Maggie Gyllenhaal may have come from a family of filmmakers, but she never allowed herself to dream of directing until recently. Things changed very quickly for the actress when she found herself writing to Elena Ferrante asking her permission to adapt her 2008 novel “The Lost Daughter”.
Ferrante said yes but on one condition: Gyllenhaal had to direct it herself or the contract was “null and void.”
“I think I have always been a director and I did not feel entitled to admit it,” Gyllenhaal said at the Venice Film Festival before the premiere of her competing film. “I think it’s a better job for me actually.”
Ferrante’s novel follows a middle-aged college professor and mother of two older daughters on a solo vacation where she is enthralled by a younger mother and her daughter.
Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley play the main character, Leda, at different stages of her life. Colman’s Leda is on vacation in Greece when she realizes that Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her young daughter are on the same beach and makes a strange decision regarding the girl’s doll.
Gyllenhaal said that Ferrante’s novels present “secret truths about a female experience in the world that I really liked speaking out loud… It seemed like a dangerous and exciting thing to try. That is why I wanted to try to adapt it to the cinema ».
He corresponded with Ferrante and Ferrante provided notes on the script, which takes many creative liberties, including making Leda British and Nina American instead of Italian. The Italian author supported her; he wanted Gyllenhaal to make the story his own. But one thing he did tell her: it was very important that Leda “not be crazy.” If it were, that would make the story out of the question.
“I’m so thankful she wasn’t described as crazy,” Colman said. “That’s what I loved.”
Colman found the prospect of playing someone who does something unthinkable exciting.
“Everybody wants to be a person, it turns out they are not and they are probably someone else,” Colman said. “It was funny to play a character who does something that I would not do, but that (maybe) I have thought.”
For Johnson, it was the opposite.
“Olivia found it funny and I found it really difficult,” Johnson laughed. “Sometimes I felt very uncomfortable because (Nina) was very uncomfortable. Sometimes it was fun to be so twisted, but other times it hurt a lot.
Johnson, however, did find in Gyllenhaal the “dream kind of relationship, artistic and creative collaboration.”
“She takes me by surprise all the time in a way that really makes me want to evolve as a person and as an actress,” Johnson said. “That is something that I find very strange when making films. It used to be a more common experience to bond with a director with whom you felt you could open up and be safe.
Gyllenhaal also cast her husband Peter Sarsgaard in the cast, as a brilliant teacher that Buckley’s Leda is drawn to. But she said she thought twice.
“To be completely honest, there was a time when I thought maybe it wasn’t a great idea for him to play the object of desire for a (beautiful) actress,” Gyllenhaal said. “Then I thought, ‘You are so bourgeois.’ Peter and I have been together since I was 23 and I know that he loves me. And I thought there was no one who could play that role like him. I said to myself, ‘Let’s go.’
For Sarsgaard, watching Gyllenhaal direct was a profound experience.
“It was a huge pleasure to see my wife really develop her talents. For a long time people have known what an excellent actress she is, but being around her is really inspiring, “he said. “He has a keen eye for an unconventional truth.”
The 78th edition of the Venice International Film Festival runs until September 11.
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In her directorial debut, Gyllenhaal adapts Ferrante