Leave it to Erin Cressida Wilson to create a movie like Chloe starring Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried that brings up such mixed emotions that there were moments when I hated it and other moments when I liked it a lot. She took some time to talk with Women & Hollywood about the film and her writing.
Women & Hollywood: How did the project came about?
Erin Cressida Wilson: The project came to me because Ivan Reitman who produced and directed Ghost Busters and Animal House saw Natalie at the Toronto Film Festival and then called me and asked me to adapt it. And I said yes. It was very simple.
W&H: It's not really an Ivan Reitman type film?
ECW: It seems like it's not, although I know him now and it is an Ivan Reitman type film. If you look at Dave, he's obviously very interested in the love of a long term relationship and in finding the different stages and aspects of a long term relationship. And also, remember in Dave, there's the surrogate husband who awakens her and she falls in love again. It's a great film and there are similarities to Chloe because Chloe is the same thing. She's a surrogate who brings them back together.
W&H: How come it took four years to make?
ECW: He shot a film and I shot a film. Lots of things happened. I had a baby. A million things happened. And I'm really happy for the length of time it took because it allowed for a lot of easy perspective on the whole thing.
W&H: What do you mean?
ECW: I was able to forget what I wrote and look at it with clear eyes. I've become pretty good at actually being able to do that overnight. It's part of what my job is. To forget what I wrote and see it fresh. But to have a long period of time is really great because then you look at it and you're like "Oh, my God. That is really awful. Or that is really, really good."
W&H: What makes you want to push the envelope? There are a lot of writers who won't go near the stuff you write about, especially if it's about female desire.
ECW: I might not be able to do anything but that. It's been an interest to me from day one. I remember in high school Carolyn Forche the poet came to our school one day and she got up and she's so beautiful and she read this poem about, I could be wrong, about exchanging the pit of a peach with the mouth to mouth of a man on a train. It was a very, seriously beautiful poem and it was erotic even though she wasn't an erotic writer. My parents were English professors so you'd think I would be really into books and into writing but I wasn't. I was into photography and dance, which was the way I could express myself. My father also had a big shelf of erotic literature on the top so I had a lot of access to a lot of things I was very interested in.
W&H: When I was watching this movie there were times I loved this movie and times when I wanted to hit something. Was that part of your intention, to keep people off-kilter?
ECW: Yes. There is, hopefully, a constant breaking of expectations. But I will say during much of the cutting of the film, there was a music track in which the film was very dream-like. So it was all about fantasy. It was softer. And then they put in the real track and it became a different film. I don't mean it's an entirely different film but it almost changed genres. It took away the round female edges in some ways. They're not gone. They're obviously all over the place. But it made it more like "What the hell. What the hell." I had that experience when I first saw it. I was sitting there the same way. Gritting my teeth and "asking what's going to happen. What are they doing?" And I think the music really added to that.
W&H: Julianne Moore's character was a gynecologist in the film. What was her profession in the film Natalie that this was based on?
ECW: A gynecologist. I had real conversation with Ivan because I was like, "I don't want her to be a gynecologist. She deals with women's vaginas all day long but she's out of touch with her sexuality?" And Ivan was like, "Yes." And I thought in the end I really bought it. Also, he very much wanted her to be a professional. I kind of wanted to go housewife and make it sort of like Belle-de-Jour and he really wanted to keep her a professional. He pushed that on me and I liked it. It was a more complex choice. At first I thought it was more white on rice but I don't think it is.
W&H: Could you talk a little about the great monologue about women and aging, and sexuality?
ECW: That monologue was one of the last things I wrote, if not the last. And it's me. It's straight out of my mouth. And it was nice because Ivan worked really closly on this with me and he kind of said to me, "cut the shit and write that scene." And I sort of just went, "Alright. Here I go." And I wrote that with my heart there. And I love the way it worked out. Women and aging. My joke is that I started out as Chloe and I ended up as Catherine in the process of writing this.
W&H: Can you elaborate a bit?
ECW: I really related to the Chloe character when I first started writing it and I empathized with her quite a bit. I felt for her to such a degree that she was not even a villain, which in fact she is not the clear villain by any means. In fact, I think Catherine is very much a villain in this as well. But I related to her youth and her flirtation and all that. Then I wrote the monologue for Catherine because I didn't know what a middle aged woman felt like. And then one day I went, "I am middle aged." That's kind of what I think Ivan was pushing. He was like, 'Didn't you notice that at some point you turned forty. You can write this." That's when it all started to fall into place and I started to look at what had changed in my life and my lack of self worth as a woman and how it's changed and turned into more self worth as I've gotten older.
W&H: You specialize in writing about women. How have people responded to your characters?
ECW: Obviously the ones that we've seen, really well. And you know what? A lot better than in New York theater. We're not very interested in these characters. Theater is not very interested in it. But I have found that independent films are a little more interested in it, and even television. I actually think there is a conservatism to the theater that doesn't exist as much in film and television, which nobody assumes is true. But to answer the question, "how do people react?" Scared. When it doesn't land. It's scared. And sometimes when it does land it's scared and that's exciting.
W&H: What advice to you give your students?
ECW: I say to honor your mistakes. I think that one of the things you want to do when you're writing is always be a beginner. I always go back to the beginning when I start something. We're all at the same spot. We have this blankness in front of us. And we get input from images and music and your life. And even if you think something doesn't relate, if you're having a feeling about it, bring it in. Bring it into the basket of tools that you're putting together to create this piece. Sometimes when you write fast you stumble into areas you didn't mean to. Those can be cut out but those can also be the answers to move this from flat to brilliant.
W&H: Do you feel that your work is feminist?
ECW: I do.
W&H: Is there anything such as post-feminism?
ECW: It all goes back to my mother. She is 86 right now. She had me at 40. She had a PhD at 24 and a MA at 21. She's from the Kentucky Mountains. This woman just did it. She didn't stop to say, "I'm a feminist." She didn't stop to say, "I'm doing something." She just did it. She went with her gut and she moved forward. She ended up at Stanford getting a PhD. Crazy. So, she's my example of... she's never defined herself as a feminist to me because she just was one. She also has that great old poster from the 70's of a woman snapping a broom in half and it says, "Fuck Housework." And that was in our kitchen. That is what I grew up with. So I still have some issues about not being able to do female things.
W&H: Can you tell us about some of your upcoming projects?
ECW: I've got an HBO project that I'm doing with Harpo, which is Oprah's company. It's called "Untitled Woman Wants Out." It's about a woman who leaves, for seemingly no reason, her happy home and family and young children. I'm adapting the book "Peony in Love" by Lisa See, which is a terrific book about a girl in 16th century China who falls in love with a man who can't have him and starves herself to death and comes to him as a ghost and makes love to him. It's such a good book.
W&H: You have a Hilary Swank movie. Is that done?
ECW: I did what I would call a character brush on it. I don't think it's my film. I don't think my name's going to be on it. I don't know. I just did a fixer, character thing for a little extra delicious money.
W&H: What advice would you give to a screenwriter or playwright? And do you prefer playwriting or screenwriting?
ECW: I prefer screenwriting. It's a happier profession for me. I'm getting better feedback. And the advice would be what I said before. Be yourself. There was this whole thing in the 80's which was, "If you're black. That is what you are. If you're gay, that is what you are. If you're a woman, that's what you are." That's not what you are. You are yourself, a totally individual print of something that has its own thoughts. Write like that.
W&H: Do you write every day?
ECW: No. I have to segment my life. I can't write today, for instance or I'd be too into my fantasies to talk to you. And I wouldn't be in Chloe. So, I do have to segment it. I'll have a writing week and a meeting week. I don't even want to do it the same week. I want to go in and immerse myself in a week to ten days and then come out.
W&H: What's the thing you want people to get out of Chloe?
ECW: I think the complexity of and sweetness, I don't know why I say sweetness, of a long term marriage. Of have you can refine and crawl back to one another and re-eroticizingly fall in love. I think that stage happens throughout a marriage.
W&H: So at the end of the day Chloe is really about marriage?
Chloe opens nationwide today.
Interview was transcribed by Stephanie Webster.
Originally published on Women & Hollywood