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SXSW Interview: Miss Stevens’ Lily Rabe and Julia Hart

SXSW's best actress winner and writer-director talk about their new movie.

Miss Stevens-Credit Photographer Christine Bartolucci

Miss Stevens (Photographer: Christine Bartolucci)

Last year, we spoke with writer-director Julia Hart about her feminist western-horror period piece, The Keeping Room. Although her first screenplay, Hart’s work struck a chord with audiences and became a festival favorite (including premiering at Toronto and playing at the Fantastic Fest). Just two years after its premiere, Hart has taken one the role of directing as well, stepping behind the camera to direct Miss Stevens, a dramedy she co-wrote with her husband (co-producer Jordan Horowitz) about a high school English teacher (Lily Rabe) who agrees to supervise her students (Timothee Chalamet, Anthony Quintal, and Lili Reinhart) on an out-of-town drama competition.

New York actress Lily Rabe has become one of the most acclaimed actresses in theater community, along with work in TV (four of the 5 American Horror Story series) and film, but Miss Stevens may be a screen breakthrough, having won the Special Jury prize for Best Actress this morning. I spoke with Julia and Lily during the festival about Miss Stevens.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): I remember you saying when we spoke last year that you used to be a teacher. Did you have any experiences as teacher which inspired this film?

Julia Hart: I like to say that Miss Stevens was inspired by my experiences as a teacher, but not based on any of my experiences as a teacher. For example, I never chaperoned a drama club trip, I never had the kind relationship this character has with her students. But it was inspired by my frustrations with the portrayals I had seen on screen of high school teachers. Most didn’t feel authentic and I wanted to show some of the real frustrations I had as a teacher.

TMS: What were some of the frustrations you had with those other films you felt missed the mark?

Hart: They lacked the complicated layers of the teacher-student relationships. Because what I was surprised by were the social-emotional aspects of the job they never tell you about. Yes, we are teaching them proper sentence structure, but we are also teaching them how to be adult humans in the real world, and having to combat all these hormones and new emotions. They are watching everything you do, looking at you to be a guide. And I hadn’t seen that aspect in films before. They are usually the drunk teacher or the teacher in an inappropriate relationship with a student. And I wanted to show a real woman who also happens to be a teacher, interacting with realistic kids. Because that is the other side I think Hollywood movies tend to get wrong and felt frustrated by. Kids are often portrayed as dark and destructive and disengaged. And there are a lot of kids like that. But there are also a lot of kids who are passionate and engaged.

TMS: Lily, how did you get involved in the movie?

Lily Rabe: I got sent the script for The Keeping Room and told my agent I wanted to do the film, saying something like “this is the best script I’ve read, maybe ever.” And when I noticed that Jordan’s name was attached as a producer, I reached out to tell him because I went to school with him. And we’d been in touch a little over the years, but not that often, as people do after school. So I emailed him to say “I just read the script, it’s the best thing I’ve read.” And he was like, “well, the part’s already been cast so I don’t know why you were sent the script. But we should have dinner so you can meet Julia.” And you’d have to talk to Jordan to find out if he had an idea in the back of his mind about us working together.

Hart: Oh, definitely. It was so funny because the three of us went out to dinner and it was like poor Jordan, because we spent the whole night talking just to each other.

TMS: Was the film written for Lily?
 
Hart: It’s hard to say that it wasn’t, but it really wasn’t. I had the original script for a movie called Miss Stevens written before meeting Lily. But it is weirdly written for her because the role seems so perfect for her. And then I literally rewrote it for her, pretty much from top to bottom, head to tail, whatever the term. And that version of the script was written for her explicitly.

Rabe: Because we weren’t talking about work, we were just falling in love. But I think you had it in the back of your head that there was this movie for me.

Hart: It was funny because a lot of times when you meet an actor, you think, “you should be in this movie I’m working on.” But this is the first time I’ve met an actor and thought, “I want you to be in this movie, but first I need to rewrite it so it is deeper and stronger and better. Because I know what you’re capable of, and I want this to be worthy of your talents.”

TMS: The premise seems almost like the basis for a wacky or broad comedy. Did it become more dramatic once you had Lily in mind?

Hart: I’m not really a funny person, or at least not a comedy writer. There are funny parts in the film, but they aren’t written to be jokes. They are just funny because they come from life and life is funny. The movie probably didn’t have the depth or the pathos that Lily inspired me to bring to it.

Rabe: But the wit was definitely there. I read it on a plane and remembered laughing. I remember crying too, which is so embarrassing. That was an experience. I think I even took a little time getting off the plane. But I definitely thought it was funny.

Hart: I’ve been in a screening room with a couple of audiences and they were definitely laughing.

TMS: There are definitely laughs. But it isn’t a wacky comedy like the premise might suggest. It is more drama than comedy, which I didn’t expect when I read the plot summary.
 
Hart: Which is one of the things about the movie I’m really excited about. Seeing how people react when they come in with certain expectations.

TMS: When you look for roles, besides the happenstance of meeting someone like Julia, do you talk with you agents and managers about the types of roles you are looking for and give them a criteria?

Rabe: We talk about it all the time. The truth is, I’ve had such a generous theater career that I’ve been allowed to be more selective with the types of roles I played on screen. And as I’ve gotten a little older I’ve probably become even more selective, because I have a home in the theater that I feel I can always go back to and do a great play.

Hart: And you’ve been able to play some of the great female roles in theater.

Rabe: Which means I’m not sitting around waiting for roles in very often.

Hart: But from a writer’s perspective, it can actually be anxiety producing because there is a sense of competition. Because she could turn around after reading the script and say “I don’t know, I think I’ll do Shakespeare instead.” It’s hard to make the cut.

Rabe: But I want to do more film, but I want to find great roles, whether I’m blessed with them like this one and it lands in my lap or I have to chase them down. But the relationship I have with Julia is special and I don’t think you get this kind of relationship very often. I just want to keep working with her.

Hart: Life if short, you have to work with good people. And when you have the privilege to work with someone you trust, especially on a piece that requires such vulnerability from an actress that means everything. It’s not just that she’s talented, liked my writing, and we happened to work well together, but we had that trust with each other.

Rabe: But finding roles can be a struggle. I believe there just aren’t enough roles for women of a specific age, and there are a lot of great actresses fighting for the great ones. But there are roles out there being written by people like Julia. I know there are great roles being written for women on TV. But one of the things that most interested me about this role was, I just didn’t care if she came across as likable. The goals were never to make her a likable woman or a hero, and those aren’t the things I like to see and read about in my own life.

TMS: But that has been the trouble with a lot of film roles. There are plenty of roles, but not enough complex roles for women.

Hart: There just seems to be this misconception that women need to be some superhuman fantasy. We need to have the opportunity to portray the beauty and messiness of being a woman.

TMS: Now that you’ve had the opportunity to have a script directed by someone else and directing your own screenplay, what were the biggest benefits of directing this movie?

Hart: I think we as women are socialized to keep our mouths shut and let other people do things for us. And I sat there on the set of my first movie thinking, “I’m letting someone else do this?” My feminist self-thought, “How could you let this happen? How could you let a man tell your story?” And I’m not saying a man can’t write for women, some of my favorite female characters have been written by men. But if you are a woman with a story to tell, you should tell it yourself. And I plan on doing it again with Lily.

TMS: I remember you saying you want to write something with Brit Marling as well after working on The Keeping Room, so you are building a strong company of female actors around you.

Hart: I’m writing something for both of them to be in together.

TMS: Before we have to wrap up, I wanted to ask you about the choice of music in the film, the song by America. I know they can be very expensive, but it fits so beautifully into the film.

Hart: Sometimes you just have to let the movie Gods do their job so they can bring beautiful things to you. And originally, there was another song in the script that we couldn’t get. And usually the song is chosen after you’ve finished filming. But in this case, we needed a song the day of shooting because they sing along to it. And we just couldn’t get the song in the script, but the song we got couldn’t be more perfect and more of what the movie is ultimately about. But it just happened to be the song we got, because we were trying to clear three other songs at the time, and that was the only one we got approved. But our music supervisor Dan Wilcock did such a great job getting us that song, and it is exactly the song we needed. Because popular songs are hard to clear, especially for a baby movie like this one that just didn’t have enough money.

Rabe: But you are right that it fits perfectly. When I heard it I thought, “How could it have been anything but this song?”

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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