Rebecca Lenkiewicz is an acclaimed playwright whose work has been performed all over the world. She is the first living female playwright to have an original play – the celebrated “Her Naked Skin,” which explores the suffragette movement – performed on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage. Lenkiewicz also writes for Film and Television. She co-wrote the film “Ida” with director Pawel Pawlikowski, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015 among many other awards. She has also co-written “Disobedience” with Chilean director Sebastian Lelio starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, currently in cinemas, and “Colette” with Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer that premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and stars Keira Knightly in the title role.
Tara Karajica caught up with Rebecca Lenkiewicz at this year’s Transilvania International Film Festival, where Lenkiewicz is a member of the jury.
Your work both in theater and in film focuses on women. What drives you to write about them?
Rebecca Lenkiewicz: I am a woman… And I feel that they’re very underrepresented as autonomous beings in film and theater. I think it’s become very normalized to watch TV and just see a lot of men and a few pretty women. When we actually analyze the data, it’s quite terrifying how few truly female projects there are in terms of theater or film. So it’s not that I wouldn’t write a film about a man – and I love men – but part of me is trying to address that imbalance.
Can you talk about your jump from theater to the screen? How did it happen?
R.L.: Well, I was writing a lot of plays and then Kristen Scott Thomas asked me to write a film script. This is over 10 years ago. And we worked on that and, actually, it’s going to be made now, ten years later, with Kristen directing it. That was my first crossover. I’ve always loved Film. I studied Film at University. So it was natural, really. I was acting before I was writing, so it was a natural progression from acting to theater writing and then theater writing to script writing. And now, I enjoy both because each has its madness.
You’ve written Ida, Disobedience and Colette. I’d like to ask you about your work on all three films. Can we first talk about Ida? How did you become involved in it? Can you talk about that process?
R.L.: Pawel [Pawlikowski] had written a script with another writer, but he felt it had problems. It won a prize, so everyone was impatient for him to make the film, but he felt there was something that needed solving in it and I offered to read it as a stranger. We met at a party and he took me up on that and for months we emailed each other about the script. He read some of my work and just said: “Do you want to work on it with me?” So we did and for a year, year and half, very on-off, we’d meet in a café or just email each other. It was very much his story. I was there in terms of writing it together and trying to find what we loved from the first script and make it into a different script. The two women were in the original script, but we gave them more air; we gave them more time together, so it became really a two-hander.
What about Colette that premiered at a very timely moment at Sundance last January?
R.L.: The Colette story we told – and again, this was Wash Westmoreland’s project with Richard Glatzer and then I came on – tackled the period of her life up to age thirty, when she was writing novels with her husband who was a lot older than her and famous already, but all the novels were signed by him. So she was like a secret writer for these novels called Claudine. It’s a fascinating story about a woman, Colette herself, being oppressed by her husband in terms of censorship, because she really wanted to share the credit. Initially, she just helped him with a novel, but then, as they became huge successes, on a scale of Harry Potterdom, people were making Claudine soap, Claudine clothes, Claudine haircuts… It became like an industry, but she was still unrecognized as part of it. So what our story covers is the time before Colette made a name for herself as a writer, just up to the point where she starts to write La Vagabonde, when she’s touring as an actress. And it was really wonderful just to read about her and work on it. I hope that it will bring a huge new audience to Colette, especially young women who used to love the Claudine novels.
R.L.: Disobedience, again, was an idea that I was approached about. I didn’t generate any of these three films. It is a novel by Naomi Alderman and Rachel Weisz found it and wanted to produce it and be in it. She teamed up with Sebastian Lelio because she’d seen his film Gloria which she loved. Sebastian wrote a draft, but Film 4 felt that it would be good to have my voice as a Londoner because it’s based in London, and as a woman. So we came together, talked about it, and myself and Sebastian co-wrote it for about a year and had a great time writing it. It’s quite different to the book, but the spirit is the same and the author, Naomi, loves it so we’re safe… It’s a very beautiful account of love and how it is such a primal force that you can’t keep down and even with religion or rules, love cannot be stopped.
When we actually analyze the data, it’s quite terrifying how few truly female projects there are in terms of theater or film.
As a screenwriter, do you sometimes go on set or not at all?
R.L.: I wasn’t on set with either at all… They shot Ida in Poland and I was in London and for Colette, I wasn’t on set because I was very pregnant and they were shooting in Budapest. With Disobedience, I visited the set twice, which was interesting. But actually, when you’re on set, it’s fascinating for an hour or two because you don’t really have a role and you go home because you want to be involved and if you’re not, you just feel a bit in the way.
When you see everything you’ve written on the screen, how does it feel? Are you happy with the final result? Is it how you imagined it would be, or at least close enough? Do you have comments, suggestions, regrets? Would you have written things differently?
R.L.: In each instance, the directors have sent me either a rough cut or an almost made film and asked for my opinion. It’s always a shock. A beautiful shock. But it’s a shock, because you’ve had words and now you have people and images… Usually, they made changes to the script in each case, but that’s expected. If you wanted to write something and be very purist, then you have to stick to poetry or novels. When you write a screenplay, it’s a blueprint. But especially with someone like Pawel where the script will evolve with the actors, it’s important. And with Sebastian too. It was a huge amount of editing to what we had. That’s a director’s vision. That’s how they see it and it always takes a moment to adapt to that, because you’ve lived with the rhythm of it a certain way for over a year. And the first time you watch a film, it’s always surprising and then the second time you watch it, you can relax more and actually just be calmer and let your mind and heart into it more.
Would you ever consider directing?
R.L.: I’d love to direct.
What would be the best combination for you? Would write your own script? What would be the ideal set up for you?
R.L.: I don’t know. I think it would be wonderful to co-write and co-direct so there’s a kind of dance going on between you. I think it would also be very interesting just to write and direct alone. When I write theater, it’s very much just me writing and I haven’t directed in theater, so the director comes on board. But all the combinations are exciting, really. It’s just about who you want to work with. And you want to work with brilliant people who have a lot of humanity and sense of humor; it’s a relationship while it’s happening. It’s like a kind of platonic love affair. That has to be right; it is about the combination, as you’ve asked, but, really, it’s about the chemistry and whether the two of you will make a beautiful child or you’ll just walk away from each other.
Can you talk about the female gaze and are you a feminist?
R.L.: I’m very much a feminist. The female gaze… I suppose I am less aware of that than the male gaze because the male gaze stops me in these steps more or I just get bored and tired frustrated and angry. I hope that that ground will shift, but I think that films like Ida, Disobedience and Colette are incredible and they’re feminine films in many ways and they have a strength which I won’t call masculine, but there’s male strength, there’s female strength. I think the best star has an extra of these things. So when I write, I’m not consciously thinking about the female gaze. I just write and try to get under the skin of the characters I’m writing about, so it’s about psychology and making a story that’s interesting.
There’s a lot of talk today about the situation of women in the film industry. What’s your take on it?
R.L.: Well, I think there is a lot of sexism, and obviously, there’s been tragedy, misogyny and rape. And that has to stop. And it’s very hard especially when women are very young and vulnerable and men can sense that. We have to make sure it’s a secure world, especially when as an artist or as an actress, someone asks you to take off your clothes for a scene or to audition in a certain way for a scene, there’s such a culture of trying to please and competition and not wanting to behave badly that a young woman feels that she has to do these things. We have to address that very vigorously and make sure that our young actresses and actors – because it happens to boys and men too – are safe. It’ not just an age thing, but of course, the younger the most vulnerable because they’ve not lived a life yet. And I think the very act of acting is a vulnerable thing, so for someone to prey on that is so incredibly cruel and manipulative. To act beautifully, you have to be open, so it’s this balance that we have to make sure that people are safe.
Who’s your favorite female filmmaker and would you absolutely love to write for?
R.L.: I used to love watching the films of Maya Deren a lot. I loved the kind of surreal take that she had and that influenced me. In terms of who I want to work with, I’d love working with the directors I’ve already worked with. And I’d be interested to make a film with a female director and I’ve got a few projects lined up with female directors. So that’ll be interesting just to see how that turns out. I did a project with an all-female theater company who worked with women in prison and women who were a risk and just to walk in a room where it was all female – none of the staff were male – you realize the air is different. And I’m not anti-men, but it was just a very different atmosphere.
How do you choose what to write about and who’s your favorite character you’ve written onscreen?
R.L.: Sometimes, people come to me as in these three cases, and I don’t have a favorite because they’re all like children – there’s problematic children, there’s brilliant children who fly high… In terms of what I want to write about, a lot of the time you’re doing commissions or you’re asked to be part of a project, so your head is very full and you’re juggling a few projects, but I would like to go down to zero and then see what happens, just what I want to write about.
In that sense, how do you get “in the zone” to write? What’s your process?
R.L.: I don’t really have one, it’s just looking at the work, looking at the scene. It’s voices in the head; it’s slightly like being mad if you’re walking on the street and talking to yourself. And starting off pretty rough and then trying to get more detail. I don’t have a set process. I don’t, for instance, if I’m writing a play, know what happens at the end when I’m starting it. I just start writing it, and I might start writing in the middle of the play, and then go back to the beginning. There isn’t a system.
In an interview, you said it’s not easy being a woman today. Can you elaborate on that?
R.L.: I don’t think it’s easy being a man either. I think being a young woman is quite difficult in terms of social media, the images that are thrown at us… And women want to have a career, some want to have children… At least in Britain, they don’t make that easy for you. You almost feel apologetic if you want to sustain those two things. Also, as a young woman or any woman, I just think it’s hard because I think a lot of people think that we have equality now and I don’t think we have anything near equality. So it’s just about keeping that battle going without feeling petulant and instead feeling empowered and strong and have a sense of community.
What are your next projects? I understand you have Kristen Scott Thomas’ The Sea Change and Ivan Ostrochovsky’s The Disciple, and are adapting a book for Scott Free/BBC TV for Kevin MacDonald and writing a 2-hour drama, Mystery in White, for Origin Pictures/BBC, but is there anything else in the pipeline for you?
R.L.: Yes, I’m doing a TV drama with Steve McQueen. It’s seven hours of drama on the BBC about London in the 1970s. It very much addresses racism, the police and the West Indian community because in the ‘70s, the whole of Notting Hill was West Indian and now that’s all gone through gentrification, through money, through greed. So we’re looking at that community, with true stories and a couple of imagined stories. That’s going to be shot in November.
This interview was conducted at the 2018 Transilvania International Film Festival.