Nobel Savages: Glenn Close triumphs as the enigmatic spouse of a fabled author in Bjorn Runge's 'The Wife'

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In Sony Pictures Classics’ The Wife, adapted from a Meg Wolitzer novel, Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) has always been the perfect, serene and elegantly groomed wife/caretaker of esteemed novelist Joe (Jonathan Pryce), forever at the ready with a helpful medication, fortifying cocktail or turn of phrase. Their elevated yet placid lives are totally upended when he wins the Nobel Prize for literature, and what should be his ultimate moment of glory is instead one of frustration and unease for him and absolute, even unbearable dread for her.

One of the most intellectually stimulating and richly emotional films of recent times, writer-director Björn Runge’s drama is a tantalizing, subtly feminist tale, marked by a wonderfully smart and funny script, a handsome international production for its audience to bask in and a gallery of memorable performances, full of agreeable surprises. And Close crowns her illustrious career with her best, most brilliantly nuanced performance to date. Here, the Swedish filmmaker discusses his English-language debut.

Film Journal International: Thank you so much for such a beautifully intelligent film. It casts such an agreeable spell, and if I like a film, I usually stay until the very end of the credits to find out everything about it. This time I stayed also to hear every note of Jocelyn Pook’s gorgeous music score.

Björn Runge: I loved her music in Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut. I had been in contact with her for about ten years, wanted to work with her on other projects. But there’d always be some reason—the production or the budget didn’t work out—that we never did. For this film, I realized that she would be perfect and I got her. Thank you for your kind words, because I really love her music.

We had a collaboration, discussing it a lot. She’s very clear in a good way and I would come up with suggestions, which she would listen to before bringing the music out of herself. She has a wonderful orchestra, too, filled with great musicians. There was a lot of music and I used most of what she produced; it was so emotional in just the right way, and not manipulating the audience. She had a very clear idea of what she wanted and I like to work with strong people like her who can take a suggestion and then turn it into something all their own.

FJI: Will there be a soundtrack release, I hope?

BR: That’s a very good question and when I meet her in August I will ask her. Because I know that she owns all her own scores, so, hopefully, the soundtrack will be released. She uses her own body of work as a reference and was very grateful that I had known that one.

FJI: It seems your film is not only about a strong woman but was also filled by them in your production. This very well may be the year Glenn Close finally wins an Oscar for her magnificent performance, in which she displays such incredible command and yet the most subtle delicacy. She was born to play this and I want to know how it came about.

BR: She knew this Spanish producer who works with many Danish directors whom I know, and had heard of me and that I was good with actors. I have been working quite a lot in the theatre in Sweden. She asked me to read the script and, after ten pages, I fell in love with it and understood what it was all about.

I called her the next day and said, “I really want to be a part of this. Absolutely.” And then she, our American producer and screenwriter Jane Anderson had a lot of discussion on Skype and said, ‘We think we want you to direct this film.” I was directing a stage production of Death of a Salesman and during a rehearsal break someone said, “You got a call.” It was to say, “Glenn Close wants to meet you on Saturday [two days away] for breakfast in Greenwich Village.”

I flew to New York and went to this café and we had breakfast for two hours, discussing world events, film and also our own lives and suddenly she looked at me and said, “I want you to direct this,” so it was Glenn Close who cast me.

With such good actors as Glenn, Jonathan Pryce and Christian Slater, I try to bring out the acting energy in the best way to connect as many good emotions possible and get all of that into a motion picture. They were so good—it was a total collaboration, beautiful and a very happy spirit on the set. I just tried to give these very good actors the freedom to be free, which is very important.

FJI: Is your screenplay very faithful to the book?

BR: Jane brought out a lot of drama in the piece, as the book is much more satirical. Glenn and Jonathan weren’t afraid to be dramatic, although there’s a lot of humor as well.

FJI: The movie grabbed me from the first very funny scene with Glenn and Jonathan in bed, and he’s trying to seduce her with fantasies of him being a hot young stud, brain-dead but possessing impressive “tumescence,” etc. To start with, there are so few films that even show anyone over forty having sex, as if it abruptly stops.

BR:I love that opening scene because you don’t know who these people are, you can’t read them yet. It’s a beautiful opening scene, but I can tell you some people in post-production were afraid of it and thought we should make this the third or fourth scene in the film. But I said I liked the idea of them in bed at the very beginning.

FJI: Did Close have a strong idea of how she would play this memorable role?

BR: She had a very strong idea. When we met the first time, we started to talk about why we wanted to do this and I told her about my background and my connection to the script. So, from there, you have a trust, and when I met Jonathan, we talked about very private things and I liked how he showed me his emotional side as well.

As a director, what I want is to take care of their energy but also, “Can we take it more slow, or a little bit more violent, etc.” So I collect as many emotions as possible on the set, which makes them very naked emotionally, and I test their ideas as well. Then, after two takes, we start to collaborate and suddenly we find ourselves with something we can use in the editing room.

She and Jonathan had a very clear idea of their interpretations, and I love that, because I also have a very clear idea. But it’s all about the collaboration, which makes everyone better. When Glenn and Jonathan acted, they gave of themselves and played with each other in unpredictable ways,which I love. They’re so good that it became sort of mind games on the set and makes for a very creative atmosphere.

I thought both he and Christian Slater gave Glenn an acting challenge because they weren’t afraid, like maybe some actors would be. They gave energy to each other, which made them very in the moment. They loved and were very nice to each other. I had been talking different names for Joe with Glenn. Jonathan’s name came up and Glenn said, “It would be a dream to work with him.” I went to London to discuss the script with him and after 45 minutes he said, “I want to be doing this.” I called Glenn to tell her and she said, “YES!! Wonderful!”

He was perfect as Joe. I was very happy, because Joe is not a bad character—he’s a failure and pretends to be something he is not, just afraid. It was important that the audience shouldn’t totally dislike Joe or judge him too easily. He was wonderful.

FJI: And the character is so very different from how he is in life, the nicest, most gentlemanly person. I went to see him backstage after a show one night, and he not only greeted us warmly but made us share a bottle of wine with him.

At the end of this movie year, the Nobel Prize scene will be one of those “it” clips, shown endlessly to demonstrate the best of 2018. It was not only impressively authentic-seeming but reminded me of the bravura sequence in George Cukor’s Gaslight, at the musicale where Ingrid Bergman, also oppressed by a dominating husband, eventually loses it under the pressure of being with him and upholding the pristine image the two present to the world as a perfect couple.

BR:It was very accurate. The men responsible for the prize ceremony were very helpful, giving us different tips, but all that is very easy to research in Sweden, with lots of documentary films which show you how they bow, etc. It was important that it be as close to reality as possible.

FJI: How did an almost-unrecognizable Christian Slater come aboard [as the unctuous journalist intent on ferreting out all the dirt in this marriage]?

BR: I had a picture in my mind of a man with glasses with a special face, Ten different actors screen-tested, but I couldn’t find the right actor. And then my American producer, Rosalie Swedlin, asked, “What do you think about Christian Slater?” I said, “He’s wonderful, perfect.” So we let him read the script and we liked him, the perfect guy for it. There was this good tension on the set he brought and he and Glenn had fun playing together, a perfect match.

FJI: And you have Glenn Close’s daughter, Annie Starke, playing her as a young woman here.

BR: I was looking at many actors, especially in L.A., without much success, for none of them had a certain quality I was looking for. Suddenly Glenn said to me, “I really don’t want to say this to you, but you know, my daughter is an actress. If you can’t find anyone, could you just meet her?” I said, “Yes, of course. But if I say no, you must trust me.” She said, “I trust you,” and Annie did a screen test that was very good, also perfect for the role. It’s very tricky to cast a younger version of an actor in the same role, but I was very pleased with both her and Harry Lloyd, who played Pryce at a younger age.

FJI: I mustn’t forget Elizabeth McGovern, who, in one scene, does the best acting she’s ever done, as a very cynical, very drunk authoress who maybe scares your heroine out of a writing career forever.

BR: She was surprised when I asked her to do even more after her first take. In the beginning, she was quite serious and emotional. But she has to scare young Joan as a bad example of a female writer she definitely does not want to be, so I had her do it drunk. She was lovely to work with and came to the set with so much energy and then was gone—just a day of filming, but it was a very important scene.

We’d had many options in terms of who to cast, but I finally think it was our line producer who said have you thought of her? “Downton Abbey” is all over Swedish TV, but I hadn’t seen it. She came in and had some strange humor which I connected with and she liked the script very much.

FJI: It sounds like it was a most charmed production. How long was the shoot?

BR: Thirty-four days, mostly in Glasgow and then two days in Stockholm. I had taken a week to look for locations and there was something about Glasgow that connected to Stockholm in the 1990s, which has changed so much. The exteriors are the same but the interiors are totally different, more streamlined and sterile now, not so Old World European.

FJI: I wanted to live out the rest of my life in that luxurious Stockholm hotel suite where the Nobel committee puts the couple up.

BR: That’s good, because we made all that in the studio. There was that contrast between the couple’s later successful years in all that beauty and class, and in the flashbacks they’re in small, dirty rooms. There is a connection between those two worlds and the secret that comes about between them. 

FJI: Along with everything else, this film has such an important message about women and their talent and power, so often squelched by the men they involve themselves with. I thought of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, all the Hemingway women, even Claire Bloom when she got involved, disastrously, with Philip Roth. Women everywhere must be just loving it.

BR: I think so, but when we had out Toronto Festival premiere last year, many women wanted to talk about the film after the screening but also many men. So it speaks to both sexes.

FJI: What’s your background. Did you go to film school?

BR:At the end of the 1980s, I went to the Swedish film school. I have worked in television, directed and wrote some series, both in Swedish and Italian. For the last 15 years I have directed a lot of stage productions.

FJI: Who are your favorite film directors?

BR: What an interesting question! I would say Paul Thomas Anderson is a beautiful director. I think Magnolia is a masterpiece. Even if I don’t really love his films, there is always something very inspiring about them. Jane Campion—her “Top of the Lake” is beautiful and all of her films are very interesting. And Paolo Sorrentino. And today is Ingmar Bergman’s 100th birthday. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was still active and even was a teacher at my film school. Of course, I love his work. He was sort of a mentor, because when we made films in our second year, he would give lectures and look at our work. Funnily enough in those days, I was smoking these small cigars and he tried to get me to stop smoking. He talked with me for one hour about how I really must quit my smoking, “You will live a longer life. Do you know how many minutes you lose? Smoking twenty, thirty minutes every time?” After all his films in which someone commits suicide, he tries to get me to quit smoking so I can live a long, healthy life. He was generous. And I did stop smoking.

FJI: What’s next for you?

BR: I am reading a lot of scripts, some that are interesting, and I think in a couple of months I will decide which will be my next.

FJI: Well, when people see this film, they will love it and become much more aware of your name. Did you feel like you expanded as a director after this movie?

BR: Yeah, I definitely expanded. It was also a very good production and my best working experience of all. I loved every day of it, the actors, the script. It was a pleasure, as the material was always interesting and it was a privilege to be a part of it.

I should add that my cinematographer, Ulf Brantås, I have known for 35 years, many good times. I’ve known him longer than my wife, Lena, whom I’ve been married to for 31 years and who edited my film.