WOMEN WHO FIGHT BACK

Gil­lian Flynn and Steve Mc­Queen set out to cre­ate a heist film like no other, as they tell Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Wid­ows

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

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