The Keeping Room is a fiercely performed drama that offers a simple yet previously unexplored perspective: what happened to the women left alone to survive (and defend themselves) during the Civil War? Starring Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld and Muna Otaru, Drafthouse Films' latest release tells the story of two sisters and their African-American slave as they fight to protect themselves and their homestead from two deranged soldiers. From its violent, unsettling opening scene to its thoughtful climax, The Keeping Room proves itself to be exceptionally compelling, and introduces screenwriter Julia Hart as a singular voice - and someone to keep an eye on. I had a chance to speak with Hart and Marling during Fantastic Fest about their new film, telling strong stories about women, what makes a "strong female character," and...The Oregon Trail.
I really like this movie!
Brit: Thank you. That's so nice to hear.
I'm sure you've been hearing it a lot today.
Julia: It never gets old.
I've seen a lot of people describing this as a "feminist western." How do you feel about that label?
Julia: I love it, but I think what's important to say is that that was not my intention. I think if you sit down at your computer and tell yourself, "you're going to write a feminist western today," you'll write a big stinking pile of...
Julia: Crap. And so I think it's cool that something that just felt really honest to me, that I was excited about, organically by virtue of being a feminist, I got to produce something that people are feeling that - it's great.
Brit: It's the same with acting. You have to pick up the script like a child, and a child doesn't have any concepts or analytical ideas about gender or race. And when you pick it up as a child, the feeling you have about Julia's story is like [gasps], you're breathless at the idea of a group of women who have sort of unraveled banding together and in the strength of their union surviving an impossible night. And that is the story. And then later when you've made the film and the film enters the world and there's a dialogue, then suddenly you're like, oh, is that what that is? It's feminist? Is it a western?
I never felt when I was walking into the saloon, oh, this is "girl walks into a saloon" instead of "guy walks into a saloon," but it is! When you watch the image in the film, you're like, oh, that's that iconic shot where the doors burst open and the light pours in from behind...
Julia: And she takes off the hat.
Brit: Yeah, and the silhouette of the hat! But I didn't know that - at the time, I was just like, that dog's gonna kill me, gotta get the snake medicine, my horse is about to die...
Which is also what you're dealing with when you play The Oregon Trail.
Brit: I was so bad at that game!
Julia: I friggin' loved it!
Everyone died of dysentery!
Julia: I would always ford the wagon.
Brit: Is that...what was that thing that was always breaking? The...
Brit: Just all the time the stupid axles breaking.
Julia: Let's make that into a movie.
Brit: Oh god, that's a great idea!
That can be your sequel.
Brit: The Oregon Trail.
They're fording the river!
Julia: The new thing is to take an '80s game or like, plush toy and turn it into a movie. The Oregon Trail! Let's do it.
Brit: We could also do Carmen Sandiego.
Julia: Oh my god, you would be such a sick Carmen.
Brit: I would rock the hat.
Julia: You could dye your hair red and get that trenchcoat.
Brit: That red hat.
Circling back to the feminist western thing, I ask because I've spoken to women who have essentially made feminist films, but that wasn't their goal - and when they're asked if that was their intention, they find it reductive. Like it's almost reductive to say it's a "feminist western" or a "feminist comedy," or whatever, when you're really just trying to make a good movie, period.
Brit: I was just thinking, would anyone say of a man making a movie, "Hmm, that's masculinist!" We need the words because of course you need words to create movements to fight for change and against oppression, and no doubt, women are oppressed and have been for a long time all over the planet. At the same time, I think what you're saying is really true, which is that you'd like to reach a place eventually in which you can just tell stories about women.
Julia: But I think it's enough for now that we're making movies and calling them feminist.
Brit: Yes, definitely. Definitely.
Julia: You know what I mean? I think it's a step in the right direction. Yes, I agree with you, nobody ever asks a male director in an interview, "So, are you going to keep writing movies about men?" Like, no, of course you are, and so is everybody else.
There are masculinist movies, though. Christopher Nolan makes them.
Julia: And honestly, like, all of them. Do you know what I mean?
So I'm okay with this mantle being put on movies like this if it's a step in the direction of there being so many movies like this that we don't need to call them out as feminist.
Brit: You need a banner first in order to not have a banner anymore.
So then was your idea going into this to just make a really cool western from a different perspective?
Julia: Honestly, I didn't even sit down at my computer and go, "I'm going to tell a western from a different perspective!" I'm a huge fan of westerns and zombie movies and classic horror, and just by virtue of being a woman and seeing the world through female eyes, that was the story that I knew how to tell and those were the characters that came to me. Again, I think any writer that's worth her salt doesn't sit down like, "I'm going to write a strong female character." I probably shouldn't say this, but I feel like I don't know how not to because I think of myself as a strong woman.
And the concept of the "strong female character" has gotten a bit away from itself, where we've placed these restrictions on the character - she has to be a positive, idealistic and flawless role model in order to be "strong."
Julia: Yeah, that to me is not... A strong female character to me is anything from a woman who knows how to take care of herself to a woman who knows she can't take care of herself. Strong women can be messy and complicated and weak and vulnerable and break down.
Those are the best!
Julia: Exactly. I think when we delineate between strong female characters and not-strong female characters, not-strong female characters are the two-dimensional sidekicks in the male-driven action franchise. I don't think we're talking about women like Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence.
Oh my god, yes!
Brit: Oh my god, she's amazing!
Julia: I mean, what a disaster, but I would call that a strong female character. I think for me, anyway, and I think you would feel the same way, that's the line. It's whether it's a good character - that's a strong female character.
I think one of my favorite examples is Charlize Theron in Young Adult.
Brit: Oh yes, she's the best.
Julia: Great example. She's incredible in that movie. And she's a mess! And I think that's what's so exciting about where we're going in terms of what we're seeing trends with in female characters, is that they can be anything. They don't have to be the glamorous, sleek, perfect, sassy, catchphrase... you know?
Brit, what is it that you look for in a potential project? What are some of the attributes that attract you to playing these female characters, specifically?
Brit: I think it's what we've been talking about. You're just looking for something honest and something thorough and complex and developed. I think what I have found and why I've started writing is that you'll read scripts and even if it's a female lead in a script it's just one-note or one layer, like just because she's got a gun and is wearing pants doesn't mean that she's like, evolved.
Brit: I remember getting a script from somebody once and they said, "You're gonna love this!" And I read it and I was like, "Wait, did you think I was just gonna love this because she's like, killing people instead of being killed?" And that's not the definition. When I read The Keeping Room, Augusta is a lot of things, but she's not unafraid. She's brave, but she's terrified. And I love the feeling of a girl who's still in a very feminine dress, who hasn't even kissed a boy, who hasn't even come of age, defending her house against an invasion, who's falling apart as much as she's coming together. That fragility, that vulnerability, to me is as interesting if not more than the other. I was looking for something I hadn't done before, and I remember reading Augusta and thought, I'm scared shitless. Can I even do this? Because some people do period and they're not very believable.
Julia: You're so believable. You got so lost in that time. Not everybody can do that.
All three of you are very natural. I could just watch scenes of you sitting at the dinner table and talking for the full 90 minutes. That's the most interesting stuff.
Julia: I wonder if they'll put this stuff in the DVD extras...
Brit: There was a dance scene that was cut.
Julia: And a scene where they eat rabbit legs that's like, the sexiest, most beautiful.
Brit: That was I think my favorite performance moment in my life.
Julia: I know! I want to talk to them about it.
Brit: It got to the truth of them being starving, and then getting a rabbit, which was that...you eat it, and at first you're really excited, and then you're so sad because you realize that joy is an awareness of the moment that's passing, that you can't hold onto it for forever. And when that happened, I was like, damn, that was good.
Julia: We should talk to them about putting that on the DVD.