Q&A: Liza Johnson, Director of ‘Hateship Loveship’
Director Liza Johnson began her feature film career with a movie about a female officer dealing with the personal turmoil of coming back home from a military tour of duty. “Return” ended up leading to her second feature “Hateship Loveship,” which is based on a short story by the Nobel Prize winning author Alice Munro. The film tells the story of the extremely introverted and empathetic character Johanna (Kristen Wiig, “Saturday Night Live”). “Hateship Loveship” finds Johanna eventually getting herself into an email correspondence with a crush, but the relationship that Johanna thinks she’s having through these emails is really one concocted by two high school girls.
Johnson took some time to chat with The Eagle’s David Kahen-Kashi about her film and female directors in Hollywood.
E: How did you arrive at this Alice Munro short story for a subject to make into a movie?
Liza Johnson: Actually, the screenwriter brought it to me. He had already written the adaptation. I think he arrived at it that way. It sounded like he and the production executive had been reading the book at the same time, and they were both really inspired by it.
E: Do you find that it’s tougher to convey literary aspects about what’s inside a character’s head through film?
LJ: It’s just really different because in a movie the characters have to become legible through meaningful actions or dialogue. Of course, that story has a lot of meaningful actions in it, [but] it doesn’t have a ton of dialogue. I was impressed by the way Mark Poirier (“Smart People”), the screenwriter, found ways to fill in the kind of elliptical elements in the story, you know… So, I think, it was a project of making some of those ellipses in the original story come out on screen because they’re just really different art forms.
E: This is your first feature where you’re not writing and directing. Is there a difference between probably having an attachment to the script when it’s yours, or is it refreshing to have some detachment from the script?
LJ: I think it is different. I think it helped me in certain ways. I worked on it with Mark before we went out for casting and so I definitely feel invested in it and stuff. I didn’t feel remote from it. But nevertheless, I definitely had more distance than if I wrote it myself. I don’t know if it’s better or worse, but it definitely had some good attributes because a little distance can be a helpful thing.
E: The most striking element about “Hateship Loveship” is the casting of Kristen Wiig. Her performance is one that says a lot without saying too much. What was it like placing her in such a restrained role?
LJ: She’s a really smart person. She has one of the fastest, most reflexive intelligences of anyone I’ve ever met. I felt that it’s obviously the style of “Saturday Night Live” that she’s much different than in this movie. With “SNL” you have a really short time to create a character, and also it’s a comedy show, obviously. So she’s really operating at a very different register in this movie. But I felt that from her body of work that she has a lot of characters that address some of the same things that Alice Munro’s characters has. Alice Munro has comedy, but no one has ever called her a comic writer that I know of, but nevertheless, what’s underneath Kristen’s comedy is a lot of empathy or resonance with some of the things in this character, and I just thought that she would really understand the character.
E: Under any other circumstances it might seem like these characters might be unlikable, but in the film, it seems as though you’ve extended a lot of generosity toward them. How do you find a balance between finding their wrinkles and failures and giving those characters their redemption?
LJ: That’s such a nice question. I mean, I think that I feel empathy for all those characters and I think that Alice Munro does to like in her story the teenage girls come off more sympathetic than they do come off in my film. Although, I hope their sympathetic in my film as well, you know, because they’re also reacting out of embarrassment all the time. Where Sabitha is embarrassed because her dad’s embarrassing, and Edith is embarrassed because she doesn’t have as much money as everyone else. I don’t think it’s that they’re deeply mean people. It’s that they do a couple of mean gestures because they’re reacting off of their own embarrassment and their own feelings. I think that’s all how we really are. It’s not that we all behave heroically all the time or that we’re deeply evil, it’s just that as we encounter one another we get in situations where we either behave well or we don’t and to me that’s something good to try and have sympathy for.
E: There’s a motel that you shot at that looks familiarly like the one in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Is it the same one?
LJ: It actually is. In fact, they had the office next to us and shot that movie immediately after ours. So in truth, our motel is the one in their movie. It’s a great location, and I actually really liked that movie so when I saw it. We have a lot of the same producers, and I wrote to the producers [and] proposed a sequel where Johanna, and kinda some of the people who are alive at the end of “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” maybe they franchise [the movie] and shoot in South Africa.
E: Do you think there are ample opportunities for female directors in Hollywood?
LJ: Well, I can only say that I’ve been treated really well by the men and women that I work with. So I don’t have a lot personally to complain about, and I think that the people I know about working in Hollywood are interested in women and supportive of women. I think that it’s really helpful when there’s a movie like “Bridesmaids” or maybe “12 Years a Slave” is doing well, you know, because I think the trouble is people need to have more confidence that there is a marketplace for films about women.
For anybody who is themselves in a minoritarian subject position, or working in a minoritarian topics, I think it’s really helpful when there are films that kind of demonstrate there’s an audience and an economic reason for those movies to exist. I feel like that’s really the thing that we all need to keep working on.
I’ve never had somebody…well once I’ve had somebody tell me that they didn’t wanna. Once I had a French company tell me they were already making a film with a woman this year so they were all good on women. With that exception, I think it’s more that people have to confidence in the marketplace that the marketplace does take an interest in women. It obviously does, women go to the movies all the time. So for me that’s what I hope for, not just for myself, but for others.