In Hateship Loveship, one of the standouts from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Kristen Wiig is a dowdy, naive Iowa caretaker who is the victim of a casually cruel trick played on her by her teenage charge (Hailee Steinfeld). The film—based on the Alice Munro short story Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage—received raves from Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. Variety singles out Liza Johnson’s direction, calling it “patient” and “observant,” and giving her kudos for making a relationship between Wiig and a down and out Guy Pearce that might sound silly on paper breathe with a “surprising tenderness and plausibility onscreen.”
We spoke to Johnson about the challenges of adapting, with writer Mark Jude Poirier, a venerated short story for the big screen.
The writer, Mark Poirier, brought the script to me. He brought it to me when I was finishing my other film Return, about a female veteran coming home from the Middle East. He had written it some years ago for Warner Brothers and he wanted to revive it. And I really was attracted to it. There’s a part where the main character really has to put herself at risk for what she wants, and that part was really terrific. A producer attached himself to a film, and I worked with Mark for six months to make the part attractive to an actress and still be good for the movie.
I like Munro’s work and I’ve been reading it casually for all my life. I hadn’t read the story until after I read the script. I did read it when we did the script, and I tried to go back and forth between the script and the story. It’s a perfect story. The adaptation is in the U.S. and in the present [The story takes place in Canada years ago]. There are a lot of shifts from the original. But I tried to make it accountable to the tone of the original. I think that was Mark’s goal as well.
I haven’t read everything Alice Munro has ever written, but it seems common in her work that people have a deep inner life that they don’t always express in language. It’s a Midwestern, or a Presbyterian southwest Ontario sensibility. They are full of feeling, but don’t’ say everything they think in language.
If it’s going to be a movie and those feelings are going to be clear, it has to be through action or dialogue. It’s fun to do with performers because it’s fun to find those ways of expression. Kristen is really good at that. People associate physical acting with comedy but it’s really important to drama. It’s really amplified in cinema because you can’t have an inner monologue. You can’t summarize people’s feelings.
After I worked with Mark for about six months, we offered the part to Kristen. I thought she might be interested in it, because thematically I think some of the characters she has made in her career at SNL [have similar motivations]. The movie is warm and it has things in it that are funny but it’s not a comedy—it’s not a tragedy either, I thought she might take an interest because of the character she did with the tiny baby hands on the Lawrence Welk Show [Dooneese!].
[Kristen’s character in Hateship] is person who really has to learn how to deal with her desire. Which is wildly different in some ways than the person with the tiny baby hands, but that character also has to figure out how to deal with her desire.
People think it’s weird when I say things like that, because Alice Munro is really a serious literary writer. But comedy is really meaningful. I think about that baby hands character and it helps me in my life. I think comedy can be meaningful and drama can be warm. The protagonist of this story is also irrepressible and unconventional. I think Kristen is an amazing performer and really a super smart person. A major talent.
The other movie that I did I just wrote, and so I didn’t have any of those questions about literary fiction or the difference between the inner monologue of prose and the external action of cinema. I just wrote [Return] as an original screenplay. I liked directing a script I didn’t write. I felt a lot of freedom because my history with the material was shorter, so I thought I could bring something new to it. There’s something great about not relating to my own received wisdom about my own writing. I was less in the way of myself.