Written by Dylan Callaghan
Perhaps Rodrigo Garcia, the writer-director of the new film Mother and Child, is just a few months ahead on the male evolutionary calendar. The married father of two daughters is so skilled at navigating subtle, profound emotional terrain – particularly in the hearts of female characters – he makes one wonder why men have any trouble understanding women at all. It’s a deft, pitch-perfect knack evidenced in films like Nine Lives as well as his work on the acclaimed HBO series In Treatment.
While his legendary father, Columbian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez had a similar Nobel-prize-winning gift for the mystical whimsy of life, Garcia makes poetry of the real, everyday anguish and release of it, with a special focus on women, whom he says simply “spark my imagination.”
In his new film, Mother and Child, a 50-year-old nursing home worker (Annette Bening) and the now-grown daughter (Naomi Watts) she gave up to adoption nearly four decades earlier, are center stage. This duo is made a trio by Kerry Washington’s character, who when confronted with her own inability to conceive, elects to adopt. A constellation of other characters surround these three women, including against-type turns by Samuel L. Jackson and Jimmy Smits.
Garcia spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his fascination with women, working against expectations, and why the best scripts never go through development.
This film’s narrative takes three disparate lives to an intersection. Tell me how you approached that. Did you, for example, have your three characters' basic arcs and then figure out how weave them together?
The original idea was of two people who lived apart from each other but were obsessed with each other. They had never met, but had lived in the shadow of each other. So I thought, “Okay, a mother and daughter separated at birth.” I made the mother very young so that it would be clear it hadn’t really even been her choice.
So for a long time I was just dealing with the two stories – where the women were 36 years later, how they had coped or not coped with the separation, and what they were going to do about it.
Photo: © 2010 Sony Pictures Classics
Annette Bening in Mother and Child.
That definitely feels like the core relationship in the film.
Yeah, and it was always just a two-hander, but after working on it for a while, bouncing back and forth just between the two stories seemed boring and monotonous. I couldn’t keep it alive. I thought, “Okay, I need a third story line that can help me vent, that can give me a break from the other two but also thematically feeds into the other two and help bring them together.” I never thought of it as three different stories. The third story came in to break the monotony of the other two.
So you sort of needed some oxygen.
I needed some oxygen and also, one of the things I learned when I was doing research – and by research I mean I read many accounts of people who’d gone through similar things – was that when a biological mother and child met, it was impossible to know the outcome. Often it was happy, sometimes it was sad. Sometimes it was happy, and then it fizzled out, and sometimes people never met. They would find the family, but the mother had died already. There were multiple variations.
So I always knew Elizabeth [Naomi Watts] and Karen [Annette Bening] would not meet, and I thought it would be harder to pull off because this kind of movie always offers a reunion, whether you want it or not. I thought that if I had a third storyline, it would help me create more complication so that I can find a way for them not to come together.
That’s interesting because there’s a lot of that in the movie that goes against expectations. Is that something you’ve learned as a writer that, bottom line, working against expectation makes things more interesting?
Yeah, when you’re writing, one of your rules of thumb should be, if it’s reminding you of too many movies, it’s not working.
Nothing in the world is completely original, but I think when you’re working you should be asking yourself, “Does this seem too familiar? Am I promising or offering what all movies offer?” It can get you into trouble because you can get a little too twisted up, and movies often do, but yeah, not letting the audience be ahead of you is one of the things as a screenwriter you have to do.
To what extent do you find that if you take a leap where you’re not even sure where you’re going, the script gives back in surprising ways?
I think year after year, you see that the best scripts [did not come out of] development. I mean, you have to know technique, you have to know storytelling and structure. There are a lot of things you have to know technically to be a writer, but writing also comes from the subconscious. The thing talks to you and ideas come to you that you never would have thought of. It’s very hard to work from the subconscious when there are five people around a table – a director, a writer, a producer, and two executives. That’s a conscious way of working on a story, and it looks for the common denominator, things that everyone agrees on.
So the disadvantage of writing on spec is that, in some respects, you’re in a vacuum, you’re lost and you have no feedback, but in other respects, it’s good because your subconscious, the things that really interest you – your fears and obsessions – make their way to the script.
It’s not a secret. Year after year, the best scripts were not in development.
Amen. I read in one interview you said that this film is about dreams not coming true and learning to cope with that.
In reading accounts and memoirs of people who’d been – again, I’m referring to the old adoption system that was closed, where it was all shrouded in mystery and the pregnancies and the very fact of having given up a child was a source of shame – it seemed like people felt fate had a great role in their lives. Those are questions that we all play with: “If instead of growing up with my biological parents in New York City I grow up with adoptive parents on a farm in Iowa, am I the same person?” It just seemed that a lot of this was out of people’s control in these stories.
So with this, I thought, “I don’t want to make a movie about a reunion, which may or may not happen in most cases. Let me look at this as a story of how two women who were unhappy and who were trying to control everything about their world, came to relax their grip…”
Surrender and accept what had been and what was and come to terms. For me that’s Karen’s journey. It’s not about finding Elizabeth and everything being okay. It’s about opening up to life again and accepting what is.
You have an incredible gift for sensitivity, a real natural pitch for it and for female characters. Where does that come from?
Let me just say that I’ve been getting asked that a lot lately because I’ve been doing junkets and stuff, and the more I answer it, the more embarrassed I feel because I feel that I’m asked that a lot [just] because I’m a guy. I look at the female characters [created by] Jane Campion, Sophia Coppola, Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko, and Sally Potter, all these women that write and direct, and they’re beautiful, and I envy them. They can do things with those women that I can’t do.
So I always answer the question with some shame, but I’m happy people think so. Where does it come from? I don’t know. I think the point of departure, like with any writing, is that it interests me. I like women. They interest me, they spark my imagination. I’ll see a waitress or a girl walking down the street or an old woman in the supermarket, and I wonder what her life is like. What are her quests, her desires, her frustrations?
A woman’s face will spark that for me.
Is there something mystifying too? As much as you seem to have this lucid command and skill at navigating these character, is the fascination also based on their…
They mesmerize me more than they mystify me, at least the women in my imagination, the ones I write about. I couldn’t say to you I don’t understand them or “Go figure!” I don’t have that sort of “go figure!” attitude toward women.
You don’t ever say, “God, these women...
…who can understand them?” No. I mean, listen, who can understand men? Have you heard women talk about men? Men are… impenetrable. So I like women, and I am not a woman so they are different in some ways. But if there’s an otherness, it doesn’t feel strange to me. If women are the “other,” it’s an “other” that I connect to and that I love.