The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola’s much-lauded 1972 mob movie, ends with a door being shut on a woman. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), newly crowned don of the Corleone crime family, has just lied to his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) about his involvement in a series of murder. Mildly reassured, she jokes that they both need a drink, and leaves the room. The camera follows her out, and from her vantage point down the hall, we see what she sees: Michael in his office, surrounded by his closest advisors. When Kay moves back towards her husband, one of his cronies silently closes the door, sending a clear signal: Her place is in the home, not on equal footing with the men in charge.
When director Julia Hart rewatched The Godfather around the time she became a mother, she found she just couldn’t shake that visual. Hence the premise for her latest movie, I’m Your Woman, a stylish, gritty 1970s-set crime drama that puts a woman and her baby at the very center of the narrative
“[All those films] pretty much have male protagonists, but then there are these really interesting supporting female roles played by really amazing actresses like Diane Keaton in The Godfather and Tuesday Welles in Thief,” Hart told Refinery29 in a phone call ahead of the movie’s December 11 release on Amazon Prime Video. “As great as those characters and performances are, and as much as I love those movies, when I would finish watching them I couldn’t stop wondering what happened to those female characters. When the action gets going, they often get shepherded off to safety with their children and you never see them again. I loved the idea of making the mother the protagonist instead of the man.”
She plays Jean, a suburban housewife whose gangster husband returns home one day with an unusual present: a grumpy, fussy baby boy. Just as motherhood is suddenly thrust upon her, Jean also finds herself in an unusual situation. One night, she’s startled out of bed by one of her husband’s friends, who tells her bluntly that he’s not coming back, and sent off into the unknown with a stranger, Cal (Arinzé Kene).
In some ways, Jean’s trajectory echoes Midge Maisel's: Both are women who married with the expectation they’d be taken care of, and their lives are thrown into a spiral when the men they thought they could count on turn out to be untrustworthy. Both must learn to live on their own terms, finding an inner strength they didn’t know they had. And both must come to terms with their privilege as white women. But I’m Your Woman is no Mrs. Maisel. It demands more of Brosnahan, who had to learn to react to the six-month-old twin boys with whom she shares the majority of her screen time, and sets a moody, visceral tone from the very first scene.
Jean, wearing a silk, feather-lined robe, marches around her house in a frantic search for scissors to cut off a tag — a chafing reminder that she’s wearing stolen goods — only to slice it off with a gigantic kitchen knife in one fierce slash. When her husband walks in holding the baby only moments later, it’s him who's invading her space, rather than the other way around.
Refinery29: The last time we spoke, you mentioned that women have to imagine ourselves into movies — especially classic movies because they’re not about us. This movie feels like a pointed response to that.
Julia Hart: “It’s something I’m really interested in as a storyteller. There are so many amazing genres that for the most part historically have centered around male protagonists, that also hold really interesting stories about women within them, but they aren’t the focus. So, it’s really fun to watch all those movies and explore and think about how to shift the perspective to being about a woman.”
Did you always want to have the baby as a second lead?
“I had this dream that I was going to make a movie about a baby as a main character because I had never seen that before. To be honest, the only movie that I could think of where that was the case was Baby Boom. But that’s it, that I can think of, in the history of cinema, where a baby’s face and character are a huge part of the movie. There are obviously a lot of movies where there’s a baby in a lot of the movie, but it’ll be a different baby, or its face will be hidden, or mostly a fake baby. I really wanted to prove that you could have a very small baby — ours are twin brothers, and they were six months old when we started shooting. Our society doesn’t focus on babies as people, we forget that they are people at the beginning of their lives, they’re observing and absorbing everything we do and say. I just love the idea of a baby being a fully realized character that has an arc, and a personality, a life.”
Having a newborn on set all the time must have been really challenging, though.
“It was really hard! It’s a big risk, but I think it paid off. I was really proud of where the babies’ performances went. Babies can only work 4 hours a day, and most film shoots are 12 hours a day, and so you have to work around their nap schedule, and their feeding schedule, and you can script whatever you want to have a baby do, but 99 times out of 100 they’re not going to do what you need them to do! We were all very rehearsed and very prepared, but then a bunch of adult professionals would just be at the mercy of this baby. It made us all very humble; it made us all have to live in the moment, and improvise. The biggest credit goes to Rachel, who has to act and do a lot of really difficult things with this live baby in her arms. She would just have to adapt and figure out how to stay in the moment, if he was screaming or crying, if he fell asleep when he was supposed to be awake. The hardest part for me was always saying cut because Rachel would be having these magical moments with the boys and I would be like, ‘But what if something else happens? What if I say cut and then he laughs?” It’s a very scripted, very stylized film, but at the center of it is just human behavior. The baby has no idea it’s in a movie, it’s just living its life.”
This is your first period piece. What was it like diving into the 1970s?
“It was so fun! You should see my house. Jordan and I are big wallpaper fans, as is Gae Buckley, my production designer. And then a lot of the locations had wallpaper in them — some of it we didn’t put there, it was just preserved in the locations from the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s a period that I love aesthetically and so it was really fun to explore within the bigger 1970s world we created: There’s the posh suburbs, the city, the woodsy cabin, the little suburban safe house in the more blue-collar neighborhood. It was really fun to build out those different places and find the authenticity that could fit them all within the period.”
I was recently describing the movie to someone as “a movie about the ‘70s that feels like a woman made it in the ‘70s.” It’s a hard period to nail because you so easily veer into parody.
“It drives me crazy when period pieces feel like period pieces instead of movies that were made in that period. I look around my own house and there’s a chair from the 1960s, and a table from the ‘80s and a painting from the ‘20s — we don’t all have everything in our home from 2020. That’s not real life, and it’s the same with hairstyles. Not everybody has the trendy hairstyle of the day.So, it was really fun to play around with what would have been available to the characters in that time, and mixing it up to make it feel like real-life instead of a ‘70s-set movie.”
This is such an interesting Rachel Brosnahan performance, especially since so many people know her mainly as Mrs. Maisel. What were you looking for when you cast her?
“Part of why I think she’s so perfect as Mrs Maisel is that she has this timeless quality to her. She can very effortlessly disappear into different time periods. The 1970s were a time where female actors were obviously incredibly beautiful and movie stars, but they also just had this authenticity to them. It was pre-airbrushing and VFX on people’s faces and all the weird stuff that can happen today. It was just a real womanly time. Rachel has that timeless movie star quality to her, and she’s very much a chameleon. Part of the reason we wanted to cast her as Jean is because we’d seen her on House of Cards and Mrs. Maisel, which are two totally different characters, totally different time periods, totally different tones and genres, and you don’t even think about it. She’s almost totally unrecognizable between the two. She’s very good at it, and it’s not an easy thing to do for an actor, to disappear, especially when you’re known for such an iconic role, but she really does.”
The movie is about Jean discovering self-reliance and learning to live on her own for the first time, but it’s also about her realizing her own privilege as a white woman, who’s being confronted with issues of race for the first time. When you’re writing something like this, and you have many Black supporting characters like Arinzé Kene’s Cal and Marsha Stephanie Blake as Teri, how do you make sure that they’re not just there to bolster this white woman’s narrative?
“Something that was really important to Jordan and me when we were writing was Jean had this awakening about the ways in which she’s oppressed as a woman, but also the ways in which she’s privileged as a white one. Kimberly Crenshaw obviously hadn’t coined the term ‘intersectionality’ at the time, but it was something that in particular Black women were very aware of in the ‘70s, during the women’s movement — that white feminism was emerging in a really toxic way. It was important to me to show Jean at first being totally oblivious to that, but as she gets to know Cal and Teri, that she understands the difference between being a white woman and being a Black woman, and being a Black man and being a white man. It was something we wanted to do in a subtle way, it’s not something that the characters talk about. The text that really drove a lot of the inspiration for a lot of the exploration of intersectional feminism was Angela Davis’ Women, Race & Class. I gave a copy of it to Rachel when we first met.”
Do you and Jordan write your own material because you’re not seeing what you’d want to make as a director elsewhere, or is that just how you work?
“We get sent great scripts a lot, but we have two small kids and life is short, and it’s such a big commitment making a movie. I don’t know if this is true for all directors, but I have to be so in love with the story I’m telling and the characters. I love to write, and I don’t think that there is a lot of female-driven genre stuff floating around, and the good stuff gets grabbed up pretty quickly, so it makes sense for us to do it ourselves. But there are definitely more of them emerging now, but again it’s such a big commitment to make a film, and we have to really want it if we’re going to uproot our children’s lives. A lot of the time it ends up coming from within us. But then something like Stargirl comes along and I can’t say no.”
“It was wild. We were in the edit room for I’m Your Woman when we first went into lockdown, and then we had the big premiere of Stargirl at the El Capitan Theater on March 10. And then the whole world shut down. It was crazy. Thankfully we had already gotten through the bulk of the editorial process. Not to mention that we had already shot the whole thing and didn’t need to do reshoots. But we had to finish the color correct, the scoring, the sound mix, and all the VFX, and some of the editorial, remotely. We had a movie come out on a streaming platform at the beginning of 2020, and now we’re ending 2020 with another one. It’s been a very interesting year.”
There are all these questions about whether movie theaters will survive this pandemic, but this year has also seen so much amazing work by women and people of color, partly because it’s just available to more people via streaming. Fast Color had all sorts of issues with theatrical distribution — how do you feel about how streaming affects your own prospects as a director?
“I have seen the same thing, and I think it says a lot about the state of our industry that most of the movies that will have ultimately come out in 2020 are made by women and people of color and about people of color. Granted there are several big blockbusters directed by women and people of color that are waiting, but I think this is going to be one of the most diverse years for film in a long time. I find it very encouraging and hope that it leads to more and that people don’t look back at this year as an anomaly. It should be the rule, not the exception. The pandemic has definitely changed the landscape in our industry in a way that I hope will move forward. The most important part is that we still get to share our work.”