Writers-in-Contention: The Keeping Room Screenwriter Julia Hart
This year has seen a return of the western genre, with two highly anticipated films alongside some well-received indies. One of those indie films is The Keeping Room, the story of three women, two sisters, and a former slave living alone in isolation during the Civil War, under siege by two dangerous soldiers. Starring Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfield, and Muna Otaru as the women and Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller as the soldiers, the Romanian-shot film blends the western and horror genres with contemporary commentary.
Former school teacher Julia Hart made her screenwriting debut with her original screenplay and has just completed her directorial debut with the comedy Miss Stevens (starring Lily Rabe). I spoke with Julia about making an overtly feminist film, using genre tropes in a screenplay, and contemporary comparisons to her historical film.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): I know the movie has been getting marketed as a feminist western, but when you were developing the story and started writing the screenplay, were you thinking about genre conventions that you could use to build the story?
Julia Hart: When I first started putting pen to paper, I was definitely inspired by both westerns and classic horror. It is very referential in the way we played with classic tropes and clichés from both those genres, because we wanted to take those elements out of traditionally masculine stories. And I didn’t want to just replace the men in those stories with women, but I wanted to make the film feminine. And it is funny that everyone asks “did you intend to write a feminist movie?” And I always say “well, I am a feminist so I don’t know how I wouldn’t write that kind of story.”
TMS: It’s funny that you mention the horror aspects because that has been underplayed in the marketing, but the way women are represented in this movie is closer to how we are used to seeing them in horror movies, first victimized and then fighting back, as opposed to in westerns, when they were often left out of the stories or are passive characters in those films. What horror films did you pull from?
Hart: I agree that the setup is closer to how we see them in horror films than in traditional westerns, but one of the big differences it that often times, a man will show up and to help the woman. Or there is that classic example of a woman thinking she’s killed the villain, and then he rises up again and she has to be saved. So I wanted to make sure that the women in our film didn’t just defend themselves by killing the men, but were successful at doing that and did it themselves. And the other aspect I wanted to explore in the film, which I have to admit I stole from Toni Morrison, in particular in her book Beloved, which is the idea that slavery is horror and for some people, it isn’t a genre trope, it was there reality. So I wanted to take elements from horror, which can be set at anytime and anyplace, and set it in a real time, when horror was very real. Home invasion is a classic trope of the horror genre, but that was certainly happening to people then. Being owned and abused by someone else was actually happening to people. So those were the two angles I came from when writing the film. And Night of the Living Dead was probably the biggest influence for me, as well as The Shining, which we make references to.
TMS: Which is interesting because there feels like a very direct reference to that iconic moment in Night of the Living Dead regarding Mad’s husband, and I know Romero has claimed that movie wasn’t a statement about race or he didn’t write it with that in mind.
Hart: And it’s so crazy to think of that, because I thought what he was saying about race in America in the 60s was so powerful, but in interviews he’s said he cast that actor without thinking about his race. He was just the best actor for the job. But to see the only survivor of the night, who happened to be a heroic black man, shot by white law enforcement for no reason was always such a powerful image. And I guess you can never assume you know what a writer or filmmaker intended, but it certainly made an impression on me and I was definitely referring to it in that scene.
TMS: How did you develop the female characters the film would revolve around?
Hart: I did a lot of research and the sad reality is that most of what has been documented comes from the white, male experience. But there is a fair amount of documentation about the black male experience, and a little bit about the white, female experience, and finally some second hand accounts of the black, female experience. But for the most part, and especially regarding the rural, impoverished, and certainly the slave experience, is largely undocumented. So I ended up having to do a little inventing, which women have to do in general because our history was often left untold. But I tried to turn that into a positive, and think about how I could turn these women from the past into women modern audiences could identify with. So they are intentionally anachronistic, so their relationships feel both of the time and ahead of the time. Because as women, if we are undocumented we have to create our past, and that gives us certain opportunities. But I thought that because of the place they are in, this almost post-apocalyptic rural setting, there is a sense that they are not in their own world. But that also fit the story, because women have often felt out of time.
TMS: The movie certainly has that sense at the beginning, when we don’t know where we are or what is going on, and it hits you with such horrific images right away. When did you write that initial scene of the burning carriage?
Hart: Originally, there was another scene, which took place on a plantation, because the three main women are at a rural, isolated farm house, but I wanted to show the very stark contrast between the wealthy white women and our poor white women. So that scene has soldiers descending on the plantation and killing the one white woman and one female slave left, and then burning the house down. Because I was thinking “this movie isn’t going to be about a Scarlett O’Hara” and I wanted to make the audience aware of that right away. But, we shot the movie in Romania and there aren’t a lot of plantations in Romania. We built the entire set, but we didn’t have the money in the budget to also build a plantation for just one scene. So I had to rewrite that scene of that burning carriage. But the idea of how to open the movie, which is still there, was in the original script.
TMS: Where did the original idea of this story come from?
Hart: My dad is from Texas so I spent my summers in the south but I grew up in New York. So it was really interesting to spend most of my year in the north and then go to the south, which has a fascinating sense of place and characters. And I was of course always interested in the history of the Civil War. But when my husband and I were on a road trip to Georgia, we visited friends who had a pre-Civil War house in the family. And there was a myth that there were unmarked Civil War graves in the backyard. So from there I kind of worked backwards, thinking how those men would have gotten there. And I thought, it would have been the women who were alone in the house that put them in the ground. And then I thought, what kind of women would be capable of taking down these types of aggressors, and that is where our three main characters come from.
TMS: Was the film hard to get made?
Hart: Well, anytime you write a movie with a female lead, it is hard to get it made. So when you make a movie about three female leads, that is an added difficulty. And then there is the difficulty of making a period piece. My husband is a producer so when I handed him the script, I knew I was giving him a challenge. But people seemed to love and connect to the script, so considering how hard this could be, it was actually a pretty fast development period. I wrote it in 2012 and it’s already out, so I think we got it made pretty quickly, especially considering the type of movie we made.
TMS: Hailee Steinfeld’s character Louise is interesting, because she has the closest connection to that Scarlett O’Hara type. She is very resistant to the changes happening and sometimes very racist. Why was it important to have a character like that, who can be so unlikeable, and still make her one of the protagonists?
Hart: I think it was a responsibility I felt to not to whitewash the era. And as a white woman, telling a story which isn’t entirely mine, I felt an obligation to make sure and be honest about the treatment of black people and behavior of white people. And I wanted to explore, in Brit Marling’s character of Augusta the question “could a white woman have done better if given the chance to get to know that black woman, in the context of being two human beings, not master and slave?” So it was really important for me to show both sides, which is why Louise and Augusta are sisters. This is what the world is like, in the character of Louise, this is what the world could be like, in the character of Augusta. And I was so proud of Hailee, because it can be so hard and scary to take on such hateful and ugly sides of humanity. And especially for a young person, although Hailee is so wise beyond her years. But it is important to show what it was really like, and show how she really changes by the end of the movie. When the film starts, her world has changed, but her point of views haven’t, and by the end, she truly has changed.
TMS: And it’s interesting, because while we’ve had a lot of movies set during the Civil War, there is usually a white savior whose hands are clean from the racism which was prevalent at the time.
Hart: Well, and Augusta isn’t perfect either. She snaps at Mad. The movie is set at a time when perspectives were changing, but you have to show that struggle.
TMS: The attack is pretty brutal, and the rape is especially hard to witness. Besides the idea of horror, there is always the question of how much of an attack to show and how to show that in film. Did you write the scene and specify how you wanted it represented on screen?
Hart: I hadn’t seen the rape of woman on screen in a way I think women experience it, both the act itself and the aftermath. My experience of seeing that on screen has usually been either male fantasy or exploitative. I didn’t direct the film, so I didn’t have total control over how it was presented on screen. But writing it, it was very important to show how women deal with that onscreen, because I hadn’t seen it on screen. Especially showing some of the aftermath. And it’s funny, because one of the scenes I had to defend the most was that speech Mad gives to Louise after the rape, because they felt it slowed down the action. And don’t even get me started on how I reacted to that comment. That is how women cope and heal each other, and they don’t care about the action slowing down. That is a very male perspective on things. So I felt we needed to show something which had been used and abused on screen before, done in a way we hadn’t seen before. And that scene with Mad, pouring the moonshine on Augusta’s wound and telling that story to help heal Louise is so important to their relationship. But also, that story is so important to include because it provides a black female perspective about rape in the time of slavery, and I wanted to give her the voice she didn’t have at the time. Here is this white girl raped once, but that experience has been her entire life. And that is a big wake up call for Augusta and Louise.
TMS: What kind of research did you do in order to write that speech?
Hart: There is an amazing text called Narrative Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs, which is one of the only remaining documents which gives that first person perspective of a woman during slavery, and that includes her experiences with sexual abuse. So that was a big influence, along with Toni Morrison’s work. And then I found snippets from other accounts of the Civil War which included second hand accounts. But again, there isn’t much out there. And then there was a lot which came from my subconscious. I honestly don’t even remember writing that speech. And as a writer, you just have to be grateful for that kind of gift.
TMS: When you say you had to defend including that speech, which is kind of shocking to hear, did they want to cut the scene out completely or did they want it rewritten?
Hart: I had to defend putting a speech in the script at that point in the story, because in the traditional structure, things are supposed to just keep escalating until the end of the second act. But I was consciously taking the western and horror genres, and not just plucking men out and replacing them with women, but recalibrating the traditional structure into a female place. And for me as a woman and with the women I know in my life that felt like an appropriate time to break the structure to make it feel honestly female. But I think Muna Otaru’s performance shut down all those protests, because when people saw her monologue they knew they couldn’t justify cutting it. But for a time, it was me and all men in the room debating. And they are all great guys who supported making this movie and consider themselves feminist. But that was one time when I had to be like “guys, I’m pulling the feminist card and you just have to trust me.”
TMS: I wasn’t familiar with Muna, but she give a great performance. Do you know how she was cast?
Hart: We had originally cast this amazing actress Nicole Beharie who was in Shame and now is on Sleepy Hollow. I just adore her. But her show got picked up so she had to drop out of the movie, which was a bummer. But Muna came in to read for another role, the woman who barks at the beginning. And during her audition, our director Daniel (Barber) was so moved by her audition, he asked her to read for the role of Mad, and handed her that monologue. And her audition was extraordinary and I think she got the part that day. We were all like, “you can’t just cast an unknown for this part.” And then we watched her audition.
TMS: Brit Marling is an interesting actress because the films she’s best known for are the roles she’s written for herself. Did you have any conversation or did she offer any comments as a fellow screenwriter?
Hart: Oh definitely. We actually wrote a scene together, which is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. She is one of the most amazing people on the planet. She is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside. Just kind and talented and extraordinary. When she first came on, she said, the movie is very much about storytelling, telling the untold stories of women. And she said, when Augusta comes back with the medicine, and knows soldiers might be coming back, she is scared to death but has to keep it together for her little sister. So when she’s trying to calm Louise, she should tell a story like when Scheherazade tells the One Thousand and One Nights. And I said, well, let’s just have Augusta tell that story to Louise. So I wrote the scene, sent it to Brit, she wrote some notes and sent it back. And the craziest part of this story is, Hailee was a minor, so she could only work certain hours. So when Brit was rehearsing, Daniel had me get in the bed and play Louise, while she tells the story we wrote together. And since working on this we’ve been working on a couple of other projects we want to make together. She’s an amazing writer and fun to collaborate with. And while I know she writes a lot of her movies, I get the sense that she gives great input on all the films she works on.
TMS: Do you think it helps actors to have the ability to write or at least give input on set about a script?
Hart: It is cool, because it allows her to step outside of herself and not be too precious about herself on screen. It is all about character and story for her, which allows you to talk to the actor without being preoccupied with being sensitive.
TMS: When writing the male characters, they are soldier who seem to have lost all their humanity, so even though what they are doing is definitely evil they aren’t monsters which makes them scarier. Did you consider their war experiences and the mental effects it had when creating those characters?
Hart: I had PTSD in mind and hoped that came across. I wanted to show that these two men were at the end of a journey and so broken they didn’t know what was what anymore. General Sherman, the backdrop is Sherman’s March, enacted this tactic called Total War, which meant you didn’t just attack your enemy on the battlefield, you attacked the civilians as well. So he ordered his men to rape and pillage and burn down the south, and that is what brought the south to their knees. The north won the war by destroying the infrastructure of the south. So these men weren’t just at the end of a war, but these were their orders, and that is an aspect I think really works in the movie better than I expected. At first you think they are rogue soldiers, and then you realize at the end they are doing their “duty.” And the question you have in the back of your head is, “what does that kind of duty do the psyche of a man?” But I also thought we needed to make sure to have other men in the film, like Mad’s husband Bill who is altruistic and one of the sweetest characters, and when he dies, I always cry. I wrote that scene and it makes me cry. But war has turned men into enemies of these women, and Augusta says “if a man walks through that door, you shoot.” So I had that character and the storekeeper, because I didn’t want the film to be about villainizing men. But the interesting thing about it is, it seems 90% of movies have two dimensional female characters, so it’s been interesting to hear people’s reactions to a movie where the men aren’t as well developed as the women. There were a lot of male responses who called it offensive, and I was just like “well, welcome to our world.” But I don’t think they are two dimensional and there is a lot more commentary on what war does to men if you’re paying attention.
TMS: One of the really interesting questions which has come up this year, especially speaking with writers is can men identify with female protagonists? Have you been hearing from guys during the screenings that say they identify with the three women or is that even a concern you have?
Hart: Well, what’s funny is that our entire lives, we’ve had to identify with characters we aren’t necessarily like because that is all we used to get from movies. White men have never been forced to do that because there is always a white man on screen. They’ve had themselves reflected to themselves everywhere they go. But I’ve literally written a list of men who told me they loved this movie, and I’m like “Are you single? I’ll set you up with my friends.” Because it is exciting to hear that there are men identifying with something outside of themselves. And that is an evolved thing. And I’m not saying if you don’t like the movie you are unevolved or sexist, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But I think in general, white men would benefit from opening their eyes to movies about people that aren’t just white men.
TMS: One of the big twists of movie is that to survive this Total War, women survive by taking the identity of men and hiding. Was it hard to make a movie which wears its feminist perspective with pride and draw that conclusion?
Hart: It was, but it just felt like the truth. The women survived and were the strongest, but they still live in a man’s world, and to survive, they have to pretend to be men. The irony being, they survived by being women, but in the larger world, they have to hide their femininity. And I know I feel like that a lot, and a lot of other women do to. I mean, I’m so fortunate to be living when and where I am, when it is for the most part safe for me. And it is just crazy to think of when this film was set, and that there are still women all over the world living with similar threats. Places where it is literally dangerous to be a woman every day.
TMS: Did you consider current day conflicts an influence?
Hart: Absolutely. I say this carefully, but in America, for the most part it is safe to be a woman. And we’re lucky. But there are women killed for exposing their femininity or sexuality. And when I talk about the movie, there are people who say “we’re so lucky not to live in that time anymore” and I have to bring up the fact that actually we do and throughout the world, this is a reality for many women.
TMS: It’s funny that the movie has come out this year, because it is part of this western film revival. Do you have a sense of why the genre has had this comeback?
Hart: It’s funny, and we of course had no idea when we were making it. When westerns were popular they were like the superhero movies of the era, and now they are hard to get made and all of them seem to be indie or art house films. But I don’t know why they are having a bit of a comeback. I know I’m focused on telling stories about women, and we’ve told just about every story about men and every story has already been told, so the way to do something fresh is often to tell one of those from the female perspective. So for me, there is so much about what it is to be a woman and coming into your own as a woman which is connected to the narrative of the American west and manifest destiny. That need to go out on your own and kind of stake your claim. But I hope this isn’t the last western I write, I’d like to do a more straightforward, literal western. But it’s funny that we are getting so many westerns this year. Hopefully they take a new approach, but I don’t see the need to keep telling the story of the American West from the perspective of white men.
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