‘I wrote a part for my husband. By the time filming was over, so was our marriage’
British writer Emma Forrest on her marriage break up and making her directorial debut with her film Untogether, which stars her ex husband
Emma Forrest and actor Ben Mendelsohn. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty
In every city I’ve lived, my sister has been the one to set up the printer, testing it by printing me the lyrics to George Michael’s Freedom! ’90. I am not the only grown woman entwined with their family, as I am not the only British person entwined with George Michael. When, in 2010, he drove his car through the wall of the Hampstead Snappy Snaps, the resulting hole was quickly daubed with the legend “WHAM”, by a local who meant it in a loving way. Walking to the underground, I saw it (as well as the aftermath and the commentary on the aftermath) after breakfast with the last man I dated, before I met my husband.
Because I’d seen his film (Animal Kingdom), and he’d read my memoir (Your Voice In My Head), we had a strong idea of each other before we fell in love. Once we were together, music moved from headphones in walking cities to being blasted from his truck on LA highways. My soon-to-be husband began a rapid career ascendancy, as he endeavoured, simultaneously, to untangle me from my family. As we worked on the wording to our ketubah (Judaism’s sacred prenuptial agreement) I could picture beside “… according to the law of Moses and Israel”, the calligraphed lyrics to Freedom! ’90: I won’t let you down / I will not give you up!
Though I’d left home at 16, it felt, in many ways, as if it was only just happening. On hearing me plead my case to my father for why I shouldn’t have to invite a relative I didn’t like to the wedding, Ben took the phone from me. I heard my dad, in clipped John Cleese tones, politeness enveloping a core of near-demented frustration: “It may not be pleasant, but you have to. We had to invite family we didn’t want to our wedding – it’s just how weddings work.”
Did he love my anger, my focus, my aim? I don’t think he knew why he loved me, just that we had a primal connection
“Ah, nah mate,” Ben answered, fanning out his Aussie accent like a card trick. “Nah. That ain’t gonna happen”, and hung up on him. Like many families from minority-ethnic backgrounds, mine is loud. Here was someone who was far louder.
But DMX is loud and Topol is also loud and they’re different – and you’d be resentful, on marrying, if your concept of how loudness should feel was one and you got the other. May not be what you want from me / Just the way it’s got to be. One of the things I absolutely loved about Ben was that when he did not like a much-lauded film, rather than saying, “I find I am not connecting with this jazz drummer’s emotional journey”, he instead ejected the DVD, spat on it, opened the window, threw the DVD out, closed the window, then opened the window and leaned out to spit on it again.
One of the lows was me trying to finish a breastfeeding session with our three-week-old and him playing Wild For The Night by A$AP Rocky feat Skrillex over and over from tinny laptop speakers turned to their highest volume. Thereafter, I came to imagine that any vile event in our marriage featured Skrillex. But that day, topless and trapped under my suckling infant, I simply spat as far as I could in the direction of the laptop. The spit landed on the keyboard. “Oh my God,” shouted Ben. “I love you! I love you so much!” Did he love my anger, my focus, my aim? I don’t think he knew why he loved me, just that we had a primal connection. I felt the same. I followed his scent from room to room.
Neither is it lost on me that the heights of our love are both to do with spit. I think about the English phrase “Holding it together with spit and glue”, which is another way of saying hanging on by a thread. We hung by a thread for years.
“You’re shouting!” I’d cry, and he’d answer, “I’m not shouting, I’m Australian.” He still thinks I am too easily startled and I still think he is too quick to anger. This is the circle in which we dance and always did. As a married couple, we were a Tennessee Williams first draft (feat Skrillex). Or as he put it, he was Wreck-It Ralph and I was Vanellope, the girl with a glitch.
In early 2016, I had the nagging feeling that we were going to have to call time. And though I was very worried, I had an even bigger nagging feeling. I had become fixated on the health of George Michael. This could have been Cassandra-style foresight, or, given his lifestyle, just pragmatism. Either way, I wanted George to know how much his music meant to me. I wrote the letter, but didn’t mail it and David Bowie died instead.
Ben and I are both autodidacts who dropped out of high school. The last school exam I sat was history GCSE where I was required to write an essay about the golden years of the Weimar republic. Unprepared, I panicked and thought it would be OK to instead write an essay about Golden Years by David Bowie. I tell you this because it’s one of Ben’s favourite stories about me, something he enjoyed hearing when he felt tender.
We had just got back from watching Ben not win a Golden Globe for Bloodline when the news came through. I don’t know if it’s more unsettling to get bad news naked or in black tie, but we listened to his songs late into the night and the marriage hung on. When it emerged that Bowie had known he only had a year to live and had thrown himself into completing an album, I thought about knowing you’re going to die and knowing that the thing you must do is work. I thought about how to leave a legacy inside the marriage in the likelihood it would soon be gone.
When we first met, I’d written the script for Untogether, a film charting how something you’re determined to leave as a one-night stand arcs, against your wishes, into a love story. I wrote the role of Martin for Ben, to showcase his guileless, joyful side, the half of him that is Iggy Pop just wanting to be your dog. It felt important to get it filmed before we ended up divorcing. After a decade as a screenwriter, it would be my first film as director. As financing finally fell into place, partly as a result of Ben’s participation, I realised I’d have to direct my husband as we were pulling apart.
I almost scuppered it late one night during a tense disagreement about parenting. This was really it, we were breaking up then and there, film be damned – when someone with a flashlight approached our home. Ben grabbed a long kitchen knife and ran outside, shouting: “Get the fuck off my property! I will fucking gut you!”
We held each other and trembled and were so glad not to have broken up, to be held by spit and glue, that it took until the next day to realise: “Ben, it wasn’t the meal delivery service, was it?” “Oh.” He said. “Oh dear. You should probably call to apologise.”
After another fight, my daughter and I went to a friend’s beach cottage for two weeks, the longest time Ben and I had spent apart. While we were there, Prince died. These musicians we loved so much, who had been our sacred texts on dark nights of the soul, were dying, while we were dying on the inside.
I had a very different relationship with loneliness when I was younger. I lived my life in walking cities (London and then New York) where my mood could be best summarised as “music heard through headphones” and loneliness was something I let melt under my tongue like a sucking sweet, combating the cabin air pressure of my head.
With many, many swear words in his arsenal, “How lonely” is Ben’s most frequent insult. It could apply to everything from a denim jacket sold with pre-applied patches, to a misguided nickname, to a poorly considered For Your Consideration campaign. Loneliness is the greatest damnation he can assign to a person, place or thing.
I remember walking down to the beach, looking out at the Pacific, thinking, “I don’t want to end up lonely, but if we don’t end this marriage that needs to end, the icons of our youth will keep dying before their time.” (It is the artist’s way to believe that they are useless pieces of shit, but that they also control the oceans. Ben understood that.)
Some friends thought I should let the film fall away and focus on splitting, but the shots my cinematographer and I had planned gnawed at me as I slept, when I bathed, as I carried shopping from the grocery store. Maybe because it was my version of an optimistic love story, I believed I would simply not be OK if I didn’t film it. And that it would mean something to some people were it to see the light of day.
To hear him apologise when he walked in on me changing was crushing
The night before my first morning on set, I called my writer-director friend Shana, needing to say out loud what I’d been holding in: that I didn’t want to direct this film any more because I didn’t want to be on this planet any more. As I sobbed, she gave me the best advice I ever got about film-making: “Nobody ever gets to direct a film. Women never, ever get to. You’re going to make this movie and on the last day, you can have a nervous breakdown and check into a psych ward for 10 days, because that’s how long it will take for your editor to cut the first assembly.”
I was held up in every way by my crew and my cast (with perfect Fleetwood Mac synchronicity, my leading lady, Jemima Kirke, was also getting divorced). One of my favourite days was lifting a scene from the Freedom! ’90 video (Jemima angled like Cindy Crawford in the bathtub, elevated by wooden planks, as I’d heard its director David Fincher had done). It was a 20-day shoot with a few hours’ sleep a night. By the end, my face appeared to have melted, like the proverbial cake left in the rain. When I was directing Ben – on the days he shot and only those days – I put on mascara and it was . . . How lonely. To care how you look in front of someone who you don’t want to be with and who does not want to be with you.
The day after the November 2016 US election was the only time I cried at work. The idea that you wake up and are a country utterly divided – we think they’re the terrible people and they think we’re the terrible people – felt like the global parallel to my domestic reality. Jamie Dornan, who acts opposite Jemima, clocked my face as we returned from our trailers – I’d say Girl With A Glitch meets Tennessee Williams’s bulldog mourning at his grave while Skrillex plays – and wordlessly wrapped me in a bear hug as I said “Thank you” and “Sorry”, took a breath and shot the next scene.
Leonard Cohen’s passing actually came as a moment of respite. Of all the celebrity deaths of 2016, it is the only one that can be described as a good death. Leonard, one senses, simply meditated himself off this plain, a peaceful protest against the state of the nation.
After we finished the film, Ben moved out to the place where I first knew him, a guesthouse at the top of Laurel Canyon in LA. He would come to put our daughter to bed a few times a week and we’d orbit each other in silence, two waning moons. To hear him apologise when he walked in on me changing was crushing. How do you look at someone whose clothes you once wanted to tear off, when there is laundry to be done? How are you going to get divorced, especially with a child involved? Are you going to say, “I find I am not connecting with this emotional journey”? Or do you eject the marriage, spit on it and throw it out the window? Like most couples who were once deeply in love, we did both.
On Christmas Day, I made blinis with caviar and he thanked me, politely. We were still not sure how to hug, so we didn’t. Our kid ripped from present to present as if she were pollinating them, and Ben gingerly gave me a maritime-themed cushion with a removable octopus, a completely random gift that said, “I have no idea what we are to each other any more.”
He was in the garden smoking when I read about George Michael. When I told him, he put me on his knee and I leaned on his chest and we both cried. I don’t know if he was just relieved to see me crying not over our divorce. “I said it would be him.” He held me tighter: “You did. You did say it.” “It just hurts so much,” I gulped, “that someone who comforted so many people did not feel good about himself.” Ben answered: “That’s why we do what we do.”
The thing I find most painful about divorce is that there is no marked spot at which to leave offerings
Later, I remembered the way George’s songs swing back and forth from a desperate yearning for closeness to a primal need for freedom. When we finished crying, we danced to his greatest hits, all three of us, and it was a beautiful Christmas.
The next day I told my child’s babysitter. A deeply empathetic woman, she just looked at me and asked: “Which one was he?” “George. George Michael. English. Greek. Wham!? He wrote some of the most perfect songs in the history of pop. He had a big, big heart.” She thought a long time before her eyes flooded with recognition: “Toilet Man?” It felt like a sense memory from couples therapy: you could flood the world with beauty, yet only be remembered for your perceived transgressions.
Carrie Fisher died before the year was done. Soon Ben and I would descend into six months of froideur as the financials got hammered out. The last time he was tender with me, he called to tell me about Debbie Reynolds. All he said was: “Mumma’s gone now.” I understood right away. I also understood he wanted to be the one to tell me, aware how entwined I am with the family he took me from and to whom he was returning me.
The next time he visited, he was wearing new black wax jeans I couldn’t make sense of, and the fact I couldn’t make sense of them felt insurmountable (sometimes the clothes do not make the man). Around the time Tom Petty died twice in one day I was at my lowest. My kid and I left the east LA family home for a rental in north London while we tried to find our feet.
I wanted the explosions of Fincher’s Freedom! ’90 video. I wanted them when I signed over the house to him (Freedom! Bam!) and when I signed the divorce papers (Bam!). I wanted to re-enter our flat after a Tesco shop to find a flaming jacket with “Rocker’s Revenge”, Naomi Campbell observing me from inside a sweater, Christy Turlington crawling on her hands and knees. An unnamed male model doing pullups, unnamed because the man doesn’t really matter, he’s just a reason to buy clothes and plane tickets.
As my daughter and I explored north London together, I found that every other street had an amazing view. I played her Petty, George, Bowie, Prince, Leonard. She only needs to hear a tune once to sing it perfectly. My mum sang with her and it was soothing to watch. I was glad to be re-entangled with my parents in a new way, all of us at different life stages.
Every day at school, my daughter’s class of five-year-olds began with them singing, If You Want To Sing Out by Cat Stevens. She had come to love it so much, and become so used to the singers we listen to being dead, that she summoned the courage to ask: “Is Cat Stevens… is he dead?” “No,” I said. “Cat Stevens is alive.” I didn’t say: “He has transfigured. He is at once what he was and something new, but still the same soul.” I just put her tiny hand in mine and said: “He’s still alive.” Before bed, I showed her the Untogether wrap present that Jemima Kirke had given me: she’d taken my wedding dress and dyed it dusky pink, so it could be worn to parties.
One day, after dropping my daughter at school, I found myself wandering around Highgate. Eventually, I was at the cemetery, admiring the flowers and books at the graves of Karl Marx and John Kennedy Toole. The thing I find most painful about divorce is that there is no marked spot at which to leave offerings. The guard said visitors could only go to George Michael’s grave if they knew him. I felt like I could pull that off. I have chutzpah. I walked up to Ben the first time we met, and told him I had been looking for him. But it’s hard to flex chutzpah when you’re exhausted. Waking, feeding, dressing, brushing, getting a kid out the door to catch the bus in the rain every single day. Returned to a walking city, the music in my ears was my salvation. “Did you know him?” the guard asked. “No. I didn’t know him. I just loved him.” I don’t belong to you / And you don’t belong to me.
It is very sad that a big-city feminist found it so hard to get along with a hyper-macho Australian of a certain age. It is sad, but it’s also just the plot of Crocodile Dundee. My experience of love has been melancholy, but also joyfully ridiculous; it’s that combination, like a brilliant pop composition, that makes it worth replaying. – Guardian
Untogether is available on iTunes, Amazon and Sky from July 12th. Emma Forrest’s novel Royals will be published by Bloomsbury in October