TIFF 2013: Liza Johnson on bringing out Kristen Wiig’s dramatic side

The director of Hateship Loveship in conversation with Barry Hertz

(Kara Dillon for Maclean's)

The label “artist” can be thrown around pretty easily during the Toronto International Film Festival, but in director Liza Johnson’s case, she has the credentials to back it up. Having exhibited work at the MoMA and the National Gallery of Art, Johnson made the leap to feature filmmaking with the devastating 2011 drama Return, which chronicled a female soldier’s journey home after service abroad. Johnson made her TIFF debut earlier this week with Hateship Loveship, another tightly focused drama about love and family secrets, this time starring Bridesmaids‘ Kristen Wiig, who makes her dramatic debut. I caught up with Johnson to talk about casting, Saturday Night Live and the key to adapting a story by Canadian icon Alice Munro.

Q. What drew you to Alice Munro’s original short story?

A. (Screenwriter) Mark Poirier brought this story to me about two years ago, and I just really fell in love with the character of Johanna, who puts herself at risk where it never makes sense, but gets what she wants. It was only after I read Mark’s script that I picked up Alice’s story, and it’s just so beautiful but, as you can tell, so different from the movie, with the way the point of view shifts around. But there are still those flashes of illumination that happen through each character that makes her work so compelling. Have you read the original story?

Q. Yes, a few years ago. I never thought it would make for an easy film adaptation, though.

A. That’s exactly it, because you can’t show in cinema what she was writing, by going inside each character’s head and such. So Mark and I worked for six months to make sure the script retained the point of the story–to keep the tone as honest as we could–but that it also worked as a movie.

Q. Did you and Mark ever back to any of Munro’s other work to explore her literary voice?

A. I’m certainly not an expert in Alice’s work, although she has been in my life for a while now. But I didn’t feel the need to do a focus study to think about the, you know, “voice of Alice Munro.” I did return to this story several times, though.

Q. I want to talk a bit about the casting process, because you’ve assembled an incredibly stacked cast. Did you have any first choices?

A. The first person I thought of for the entire movie was Kristen. Watching the characters she creates in her other work, like she could be in a wig and dancing around in SNL, you just know by watching her that if she can create these memorable characters in three minutes or less, then she has the craft to do that in a restrained way over a long duration of time. She is really an actor’s actor, as well, and her participation was a magnet for these other super-talented people to join. For instance, the first day I met Kristen, we both almost simultaneously said we wanted Guy Pearce for the role of Ken. It’s rare to get exactly who or what you want in film, but I did, and perhaps it’s a good metaphor for the movie’s theme.

Q. Like most people, I’m not sure I ever considered Kristen as a dramatic actor. Were you looking for someone who hadn’t tried this type of work before?

A. (Co-star) Jennifer Jason Leigh said something interesting at the beginning of filming, because most people love Kristen’s work because it’s so funny, but she said she loves Kristen’s work because “it’s so painful.” And that’s exactly it. You can tell just by looking at Kristen that she is processing every little thing in her head. She really makes things visible that are normally inarticulate–you can see inside her mind. The characters in this film don’t say what they mean, and in cinema there has to be a way to make that legible. Kristen, both in comedy and in drama, is really excellent at making things readable, either through behaviour or gestures. She makes it all visible.

Q. Nick Nolte also shows a surprising side here, with his gruff, yet extremely teddy bear-like grandfather. In the past few years, that’s not the image that immediately pops to my mind.

A. Yeah, Nick is not known for being that kind of teddy bear person, but he’s just a serious actor, and he knew exactly what the role demanded. He’s from the midwest, like me, and he drew on all his regional knowledge, and the fact that he grew up in a household where the dominative sound during dinner was just forks hitting the plates. He definitely knows how to channel that gruff, Presbyterian-like restraint when he wants to. But then there are those little moments when he shows something of his secret heart.

Q. You’ve already said you’d like to work with Kristen again, but who are some other potential collaborators?

A. I’m working right now with Michael Shannon on a character piece. He’s amazing, and another actor who people think he’s just a type, like a serial killer or something. But he’s really hilarious! Sometimes people’s personas might deny them their range, but people who can act know how to, well, act. I would love to see him in a Judd Apatow comedy.

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