Movies of late have been… loud.
From the bombastic rocket-launch of Iron Man 2, to the sting of swords and arrows in Robin Hood, to the kinetic furor of the latest Shrek installment. Then the sandy, shrieky inanity of the Sex and the City gals and a certain Prince of Persia, and just last weekend, more hooty hijinks by way of some Killers and one imperative: Get Him to the Greek.
This weekend, a lovely cinematic respite arrives in Baltimore.
Mother and Child is the story of three women struggling with questions of family, identity, and motherhood. Written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, the film delicately portrays complex characters and issues, with a level of dramatic consequence to rival or surpass any box-office giant.
Annette Bening stars as Karen, a woman forever haunted by her past—that as a teenager, she gave up her newborn daughter for adoption. Naomi Watts plays that daughter, named Elizabeth, as a tenuous adult. Kerry Washington plays Lucy, an earnest hopeful mother unable to conceive, working through the adoption process with her husband Joseph (David Ramsey). The film also stars Samuel L. Jackson as Elizabeth’s boss Paul, and Jimmy Smits as a coworker of Karen’s, named Paco.
Mother and Child premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September before making the rounds at several film festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival in January and our very own Maryland Film Festival last month, where it screened as the featured closing-night film. The film opened in limited release on May 7, and will open at the Landmark Harbor East Theater in Baltimore on Friday.
I got the chance to sit down and talk with Rodrigo Garcia, the very man behind Mother and Child, while he was in town for the Maryland Film Festival. We talked about his background, his filmmaking technique, the thematic threads of Mother and Child, and the mystique of Mary Poppins.
Mr. Garcia’s first film Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her received the Maryland Filmmaker’s Fellowship grant in 1999. His second film Nine Lives also screened at the Maryland Film Festival in 2005.
Here are some highlights from our conversation.
(Please be advised that while I tried to keep our exchange free of spoilers, some light spoilers may lie herein.)
You began your career as a cinematographer, or a cameraman?
I did everything. I was an assistant. I was an operator. Then you move up from being second assistant to focus puller and operator, and director of photography.
Did you always know during that time that you wanted to make the leap into making your own films?
No I did not. I thought I just wanted to be a cameraman, and it’s certainly a great job. Then in my thirties I started to get these ideas that I thought could be movies. And I thought, well if I write them, I’ll make them. But I wasn’t looking to become a director.
So you began writing in your thirties?
I wrote a few short things I didn’t shoot. But the first full-length script that I wrote is the first full-length movie that I made which was Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her—that’s the one that I received the fellowship prize for.
Your father, being Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the most influential literary figures of the 20th century, how has his legacy shaped what you do and how you work?
I grew up in a world where everyone was an artist, everyone was a writer, a filmmaker, a director, a painter, so that was the environment I grew up in, where storytelling and stories and books and reading and movies were at the forefront of everything.
So you think that as you grew up you were driven to creativity?
It would have been actually miraculous if I had turned out to be a scientist or a businessman. [chuckles]
I read that you had been writing Mother and Child for almost a decade?
I started in the fall of ‘99. I wrote the first scenes for it, or the first notes for it. I think probably one of the reasons it took me so long was that when I started I didn’t have enough chops to write it. I had ideas for it, I knew the general direction of it, but I didn’t have enough experience writing a movie with that kind of structure, with a more complicated structure.
After you began writing you did a lot of projects with HBO. You wrote a lot. You directed several episodes of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Big Love, and most recently, In Treatment.
The first year of In Treatment I was the show-runner.
As you were working on other things, was Mother and Child always brewing in your mind?
I never moved away from it. I would go back and work on it, especially on the structure—a lot of cutting and pasting, and trying different ways to tell the story.
Mother and Child portrays, and I’d say very convincingly, a lot of complex women and a lot of really complex relationships between women and the other people in their lives, and basically it’s a film about women, and yet I’m sitting here talking with a man. And I’m sure that you get this question all the time, but where exactly do you think your instinct comes from for capturing women so realistically?
I have no idea. I’m interested in them, of course. I think your interest has to be born from something that intrigues you—that you like, or that you like to look at or observe. I never feel like ‘oh this is what a woman must be like.’ I feel a good connection to these women that I’ve written. But all I’ve had is my imagination as to the things that women share, and of course they’re all different from each other.
Can I ask what your relationship with your mother was like? Do you think that has influenced your ability to create these realistic portraits of women?
[laughs] Perhaps. It’s a good relationship. But I don’t think any of these women are my mother. She’s someone with a strong personality I think, but I don’t think she’s as complicated or tortured—certainly not as unfriendly as these women are at the beginning of the movie.
And as you’re saying these women are very complicated, tortured, sometimes unfriendly, and a lot of times I think you’ve been pegged as this man who writes very “strong” characters for women, and I see these characters more as “weak”—not in the sense that they’re poorly-written, of course, but weak, vulnerable, emotionally honest.
I like to think that by “strong” women you want to write women that are characters—male or female—you want to write them to seem real, and where the complications are rich and where you can connect to them. I think that’s what a “strong” character is. I’m not interested in writing “strong” women, exemplary women or men—these are not moral tales. I’m not interested in heroes. I’m interested in the things that people do to make do, to adapt to the problems that they have. So in that sense, for me a character is strong if the complications are rich and they are believable, but “strong” doesn’t mean that the character is a winner necessarily.
You think “strong” characters, you think Margo Channing, even Xena Warrior Princess, and then you have Annette Bening in this movie who’s not at all like that. She’s actually quite damaged and vulnerable.
She’s hurt, I think. She never recuperated from what was forced upon her. But you always want to look at the underbelly of things. One of my favorite characters was Mary Poppins, but not because of that winning, take-charge attitude and that positive optimism—for me she’s hiding a whole complexity and a loneliness and a longing, and she has sort of this what I perceive to be some repressed sexuality.
Yeah. So that’s why I like her. Not because she’s perfect, but because she’s hiding—
Not because she can fly through the air with a parasol?
No, no. She’s hiding something.
These roles are so vulnerable and dynamic and intricate, these roles that you write for women, not just in Mother and Child but inNine Lives and in Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, and I have to think that these roles require so much trust in you from these actresses, in you as a director, in you as a writer, and you seem to have the trust of a lot of these actresses. You’ve worked with Holly Hunter multiple times. You’re starting another project with Glenn Close. Amy Brenneman and Lisa Gay Hamilton both appear in Mother and Child and they had also appeared previously.
Elpedia [Carrillo] also.
What do you think it is about the way that you work as a director, or about your craft that earns you the trust of these actresses?
I think the main thing is to get people interested in the role that you wrote. I’ve had excellent actresses including actresses I’ve worked with before that have turned down roles that I’ve offered them if they didn’t think the role was something they could connect to or make sense of. So I think first and foremost, they have to click with the role. They have to feel that this is a believable person that they can explore and portray. The shooting itself is never that complicated. I don’t like to rehearse very much. We have some conversations and I give some direction. But mostly it’s that contract that is the script that has to seal the deal.
I had read that you had said that you don’t like to rehearse very much, and I was astounded because I was thinking of Nine Lives where you had all of these prolonged tracking shots. They seemed like they’d have to be very rehearsed to make them work.
We rehearsed for a day on each one of them, and most of the rehearsal was around the blocking—the logistics of lighting, shooting, and the camera movements. And while you’re blocking you comment on certain things and you make some choices. But I wouldn’t really begin looking at the performance in earnest and really getting in there if I needed to until after the first take on the shooting day. So that one required rehearsal because logistically it was more complicated.
And Mother and Child?
For Mother and Child we got together with each one of the stories, except for Lucy’s, we weren’t able to because no one was available, and we read them once and we talked about it generally, but everyone seemed to be in sync with what their characters were.
Do you think that not rehearsing very much gives you more honesty from these actresses?
I think every actor is different. There are many good actors who can rehearse a lot and improve with rehearsal. I feel that the more I see it, the more I rehearse it, the more I go over the lines and stuff—they sort of wear out for me. I’m trying to keep my own barometer fresh, is what I’m doing. I want to not see it very much so that I can react to it. It is a question of not putting them through it that many times, but it’s also a question of not putting myself through it that many times.
Back to Mother and Child specifically, Annette Bening plays this woman who gave up for her daughter at a young age. And then we have Naomi Watts playing that daughter as an adult. And both of them seem really emotionally ravaged by this decision—
Well I think the word “decision” is—they had no “decision.” It wasn’t up to them. That’s why I made Karen so young so that it had been forced upon her. I think precisely the hurt comes from the fact that they had no say. It was done to them. I think that loss of decision power, something that was done to them that hurt them so much is what turned them into these extremely controlling people.
And then in “Ring 3” we have Kerry Washington who’s jumping through hoops trying to go through an adoption and adopt a baby. And that whole process proves to be ravaging on her life.
I think she sees her inability to become pregnant as a personal failure, which is a little bit of a comment on how we live now. We have all these measures of success that for some women also see being a great mom as a measure of success. And they take on motherhood with the same zeal of a career. And sometimes not being able to get pregnant makes them feel like failures. I don’t agree with that, of course. But I think that’s where Lucy is trapped.
In your film you cover a very wide range of issues in their complex natures when it comes to the relationships between mothers and children, and motherhood in general. And I think it’s tempting from the perspective of the audience to try to find some sort of ideology that you have in mind. Did you have one in mind when you were creating this film?
I didn’t. The only aspect that really interested me more consciously was—certainly the complication of even the most elementary relationship between two people is complicated, it’s full of contradictions, there’s things you want and that you can have from another person and things you can’t. But I believe in adoption. I am not a religious person, but I wanted to raise the question in the movie of both things—whether everything is a roll of the die or whether someone is calling the shots. There are different points of view put forth in the movie. I agree with some of them. I disagree with others. But I give them all a chance.
Another major theme that I caught in the movie was this one of blood ties. You have a couple characters who really stress the lack of importance when it comes to blood—that’s it’s more about time spent together than about blood.
I think, who knows? I think time spent together of course is huge. Of course, sometimes with your blood relatives you also spend a lot of time together. But I think it’s clear from anyone who has spent time in the same household that time spent together often trumps everything else.
And on the other hand you do have characters who seem to be acting as though blood does mean a lot. There are several instances in the movie where it seems that blood is very important to these characters.
I think to Lucy’s husband apparently it’s important. He says he wants a baby of his own, and you can’t fold him. I think he’s probably guilty of having not spoken up earlier, sooner. By that token, he was probably just trying to be supportive of her. But the blood tie does mean something to him. It doesn’t to everyone.
But in the movie you’re trying to just portray the spectrum?
And not even in a balanced way. I don’t care to make anything that is a primer on anything. You know what I mean? There are some things that some of the characters say or do that I agree with, others I don’t. And again, I don’t do it in a desire to be balanced. It’s probably in a desire to just look at everything.
I also noticed that in Mother and Child and In Treatment especially, you seem to find tremendous depth in these very small moments, and you kind of skip over the big, dramatic events that would take place in a narrative. So I’m thinking if Rodrigo Garcia’s directing an action film, we’d see everything leading up to the explosion, and then we’d see maybe one little glimpse of the explosion and then the fallout of the explosion.
That’s probably why they don’t give me those movies to direct. [laughs] Obviously I’m interested more in the little gesture, and how something lands on someone’s ear. The consequences of the line said, or a silence, all that stuff. All the little game-playing of everyday life is more compelling to me. And ultimately, probably more—it affects people more. More people are affected by behavior and relationships with people next to them than by big action moments. I mean, I don’t want to downplay what it’s like to be in a war, but most of us are not in a war. Most of us are in our everyday lives, intertwined with our people close to us. That’s the terrain that interests me.
When I was watching Mother and Child, and sometimes I think I suffer from the everybody-looks-like-everybody-else syndrome, I kind of noticed that maybe there were some similar mannerisms and speech patterns between Naomi Watts and Annette Bening. Was that intentional?
Yeah. I don’t think they studied each other in any way to try to move or talk alike. But there were attitudes towards people around them that Karen and Elizabeth shared. As I said, they’re both controlling women. And they use that forceful character that they have to try to control their environment.
The biggest criticism I think you receive is that you give a lot of time—you create these very complex and interesting women, and that maybe you neglect your men when you create your films. Or that the men appear saintly or simple, whereas the women are more dynamic. What would you have to say to that? What goes into creating men for you, and in creating the men of Mother and Child?
I’m now as interested in the men as I am in the women. Before, I was more interested in the female characters. Now I’m interested in the men as well. I’m happy and I’m proud of Paco and Paul. For me the idea was that I wanted these women who already had enough of their own complications to be confronted with good men. Men who were good catches, and were not—they were not the foe, they were not the adversary. But I like them. They are certainly not as complicated as the women, but they play an important role in the story.
And what would you say that this film has to offer to men?
I hope it offers to men what these subjects offer to me. The nature of attachment, the complication of attachment, the sadness of being separated from someone you feel close to, the difficulty of living with an absent person in your life. I hope that’s not just about women.
As both a man and a steely-souled twenty-something who occasionally displays all the sensitivity of a dung beetle, I can assure you that it’s not just about women. There’s plenty here for men, too. Plenty for women. Plenty for everyone.
Mother and Child opens this Friday, June 11 at the Landmark Harbor East Theater in Baltimore. Look for my full review of the film here at The Dagger. (Hint: well worth the trip into the city)