Interview: Liza Johnson from "Hateship Loveship"
Kristen Wiig‘s latest film “Hateship Loveship” is a very pleasant surprise as the comedian takes on a very dramatic role. Not only will you love Kristen’s performance, but you will also find yourself captivated by all the actor’s performances in the film including: Guy Pearce, Hailee Steinfeld, and Nick Nolte. Director Liza Johnson has done a wonderful job bringing this story to the big screen and Movie Room Reviews was lucky enough to get her thoughts on making this wonderful film.
Nick Leyland from Movie Room reviews: Hi Liza! Congratulations on your new film “Hateship, Loveship” which is now on VOD.
Liza Johnson: Thank you.
MRR: Now the film has some wonderful actors in it and obviously the biggest surprise for people will be the performance from Kristen Wiig, which was a brilliant and wonderful performance, but it's not the performance that people are used to by her. Can you tell us a little bit about her character and why people are going to enjoy her in a dramatic role?
Liza Johnson: Well, maybe you can tell me too, but I wanted her to do the role because I just thought she would really understand the character and really embrace it. For me, I think you can see from her other work that she is wildly talented and she obviously knows how to create a character like on Saturday Night Live, you have to communicate so much in such a short period of time. I think she's a very warm actor and, for me, that was important for this character because the character doesn't... Like most Alice Munro characters, she doesn't always say what she thinks in words. I felt that if it were an actor who were less warm, you might just have no idea what's going on.
And, although the movie is not humorless, it's by no means comic. I would say that it's a big dramatic character role for her. Alice Munro is a very restrained writer who is somewhat restrained culture of taciturn Midwestern people. I just really felt that Kristen could bring her warmth to that role, but also her skills at thinking about a character and, in particular, a character like that. I just felt from the characters I've seen her create, she would understand what it means for this woman to sort of come from a place where it doesn't do her any good to want things that she can't have, and then suddenly develop this desire and have to really figure out how to realize that desire.
I just think she's such an intelligent actor and she's also very good at communicating an inner life without saying it in words. So, I just really felt that she would be the right person for this role. And I think it will be surprising for people to see her be so restrained, but I hope it will be a pleasant surprise. I mean, some people have been saying to me that they forget that it's her when they're watching the film, and I think when you see a kind of well-known actor in a realist drama, that's a big compliment if people are seeing her disappear.
MRR: Right. It's great because I couldn't tell if Johanna Parry, who's the character played by Wiig, if she's either this completely pathetic person or if she's the strongest woman alive. How did you two try to balance that together? You have this woman who can barely speak to people but she works harder than anybody you know and takes the biggest risk of her life. How did you guys balance that?
Liza Johnson: I think that we just always knew that she goes to a place that's new to her, so she's unfamiliar with it, but we never felt like she was stupid or never felt like she was pathetic. You know what I mean? We felt like she was in a new world and trying to figure things out. And I think that her strength gets revealed across the course of her character's arc.
MRR: Now we also see some great performances from Guy Pearce and Nick Nolte, and a few other people. Tell me what you think these veteran actors brought to their roles?
Liza Johnson: Oh gosh. Well, it was a pretty big thrill to just get to work with people who have that level of craft. And Guy is so nice and so hard working and he has an amazing range. His Andy Warhol is one of the best Andy Warhols I've ever seen and then he also can do these egregiously masculine kind of cowboy roles too. He just is such a serious actor and he's so nice to work with, and we had a really good time. Nick also is really very committed to his craft and he's actually from Iowa where the film is set. Even the first time I met him, he was coming out with his method-y research and showing me the pictures of the houses he grew up in Iowa. I'm also from Ohio, so to prepare the character, we talked a lot about the worlds that we came from and how people act and react and the kind of contacts, the kind of worlds that we lived in, which are similar to the one where the film takes place.
And I mean the other actors are also just wildly talented like Hailee Steinfeld is a pretty young person, but she's really earthy and really natural, and also just really serious about her craft, and she's a very impressive person. And even in some of the smaller roles, like Jennifer Jason Leigh comes into that movie like a little tornado, and it's kind of amazing to get to work with her and with Christine Lahti who's a really sophisticated person who just brings a lot of craft to the movie. For me, it's my second movie. So all of those people have made a lot more movies than I have, and it was pretty thrilling to get to see them bring their skills to realize my vision.
MRR: Well, can you tell us how this story was adapted from the Alice Munro story, The Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage?
Liza Johnson: I didn't write it. It's written by Mark Poirier who, I don't know if you know his work, but he also is a very lovely literary writer. You know, he writes fiction and screenplays. When the book first came out, "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage," he and the production executive were both reading that book at the same time, and they both had a real passion for it, and so that's how they started doing it. It's a pretty interesting case study in a way because Alice Munro is such an amazing and vivid writer of the inner lives of everyday people, and she really uses all the techniques that literature makes available including some of the most exquisite moments in the source material just happen inside people's heads. You know what I mean? Really stuff that you can't photograph.
If you shot her story literally, the most interesting moments you would just see people standing in a room or something because a lot of the crucial elements happen inside people's emotional life. So, I was really impressed with the way that Mark worked to make that literary form into something that can be a movie where on some level, to understand anything, either someone has to do a meaningful action or they have to say something or they have to react to each other. You know what I mean? And so, it's actually a pretty big transposition from one art form to another, and I think that because of the way that he wrote that and because of the ways that the actors really seemed to also understand the tone of what we were trying to accomplish, that the movie has a plot and it has many... It's not a totally different plot, but it has more plot, let's say, in order to try to make clear some of the goals of the story. But I hope that it's accountable to the tone of the original story because it's really like a very beautiful story.
At school, they told me that you should always adapt mediocre literature so that your movie can be better than the book. That's not really an option here because the story is just a very well made story and our hope was that the strength of the source material would support a good movie, but there's no way you can do better than the story.
MRR: Right. I was gonna say that you did a brilliant job at balancing in this film because you basically had these two stories that needed to meet up. You had the grandfather and the granddaughter and then the son, the drug-addicted son. You have these two sides that you need to show people about, and Kristen Wiig's kind of like the catalyst for the plot. How did you end up balancing all of these different stories and have all the characters so well put because I got to know all the characters and in a lot of films like this I feel like I didn't learn a bunch about certain characters that I think I should have known about?
Liza Johnson: Oh, that's such a nice compliment to the writer. I'll tell him that you said that. I think that Johanna, the character that Kristen Wiig plays, is really the core of the story, and to me even the source material that Alice Munro wrote suggests that really in a way all of us are kind of just responding as best we can to the things that happen to us, and that we actually do affect each other. And often in her work, that doesn't go well for people, and in this story, the people seem to be able to accommodate themselves to each other, but I think in some ways, even her material asks you to think about the ways that the strange gestures that you make end up actually having a big impact on other people's lives. So that in this story, the girls do a trick to someone, and then the implications of that really play out for everyone.
MRR: Well, you did a really great job with it, and I really enjoyed the fact that I got to know at least the main characters that I needed to know.
Liza Johnson: Thank you.
MRR: So one of the fun things that I liked about it was, because since I'm from Ohio, watching or looking at Kristen Wiig's wardrobe. Now they weren't exactly the hippest clothes on the block [chuckle] and I don't know if people from Ohio actually dress that way, but how did she feel about having to wear that wardrobe?
Liza Johnson: Well, we really like our costume designer, Jennifer Von Mayrhauser, and all three of us are very character-driven in our intentions, and I don't think we were trying to make her look like she was from Iowa so much as we were thinking about the idea that she's a frugal person that's been living with an old woman for 15 years. And so what kind of clothes would she have access to, where would she be buying her clothes. And we were thinking about that she probably just wouldn't have new clothes. That she would recycle things or buy things from church sales and thrift stores, and things like that. So her clothes, I think, in a way, seem to be recycled in away that the other characters don't.
I will say, at the end of the shoot, we're all a little bit sorry that the shoot was over, but Kristen was excited to put her own clothes.
MRR: And Guy Pearce, all he had to do was show up with what he wore last night to bed, right? Pretty much?
Liza Johnson: He's mostly wearing costume clothes in that his actual clothes are cuter.
MRR: Well, what else could we look forward to seeing from you in the future now that this movie is out on VOD?
Liza Johnson: Well, I'm writing something that actually takes place in Ohio, so I'm intrigued to see if I could actually shoot that in Ohio. It's a story about a surprising thing that happens to a group of teenage girls. And I also... I'm working on a project with Michael Shannon that I'm excited about, and they're both, I think, really good performance movies. They're not as quiet as this movie, but I think there's a thread of thematic continuity.
MRR: Cool. Well, I hope you get to come to Ohio and shoot it.
Liza Johnson: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for your interest.