The film adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s award-winning debut novel is here and it features a stacked team of creators both in front of and behind the lens.
Thomasin McKenzie leads Eileen as the title character, a young woman living in Boston in the 1960s. Things are quite dreary for Eileen who spends her time either at home with her drunk and jobless father (Shea Whigham) or working at a nearby prison alongside colleagues who prefer to avoid her. However, things change when Anne Hathaway’s Rebecca becomes a member of the prison staff. Eileen is instantly enamored by her radiance and thrilled with the opportunity to come out of her shell a bit with Rebecca’s guidance. However, as Eileen gains confidence, things take an unexpected dark turn.
In addition to McKenzie, Hathaway and Whigham, the Eileen team includes Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Ari Wegner, a score by Richard Reed Parry, and, of course, a BAFTA-nominated director in William Oldroyd.
With Eileen making its debut at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Hathaway, McKenzie, Whigham, Oldroyd, Moshfegh, and Luke Goebel who penned the screenplay alongside Moshfegh all visited the Collider Studio presented by Saratoga Spring Water to discuss their experience making the film.
Moshfegh began by pinpointing one of the most important elements of the book-to-film adaptation process:
“Collaboration is key. It's vital. As the author of a novel you need to see it through a very specific lens, and when you're adapting it into film that lens is the camera and you have to think like a cinematographer and a director, and you have to think like the character, and you have to think like the character 10 years ago, and you have to think like a writer. So collaborating with people who can help melt away the limits of your singular perspective and offer other ways of seeing your project is crucial.”
Having the right team is always vital, but it might be more important than ever when working on material deemed risky. In his director’s statement, Oldroyd noted, “We’ve taken a risk with the storytelling, the music, the performances, the cut, the tone.” Here’s what he said when asked what felt like the greatest risk in bringing Eileen to screen:
“The material’s not everyone's cup of tea. I think it's my cup of tea. I think it's exactly the sort of stories that I'm drawn to read in books and watch on screen. It’s dark. It’s, at times, strange because Eileen has this vivid inner life. We wanted to represent that visually. It's risky territory because there's a tendency to want to play it safe, oftentimes, especially in a very difficult market for cinema at the moment. And so that is why it's important that we can make this film independently because it gave us the freedom to do that. I also think when I mention risk, what I enjoy seeing very much is actors taking risks on screen, and you have to create an environment where that can happen and the only way you can do that is if you build trust. And I like to think that the environment we had was trustful and it allowed them to take a risk. And ultimately, when actors take a risk on screen, they put themselves in your hands and the hands of the editor because they're handing over something and they will trust you to make it work. So I'm just grateful that these guys did that.”
Hathaway had no problem taking such risks with her role because she knew she had the right helmer at her back. She explained:
“I think sometimes when you meet someone who's really nice, you kind of brace yourself and you wait for, well, when's the other shoe gonna drop? Who are they really? And I can say with a certain degree of independent low budget cinema authority, the shoe never dropped. Will was the same person throughout no matter how much stress was coming at us, no matter how much pressure, and very, very real pressure to move on through a shot. He somehow body blocked all of it and created a completely safe environment for us to have as much time as we needed to be able to feel safe to take those risks. So the longer that went on, the more I trusted him, but I trusted him from what I saw on Lady Macbeth. You just used the word ‘humanity,’ there's such a deep sort of throb of humanity that runs through it and in some very complicated characters. And to be able to hold someone, in particular a young woman in her glory and her complication and her ugliness, it made me feel very switched on and I was very excited to see what happened next with this one.”
In addition to having an optimal leader on set, the material demanded the cast be filled with actors who could nail their own roles and also be strong scene partners for one another. Whigham found that in McKenzie. He explained:
“You take these characters on because they scare you a lot of times and you don't know if you're gonna be able to figure them out, or if you do, actually. And that's what they were saying about Will is that when I would get lost, he would be able to bring some clarity to the character. Same with Thomasin. She possesses, and this is very difficult thing to do in acting, is to be in the moment at all times in a scene. Because everyone thinks when they call ‘action’ you can action between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ but she's always present in giving you — no matter if I dropped the mic, she doesn’t act like it didn’t drop. She picks it up, you know what I mean? And so I felt there were many times — one time we had a scene by the fire that was a tricky five-page two-hander and she was just so present in that.”
McKenzie took the baton from Whigham and pinpointed a specific moment in the film when Hathaway helped her access something in her own character that she might not have been able to reach without Hathaway's support.
“I think one of those scenes is a scene in the bar. And I don't want to give too much away, but it's kind of a pivotal scene in this film for our relationship. I think a lot of what I brought to Eileen and Rebecca's relationship was true to the real life relationship. I’ve kind of mentioned a bit before, but I’ve always been a bit of a shy mover and dancer and Annie had to get onto the dance floor and do these incredible moves that were true of the 60s and look like she was having a good time, which she was, and she was kind of drawing me in, drawing this shy kind of odd awkwardness out of me, which only came out because she was there.”
Inspired by McKenzie’s answer, Hathaway jumped in to reconsider what Eileen means to Rebecca:
“You just helped me remember something. This is gonna be weird, but I'd like to contradict an answer I gave in another interview where I was asked what Eileen means for Rebecca and I said I wasn't sure Eileen necessarily means that much to Rebecca because Rebecca’s like a serial monologuer and she’s always thinking about herself. But, I remember in that scene your vulnerability actually was one of the first times Eileen becomes real for Rebecca. And that is one of their first real moments where Rebecca’s fully present and she's not just performing in front of someone.”
Eager to hear more from McKenzie, Hathaway, and the Eileen team? Be sure to check out our full conversation in the video interview at the top of this article!
Special thanks to our 2023 partners at Sundance including presenting partner Saratoga Spring Water and supporting partners Marbl Toronto, EMFACE, Sommsation, Hendrick’s Gin, Stella Artois, mou, and the all-electric vehicle, Fisker Ocean.