Anne Hathaway has likened her newest film, Eileen, to "Carol meets Reservoir Dogs." The comparison to the former is evident enough: The period film centers on the intense connection between two women, one older and one younger. The latter only reveals itself in the movie's bloody final act.
Adapted from Ottessa Moshfegh's hit novel of the same name, Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) is a repressed twentysomething desperate to be liberated from her own life. That liberation arrives in the platinum-blonde form of Rebecca Saint John (Hathaway), the new psychologist at the juvenile prison where Eileen works. Eileen's infatuation with Rebecca becomes an obsession, and the coming-of-age drama curdles into a full-on psychological thriller.
"People have said it's great to not know anything about this film going in. But it's a tough thing when you're trying to promote the film, because then, how do we get them to go and see it?!" exlaims director William Oldroyd. "The moment you say, 'Oh, there's a great twist in the film,' then people are waiting for the twist to come. But if you know nothing about it, then when it does come, it's surprising."
[Warning: This story will address the ending of 'Eileen' and thus contains spoilers.]
Like in the pages of Moshfegh's book, Eileen sees Rebecca take an interest in one of the young prisoners in particular — Lee Polk, a boy convicted of brutally killing his police officer father. When Rebecca invites Eileen over to her home on Christmas day, Eileen is elated. But something is off with Rebecca, and she soon reveals what: "This isn't my house," she tells Eileen. "This is the Polk house. I have Mrs. Polk tied up downstairs." The women descend into the basement, where Mrs. Polk (Marin Ireland) eventually makes an awful confession that leads to the movie's twisted conclusion.
"The moment I started reading it, I knew it had cinematic potential," Oldroyd explains. "When I got to the kitchen scene, I thought, 'Yes, I've got it.' If I can capture the same sense of surprise I felt when reading the book — because I did not see that coming at all — that would be really amazing."
A.frame: The assumption is that an author adapting their own work is going to be precious about it. But as you were discussing the adaptation, were there ideas that Ottessa brought to the table for changes she wanted to make for the screen?
In the past, I've worked with novelists who want every single beat of the story to be on the screen, and it's just not possible. It's a very different language, isn't it? But I think Ottessa was very confident in the sense that her book exists in its own right as the novel. When I came along, it already had a life, and it will continue to have a life. So, she saw this as a great opportunity to see which direction she could take it further. I was quite surprised reading the first draft to see how much they had [changed]. They kept the spirit of the book, but the way in which the dad had evolved — Jim Dunlop is not so evolved in the book — and obviously, Rebecca arrives halfway through the novel, but we had to get her in within 15 minutes in order to build the structure that works for us. They were taking quite a lot of liberty with the adaptation, and I was very, very pleased about that.
How early on did you think of Thomasin and Anne for Eileen and Rebecca?
Pretty early on. We were lucky in the sense that we got our first choices for both characters. I'd seen Thomasin in Debra Granik's movie, Leave No Trace, and I thought she was just spectacular. It's rare to see such vulnerability on-screen. And then Annie, when I was reading the book, I was thinking of her. Because, for me, it was very important that we found somebody who is not only a skillful actor, but who actually is very good at comedy. And watching Annie's movies, we know that she is. And then add into that Marin, who's incredible. What a trio. The combination of the three of them together felt very exciting to me.
In a novel, you can be a little more implied or coded in your language about the relationship between these women, but in physicalizing it on-screen, what was your approach to figuring out how explicit to be in the romantic potential between these women?
It was clear on the page of the screenplay that Eileen really has no friends. She doesn't have a lover. She has a vivid inner life, but they're fantasies. Of course, when somebody like Rebecca, for her to come and be this striking, beautiful, intelligent woman who has this shock of blond hair and pop of the red sports car, of course Eileen just becomes obsessed. I thought in the book, too, it was a question of obsessive love. And Eileen unfortunately is totally primed to become somebody who will sink her teeth into a relationship like this. Whether Rebecca is aware of it or not, whether she's aware of what she's doing, whether she is aware of how much Eileen has fallen for her and wants to use that to her advantage, I don't know. That's a question which the movie is asking. But the potential is there for something to go badly wrong, and we see what happens in the film.
Eileen is a hard movie to discuss without talking about the turn at the end. Can you talk about calibrating the performances from Anne and Thomasin throughout the film so that when the reveal happens, it feels both shocking and earned?
With any adaptation, you have to take what is easy to write on the page of a book, which is an interior emotional life, and you have to show that on camera. That's the tricky part. So, the moment that the twist comes, we had to keep reminding ourselves that that is like Eileen's world falling apart. It's not only just a great twist for an audience in an exciting movie, but it's Eileen's world falling apart, because she thought she was coming to see Rebecca for one reason, and in that moment, it's revealed that it's not that at all. So, the camera had to be on Eileen's face to register this crushing disappointment. And then Rebecca has to do everything she can to keep her from leaving the house. She still has something that she needs Eileen to do for her, so everything was motivated by a very, very strong need of something.
I work very closely with Nick Emerson, the editor. He's really wonderful at calibrating. How can you reel Eileen in at that point? What changes her mind? What is the tactic that Rebecca's going to use to keep Eileen there? Then when they go to see Mrs. Polk, what is she going to ask her to do? What does she have to say in order that Mrs. Polk will speak? Everything is a game and everybody has an attack. And that's what felt very exciting to me reading the book. Then when we had the screenplay, I didn't feel like I had seen a scene like this before between three women. To me, it felt totally new.
As much as this movie is about Eileen, it also hinges on the performance that Marin gives in the basement. What was it like seeing that performance on the day?
It was extraordinary. What you don't see on screen is that the entire crew was huddled in that basement because it was freezing outside on that day, and there was nowhere for them to go. So, everybody watched as Marin delivered that speech, and everybody held their breath while she was, and at the end you could sense that people were deeply moved by it. That speech was Marin's audition. She taped it for us in her own basement. We had a whole day where we sat and we went through the whole speech together just to make sure that it was very clear, and we decided the way to do it was for Mrs. Polk to take her time to say it, to see every single thing she was describing before she spoke it. I think that's the key to the success of it, that Marin really lived it as she was saying it. That was something which I could see as I was watching her do it. We did it three times, and after that, she couldn't do it again. It was too much.
How long were you in the basement? How long did you have to shoot that sequence?
You shot the entire basement sequence in one day?
Yeah, one super intense day. We had problems because we were shooting through Omicron, so that's what we ended up with. But having that pressure to get that scene in a day added something to the dynamic. We knew we had to do it. It provided a motivation to get through it in that day. And then we had the logistical problem of once we fired the gun and the squib had gone off, we had to do a reset. We only had a couple of costumes to do this, so once she has blood on her, we have to then stop and wipe it off. And then we needed great performances. It was an extraordinary one day in the basement.
How do you wrap a day like that?
You wrap it with a big group hug. Everybody knew what they'd done. It was also kept to the end of the shoot, so I think that was the penultimate day. We were at the end of 16 days of a grueling shoot. It was January in New Jersey, and you can't really heat those old basements, not very successfully. We shot until early morning, so at the end, the actors were spent, for sure. They were absolutely spent. But I think they also probably felt that they had achieved something quite remarkable too. If they could feel anything, because by that time they were so tired, maybe they felt that.
You've said that to make this movie, you felt like you had to take risks in the storytelling, in the music, in the performances, in the tone. What felt like the biggest risk to you?
The ending. It's difficult, because I know the story. I know what Eileen is thinking at the end when she sits down and she waits for Rebecca to come, and Rebecca doesn't come. I knew very clearly what she was thinking. But if it wasn't clear, we don't get the heartbreak at the end. It was all in Thomson's performance. We needed her to do everything in that moment, and I truly believe that she did. I truly believe that when she sits down with that cigarette and she waits there, we can see the hope and expectation falling away from her face. She sits back and we know that Rebecca isn't coming, and then it's over. You need great actors to be able to pull that off, because if you don't, then you don't have the end of the film. That was the risk for me.