Knowledge and wisdom are two important personality traits that are believed to represent a woman’s maturity into adulthood, as she learns to adjust and embrace the ever-changing landscape of life that surrounds her. But when a young teen is faced with devastating loss and despair as a child, and is forced to cope with distressing and unforeseen hurdles while growing up, she can at times become more mature and cunning than her primary caregiver, who’s more than twice her age.
That’s certainly the case with the two main characters in director Liza Johnson’s new independent drama, ‘Hateship Loveship,’ which is currently playing in theaters and on VOD. The two women, who are struggling to cope with their own difficult pasts and harrowing emotions, are forced to learn how to truly develop in their unexpected relationship, and come to realize that even the person who’s seemingly entirely different from them could truly leaving a lasting impression on them.
‘Hateship Loveship,’ which is based on writer Alice Munro’s short story, ‘Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,’ follows Johanna Parry (Kristen Wiig), a profoundly shy, unadorned woman who is hired by Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) as a housekeeper and a primary caregiver to his granddaughter, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Despite her outgoing nature, Sabitha is still contending with the death of her mother years before. The situation is complicated by the fact that her grandfather still blames her father, Ken (Guy Pearce), a hapless recovering drug addict with a certain ragged charm, for his wife’s death.
In an act of mean-spirited rebellion, Sabitha uses technology to foster a pseudo-relationship between Johanna and her father, never dreaming of the potential harm to either party. Sabitha doesn’t understand that Johanna is not a reserved cut-out, but rather is still struggling with her own emotional misgivings. The teen’s interference provokes Johanna to indulge in something long missing from her life: the dream of a future and a home of her own.
Johnson generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Hateship Loveship’ over the phone. Among other things, the director discussed how she was drawn to the drama after the screenwriter, Mark Poirier, with whom she has a social relationship, brought her the script, and she was immediately drawn to Johanna’s continuous emotional struggles; how Wiig was the first person she thought about for the main role, because she felt the actress would really understand the tone of the project, and what the character was going through; and how in stark contrast to Johanna’s somewhat naïve outlook on the world, Sabitha is being raised in a way where she’s highly aware of how her life is supposed to unfold as a woman
Question (Q): You directed the new drama, ‘Hateship Loveship,’ which was written by Mark Poirier. What was it about the story that convinced you to helm the film? How did you become involved in the project?
Liza Johnson (LJ): The screenwriter brought the script to me. I think he thought I would be interested in this main character. That was the main thing that attracted me to it; I really liked this idea of this person who comes from a world where it doesn’t do her any good to want things she can’t have. She’s somewhere between content and resigned.
Then moving into a new world and having these strange interactions with people she doesn’t know, she really develops a desire, and she has to figure out a way to realize it. I thought that was a beautiful challenge for the character.
Q: How closely did you work with Mark on the story before and during filming?
LJ: Oh, it was great. He’s a person I know socially, and we’re friends. When I became attached to the project, we worked with each other for about six months, just to clarify the arc of the main character.
The writer of the source material, Alice Munro, is such a beautiful and exquisite literary writer. She’s especially good at, and known for, being able to characterize the complicated and richer inner lives of everyday people. She does it in this super-literary way, which often takes place in an inner monologue, and can’t be photographed. In beautiful literature, you can just describe what’s going on in someone’s mind or emotional life.
In cinema, you can’t do that; you either have to say things in words, or have things play out in meaningful actions between the characters. In a way, it was a very exciting effort to try to translate one art form into another. I felt very respectful of Mark’s efforts to do that, and it was really fun to work with him on that.
Q: Speaking of the fact that the drama is based on Alice’s short story, ‘Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,’ what was the overall process like of translating the story? Was it difficult to transform the monologues into dialogue and actions between the characters?
LJ: It was a fun process to think about how those characters could become clear, without just telling the world what was going on in their minds. We tried to create a lot of meaningful actions for the characters, and ways for them to react to each other.
I also think the ways the performers approached the material was really helpful. I felt like they all really understood the world the characters were living in, and the feelings they were having. They really brought a lot to the project, because they have so many different performance skills for revealing the characters’ emotions.
Q: The film features an impressive cast, including Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce and Hailee Steinfeld. What was the casting process like for the actors?
LJ: It was really great. Kristen was the first person I thought about for the role, because it felt like she would really understand the character. That was really true when I met with her. From the beginning, she completely understood the tone of the project, and what the character was going through. So that was really easy, because she saw it the same way that I did.
Literally, the first time that we met, we thought Guy Pearce would be great to play Ken. I think because Kristen is so talented, and actors are so good at observing one another’s work, he immediately wanted to do the project. He thought it would be fun to work with her, because she’s so interesting in the way that she works, and she’s so good.
So it was a really easy casting process. Once they were attached to the project, it was really attractive to other actors to join them. I think they knew that it raises their game if they play against people who are as talented as they are. So even in pretty small roles, it was possible to work with people who are talented. I think they perceived to work with Kristen and Guy would be exciting for them.
Q: While ‘Hateship Loveship’ contains some comedic elements, the overall story is more dramatic. Since Kristen is so well known for her comedic roles, such as on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ do you feel she truly showed her acting range in this film?
LJ: I think Kristen’s an amazing, 360-degree talent, who can do whatever kind of role she wants. I love her comic work, and think it’s very meaningful. That’s why I wanted to cast her-the depth of meaning she developed her characters, even her comic ones, was really very rich. This movie is much more subtle than a show like ‘Saturday Night Live,’ where you have to develop a character in a short amount of time. I think there’s warmth in this movie, and some moments that are funny.
Alice is known as a very serious writer, and she’s very unsentimental and doesn’t pull any punches. I think she has a dry, almost wicked, sense of humor. To me, it’s interesting to think about the ways drama is not humorless, and comedy is very meaningful.
Q: Were you able to have any rehearsals with the cast before you began shooting, to help build their working relationships?
LJ: I wouldn’t call them rehearsals, technically speaking, but I did have the opportunity to prepare the roles with the actors. So we got to talk a lot about where the characters were coming from. People had the opportunity to develop their characters’ backstories and what’s happening to them as the story developed.
But we also mostly took an approach that we shared our knowledge about what’s happening in every scene. We didn’t rehearse in a way that you would rehearse a theater play, and instead put confidence in the performative moment while we were shooting.
Q: Speaking of working in the moment, did you allow the actors to improv at all while you were filming, to add a truthfulness to their on-screen relationships?
LJ: We didn’t do that much improv, and certainly not in a structured way. I believe in improv, and believe it’s a super-interesting training process for people. It’s certainly one Kristen comes out of strongly. I admire it, but we really liked the script. We didn’t get hung up if people wanted to change some words, or add a line of dialogue here or there.
But we didn’t do anything in an improv tradition. We would try things that were fresh, and respond to the situation. We would make changes if people wanted to. That’s not the same thing as improv, where you see what the situation is, and take it somewhere you don’t expect. We didn’t do that, because we wanted to honor the original story and the script. So in a strict sense, I wouldn’t say we relied on improv.
Q: While Johanna is supposed to be Sabitha’s nanny in the film, it’s hard to tell which of the two is more mature. Were you hoping to showcase that maturity isn’t always based on age, and often based more on life experiences?
LJ: Yes and no. It’s quite interesting how those women are differently positioned in the world. I feel like Hailee’s character is being raised in a way where she’s highly aware, maybe too aware, of how her life is supposed to unfold as a woman. She and her friend Edith (Sami Gayle) play the game all the time, which is the title of Alice’s short story. They have a very defined sense of how a woman’s life is supposed to go.
Kristen’s character doesn’t have that. She’s been living alone with an older woman for 15 years, and she’s not imagining a life that progresses according to that script. So I think it’s interesting when they meet each other, they can learn from one another.
So in some ways, I think the encounter between Sabitha and Edith does open up some new possibilities for her. It opens up her desire, and sets her on a new agenda. I think it opens something up for Hailee’s character, who has a person with a different set of different expectations, come into her world.
So I don’t know if Hailee’s character is more mature than Kristen’s, but I think they’re coming from very different places. In some ways, they’re forced to respond to one another in a way that’s surprising, and changes things for both of them.
Q: The drama played at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. What was your overall experience like at the festival?
LJ: It was amazing. We received a really good response from the audience, so that was really fun. Alice is almost a local writer; she doesn’t live in Toronto, but she lives nearby in Ontario. Of course, she’s a major national treasure of Canada. So it was exciting to premiere there, instead of another city, because it connected with her Canadian roots, as well as the Midwestern roots of the story. So that really fit with the film’s context.