Before winning the Oscar this year for A Fantastic Woman in the Best Foreign Language Film category, Chilean director Sebastián Lelio already had two other female-centric dramas in store. The first, his English-language debut, Disobedience, is based on the eponymous novel by Naomi Alderman, which Lelio adapted with co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz.
Produced by Rachel Weisz, who also stars alongside co-lead Rachel McAdams, the film centres on an illicit romance between two women in North London’s Orthodox Jewish community: Ronit (Weisz), who is returning home for her estranged father’s funeral, and Esti (McAdams), who is stuck in a marriage to uphold tradition. Here Lelio reflects on the making and meaning of the film.
LWLies What was your first contact with the novel and what about it enticed you to adapt it? Did it seem like a logical follow-up to A Fantastic Woman?
Lelio: Rachel Weisz had the rights to Naomi Alderman’s novel. Rachel and her partner Frida Torresblanco saw my movie Gloria, and for some reason they thought I could be the right person to adapt this story of lesbian love within the context of the Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood in North London. Somehow it clicked for them. I met with them and they told me about the story’s basic elements, which I loved. It’s about three confused characters in flux operating against a backdrop of fixed and eternal truths
It was very attractive to me, and strangely familiar. The fact that Rachel was going to produce, but also play Ronit made the project very enticing. I read the novel and in less than a week I accepted, especially because it was an invitation to write and direct. There was no screenplay at that point, so I got to co-write with Rebecca Lenkiewicz. It was very pleasant because when you are able to write you can sneak in more elements from your world and interests.
Did the fact that this was your first English-language film change anything about your process?
I was worried about that. But right from the beginning I asked the actors to tell me every time they felt something dissonant so we could find an alternative. Since English is not my native tongue, I have a limit in the language, but I chose to use it as an asset rather than as a limitation. I direct like if I was directing music. If I hear an actor and something doesn’t sound right I take it out because it’s out of tune. I might not be sure if it’s the dialogue, or the screenplay, or the place where the actor is standing, or the background, or where the camera is, but there is something that is not in harmony. I invited the actors to do the same, for them to be alert when it had to do with the language. I wanted them to know it was okay to tell me if something sounded strange. That’s how I protected myself from my own linguistic limits.
Composer Matthew Herbert has now scored A Fantastic Woman, this film and your forthcoming English-language remake of Gloria. What did you ask him to create for Disobedience?
We approached it as if we were secretly making a sci-fi movie, a story that takes place in another planet where there are inhabitants that worship a certain god, that wear specific clothing, and they follow their own rules of conduct that includes ritualised elements, almost like if it came from science fiction. That’s what the music has that otherworldly tone. When they make love in the hotel we thought, ‘This has to be music fitting for when two spaceships collide. If we use this same music for a scene with two spaceships colliding in slow motion in outer space it should work just as well.’
What was the motivation behind the desaturated colour palette in the world Ronit and Esti inhabit?
That has to do with the fact that Danny Cohen, the cinematographer, grew up not far from where the film takes place and he is Jewish himself. He had a childhood that was closer to that world. He knew about synagogues and knew similar houses as the ones in the film. He talked to me a lot about the beautiful sobriety in this world where aesthetic beauty is understood in a way that makes outsiders think it’s absent. These spaces are so spruced up that they almost feel de-eroticised. It reflects the context against which these characters have to react.
You seem to enjoy telling stories about people who go against the status quo. Why do you find them so attractive?
It seems that way. It’s about the human right to disobedience. In order for something to change or for progress to happen, someone has to disobey the rules at some point. If no one had ever been disobedient, then we would still be in the Middle Ages. Someone has to go against what society dictates, and sometimes even commit an act of violence, to shine a light on standards that are outdated and that become prisons. You have to be able to exert such disobedience even against the things you be believe in order to evolve. When you are in a crisis what destroys you deep inside is that you need to be able to disobey that which you thought was real, what you thought was love, who you thought you were. There is violence and pain in that process, but it also brings about the seed of a new freedom.
How has winning the Academy Award changed your career?
It’s such a powerful event that it kind of divides your life in two in many ways: before and after the Oscar. On a personal level there are things that have been affected, the perception people have of you also changes and that’s strange. Professionally, of course it opens a lot of opportunities, but it also adds a lot of pressure. In any case, I prefer to have the problem of having attention on me, than to have to struggle a lot to make a film. I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to make movies. I’m taking it calmly, because Gloria Bell, my next film, hasn’t even been released. I’m taking my time to write and really feel and be sure of what’s going to be next.
Disobedience is released 30 November. Read the LWLies review.
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