WOMEN WHO FIGHT BACK
Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen set out to create a heist film like no other, as they tell Philippa Hawker
When writer Gillian Flynn got a call from director Steve McQueen, she was ready for any collaboration: “I’m a big fan from afar. He could have pitched me anything, he could have said, ‘ Hey, let’s do the next Emoji Movie’, and I would have been: ‘OK, that sounds deep and exciting.’ ”
McQueen, the Turner prize-winning artist turned feature filmmaker, had something specific in mind. After films that included Hunger and 12 Years a Slave, he wanted to make a genre movie with a personal resonance.
Widows — a gripping heist film with a team of women at its centre — grew out of a memory from his childhood that has been distilled and transformed. He took a 1980s British miniseries he watched as a small boy and imagined it as a feature film set in contemporary Chicago, a story of grief, loss, theft and taking control. Flynn, who has adapted the film Gone Girl and the television series Sharp Objects from her novels, was delighted to be involved.
Widows, the 1983 miniseries written by Lynda LaPlante ( Prime Suspect), told the story of a group of women whose husbands were killed during a robbery gone wrong. For the bigscreen Widows, McQueen has a powerhouse cast: Viola Davis plays Veronica, numbed at first by grief after the loss of her husband (Liam Neeson), who is forced into action when she is threatened by one of his former associates, Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry). Needing money fast, she stumbles across a notebook with her husband’s plan for the next job and decides to carry it out herself with a little help.
She calls on the other women whose husbands died in the robbery: Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez). They have been cast adrift and are finding it difficult to survive. Veronica’s plan, dangerous and unthinkable as it seems, offers them a way out.
It’s a rich, engrossing story, but there are many other elements woven in, political and criminal connections that complicate and enrich the narrative. Colin Farrell plays an aspiring politician hoping to follow in the footsteps of his father (Robert Duvall) and prepared to do almost anything to make this happen. Jamal has political ambitions, too, supported by his dangerous, quietly uietly unnerving brother (Daniel Kaluuuuya). The widows, it turns out, ut, have a part to play in what un- folds. Deepening the narrative was one of the pleasures of the assignment, Flynn says.
“It’s what I’ve always loved about genre — that you can n use it as a free train and attach h all sorts of interesting ideas. W With Gone Girl it was, ‘ OK, I can n talk about marriage and gender a and attach it to a mystery’, and with ith th Sharp Objects it was female agggression and anger and self- harm and sexism.” Widows, she says, provided a way “to talk about gender and race and economic inequality and corruption and cities and all ll this kind of cool stuff under the he guise of heist and crime thriller.” er.”
McQueen is based in Amsterdam erdam and Flynn lives in Chicago, o, so they wrote independently, sending material t i lt to and d fro, with no predetermined responsibility for any aspect. “We’d start peppering each other’s pieces, one would write a scene and the other would drop in a line here and there,” Flynn says.
“I am a novelist, so I like to write big, and I was a film writer and journalist, so I’m not afraid of rewriting. What I’ve learned is my process is get it all out there and write everything, then worry about getting it back down. There were characters who had massive storylines we ultimately had to pare back,” but the overreach worked, she says. “I liked the fact neither of us went, here’ here’s Act 1, here’s Act 2. It was very org organic.” In her office at home she has a whi whiteboard wall: “It used to be th this insane wall of sticky no notes, and taped-up scraps of y yellow legal pad. My husb band surprised me and tu turned it into this whiteboard wa wall, which makes me so hap happy.” On Widows she divided the wall in two. “One half was thhe the characters, tracking where they w were emotionally, and the othe other er half was pure plot: who’s do doing what, who’s thinking w what, who’s deceiving who.” She became aware of some o of the casting decisions by the se second draft and that affected th the writing. “When we knew we had Viola Davis, I could star start finetuning that character.” Th Thinking about the widows, McQuee McQueen says, he reflected on grief and its often unexpected impact. “It helps you f focus on what’s h t’ important; when what you once clung to is gone, it can be liberating in a way. That’s what happens to Veronica. That notebook is therapy.” Acting on its contents, following the plan it set out, “is keeping her husband alive and present for her”, even as it sets her on an entirely different course. The other women she contacts — Linda whose husband betrayed her financially, and Alice, whose husband abused and bullied her — are essential to her plan. They also get the chance to become something or someone else, but together, rather than separately.
The story about individuals dealing with loss, pain and a new sense of self is part of a much bigger story about a city and its workings. It’s a natural connection, McQueen says.
“I wanted epic, that was what I was after. But there are so many factors that are part of the everyday. Even falling in love can be political. Nothing happens in isolation, everything affects other things: the interlinked and crisscrossed — I wanted that fabric in the narrative.”
Chicago was the perfect location, “a place where everything I wanted to speak about is amplified. But this story could happen in Melbourne, in London, in Paris — anywhere in the world.” The script is a starting point, he says. “When you’re on set, things chop and change all the time, you add this, you throw that away. Otherwise it’s not filmmaking. The script is a guide rather than a doctrine. A lot of things were improvised, we’d change location or change a scene completely just before we were about to shoot, and it’s important to have that freedom.” It’s like a heist, in fact: “Anything can happen any time, you have to be able to adapt.”
McQueen has included references to the British show. Ann Mitchell, who played Dolly, the equivalent of Davis’s character, has a cameo in the film. And Widows is dedicated to Eva Mottley, the Barbados-born British actress who had a lead role in the series as part of the heist team. “She was iconic in her role,” McQueen says, but her career was brief and she committed suicide at the age of 31: she quit the second season of Widows, saying she had been sexually and racially abused during the production. “People pass away and are forgotten,” he says. “I wanted her to be remembered.” opens on Thursday.
Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo in Widows; Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, below