Image courtesy of Drafthouse Films Courtesy of Drafthouse Films/ Films We Like.
Last fall, I saw The Keeping Room at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and I am not exaggerating when I say that I have not been able to stop thinking about it ever since. This feminist western horror film (how many films can you say are all three of those things?!) starring Brit Marling, Muna Otaru and Hailee Steinfeld follows three women, two sisters and one slave, teaming up to fend off some soldiers (one of which is Sam Worthington) hellbent on rape and murder during the end of the Civil War. It’s an exceptionally feminist film and not just in terms of the plot, which really emphasizes the sisterhood of survival, but also in terms of the performances by all three leads and, most importantly, in terms of the challenging and empowering script by screenwriter Julia Hart.
Cinefilles got the chance to speak with Hart over e-mail in honour of The Keeping Room‘s release in Canada. Read on to get an inside look into the creation of the stellar script and characters, as well as Hart’s thoughts on Women in Film and how we can help female filmmakers battle that very force the women of The Keeping Room have to go up against: patriarchy.
Were you a fan of westerns before writing this? Why or why not? I have always struggled to connect with them, perhaps because I so rarely encounter a film with a strong heroine, or a heroine at all.
Julia Hart: I have always loved westerns. I grew up on them. And I absolutely wrote The Keeping Room because, while I loved those films, I longed to see a strong female character in one of them. Granted, there are a few great westerns with strong female characters–Johnny Guitar, True Grit to name a few–but I was deeply excited to bring a much needed new perspective to a beloved genre.
In addition to being a western, I also kind of consider this a horror film, as it almost has a sort of home invasion quality. What do you think of that assessment?
JH: It is absolutely a horror film and was even more so at the script level. Night of the Living Dead and Romero’s films in general were a big influence on the script. Horror is another favorite genre of mine through which I wanted to explore the role of women. I was also interested in exploring the connection between genre and reality. There were soldiers actually invading the homes of women during the Civil War and I wanted to play on the horror movie cliches and tropes to explore the idea that we have become numb to the horror enacted in these films, but these things happen in real life. For some people horror isn’t a genre, it’s a reality.
Where did this story, these women, come from? I believe they sprung from a real-life experience, in a way?
JH: I was on a road trip with my husband to a friend’s family farm in Georgia. We all drank a bit of moonshine late one night and my friend told us that the myth that came with the house was that there were unmarked Civil War graves in the goat field out back. I became fascinated by the idea of who these people were and how they ended up in the ground and I worked backwards from there. The history of the war is very clearly documented, but the lives of the women at the time are not. There are some first-person accounts, but mostly from affluent white women in the South. So while the backdrop of the film (Sherman’s March) is true, the lives of the women had to be a bit invented. And I think in general we have to do that as women–invent and imagine our history–since so little of it has been written down.
What do you hope that The Keeping Room achieves for women in film? We’re already seeing some more female-focused westerns coming out.
JH: It’s very rare to see a women defeat a man on screen and rescue other women and herself. I hope that we get to see more of that as a result of this film. That and more realistic female characters. A strong woman doesn’t mean a character has to be invincible or wear a spandex super suit and wield two guns, taking out everything in her path. That’s cool for some people, I get it, but I prefer my female heroes to be real. Doing things women can actually do. Being vulnerable and emotional and strong willed.
I’ve read that you don’t have a problem with the term “female filmmaker” because you think it suggests inequality still exists. What do you think it would take for us to be at the place where we don’t need the “female” anymore?
JH: Inequality is wrong, but it takes time to bridge the gap and we just have to be patient and stay the course. I’m surprised when women are surprised that there’s inequality. There’s inequality. It’s a fact. Let’s be aware of it, let’s acknowledge it and by creating awareness we can start to solve the problem. Equality will be reached once there are as many female directors with the same opportunities as male directors and until that time, let’s call out the difference not try to hide it or sugarcoat it.
What do you think we can do, right now, to help create a more welcoming space for women in and making films?
JH: I think writing about and championing female-driven content and female filmmakers is such a great way to create a more welcoming environment for women. Again, it’s about awareness. The more awareness there is about the work being done by women in our industry, the better.
What’s next for you? What else can we look forward to?
JH: I just directed my first film, Miss Stevens, which I also wrote. It stars Lily Rabe and Timothee Chalamet and I hope to be taking it to some festivals next year. I’m also writing a mini-series for HBO starring Anna Paquin and Jack Black and continuing to work on other projects of my own, all with strong female characters.
Now that’s what we love to hear!
THE KEEPING ROOM is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The film opens in Calgary and Regina on November 20 and Waterloo on November 27.