Should we be surprised it has taken Robin Wright this long to direct a feature film? She has been in or adjacent to the business for about 40 years. Raised in San Diego in the US, Wright did some modelling in her early teens before securing a role in the daytime soap Santa Barbara. The international breakthrough came in 1987 with her role as Buttercup – "probably the most beautiful woman in the world" – in the immortal Princess Bride.
She has never gone away. A famously on-off-on-off marriage to Sean Penn came to an end in 2010. You can see her in Forrest Gump, Unbreakable and David Fincher's the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She helped launch the streaming television revolution when, in 2013, House of Cards landed in one bingey lump. Wright directed 10 episodes of that political drama and now finally delivers an impressive feature debut with Land. Actors have an advantage when it comes to breaking the male grip on the megaphone, but shoulders still need to be pressed against jammed doors.
“Somebody asked me recently: ‘Do you think the forum has opened up for female and diverse directors – and for more diverse material – because of pressure?” she tells me with a bit of an eye-roll. “And I was like: ‘Of course, it’s because of pressure.’ And we need to keep putting the pressure on to have more diversity. Women? Great. But we need all nationalities, all cultures. Let’s bring more to the table. There is this tape we’ve all been playing over and over. It’s about breaking that tape and reimagining things in a different way.”
But progress has been made?
“Without question, I think the crack in the glass ceiling is getting bigger,” she says. “It just took time. Does it feel forced? In a way, yeah. But I think it’s just going to take some adaptability.”
In some ways, the timing of Land is perfect. It concerns a person reassessing her priorities while self-isolating. In another sense, the release is the tiniest bit awkward. Wright plays a woman who hauls herself to a remote cabin in the Wyoming wilderness after an initially obscure tragedy. It is hard not to think of the all-conquering Nomadland as the actor positions herself sadly before big skies. But this is a more roughly textured film. The hostile elements – a savage bear among them – place the protagonist in mortal peril. Nature is celebrated, but the redness of its tooth and claw is constantly acknowledged.
"I loved how simple it was," she says of Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam's screenplay. " It is about the beautiful side of humanity – how we help each other get through hard times. And boy, is it ever timely right now? After this year that we've all been enduring. Right? We were supposed to release this film almost a year ago. But, because of Covid, it pushed our post-production process to much later. And I thought, well, maybe that was meant to be."
Financing is a strange business. You can struggle for years to get a difficult project made and then, almost overnight, unlikely funders will pop up with just-about-enough money. Wright was presented with an ultimatum and, already a hardened Hollywood pro, did not pause in lunging for the prize. At this stage, she had no plans to appear in the film herself.
“Well, we got financed very quickly after not getting financed for quite some time,” she says. “And we basically had 48 hours to cast the movie, because we had to get our bags packed and get up to Canada so that we could shoot this movie in 29 days – and get four seasons in those 29 days. The producers said: ‘I don’t think we can take the risk if you don’t get it cast. In two days, we will lose our window and potentially lose our financing.’ They said: ‘I think you’re going to have to act in it because we don’t have a choice right now.’ All right, well, I’m going to be there anyway. So, let’s go for it.”
Easy to say. She had not agreed to appear as co-lead in an ensemble cast. There are few other faces in the film bar hers and that of the excellent Mexican actor Demián Bichir. Wright is in practically every scene. She has to wrestle wildlife and fake the rigours of the pioneer life. All this in genuinely tough conditions. Although, on the upside, she didn’t have that many lines to learn.
It seems as if the actor now has some skills necessary for survival in icier conditions. Maybe she could hunt and prepare her own meal?
“Oh, that’s the one thing Demián Bichir and I talked about when we were doing our training with our mountain man,” she says. “And he did teach us how to do all the things. We never killed an animal. But we knew how to gut the animal, skin the deer, fillet the meats, smoke the meat. We were taught how to do all those tasks. But I don’t think I could live off the grid without my mountain man, Miguel,” she laughs. “And I don’t know if I could kill an animal. So that would be tricky. Trying to be a vegetarian off the grid? Oh, no, no.”
When actors come late to their directorial debut they are often tempted to throw everything within reach at the screen. After all, they’ve been saving all their ideas up for decades. The restraint in Land is, thus, particularly impressive. Wright is slow to reveal her character’s initial tragedy. The audiences fills in gaps during the many quiet periods.
"We cut out so much of what we shot," she says. "We had multiple scenes of her past with her family. And, in the editing room I just was like: 'Take it out!' We had shot the scene of the unfathomable event she explains at the end of the movie – how it all happened. About a year into the post-production process, we were about to release the movie and I said: 'Nope! Take it out. Let us just see if we can keep the audience engaged until the very end."
Land is coming to Northern Ireland cinemas on June 4th and Republic of Ireland cinemas soon