Her Story

Screenwriter Jane Anderson and novelist Meg Wolitzer recount their decade-and-a-half-long struggle with pre-#MeToo Hollywood, who had no interest in telling a “woman’s story,” to bring The Wife to the screen.

©2018 Sony Pictures Classics
Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce in The Wife.
August 17, 2018 Written by Dylan Callaghan
Jane Anderson
Meg Wolitzer

You can't force a studio to hire women, but you can make them aware. There is a certain amount of shaming now, so studios at least have to meet the quota. It's not absolutely sincere, but what the hell? It's a start.

—Jane Anderson

The new film The Wife, adapted by Emmy-winner Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio) from the novel by Meg Wolitzer, took nearly 15 rejection-filled years to get made just at the right moment. Faithful to Wolitzer’s 2003 novel, it’s the kind of story all too rare in Hollywood—one with a woman at its center. Joan (Glenn Close) is the titular better half to Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), an acclaimed novelist whom she has nurtured at the abandonment of her own writing. As Joe is tapped to receive the Nobel Prize, their nearly four-decades-long marriage and the soul-rending compromises upon which it was built, begins to collapse into bitter, long-contained dust. At its simplest, it’s a tale of a woman held down by the arrogant sexism of a male-dominated literary world as well as her own tragic complicity for the sake of “art.” Swedish helmer Björn Runge directs Pryce as a charismatic, enabled narcissist, while Close plays his wife with a modest, reserved grace that winds up the tension of a looming reckoning like a frozen cobra before a deadly strike. She can no longer bury the years of infidelity and public slights she has endured in the name of this man’s public image and career. At long last, she must confront and address the enormous wrong she’s endured.

In a rare conversation, both the novelist and screenwriter spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about Anderson’s extraordinary and open process during the adaptation and how they persevered through a grueling decade and a half trying to get the film made in a town that wanted no part of a “woman’s story,” not because of the #MeToo movement, but just in time for it.

I understand it took, took 14 years to get made, yes?

Jane Anderson: Yes sir, it certainly did. You want to know the story?

Yes, I do. Absolutely.

Jane Anderson: In 2004, Meg's book had just come out and I fell in love with it. I asked a studio that will remain unnamed to buy the rights so I could write and direct it. I wrote a whole bunch of drafts and then the studio decided they didn't want to make a film that was based on a woman's story.

And they overtly cited that as their reason?

Jane Anderson: They said even worse things to me, which I won't say for the record because it will just start to sound bitter. They just couldn't bear the subject of the script. What Megan and I have been talking about today [during a press junket for the film] is really the bashert quality of having to wait 14 years to get this made now in 2018, when the #MeToo moment has really set the stage for a film like this to thrive. We hit the zeitgeists.

But when you began production had the #MeToo movement technically started? So how much do you credit these changes in attitudes to finally at long last enable this film to get made?

Jane Anderson: No, it didn't help. We started getting it made before the #MeToo movement. And it was just by the grace of my manager and one of our producers, Rosalie Swedlin, just scouring Europe for money to get it made and finding a European director. It was just sheer labor. So this film has hit as #MeToo has crested, but #MeToo did not help the film get made.

That's an important distinction because a lot of the coverage is rightfully talking about #MeToo, but to be clear, you were ahead of that curve here, and it was just hard labor that finally got this thing made.

Jane Anderson: Yes sir. I love that. It's hard labor for me as a screenwriter. And I’ll let Meg talk, because Meg always writes ahead of her time

Ok, let me jump to Meg. How much input did you offer Jane during the drafting of this?

Meg Wolitzer: You know the minute that you option your book to people to make it into a film, you have to kind of let go of it in important ways. You don't want to give it to people whose work you don't admire, and I really instantly liked Jane, and I'm very admiring of her work. I saw her complex understanding of these characters and what I was trying to do, and I saw her work with the material like clay and make it into something that has new qualities, too. I was very excited by that. She would call once in a while and send me the scripts, which I was very grateful for because screenwriters don't always do that. The writers of original material don't always want it, but I was very interested in it. I love film. It's not like I sort of said, “No, take this out.” But I might point out a thing or say, “Oh, that actually came from this, let me know if you want the backstory of that.” I don't have any particular examples. It’s been such a long time. This film is like a long marriage itself because it’s been going on a long time. But I was very, very grateful for Jane running things by me, and I would offer small things, but the thing that I really offered was the book itself.

Jane, did you have any trepidations about opening up the creative process? Because it's her book, it's her novel. That can get complicated.

Jane Anderson: Oh, there's always trepidation when you deeply, deeply love and respect a novel and love the novelist. I basically called Meg and got her blessing, artist to artist. Meg generously said, “Go and be well, do what you have to do.” And that's what you need to start the process.

She understood.

Meg Wolitzer: Yes, I definitely did.

Jane, you won a well-deserved Emmy for Olive Kitteridge. It struck me that Olive wouldn’t have tolerated Joe for very long. Why do you think Joan does?

Jane Anderson: Two things. Obviously, Joan came of age in the 1950s at a time when she was clearly given the message that a female novelist will not get read. The other thing though is personality. Meg, in your novel did you use the word “shy”?

Meg Wolitzer: Boy, it has been a while. I'm not sure.

Jane Anderson: It's the specificity of this character. Glenn has talked about it as well. Glenn has said, “I am basically a shy person and I understand Joan.” Because Joan is at her core a retreating kind of writer, that is really part of what made her tolerate Joe. The other, which is very important in the one flashback, you see the only way she could hold onto this man that she loved as a young girl was to fix his writing. So there were many reasons why. And as the screenwriter I took from Meg's novel all these elements and then organized them in the screenplay so that we could understand why this character could possibly put up with this marriage for so long. But what's important to Meg and I—and to Björn and our whole creative team—is that people understand this is not a film about victimhood. It is a film about marriage and what we do in marriages, what agreements we make in a marriage that works for a while until someone can no longer tolerate it.

Meg Wolitzer: The Nobel Prize just becomes the thing that's the tipping point for her. She can't take it anymore. In the novel it's the Helsinki Prize, a made-up prize because I enjoy invention and it's a step down from the Nobel. But Jane ups the ante even more. It’s just something that's so public and in her face that she has to reckon with the compromises and the contract that she has some part of.

Certainly the Nobel makes things more intense, but even in your novel there's an element of human, primal jealousy which makes Joan Castleman even more complex. As a writer herself to finally see these rewards be entirely bestowed upon him, it's offensive on some level and causes jealousy on some level.

Meg Wolitzer: She has a very, very strong reaction to it for a variety of reasons really. And that's one of the great things about fiction, and I think about all art, is that you're not trying to hammer home one idea...There's often a lot of different ways you can look at something, a lot of angles you can look at it from. So yeah, that's certainly true, she's seeing him be celebrated, but she knows her own part in it, and it becomes unbearable in certain ways. But it also makes her face what she's done and the choices she's made in her life. Both of them in this film have to look at what they've done. When Joe says, “We're not bad people, Joan,” they're sitting there in the car bleakly—it's such a great scene. Just the body language of the two of them sitting collapsed in the back of this car thinking, What have we done, what have we done? I was just thinking about that last scene in The Graduate when they're on the bus. It's obviously very, very different, but it’s still two people thinking about what choices they've made. It's a novel about choices that people make.

Aside from the male-female aspect, one thing that struck me is the age aspect. In the sense that we make decisions that seem innocuous or manageable at the time, and here we're seeing the full blossoming of the consequences over time in a devastating way.

Meg Wolitzer: Yeah. That is a really interesting way of looking at it. Right. The choices you might make when you're young because [at the time] this is the way it must be for this marriage and for this relationship to work, and for my view of the world to work, they can look really, really different later on. The world looks different.

Meg, you've been adapted before. How much are you conscious of film and TV when you're writing a novel now?

Meg Wolitzer: I'm not conscious of it all when I'm writing. I feel very lucky that I've had things made. The first film that Nora Ephron directed was based on my book. It was her film This Is My Life. It was this wonderful movie that she also fought to get made. It was about women and girls, it was about mothers and daughters, it was about the tensions between career and motherhood. It didn't make any money, but it's a film that people love—the people that have seen it have really responded to it. I never think about turning a novel into a film or movie. I really want to write in the vacuum of my own imagination and think about the things that I've been obsessing about again and again. That's how you know what to write about. What are you thinking about when no one else is around? What are the things you're turning over again and again in your head? It's the icing on the cake when something gets made into a film or television show.

You're better than many writers to be able to keep that separate. It's insidious in the sense that once it happens, how are you no longer aware of how a novel can be adapted to film? You know what I mean? Isn't it difficult to completely...

Meg Wolitzer: I have to say for me it isn't. I wrote this novel so long ago. By the time something gets made or really takes shape, it has been a while. You're kind of onto another book or thinking about something else. Of course, in the back of my mind after I'm done I'm thinking, Is this going to get made? Because people ask you that all the time. But when I'm writing I go into this place—it's like going inside an old hollow tree by myself. I don't want to sound Pollyannaish about it, but I want to know these characters as well as I can, and that's reward enough for me. That's exciting enough for me. It's not about a film. It's not about anything else. It's about the book.

Do you feel we're at a real turning point in terms of women's voices being articulated better by Hollywood?

Meg Wolitzer: I can't speak to Hollywood. I'll let Jane speak to Hollywood. All I know is that right now the conversations that I'm having and hearing are around issues that have had a low murmur before. People are talking about what's important and they're speaking very openly. There's a new conversation, an accelerated conversation, about important matters involving men and women in the world. Of course the #MeToo movement has brought up issues around the treatment of women and assault and very important things that need to be talked about. But in a more broad sense I can look at it a little bit more easily maybe in terms of fiction and novels. I think that the writer Jesmyn Ward has won the National Book Award twice in recent years, and those signs are encouraging. But we all have a long way to go in so many ways. It's a long process. I don't know what this moment will look like next week, or next year. All I can do is write the books that I really want to write, and not worry about whether the world is talking about those matters.

What do you think Jane, from your vantage point?

Jane Anderson: Well, clearly there is an effort [to compel the] studios to hire more female directors as well as more people of color. There is a great consciousness. Whether studios will ultimately comply with this, I don't know. All I know is that when I started out as a writer and a director, that was never the conversation and I was fighting the fight in isolation. I'm now really delighted to see that the conversation is open. What excites me the most is that as we’ve been going to the screenings of The Wife, young women in our business come up to me and are so excited that this film has been made. I can see in their faces and in their conversation that they know that their careers are going to start to benefit from this movement. You can't force a studio to hire women, but you can make them aware. There is a certain amount of shaming now, so studios at least have to meet the quota. It's not absolutely sincere, but what the hell? It's a start.

When each of you sit down and write, when, where, and how do you do it? What's your ritual, if you have one?

Meg Wolitzer: For a long time I wrote on my bed because I didn't have an office. Now I finally have an office because my kids are grown and out of the house and we moved to a place where I have an actual office. I still do gravitate back to the bed. I kind of keep banker's hours a lot of the time. I love to work during the day. I find that it's diminishing returns as the blood sugar drops in the afternoon. But I love to get up in the morning because even if you ended the workday the day before thinking, “Oh, that's crap,” there's a new chance today.

That’s the great thing about writing, isn’t it?

Meg Wolitzer: Oh, absolutely. There's a lot of do-overs.

Jane Anderson: I always try to end my writing day, not finishing a scene I really like, and I think I'm on a roll [with]. I don't finish it so that the next morning when I'm at my desk, I have that seed to come back to. So it's like a…

A motivator?

Jane Anderson: Because if you end blocked, then you have to start over.

That’s brilliant. And you have the discipline to do that most times?

Jane Anderson: Well, usually I don't hit it until I'm at the end of the day, and I'm exhausted, and I'm ready to stop anyway. But I will say, not every day do I hit a scene that I'm on a roll with. So if I do hit a dead stop at the end of the day, I will let myself out of the cage. Another trick is rereading all your pages the next morning. If the day before you think you're just a horrible, horrible writer and what you've written is sheer crap—and it still happens, it doesn't matter how long you been doing this—if the next day you just reread the pages, you will see a little piece of the light.

Meg Wolitzer: One thing I also do is if I'm blocked or stuck, I'll go read a scene in a book that I love by another person where you feel that they were really excited by what they wrote. Just find a passage where you know they went, “Yes,” and you'll get in touch with the excitement you can feel when you do something you like.

Jane Anderson: Excellent. On the screenwriter’s end, I will play a film that relates to what I'm writing and study the writing. And of course by the time a film is made and the 80 drafts are done, it looks effortless. So you remind yourself. I suggest to any screenwriter when they're really stuck, watch a film.

© 2018 Writers Guild of America West

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