patriarchal society is a woman's primary, maybe only, purpose. Anyway, the moment I'm Your Woman breathes for me is when it has the courage to speak of something unspeakable.
I had the great pleasure of making a connection literally with Julia Hart and her husband, producer/co-screenwriter Jordan Horowitz, after they caught me raving about their film Fast Color a couple of years ago. It was brief: a thanks and an offer of a screener should I be able to write more about a picture that didn't receive the wider distribution or attention it deserved. They reached out again prior to the release of Hart's I'm Your Woman on Prime Video asking if I wanted to see it, because they thought maybe it was something I would like. They weren't wrong. The film is essentially a '70s crime drama that focuses on the supporting players as opposed to the central player. The lead criminal in it, Eddie (in honour, I think, of Robert Mitchum's Eddie Coyle), is barely a supporting figure to Jean, Cal, or the gallery of rogues here elevated from "flavour" to protagonists in their own right while seeking escape from the systems of secrets that drive criminal activity. This is, as the kids say, my jam. When I chatted with Ms. Hart, the conversation naturally drifted to the pandemic and the madness of this moment, though I started by asking about that scene in the diner between Jean and Cal:
JULIA HART: You're the first person out of fifty interviews who has asked me about this. I think that says something interesting about taboo and comfort. It says a lot about how far we have to go, too. It's wild when there's a subject that's not only underrepresented in film, but real life--that's the most heartbreaking thing about this thing that's so common that women go through and are forced to keep secret by a male-dominated society. It's interesting, because I almost don't understand why I got so lucky--I talk a lot about how my experience with childbirth seems so much about luck. That it's really just these accidents of biology that dictate, it feels like, so often whether a pregnancy is viable or not. You can do all the right things and still miscarry, and in hearing my friends talk about their experiences--like it was a secret they were sharing even with other women--I really got this running theme from them of self-blame, that they were blaming themselves for something they had done to cause this terrible thing.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: My wife felt that, keenly. She started going over her life leading up to that point, looking for a reason this had happened to us.
It's incredibly sad. This stigmatizing of it and the secrecy and shame around it would obviously lead to that self-doubt. This "What did I do?", it must have been something terrible. But it's of course not. I took a lot of these conversations and experiences and brought them to Jean.
You gave your friends a voice through her.
For me, too, and my experience... I have two kids and I've been incredibly, incredibly lucky not to have a miscarriage story to tell, but both times I was pregnant, I fell in love with them the minute I knew I was pregnant.
Certainly for my wife and I, when we miscarried, we mourned that loss as a loss of a child.
Absolutely. Fully. I had two scares with Ivan where we couldn't find a heartbeat. I was 39 weeks pregnant and he was gone. He stopped moving for like twelve hours and he was a mover, he was constantly moving. So we went to the hospital and I was sure he was dead and then we found the heartbeat. But in that period where we were sure we'd lost him, I went through a lot of that agony of, What did I do wrong? How had I failed to protect this baby in me? It was the first place I went to. When they found the heartbeat, they got him out of me pretty quickly, because things were not going well in there in terms of the fluids and they had to get him out. He's fine, perfect, but when people give platitudes about the magnitude of losing a pregnancy--"Oh it was only..." or, "Hey you can try again"--I think that misses the point of all of these secret tragedies that are happening every day. I'm so very grateful for women like Chrissy Teigen and Meghan Markle for beginning to attack the stigma around this issue just by being very frank about their grief.
In crime movies, secrets are sources of power for men and sources of danger for women. In many ways, this miscarriage text in I'm Your Woman feels like the theme of the work.
I hadn't thought of that but that's really fascinating. It absolutely resonates. It's almost Biblical, with Eve and the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. That's so cool. (laughs) Society forces women to keep secrets while men introduce secrets into their lives, sometimes, most of the time unnecessarily. That fits in perfectly with especially the '70s cycle of crime dramas where you see these women--Eddie Coyle's wife, or Jane Fonda's prostitute character in Klute--who have these horrors visited on them by the secrets men keep. These men seek out these secretive situations and their secrets are then forced on women through no fault of their own. I love that.
Talk to me about the needle-drop during the diner sequence.
It's funny, I sing to my kids. I'm a terrible singer, I can't sing at all, but I love singing to my kids and only my kids could love my singing voice. (laughs) But I sang to both of them every night and started to run out of lullabies, so for my oldest son when he was a baby, I started to sing "Natural Woman" to him. I did that goofy "harumph" thing that Jean does in the movie, and he loved that--he would laugh and it became our bedtime ritual, it forged this strong connection for me with that song. Somewhere along the way of that, I realized how strange it was that this song about romantic love was this song I was sharing with my kid. But then the more I sang it to him, and the more he asked me to sing it to him, it very much became for me a song about motherhood.
Lyrics about inspiration, and weariness, solved by this new person...
Yes! "I'm no longer doubtful of what I'm living for" so much encapsulates my experience of being a mother and how I feel about my kids. The idea that someone was in the "lost and found" until a person entered into our lives and gave them a kind of definition for their lives and a new purpose. So I loved repurposing that song as a song for motherhood--and for Jean, it helps to address something that's complicated for her, the notion of being a "natural" woman is the problem she's trying to untangle for the whole movie.
Needle-drops are big in your film: "Sister Golden Hair" in Miss Stevens, "New World Coming" in Fast Color, "Natural Woman" and Aretha's cover of "The Weight" in I'm Your Woman.
Songs, music, are the most magical expression for me--mostly, probably, because I have no talent at all for it. It's the artform I am furthest away from. I can't sing, I can't play an instrument, I'm a dancer, though, and music moves me sometimes in ways I can't even begin to articulate, and you find when you're writing dialogue sometimes that you have all of these things you want to say but they would be impossible for an actor to deliver them. These emotions don't sound right spoken and so people don't really speak them. But songs cut through all of that, and if you find the right needle-drop, I think that's a way to cut through pages of dialogue sometimes that just won't work.
You script these into your writing?
Yes, when Jordan and I are writing, we'll be very specific about the songs we want for the moments we want them to magnify, or undercut.
...And when you can't get the songs?
Disaster! (laughs) Always, always have a plan B. For Miss Stevens, my movies seem to all have a scene where many characters sing, together or alone, but in that one they get together to sing America's "Sister Golden Hair," and that wasn't the song we scripted. Originally it was Steely Dan's "Dirty Work."
I love that song, and I think that first album is maybe their best one, but it's decidedly a self-pitying song in a film that's not ultimately about that.
We work with this brilliant guy, Dan Wilcox, as our music supervisor. He's also a DJ at KCRW. He's a genius, really, and part of his real genius is finding the deeper cuts, the hidden gems in the backgrounds of so many scenes that don't really require a foregrounded track. But Dan, when we couldn't get the rights to "Dirty Work," he stepped in and pitched "Sister Golden Hair," and the movie is so much better for it. We got it and we rewrote the scene and that song so perfectly tells the story of the whole film, and the progress of our characters, not just a moment in the film. I think "Dirty Work" has a more tongue-in-cheek feeling to it where "Sister Golden Hair" is more resonant. It was perfect. Dan's amazing.
The score for I'm Your Woman is remarkable.
Yes! That's all Aska Matsumiya--she's based in L.A., a Japanese composer who's done a lot of stuff, and I heard something she had done and reached out and said, "Here, here's this movie, and I was inspired a lot by David Shire's score for The Conversation, what do you think?" And she was, like, I got it. She understood it completely, the film and what we were trying to do, and her music is so beautiful. Music is so mysterious for me, how it's created, and Aska is incredible.
"I have so much compassion for [actors]. Their faces, their bodies, are up there and they present their whole selves for essentially the vultures to pick apart if they so choose."
Talk to me about the little knit bootie Jean keeps in her pocket.
There are times I'm away from my kids for work where I'm so sad and lonely and sometimes I'll find something of my kids' in my bag, or in my clothes somewhere, and it'll make me so happy for a second, even if it makes me remember what I'm missing. I wanted Jean, and us, to have a non-verbal cue, a little reminder of what the stakes really are for Jean: she has to teach this child about self-sufficiency, but she has to learn it first.
She's a bit of a child herself as the film starts.
Yes--and I like that she loses the bootie and discovers a gun in that pocket instead.
You mention your collaborators a lot and I want to use that as a way to talk about how things could go wrong so easily with your films in terms of falling into not just genre traps but racial traps as well, when you, as a white woman, set out to tell minority stories.
Totally. I'm so afraid sometimes. I'm afraid to get it wrong. Sometimes I feel like I'm crazy for doing this. But if I'm given this platform and this privilege, I want to use it only to foreground these stories about women and about minorities, especially Black women, these tales and experiences that have not been told in our culture, or told dismissively.
I know you have a background as an English teacher--were there texts that informed this aspect of your work?
Yes, my favourite book is Toni Morrison's Beloved--I fell in love with it when I was younger. The notion of post-modernism, of what was possible in a narrative. When I taught, I always assigned this book, and the absolute privilege to be introducing it to another generation of young people... I love the modernists, the post-modernists. I love James Baldwin and his telling of that journey of racial activism and coming to terms with his sexuality. I spent time in Spain as an exchange student, and my host dad didn't speak a lot of English and I didn't speak Spanish very well at all, and one day we were listening to Crosby, Stills & Nash together, he was a huge fan. And we sang "Judy Blue Eyes" and he kept asking me, "What does this mean?" and, "What does this mean?", and we bonded across that barrier. All of these experiences for me through these different media inform what I'm trying to do--not despite, but because they're scary, because I think art has the potential to bridge these divides. I think as a white person right now it's dangerous to not be uncomfortable, to not put yourself in a position where you could get it wrong, but to demonstrate that you're listening hard.
How do you know you've succeeded?
That's hard. That's really hard. I take comfort when groups I've tried to support let me know not just when I'm doing it right but where I should be doing it better. I feel really proud when the audiences represented felt seen by it, or that it felt three-dimensional or authentic. I throw myself, my whole self into it. I don't want to "toe-dip" or dance around these issues. I want to get uncomfortable, to take those risks, because it's a privilege for me to be able to choose not to. But ultimately it's not up to me to judge if I'm successful. I don't know.
What do conversations about these issues sound like on your sets?
It's so collaborative, very collaborative. My favourite people to work with, of all the people I work with, are actors. It's my favourite part of this. We do a ton of rehearsals with my actors and the majority of that isn't up on your feet, blocking a scene, it's sitting down with each actor and going through every page of the script and figuring things out together. They tell me things that work, things that don't, things that are authentic or things that just don't feel right coming out of their mouths or that don't reflect their experience. I love all the casts I've worked with so much. Acting takes so much courage. I have so much compassion for them. Their faces, their bodies, are up there and they present their whole selves for essentially the vultures to pick apart if they so choose. I feel this intense responsibility to them that they feel safe doing this dangerous, terrifying thing.
Can you give me an example?
Gosh, so many. I've been so lucky to work with the people I've worked with. Can I say, too, that Gugu Mbatha-Raw, besides being outrageously talented and hard-working, is also like the best human being? But on I'm Your Woman, there's a scene where Frankie Faison's Art character is teaching Jean how to shoot, and we're in rehearsals, just one-on-one talking about his character, and he says to me that, "When I hand Rachel the gun, I wanna say something like, 'Here, get used to the weight.'" And I was taking a second to process when Jordan, who was sitting somewhere outside of the tent where we were having this conversation, immediately stuck his head in and said, "NO! Not something like that, exactly that. That's the line." He was quicker than I was to get it. Frankie is so brilliant and his line is so dead-on.
Your closing credits needle-drop of Aretha's "The Weight."
Yes! He's coaching her about the weight of the gun, obviously, but also the weight of her new reality and situation, and the role she's coming to understand she needs to take in her own life. We'd already planned that needle-drop, so it was just this perfect coming-together of all of these elements. And that, to me, is the best, when an actor so embodies their characters that they know them better than you know them. That they know what you're trying to say and help you to say it better.
What's the throughline in your work?
I'm constantly aware as a woman that my work will be represented as a woman's work. That's just the way it is right now. I think a lot about the female students I've had in my teaching background, how I never want to make anything I wouldn't want them to see and not feel empowered by, or represented by. Whatever the genre, the throughline for me is to tell stories that haven't been told about people who aren't centred by those stories. There are so many stories that haven't been told and that's where I want to be, as a means that these voices can be heard finally. To paint a broader picture of who we are and maybe could be if we worked together to get there.