Director Mona Fastvold: ‘It’s like people don’t associate female filmmakers with auteurs’

Norwegian film-maker on her long-awaited second feature dubbed a period, lesbian Brokeback Mountain

Mona Fastvold

Mona Fastvold

 

An actor and maker of music videos, Mona Fastvold wowed Sundance with her debut feature, The Sleepwalker, in 2014. The Norwegian film-maker subsequently co-wrote Childhood of a Leader and Vox Lux with her domestic and creative partner, Brady Corbet, and The Mustang with the writer of Yardie and Bronson, Brock Norman Brock.

For committed cinephiles and film festival veterans, she’s one of the movieverse’s most exciting talents.

Her long-awaited second feature is The World to Come, an 1850s frontier romance starring Katherine Waterston as Abigail, a farmer’s wife grieving for her dead daughter, who becomes drawn to Tallie, a glamorous new neighbour played by Vanessa Kirby. Abigail’s quiet, sensible husband Dyer (Casey Affleck) provides a counterpoint to Tallie’s jealous, suspecting partner, Finney (Christopher Abbot). It’s a film that has inevitably been characterised as a period, lesbian Brokeback Mountain, and which premiered to rave reviews at Venice last year. There, Fastvold picked up both the Fanheart3 Award and the Queer Palm. Kirby, meanwhile, won the best actress award for her performance in Pieces of a Woman. By any measure, The World to Come is an auspicious second feature, even if it wasn’t what Fastvold had planned.

Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby in The World to Come
Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby in The World to Come

“I worked on a different film that I wrote for several years,” says the director. “It was also quite an ambitious film. And I just could never get the budget where I wanted it. I kept being told that I needed to be under a certain price level. And I feel that that’s something that a lot of female film-makers struggle with, because often financiers seem more comfortable with women telling small, intimate stories. To make bigger movies, they want to see the next Kubrick walk in the door. And I don’t look that much like Stanley Kubrick. It’s like people don’t associate female film-makers with auteurs. So they’re scared of taking a chance. Which, of course, is not true. There’s plenty of female auteurs who make fantastic movies. I kept being asked to make the film feel less visually ambitious. Or I was asked: Why would I want to make that? Or: Why can’t you just make it smaller?”

Collaboration

It’s the first time that Fastvold has directed material she hasn’t originated herself, an experience she describes as “strange and luxurious”. The script came from writing team Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen; the latter previously collaborated with The World to Come star and producer Casey Affleck on Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The varying authorship creates an interesting to and fro between genders. The film is a woman’s story written by men, mediated by a very open and creative set, and the female gaze of the director.

“Isn’t it interesting when we get to have that dialogue?” smiles Fastvold. “I like seeing something and saying, oh, I want to turn this upside down or inside out. And I thought the dialogue was interesting to have with them, also, because Ron and Jim, who wrote the screenplay, are from a different part of the world than me. And they’re from a different generation than me and they’re a different gender. In the original short story by Jim, Tallie is much, much younger than Abigail. She’s not quite a woman yet. There’s a transference of grief for her daughter. There were things mixed in there that I felt that I didn’t want to approach at all, that weren’t interesting for me. I wanted to cast a very strong woman in the role who was grounded, who has a deep voice, who feels forceful, and who would potentially move a relationship further than just a friendship. That’s how I saw that love affair bloom and continue. And Ron and Jim were keen and excited to let me explore that and take the script in different directions.”

The World to Come is precisely the kind of ambitious, boldly cinematic project that Fastvold has been repeatedly discouraged from making. From Daniel Blumberg’s discordant score to an indelible blizzard sequence, it’s a shoot that required the Transylvanian wilds, where the production took place, to play a huge part.

“What I wanted to do with this was fairly ambitious – and having it span over multiple seasons – considering the budget,” says Fastvold. “And we had to shoot in a very remote location because you can’t have any farm land that’s been processed by machinery in 1856. And I definitely didn’t want to shoot just into, like, one little corner. I wanted to feel how big nature is and how small the humans were within that picture. We finally found our location in the Romanian mountains, but it was so remote and so far from everything, that everybody just had to walk through the mud and pitch in and carry. I think we all felt slightly transported because you look to your left, and you see the neighbouring farm and all the farmers are working with hand tools. And every night, at the end of our shoot, the cows and the sheep would come over the hills with the shepherds. You could hear those cow bells coming at night. So that was something we worked into the score as well. It felt like part of the film’s universe.”

Cinephiles

In common with her partner, Brady Corbet, who came to prominence as the star of Thunderbirds, Mysterious Skin, and the television series, 24, Fastvold began her career as a teen actor on Norwegian television. Her family were cinephiles who screened her Ingmar Bergman films early and often, while her mother, a writer, talked tricks and tropes.

“I learned film-making really just from being on set and asking a tonne of questions about how the camera works, the kind of lenses you were using, and why put the light there?” recalls Fastvold. “I was curious about that. And acting itself was just a way into film-making. At home, my mother always talked about story structure and archetypes and characters and what Greek myths might be the origin story for whatever story we were looking at. And my friend’s father was a film-maker. It looked fascinating being on that side of the camera. But it took me a while to see myself in that role. It seemed unachievable when I was younger, like you had to go to school for a long time. And then I realised that I had all the knowledge to do it.”

Fastvold cites Claire Denis and Lucrecia Martel as film-making influences. It’s great to see women getting opportunities to direct big studio pictures, she says, but it’s not where she feels at home.

“Something I recognise about a lot of female film-makers is a wonderful sort of intuitive way of storytelling that is surprising and has almost a dream-like logic to it,” says the writer-director. “I guess I could call it a feminine approach to storytelling, as opposed to the rooted-in-reality masculine way of storytelling that we are most used to. I feel like we can open our minds to dream-like narratives in literature. But in film-making, the masculine narrative is what we’re used to seeing. And often, you get a lot of pushback if you want to lean into a more intuitive way of storytelling, because people just aren’t used to it.”

Birth of America

Fastvold and Corbet, who met working on The Sleepwalker, have one daughter together and have produced two-going-on-three remarkable features. The Childhood of a Leader, starring Robert Pattinson, Berenice Bejo, and Liam Cunningham, is a gripping origins drama for 20th century fascism.

They subsequently have written The Brutalist, a tale of architecture and the birth of America due to shoot later this year, and starring Joel Edgerton, Marion Cotillard and Mark Rylance; and 2018’s Vox Lux, a fascinating chronicle about a US school shooting and a Lady Gaga-inspired pop diva played by Natalie Portman.

Like The World to Come, it’s a project that feels simultaneously both American and European, much in keeping with the couple who dreamed it up.

“I guess that’s true,” says Fastvold. “I have spent most of my adult life in America, but I’m not American. I grew up in Norway and I’m still sort of seeing it from the outside. I have a different perspective on it. With Brady we have a very symbiotic way of working. It’s obsessive and hard for us to stop. We work together in the middle of the day. I’ll write on my own in the morning. I’ll go to bed, he’ll write another five pages. We take a break for dinner and put our child to bed and then we say: we’re not going to work right now.”

She laughs. “But of course, we just keep on talking and talking and talking.” 

The World to Come is in cinemas from July 23rd

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