“It’s a period piece that felt so relevant to now and to conversations we are having today…” - Director Wash Westmoreland talks making Colette
It took writer/director Wash Westmoreland a long time to bring the story of Gabrielle Colette to the big screen.
He first started working on the story 20 years ago, initially with Richard Glatzer, his longtime partner with whom he made a string of movies. After Glatzer died in 2015, Westmoreland resurrected the script with Disobedience writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz and finally secured funding for the project.
The film stars Keira Knightley and Dominic West, with Fiona Shaw, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough and Aiysha Hart in supporting roles.
Knightley plays Gabrielle Colette, a young country girl who marries West’s Henry Gauthier-Villars, a charismatic and dominant Parisian who moves her to Paris with him.
There, Colette begins to write and shows some of her writing to Henry, who convinces her to write novels, which he suggests should be released under his name as the purported author.
The phenomenal success of the series of novels titled "Claudine" makes Willy a well-known writer, but his wife quickly grows frustrated at her lack of recognition and things begin to spiral out of control...
As the film arrives on DVD, we spoke to Westmoreland, who is also the man behind the Oscar sensation Still Alice, about bringing the film to life. Here's what he had to say...
The film has been through cinemas and is now coming to DVD, were you pleased with the campaign and how the film was received?
“I was excited. From the first time we played it, which was at Sundance Film Festival, I feel like we really connected with the audience. It was nice to make a period piece that felt so relevant to now and to conversations we are having today. The whole theatrical run was wonderful, I looked forward to every screening.”
How do you look back on the shoot? Was it a difficult film to make?
“It was a 20-year-process. I had to really, really push to get this film made, but once we were rolling, it was joyous. I had a fantastic team, I’d cast it right and when you’ve cast a film right, directing is the easiest job in the world. When you’ve cast a film wrong, it’s one of the hardest, but thankfully we got it right. I loved working with these actors.”
Were there any challenges?
“We had a limited budget and we were trying to recreate turn of the century Paris, trying to get every detail right. That was a tremendous amount of painstaking time and effort to do, but it was worth it.”
As you say, casting is the lion’s share of a director’s work, when did you know that you’d really got it right with Keira and Dominic? Was that at the audition stage? At filming?
“The first time I spoke to Keira I was in China at the Shanghai Film Festival. The internet is difficult to navigate in China and she eventually FaceTimed me and had this rapid conversation with about 20% left on my phone battery. I told her she’d be perfect for the role and she said ‘Yes! Let’s do it!’ and the phone died in my hand! That was a nice charged moment to get us started.”
“But when she and Dominic first read the scenes together, I knew we had it right. They had such chemistry and I knew they would draw the audience in. The relationship had a real complexity and I knew they could work all the different angles.”
You talked earlier about getting the period detail right, you must have had to build a good team to do that...
“We had a really good team. Our production designer Michael Carlin was obsessive and meticulous. There were so many artists in turn of the century Paris and they left behind a lot of paintings and photographs so there was a lot to dig into. There was a lot of research and we knew the period back to front.”
Did you shoot in France?
“No, it’s prohibitively expensive, so we did shot in Budapest for the interiors and in the UK for the countryside. There was a job to do in turning Budapest into turn of the century France, but it’s a great city to work in.”
It’s great supporting cast too. Aiysha Hart, Fiona Shaw, Eleanor Tomlinson...
“Eleanor was terrific, she’s an amazing actress. I hadn’t been living in the UK so I’d missed out on Poldark and I just met her at the audition. She was charming and alive and had so much charisma. She really got the character, this wayward debutante and she embraced everything about it.”
You’ve moved onto The Earthquake Bird now, what can you tell us about that?
“I’m very excited and we wrapped a few weeks ago. It was a very different experience from Colette. We shot in Toyko for two months and it was an almost entirely Japanese crew and largely Japanese cast. I’d lived in Japan for a year when I was at university, so I spoke a little of the language and I knew the culture and traditions. But it was amazing to go back and work there.”
Alicia Vikander is the lead in this one, what was she like?
“She’d never spoken a word of Japanese before and 25% of the dialogue is in Japanese. She just learnt it perfectly, she spent months and months practising and when she started speaking Japanese on set, all the crew’s mouths dropped open. It was absolutely perfect.”
It’s a change of pace from Colette too, this is more of a thriller…
“It’s a Tokyo noir. It has thriller elements and it’s a crime story. It’s based on a book from a British writer called Susanna Jones. I think of noir as being a third crime, a third psychology and a third style. It has that. It draws on some great noir traditions, but roles reversed. You’ve got a woman trying to escape a dark past and struggling to do it, and, instead of a femme fatale you have an om fatale in the form of this photographer, who is played by Naoki Kobayashi.”
Now that’s at the end stages, do you have your next project lined up?
“I’m trying to stay busy and I’m working on a few things. It’s looking hopeful.”
You’ve gone for turn of the century France and Toyko for your last two movies, could anything tempt you back to England…
“Actually, my next one, which I can’t talk too much about, is set in Serbia and Leeds. So hopefully I’d get to work in the UK and back in Yorkshire, where I’m from. That would be brilliant.”
Colette is released on DVD on Monday (13th May) in hmv stores.