Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Challenge of "Motherhood"

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The Challenge of "Motherhood"

(from 10/21/09)

In the Director's Statement that can be found in the production notes for her new film Motherhood,writer-director Katherine Dieckmann begins with this question: "Why aren't there any decent comedies about motherhood?" I'm sure she didn't mean to imply that all films about moms and their kids must be comedies. Yesterday, in fact, I saw Lukas Moodysson's grim but fascinating Mammoth, starring Michelle Willaims, Gael Garcia Bernal and Marife Necesito. It will play in New York beginning November 20. Like Dieckmann's movie, which opens this Friday, it's a life-out-of-balance film, but its view of mothers and their challenges and responsibilities toward children is deadly serious. I hope that someday a creative theater owner will play the films as a double feature because together they will provoke a broad and important spectrum of questions and discussions. Whereas Mammoth takes place over about a week's time and is set in New York, the Philippines, and Thailand, Motherhood is set only in New York and takes place during one hectic day, when middle-class mom Eliza (Uma Thurman) almost loses it as everything goes wrong--including her relationships with her husband Avery (Anthony Edwards) and her pregnant best friend Sheila (Minnie Driver)--as she prepares for her young daughter's birthday party that night. I recently took part in the following roundtables with Thurman and Dieckmann, Driver, and Edwards. I note my questions.
Roundtable with Uma Thurman and Katherine Dieckmann
Q: Katherine, is the story for "Motherhood" built around your own life?
Katherine Dieckmann: Well, it contains things that have happened to me, more or less. Although I never danced with a messenger. A woman never stops dreaming! We shot on my corner and I do live in two separate walk-up apartments. I did have a dog I had to carry downstairs while I had my son in a backpack. And I told Uma how to lock her bike the way I've done it.
Danny Peary: Did you find yourself telling Uma "that's not me."
KD: I never saw Eliza as me. The circumstances were my circumstances, but Eliza was a character and once Uma embodied her I never thought of her as being a representation of me. Uma has her own distinct physicality and I thought of Eliza as a character being played by an actor. It is fiction.
DP: What about you, Uma? Did you find yourself having a responsibility to get Katherine right?
Uma Thurman: No, I wasn't trying to mimic or parody Katherine. I was embracing the truth of the script that she wrote and living inside of her words. I didn't put my ideas into the film; I did Katherine's script. When you have an auteur who writes the story and shoots it, then you should serve her vision.
KD: Uma did make suggestions along the way and you're a stupid director if you don't take ideas from good actors.
Q: Uma, what advice would you give women about how to retain their identity after they have children?
UT: Just know that you're in the same boat with the rest of us and it's a very crowded boat. I don't know where all the identities have gone! Have you seen my identity? Identity last seen on September 12.
KD: Motherhood is very isolating, particularly when your children are young. I had babies in New York and many friends with children, but you still feel, because of the responsibility and weight of the task-based nature of it, alone. And I don't think anything breaks up the isolation until you find a way to do it. That's an individual process. Some women have kids who are five and they still have trouble working. Then there are women who give birth and three days later are back in the boardroom. So each person is different. You have to surrender so much of your identity to become a mother and serve another human being and then there's the process of rebuilding yourself back to who you were.
Q: What does motherhood mean to each of you?
KD: What the movie says is that while there are so many frustrations in your daily life, ultimately you're blessed--and I'm not a religious person--to participate in this beautiful process that's very rewarding and very hard. You appreciate the process for what it is and it doesn't go on forever in the way it does when your children are small. You appreciate this rare thing that will not always be in your life every day.
UT: It's the greatest love I've ever known. Love is what being a mother is. It's costly, it's challenging, it's wonderful.
DP: Do kids ever understand how hard it is for the mother?
UT: You don't want them to. You want them to feel secure. If they think the mother is being beaten down, then that makes them feel vulnerable. They depend on you and need you to survive.
KD: At the same time they can learn empathy. Sometimes my son says very sweetly, "Mom, I'm very sorry you have to do the laundry." But your instinct is to protect them from things they don't need to take on until they're adults. You're their hero.
Q: How do you balance working and being a mother?
UT: You just do your best. I made a lot of changes when I became a mother but I didn't stop acting. You just be yourself and forgive yourself when you're not perfect.
DP: You mentioned earlier the scene in which Eliza dances with the messenger. Why is it important for us to watch her dance?
UT: It's the moment when she really starts to freak herself out. It's the moment when her personality is out of control, and she brushes near something that is really threatening to her and her family. She's off-center and scares herself in that scene because she's flirting with disaster.
DP: I thought it was the moment we see that she used to be a lot of fun.
UT: That's true, too, but the fact is she's being a lot of fun again through an inappropriate circumstance in her family home. She scares herself.
KD: It's the idea that when you become a grown-up you live a life often bound by duty. When you're in your twenties, you don't have the same responsibilities. She revisits who she used to be when she first heard that song they dance to. Then she suddenly stops herself and remembers the birthday party she is throwing for her daughter. This is the present time. It's great to have those moments of abandon, but they're luxuries when you're leading a more committed life.
Q: Single mothers may think Eliza has it made because her husband brings home money and she has him to do half the work, but it seems like he doesn't do his share. Eliza's husband Avery doesn't seem to realize that she is having to do many things on her own.
UT: I'm a single parent. Having been in a relationship where it was the same as being a single parent, I can say being a single parent is a mind-blowing step beyond that. It's very lonely. There's no one to discuss anything with about what is best for the kid, including when they're sick.
KD: I've screened this film at festivals and elsewhere and there have been discussions about it, and to many women he's providing what they call "invisible content." In the opening credits, Eliza keeps refilling his coffee cup, and while she is making lunch for her kids and getting her daughter to eat a banana, he's reading the paper and making himself toast. That's invisible content. He's making no contribution to her workload.
Q: The press notes mention that you guys had trouble during the making of the film with the paparazzi, or mamarazzi.
UT: Yeah, we had mamarazzi on the set all the time. Katherine made a deal with one of them to leave Minnie Driver alone. That you gave him a part?
KD: No, that's a myth. I wouldn't ever promise someone in the paparazzi a part. But during the scene in which Minnie is on the street arguing with Uma who is looking out her window, they wouldn't leave her alone. It was her first day and she was quite nervous and very pregnant and vulnerable. They were harassing her, yelling, "Who's the baby's daddy?" just to get a rise out of her--which they finally succeeding in doing. I finally went over to them and said, "Can you just be human beings for like thirty seconds?" They were all finally beaten into submission except for one. He would shoot the same shot for half an hour. The same shot and she's in the same dress. It's like, "Don't you have that shot already?"
UT: Digital cameras have been the worst thing. Because in the old days, they had to pay for their film so they'd get their shots and go away.
DP: Katherine, I thought I was the only person in the world who still loves Syd Straw. But she sings several songs on the soundtrack. Was "CBGBs," one of my favorite songs, always going to be played at the end?
KD: Syd is a good friend of mine and I'll tell her you're a fan. When I wrote the script that song was included because I knew it was the perfect closing song because of the lyrics and the feeling of it.
DP: The first lyrics are "Hey, remember me," so is that a theme of the movie?
KD: Absolutely. It's remember me, even though I'm older and have a family. There's a love-story moment at the end, but the movie always is saying that there's still an individual person in that equation.
Roundtable with Minnie Driver
Danny Peary: Before discussing this film, I have to say that I miss The Riches. I was surprised when it went off.
Minnie Driver: I was very surprised. It was a complete travesty that show was canceled. I think we were on the wrong network. We should have been on a paid-subscription network. That way we could have developed it a little better.
DP: Was that the best role you ever had?
MD: It definitely was. Darla is the favorite character that I've played.
DP: It's much different from any role you've played. How did they think of you for that part?
MD: I have no idea. It just came to me.
Q: How did you end up in Motherhood?
MD: I'm not sure. They sent me the script and I was pregnant so I didn't think I'd do it. I thought Katherine might have to rewrite it, but it wasn't necessary because my character Sheila doesn't affect any plot points. It was good to have that part of my life chronicled. Every other part in my adult life has been chronicled. Sheila's really a version of me. It's me, it's pregnant me; Sheila's kind of angry at the father and has had a rough time of it. I was in a bit of a dream the whole time anyway. I'm not sure I'd make another movie when I was seven-months pregnant. I was really tired and wanted to be at home with my feet up.
Q: Did your becoming a mother affect how you relate to Uma Thurman's character?
MD: Not really because Eliza's kids are older and that makes it very different. Having a baby and that first year of life has a very different feel. It keeps me so incredibly busy and I think about my kid more than anything else.
Q: Did you relate to Eliza trying not to lose her identity?
MD: My job is about losing my identity constantly. I think it is a challenge for women, outside the economic challenge, to balance their lives between being a mother and working. How do you do it? I think mothers have to pick one thing that they do for themselves. Going for a swim at the Y, going out for a glass of wine while someone else watches your kid, that kind of thing. I'm lucky in that Henry goes everywhere with me and when I'm working I have full-time childcare. When I'm not working, I've got me, friends, and a babysitter. It has still been a challenge to work and be a mother. I was breast-feeding him when I was making "Betty Ann Waters" with Hillary Swank in February. He was only four or five months old and that was hardcore. Being in Michigan in minus ten degrees and worrying about him, I couldn't focus on the part very well. The movie I just made was much easier. I got into the groove more. We filmed in Montreal and it was fantastic. His being older and my being in the saddle of being a mother made it easier. That first year is so incredibly intense because you don't know if anything you're doing is right. I felt I was going to do some terrible thing and everything would fall apart. You just make sure they're fed and safe and it does get easier. It's about logistics, as you see in "Motherhood." For instance, your car getting towed on a day when it just can't get towed. If you're on a tight schedule, throwing your daughter a birthday party, you see your house of cards fall when you remove just one card--and you're screwed. That's what a lot of women experience. A lot of times you don't have a guy to fall back on because he's working. It's rough.

Q: Do you think there's a difference to being a harried mom in the suburbs and in an urban setting?
MD: I've been thinking back on popular culture in recent years and Cynthia Nixon's character on "Sex and the City" is the only single working mother we've seen. I think it's an interesting meditation because there are a millions of women who are doing it. The suburban housewife has a different flavor, sitting around having coffee in the morning. I don't want to diss about those mothers because I'm sure they're just as harried. But dealing with an urban landscape adds another, interesting dimension to the story, as you see in the movie.
DP: What is Sheila's future?
MD: Oh, God! I wonder what happens to her. She'll get on with it. This is her second of third kid. She'll get a job. She'll leave her kid with Eliza when she goes out at night.
Q: What was it like working with Katherine Dieckmann?
MD: She's an amazing, creative woman and I loved working with her. I met her over the phone. It's her story really. We talked about motherhood. About being an urban mother and her experiences with her children. I just listened to her stories.
It's not like there was a great stretch with my character, where I'd have to do research.
DP: You used your own voice as Sheila.
MD: I did! Katherine was so great. She said, "You can do it with an American accent if you want, but I think it's cool if your English." She was smart because Sheila's ironic, acerbic humor lends itself to being British. I think it worked.
DP: Americans can be acerbic and ironic!
MD (laughing): Yes, but it's different but I'm not sure how. Maybe we're more emphatic. We're more proper, which makes it funnier when we say rude things.
DP: When the movie starts we hear Syd Straw singing "Skip to My Lu," I thought it was you.
MD: I know, it does sound a bit like me. I wish I had done some music for the film.
Q: What's next for you?
MD: Betty Ann Waters, for which I truly believe Hillary also will be nominated for an Oscar, along with Amelia. She's amazing. I also finished Barney's Version with  Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman in Montreal. I just got back from Nashville yesterday.
I did an album that's another kind of country, more than the music I usually write.
DP: When you became a star with Circle of Friends, were you thinking at that time that you wanted a career not just across the pond but in America as well?
MD: No, because in England you go to drama school and are groomed for theater--to work in the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company is the pinnacle. So it was quite a surprise. I had never gotten constant praise and was always cast on tv. That was my first movie. I didn't know it was going to be a success over here. I didn't know it would lead to a life spent over here, so far. It's kind of amazing, but I've always been led in my life by what happens rather than having a grand plan.
Roundtable with Anthony Edwards
Q: In my view, Avery isn't there enough for Eliza. Other women have said that he is there enough. What do you think?
Anthony Edwards: I think it's intentional that he isn't there 100%. I thought that was part of the story. We're coming in on this marriage where things are out of whack and their compensating for each other's minuses isn't working as well. So that's where there are misunderstandings between them. I found that's the way it is in relationships in my life. We all have our best intentions but because we're human and make mistakes we don't always realize our expectations and conflict happens.
DP: When did things change for Avery and Eliza--when they got married or when they started having kids?
AE: I think those things are progressive. You can see how things go wrong if you put the onus on one particular aspect of your relationship--whether it's sex or laughter or whatever--and it's not working. You can destroy the relationship by then saying, "I can't do this anymore." The truth is that by riding through these things together, you can survive. It's not over unless you set yourself up for it to be over.
DP: What about communication? Their problem seems to be that they don't communicate like they used to.
AE: When a couple takes on the responsibility of raising children, the children become a huge priority. Because of that necessity, other relationships sufferhusband and wife, with the family, with friends. There is a chemical, instinctual thing where you do whatever it takes for your children. That also needs to be balanced out because if that's all you do, your children will feel suffocated and rebel.
Q: Did Katherine give you a background story?
AE: Just that Avery has an obsession for books and can get lost in that, and it was a safe place for him, his handle to hold on to. That became an important element.
Q: In the movie, Avery critiques what Eliza wrote and she isn't happy about it.
AE: To say what you think at the wrong time can be hurtful. I think we've all done that.
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DP: This film is called Motherhood, so we follow the mother through a hectic day. What if we followed Avery during his day? Would we see similar distress?
AE: I don't think you would. The crisis and drama in this story centers around that moment in her personal break, in regard to her creativity as a writer and ability as a mother, and her relationship with her husband. All that's magnified by the preparation for the birthday party. I think Avery has not reached the point Eliza has and that's why he is surprised by her reaction.
DP: He didn't have a drive-through-the-Lincoln-Tunnel-to-New-Jersey moment?
AE: Exactly. Maybe other husbands and wives relate, but in my family dynamic, my "oh, everything is going to work out" can be infuriating to my wife. Maybe it's a general male thing.
Q: What's next for you?
AE: I just did a film called Flipped for Rob Reiner. I get to play a not-so-nice guy. And the big thing is I'm running the New York Marathon on November 1. We're raising money to build the first children's hospital in Africa, in Kenya. Check out Shoe4Africa. We do a lot of work for women's empowerment in Africa through the sport of running. A lot of the great Kenyan runners are ambassadors for us.
DP: What's your fan mail like?
AE: It's all over the place. I'm a motor-racing fan, so if I got to a race, I'll find a lot of Top Gun  fans there. There are a lot of  Revenge of the Nerds fans. And ER fans. ER has obviously been the biggest thing--it's so worldwide.
DP: Is it strange not to see ER on anymore and for Jay Leno to be in the 10 pm slot?
AE: It did its fifteen years and I think the timing is right for it to end. Of course, I'm a fan of written work and there's now five hours less. That's too bad. We need writing so we can do our jobs. But of course we fill our lives with a lot more than this.
DP: Do you want to do television again?
AE: I wouldn't say never, but I'm not actively looking for a good hour drama. I know what that work is like.

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