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Sometimes, a musician comes across the computer screen which produces a profile not just because of the music but the backstory, too. That was certainly the case for singer/songwriter Clarissa Riddles (nee Purcell) who not only found her voice through jazz but traditional Irish music as well.
Based in Nashville, the classically trained pianist and vocalist wrote the songs on her latest record, “Be Still My Soul,” “as a tribute to God and the scripture which had brought her out of an intense personal struggle into a new life.”
That provocation was confirmed by Widerside Productions’ Matt Wilder — producer of this album: “When I first met Clarissa years ago, her talent was immediately clear. A gifted and diverse singer, songwriter and painter, who, like so many great artists, had a self-destructive streak and struggled with addiction. I believe dealing with internal turmoil is part of what drives many great artists to create.
Over the years we’ve both been through many life changes — and in Clarissa’s case finding sobriety, getting married, having a child, and most of all, turning her life over to God as she understood him [to be]. I was thrilled when she approached me about making an album about redemption, recovery and faith.
“I recognized my own struggles in hers and in her surrender. These Celtic-flavored songs are like beautiful mystic upwellings rising from her soul as she was born into a new life. It’s healing music that envelopes and comforts you with grace, humility and beauty. A true work of art by a great artist I consider myself blessed to collaborate with.”
So upon listening to Clarissa’s melodically rich vocalizations of these recently released songs, a search into her past led to lots more releases and songs. From jazz-inflected compositions to her Irish-influenced recent productions, Riddles/Purcell is an artist-performer worth exploring.
The late 30-something grew up in Northern Virginia, near Washington DC, Fairfax, and the Annandale area. Now, the Nashville resident Purcell works part-time at the YMCA and is a full-time mother. Now that her daughter is turning eight and in school, she’s been able to commit more time to music. “I have always made money on the side with creative pursuits, little jobs, playing background music for restaurants, and selling artwork.
“Recently, I have been able to make a little extra by working for commercial music placements, advertising and some work for music library/sync licensing. But it’s been sporadic; hence the YMCA gig.”
Q: What’s your background — musically and otherwise?
CR: I’ve done music my whole life, different genres, classical training, etc. I grew up in a musical family. We were exposed to mostly classical music. My dad was a well known baritone singer and entertainer who could play and sing almost any request from the great American songbook. My mom had a beautiful voice and sang in the church choir along with us kids.
I spent a lot of time from junior high onward making up songs and accompanying myself in the singer/songwriter fashion. My first love with songwriting was in the folk tradition. A return to that with this latest album, while being something novel, was a familiar ground with the simple melody and poetic lyrics I often wrote in my younger days. I went on to study jazz piano at University of Tennessee under the tutelage of renowned pianist and composer Donald Brown who had played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He encouraged me to pursue composing and we often traded ideas and tunes.
Q: You're just building your new identity now — where do you see it going?
CR: With this latest album, I feel like I have stumbled upon what I was really meant to do, both artistically and from a spiritual perspective. I just wanted to clarify that. When I first conceived this album project, it was after being inspired by the music section in the movie “Brooklyn,” where Iarla o Lionaird sang a Sean-nos song, which was a kind of hauntingly beautiful melody and lilting in the voice that I had never heard before. It absolutely blew me away. It really thrilled my soul, and it had been such a long time since I had felt inspired by music that way.
Then I discovered another Sean nos singer on the Irish John Murray show. I ended up learning this same Gaelic folk song that she performed, and later e-met Saileog Ni Cheannabhain, the gifted singer on the show who introduced many to the distinctly Irish tradition of Sean-nos singing. Later, I had the opportunity to take a few lessons from her during the Covid lockdowns via Skype.
It was then that I was inspired to make an album that was a return to the early American hymn tradition, incorporating these lilting variations in the melody line (also known as ornamentation in sean-nos). The result is an amalgamation of American and Irish singer/songwriter tradition.
I had arrived at a crossroads in some personal struggles and in my addiction — and what appeared to be an end-of-the-road financial crisis. These hymns are meant to be an intimate, personal tribute to God, as he walked me through a series of struggles and helped me to overcome my suffering with his grace.
I also had the generous help of an old friend and talented producer, Matt Wilder, who had been around to see me when I hit rock bottom. He had worked with me back then, when my drinking problem kept getting in the way. When he saw how seriously I was committed to recovery, I was able to record these songs at his studio on a tight budget, after closing, just singing and playing piano together by myself for all the takes. He then selected my best live takes.
We would later add Grammy award-winning fiddle player Jenee Fleenor and London Symphony musician/composer John Mock to the recordings. We are planning on hiring a backing band for future performances.
I obviously want to grow my audience and reach out to as many people as possible. In such a divided world we live in now I would like to restore some belief that there is something bigger out there that will bring us peace and serenity. I hope my songs focus on something other than politics. My hope is that this music will help “restore us to sanity” — myself included.
Q: Is your music Irish with American influences or American with Irish influences?
I am an American with Irish highlights. Yes, my husband is from Dublin, but I grew up in northern Virginia. My heritage is largely Irish/Scottish/and English according to my family tree.
Of late I see my main influence is Sean nos Celtic and spiritual music. I was not exposed to much American pop music growing up so I think my main influence is 1940/1950 blues, jazzand old school jazz standards of the Frank Sinatra era. Plus Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Billie Holliday, Peggy Lee and Etta James to mention just a few.
Growing up we had season tickets to Kennedy Center, and I was exposed to opera, symphonic music and performed in Handel’s Messiah along with family members at Columbia Baptist Church.
So old church hymns like “Amazing Grace,” classic composers of the Romantic era such as Chopin, and Rachmaninov and singers such as Eva Cassidy and Barbara Streisand were influences as well.
But my many visits to Ireland had a transformative impact on my music going forward. The wistful beauty of the landscape, the romance of the storytelling tradition in Ireland’s music were all very inspiring.
And meeting Chris had a similar impact on me as well. Chris came to the USA in 1990 but his feet are still planted firmly on Irish soil. All his family are there and he would bring me to seisuns in Kerry, Clare and Galway. A favorite stop off in Ireland is Gus O’ Connor’s pub in Doolin.
I was very drawn to the Sean-nos’ style of singing and love listening to local Irish musicians, The Cranberries, Enya, Saileog O Cheannabhain, Iarla O Lionaird and thetraditional Irish group ‘Danu From County Kerry.
Q: How did you two meet?
CR: I met Chris later on after college at a small party with close friends. We hit it off right away. We have been visiting his large Irish family in Dublin ever since 2011.
It was there in places like Doolin, Dingle and the West coast of Ireland that I learned about Irish seisuns. With my jazz background of improvisation, I was able to incorporate this beautiful, highly-ornamented singing style into my new album, “Be Still My Soul.” It is a bit of a challenge when recording to not change up the phrasing on each take though.
Purcell is my married name, Riddles is my maiden name. I use Clarissa Purcell for the ‘Be Still’ album and all my recent music with the ‘Celtic Spiritual’ influence. I use Clarissa Riddles on all my Jazz compositions.
This project was a new genre for me but I come from a very musical background, having sung and played piano since I was young. I grew up singing and playing church hymns. I started doing original music around 12 years of age. And then I majored in jazz piano in college.
Q: After having done this record, what plans do you have in the immediate and with your overall career.
CR: My future plans include finishing an album of love songs with producer Matt Wilder and the completed production of 10 more songs of this same kind that we’re already in the process of finishing — along with some favorite old American hymns.
With a name like Mike White one might assume he’s a pretty bland character — one who might blend into the background. But like so many things that seem to be background-able, there’s much more to the story.
Rather than being a simple everyman, White’s a “rehabilitated” gangster who has distinguished himself as a man of honor — a standup guy.
But once he’s released from a lengthy prison sentence, he finds himself a target. Miami’s most notorious criminal organization wants him dead and silenced.
This has been the premise of both “MobKing” — the web series —and the recently wrapped film which is based on it. One of the key reasons the online MobKing project has garnered millions of loyal followers from around the world, has been because of the authenticity that its creator Ciro Dapagio brought to the table.
A fascinating personality in and of itself, the Miami native did his own time in prison as well. A former participant of Florida’s organized crime network, he too served a considerable amount of time in prison for RICO violations. After being released, he pivoted, shaping a film and television career from his life experiences.
As Dapagio explained, “Spending a considerable amount of time in prison can go a very long way in changing your perspective on your life’s course and how you should live your life. There’s nothing cool about a life of crime. I wanted to do something in this life that my kids can be proud of. I want to create a better second half of my life than the first half.”
With that in mind, he joined forces with award-winning director Jorge “Jokes” Yanes who first worked on The MobKing web series and then co-wrote and directed the film. Growing up a first-generation Cuban American in the dirty south of Miami, Yanes was given the moniker "Jokes" from his graffiti artist tag. Eventually, he put down the can and started movie-making. After his breakthrough success as the creative director of “The Roof,” a prime-time Latin Urban music show on Telemundo's MUN2 where he became the first to program Reggaeton on US television.
In the early 2000s, Yanes made videos for artists such as T-Pain, Plies, Mike Jones, and Slim Thug. He directed one of YouTube's first viral videos, "GroundHog Day" by Mayday Ft. CeeLo Green. In 2009, Jokes won an Emmy for editing “Gabriel: Amor Immortal,” the first American style-mini series done for Spanish TV. After his success in the music and television scene, Jokes turned to narrative film debuting with the feature “Eenie Meenie Miney Moe” (2013) which premiered at the Miami Film Festival and received worldwide distribution. In 2013, Jokes started working with the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation to create philanthropic films on such subjects as addiction. Since then, he has directed and produced countless works for clients such as HBO, Complex, Universal Music, Atlantic Records, and Rolling Loud.
“MobKing” also stars a mix of established names such as James Russo who was in “Donnie Brasco.” Russo transformed into the role of Dominick “Dom” Sasso, the Capo di Tutti Capi of South Florida’s Sasso crime family — a respected yet ruthless leader, necessary when it comes to protecting his family interests.
Also in the film is the heavily tattooed veteran character actor Robert LaSardo — seen in many series such as “Burn Notice” and in films such as Clint Eastwood's "The Mule." And there's Paul Borghese, a familiar face in mob movies such as Martin Scorcese’s “The Irishman.” Rounding out the cast is noted up-and-comers such as Stelio Savante (“Acre Beyond the Rye”), Antoni Corone (“Into the Night”), Elisabetta Fantone (“Big Eyes”), Bruce Soscia (“Gravesend”) and fresh faces such as Oksana Lada, Artie Pasquale, and Anthony Caliendo.
In order to make his idea a reality, Dapagio joined forces with Krystal Harvey of Tiger Shark, Inc. who serves as a producer and represents Anthony Caliendo of MAINMAN Productions, Inc. as well as Ciro Dapagio Films, LLC. Caliendo is an Executive Producer as well.With Caliendo, he has formed Button Man Films, LLC for future film and TV endeavors.
In order to elaborate on his evolution from ex-con to executive producer and creator, Dapagio spoke about turning his life around after several years in prison for RICO violations as a former member of organized crime in Florida.
Q: What did you learn through the success of the web series MobKing?
CD: What surprised me the most was how well the web series was received by viewers. Their amazing response is what generated millions of views and created such an incredible fanbase for the MobKing brand. We had no expectations so its success is truly remarkable.
Q: What unique challenges did you face in turning the MobKing web series into the feature film — MobKing.
CD: Oddly enough I didn’t see any challenges. In my opinion, the process was remarkably easy. It flowed naturally, from the storytelling to the production of it.
Q: Describe the character Mike White who you play In both the web series and the film.
CD: Mike is a hard-nosed family man. He’s not afraid to push buttons to go after what he wants and needs to do in order to protect his family. He has to dig deep and find the inner power to maneuver through all of the conflicting elements in his life and come out on top.
Q: The authenticity that you bring to these projects has stirred quite a buzz. This is in no small part because you’re transparent about your past as a former participant in Florida organized crime where you spent a serious amount of time in prison for RICO violations.
CD: I’m transparent about it because I feel it’s important for young people to realize that crime is a dead end. There’s no such thing as easy money or a fast buck because its repercussions are 10-fold. You end up broke, locked up and away from your family. And that’s if you even manage to survive the racket in the first place. So, in the film, I get the beats right about organized crime which is hard to do in movies. In my opinion, the reason so many mob movies fail is their lack of authenticity. They all seem to be stuck in the “Soprano-esque” cliché mode of “I’d better get my money.” In "MobKing," I put a completely different, original spin on a classic mob tale, based on things that I may or may not have seen in my lifetime.
With the Grammy Awards freshly in mind, the state of the music world in general is also worth considering. The show presented that recent Sunday was quite the entertaining event — especially if you like the very narrow band of music genres and styles that was heard and seen. But obviously there are more sounds than what was there on the screen. Some genres are served by the various country and urban music events, but that’s hardly all that’s out there.
Nevertheless, the Grammys themselves support diversity through its many unseen award categories — 86 and counting — but those genres don’t make it on broadcast TV. Still, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which administers the Grammys, tries to make adjustments from time to time.
With all that in mind, music industry master Chris Keaton is a perfect subject with whom to disucss the state of music from the Grammys on.
An award-winning music publisher, artist management consultant and entertainment industry executive, Keaton resides in Nashville, Tennessee, with his family.
Call him a song plugger, promoter, even pusher, his career in music includes many years as a touring performer, a recording artist, songwriter and record producer. He’s a member of the Country Music Association, the Academy of Country Music and is also a 25 year-long voting member of The Recording Academy (The Grammys). He’s also served as a judge in the Miss America Organization.
He co-authored the book, “The Seven Stupid Mistakes People Make Trying To Get Into The Music Business,” and is working on his next project.
As a big believer in giving back, the 60-something has served on many boards including the Nashville Ballet, the Virginia Museum of Transportation and the Advisory Council of Nashville’s W.O. Smith Community Music School. And he’s done his share of volunteering as a mentor for Lipscomb University’s Joshua Project.
Right after the awards night, his answers to questions about the business, his role in it and what it takes to make it nowadays seemed particularly insightful. Here is that Q&A.
Q: What about the various country music awards -- and others such as the Grammys -- are they still relevant?
CK: Relevant? I don't know anything relevant but I can tell you this. Many of my peers love to complain about them. It makes me want to puke. Why? I'm glad you asked! Because being in the live audience of award shows is the most fabulous thing ever and anyone who complains about it should stop, take a deep breath and, for one moment, remember how fortunate they are to be there. One hundred or one thousand or even more people would gladly take their seat, if offered!
Award shows are the direct intersection of art and commerce. The decision ultimately is, "Will this make a television show worth viewing?" Sometimes it works and sometimes, not so much. The relevancy question, in my opinion, is with the viewers. Personally, I enjoy most but not all of the shows.
Q: With the Grammys, I wonder whether they’re irrelevant since so many categories are overlooked.
CK: I am sorry to hear that. I am a proud member of the Recording Academy and have been for 30 years. The professionals in the academy are some of the most creative game changers on the planet. Is the award system perfect? Far from it. Are we making changes to address that? Absolutely. The awards are peer-nominated and peer-voted. The show has struggled and stumbled but it has also offered up some of the most memorable once-in-a-lifetime performances ever.
Q: What do you think of the term “Americana?”
CK Not sure there could be a better label for the styles of music the genre encompasses. Then again, none of the styles of any music are "American" except for jazz. I don't know, what should we call it?
Q: What services does your company Keaton Music Ventures include?
CK: My business includes consulting services for emerging artists and their managers, creative planning for artists and songwriters as well as song plugging, critiquing and offering (mostly) valuable advice. Or as I like to tell everyone, "I’m an intergalactic tidal wave of love, creativity and magic for whom all the elements bow." OK, maybe that's a bit much! LOL!
Q: What does it mean to be Macy's Celebration Consultant -- tell me more about it?
CK: It's another one of the amazing blessings this life has bestowed upon me. I am proud to be a member of this team and it is one more creative outlet for me. The late Virgil Abloh expressed it best when he said, "If you look at why people become wack as they get older, it's because they stop doing the things they did that were formative to their work. You can't mentally stay still. You can't not challenge yourself." Style has always been important to me and I am always in search of a challenge. Macy's allows me the luxury to follow both muses.
Q: What did it feel like to be an Inductee in 2016’s North Carolina Music Hall of Fame?
CK: One of the greatest surprises in my life. I never saw it coming. In the 1980s I toured with a band in the southeastern US called the Band of Oz. In that region there is a very popular form of music referred to as "beach music.” The fans of this music are absolutely fanatic, bordering on the religious, in their love and affection for it. Being named the Band of Oz, I asked the leader, "Why don't we play "Somewhere Over The Rainbow?" His responses ranged from a yawn to suggesting that I "drop dead."
About the thousandth time I asked, he curtly responded, "I tell you what. If you want us to do that damn song so badly, go create an arrangement, record a demo and maybe, just maybe, we'll learn and record it. I accepted the challenge.
When I presented the demo they loved it. We recorded it and it became their biggest selling single. To this day it remains their signature song with which they close their show every night. When the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame offered to induct the band in 2016, they asked me to join them because of the impact of that recording. What a marvelous blessing!
Q: Yes, you’ve made music yourself — what about your own music?
CK: I live and breathe music. I play piano, saxophone and sing. There are several songs on Apple Music and Spotify which I wrote, recorded and performed over 30 years ago but I just rediscovered the tapes in 2020. I am about to release more music I have uncovered, too.
I have had a grand piano in my home for 40 years and, quite honestly, for the past 15 years have walked right past and ignored it nearly every single day. But last summer the piano called my name as I walked by and I have been playing and assembling songs daily ever since. I am absolutely in love with playing and am now writing my next album which I laughingly intend to title "Mindless Noodling," since that's what I do at the piano.
Q: How has song pitching changed, or not, over the years?
CK: It has changed dramatically. When I started as a song plugger you could literally walk into nearly anyone's office on Music Row at any time of day and meet with producers, managers and record executives and pitch songs. The space was much more open but as the city grew the doors started getting locked. Security guards were hired and a lot of the innocence went away.
Also, in the CD and cassette tape era there were typically 10 songs on an album. If you got a song and the record, and the record sold a million units, the writer and the publisher of any one of the songs would split nearly $100,000. If the song got radio airplay, even more.
Today we no longer have that avenue; if it's not a single, the song doesn't earn much. That and the streaming rates have narrowed the playing field. It made a lot of pluggers quit which to me is the bright side. I'm still here and making money.
Recently with the pandemic there has been a seismic shift to pitching online via Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype with person meetings nowadays being nearly nonexistent.
Q: Has the digital revolution and the internet affected your job?
CK: Income has dropped for sure but as I stated, with Zoom, FaceTime and Skype meetings are once again on the uptick. The opportunity for writers to find me is so much easier now. With search engines, writers from around the globe can connect with me and hire me to pitch their songs.
Q: You and Nashville seem intertwined — could you live anywhere else and do what you do?
CK: As a matter of fact, right now I could. To a certain degree. Let me explain. Since COVID shut in person meetings down, almost all of our business has been online: songwriting via Zoom, FaceTime; meetings the same, except the occasional meetings on a patio at a coffee shop or bistro. But the fact remains that someone pitching songs absolutely, positively has to have the connections, a network of industry insiders, producers, artists, managers who will answer my calls or emails.
Otherwise it's spam. Face it, the old joke has always been that most entertainment executives are abysmal about returning calls or emails from people they don't know. (In fact, it's not even a joke, it's the truth!)
The value I bring to artists and creatives truly is my network. I have rebranded myself as The Connector because I truly am the embodiment of Malclom Gladwell's definition of connectors in his book, “The Tipping Point:” Connectors are the people in a community who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions.”
Q: How is what you do enhanced by being there — please share an anecdote or two?
CK: Because I randomly meet people, the proximity effect certainly plays a big part in my life. I am very social and not afraid to approach someone and strike up a conversation.
The late Buddy Killen was an icon, the embodiment of the American Dream in the music industry and became a mentor to me. When we moved to Nashville 29 years ago, my wife responded to a classified ad (remember those?!) for an accounting support position at a music publishing company.
When I asked how it had gone, she said, "Fine. I met the owner, Buddy Killen and he seemed to like me." I nearly passed out! I recovered and quickly asked, "Did you take the job?" She said, "They said they would call me." I implored her to call them back right away. She did. Got the job and two months after landing in Music City I was invited into Buddy's office for the first of many meetings. Through Buddy I met countless other industry giants with whom I have maintained relationships.
I have pitched songs to producers and managers at my daughter's soccer games (when she was that age). In kindergarten, my daughter was invited to ride from school to a friend’s birthday party on Vince Gill's tour bus. (The party was for his and Amy Grant's daughter. I "chaperoned " her and was able to meet and speak with Amy during the ride, beginning a friendship with her).
Q: What are some of your pitching benchmarks?
CK Meeting Buddy Killen, Waylon Jennings, Garth Brooks, Rick Derringer, Bill Aucoin (Kiss), Desmond Child ... the list really is a mile long.
My first big cut was with Sir Cliff Richard (“Climbing Up Mount Everest”). [Then came] George Strait (“Roundabout Way,” “Stars on The Water”), Brooks and Dunn (“Building Bridges”), Mike Greenly (the Contemporary State Song for the Commonwealth of Virginia), among others. Working for Barbara Orbison (Roy's widow) was pretty fabulous! My life has been and continues to be wonderful!
Q: Do you have any memories of Roy that you can share?
Unfortunately, I never met him. He passed away years before I worked for Barbara. But I did get to hold several of his guitars, see his suits and drive his vintage Mercedes Benz convertible while I was in LA on business for the company!
Q: What is the future of music and its marketing?
CK: Don't I wish I had that crystal ball! In my opinion we have to meet the fans where they are and currently they are online and on mobile devices. Those devices are the new venues and delivery systems for music. The business has changed dramatically in the past 100 years and will continue to evolve. Let's just hope the powers that be don't forget the creators and pay them their due.
“The Lost Daughter”
Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Cast: Dagmara Dominczyk, Paul Mescal, Peter Sarsgaard, Ed Harris, Dakota Johnson, Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Written and directed by veteran actor Maggie Gyllenhaal (in her feature directorial debut), “The Lost Daughter” -- a complex psychological drama based on the novel of the same name by the mysterious Elena Ferrante -- had its world premiere at the 78th Venice International Film Festival. Gyllenhaal won its Golden Osella Award for Best Screenplay. It then had a US theatrical release in December, prior to streaming on Netflix at the end of 2021. Its star, Olivia Colman, nabbed a best actress nom from the Motion Picture Academy just as Gyllenhaal was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.
In this powerful and dark story, middle-aged Italian language professor Leda Caruso (Oscar winner Colman) runs off to a Greek island (where Leonard Cohen had written some of his early songs) to escape a past she can’t deny, rife with regret. While she’s there to relax and supposedly do work, her discomfort seems apparent throughout the film. In flashback, her earlier self (Jessie Buckley) prefers work to mothering her two young daughters. When the opportunity affords it, she has an affair with an admiring professor (Peter Saarsgard) and leaves her husband and kids. Though she returns three years later, she can’t remove the shroud of guilt she feels.
Now, years later, she behaves impulsively and weirdly, pushing people away and alienating some. Starting out as a seemingly serene tale of a woman's self-rediscovery, "The Lost Daughter" transforms into a painful confrontation with an unsettled past. Leda can’t get beyond the feelings that haunt her. This prompts disturbing consequences.
At a Q&A held before its release, Gyllenhaal and the cast discussed the unique qualities of this film based on the equally special novel detailing moments in the life of a brilliant yet disturbed woman and mother. Though the whole conversation might not fully make sense until the film is viewed, it’s worth reading here just to get a sense of the process of making this fine and compelling film.
Q: Maggie, you show the confidence of a veteran with the first film by you as a director. It’s coming from a very profound, honest and urgent place, both stylistically and thematically, on what it means to walk in the shoes of this woman. How did you first become acquainted with this material, and why did you choose it to be your [directorial] debut?
MG: I read Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, “My Brilliant Friend” and the one that followed [“The Story of a New Name”]. When they came out, I loved them. I was totally shocked by the books.
I feel like I’ve seen so many representations of women in music, books and movies that were compelling, but they didn’t feel totally right to me. They felt like a kind of fantasy. I spent a lot of my time -- maybe I still do — trying to fit myself into this fantasy that I kept seeing described everywhere, and coming up short.
With Ferrante, some of the things she was saying I had never heard said out loud before. I have this experience where I thought, “Oh my God, this woman in this book is so fucked up.” Then less than 10 seconds later, I would think, “I really relate to her.” Am I so fucked up, or is this actually a common experience that nobody’s talking about? I thought, “Though I’m having this experience alone in my room, so are people all over the world.”
So, I thought, “What if you gave people an opportunity to have that experience in a space like this, surrounded by other people — strangers, or a mother or your husband or your daughter.” That seemed like a radical thing to do, so that’s why I wanted to try.
Q: How did you approach Ferrante — who writes under a pseudonym — and get the rights to the book? What was that process like? Did she allow you on your own to adapt the material, or was she more involved? What was it like adapting the book?
MG: I wrote to her to petition her for the rights to the book. I don't know who she is. All my interactions with her have been through email. I [emailed] her a letter that it took weeks to write. I said I wanted to adapt and direct it and gave her a sense of why… of what I was thinking. And she said yes.
But she said, “This contract we're making is void if you don't direct it." Which I took -- because I didn’t know who she is — as a kind of gift because she's this supportive woman out there in the cosmos. It's such a supportive thing to do. I was afraid to take it on and direct it, and she was saying to me, "No, do it."
Then I was in this theater doing a Q&A about “The Kindergarten Teacher” when I got all these emails that Ferrante had written a Guardian piece to me. I was in the process of adapting the script, and the Guardian piece basically said that although it will be difficult for her to have the parameters of her book changed, she knows that in order for the piece to work, I need to be free to make it mine. She said if I were a man, that she wouldn't feel like giving me this freedom. But because I'm a woman and an artist, she knows that she has to. I love that.
Q: Olivia, what was your entry point into the head space of this character, a complicated woman — mother, professor, wife, and lover. How did you craft this on your own and with Maggie?
OC: I met Maggie in New York, and meeting Maggie Gyllenhaal is knee-tremblingly exciting, and we had lunch. I read the script and was so excited, because I had never played this person before. The entry point as a professor, I don't have any "in" with that thing. But the mother and the lover and the wife and things, I've never seen anything quite so honest. I feel like I'm a good mummy, but there are definitely moments when I am not proud. I'm just too tired or [whatever].
For the first time this was something that was really, genuinely honest about [how] you don't have to be perfect, you don't have to be great, and sometimes you'll be quite bad at it. I was very excited to play that.
Watching a film like this, you feel like you want to stand up and go, “Yes, I — Oh, sorry, everyone thinks I'm insane.” But I feel like actually a lot of people do feel insane. Not about all of it, but some of it. For me that was terribly exciting.
To work with Maggie, someone I’ve known as an actress who I adored, and have worshipped slightly — I did have a bit of a girl-crush -- so to be directed by someone like Maggie, to be directed by an actor, is always exciting because you know they know how you feel. I was very excited to be part of it. I loved every minute of it.
Q: For the rest of the actors, what was it like to be directed by Maggie, an actor with a beautiful career who speaks the language of actors fluently. Dagmara…?
DD: It was a magical dream. We filmed in a pandemic before vaccines on a tiny island in Greece. Just us, really, no family. Maggie and Peter had their wonderful girls, but the rest of us just came. And it was like a moment suspended in time, where you look up and there is Olivia Coleman serving you a Mai Tai! And Maggie comes up to you and says [whispering] "You’re gorgeous, you're beautiful." and whispering in your ear, and giving you the freedom and the confidence to tell her story, our story, authentically.
I saw the movie for the first time yesterday and walked away just blown away. Because [of] the experience of it and being guided by Maggie, who is so inspiring because she leads with such confidence and gentleness. It's a combination I think only a woman can have on a set where she is the boss. But she didn't control you. It really was just the best thing ever. What else could I say?
Q: Paul [Mescal], what is your take?
PM: I suppose a film like this is testament to the fact that it doesn't have to be torture, the process doesn't have to be torture to make good films. Good films can be made by fundamentally good people, and I think that's true of this film. And also it's true the kind of atmosphere that is led on set by Maggie and Olivia at the front of the film, leading us through it. I can speak for a lot of us that when they set the tone like that, it's very easy to -- there's a demand to be at that level or try and get to that height, and step into scenes and engage with the material in a kind of safe but challenging way. So I'm incredibly proud of it and proud to have worked with these amazing people.
Q: Peter, How did you get involved?
PS: It wasn't easy. I had an amazing experience. I was, like you guys said, on this Greek island, taking care of our children while my wife was making this movie. I would hang out with my children in the morning and they would start school at three in the afternoon. Because of the time difference, they would do school until around ten o'clock at night. I'd take them to the beach in the morning and hang out with them, and I had a very deep, awesome experience with my children during the making of this movie.
The acting was incredibly nerve-wracking for me on some level because I really didn't want to suck. I thought it would be incredibly embarrassing and humiliating to be really bad in my wife's movie. Also, I don’t really play roles like this that often, where I'm sortof the object of desire, some sort of amazing guy that every woman would want to be with. Of course Maggie thought I was right for the role, but I couldn't see myself doing it and I was like "When do I kill someone?"
I remember one of the things that I worked on for a while -- and you would never know it, really, watching the movie -- is, I give a lecture in the movie. In the script it's just like a couple of lines. Maggie was like "I really want you to have a whole lecture that you give." I'm really not an academic. I was like the worst student you could ever possibly imagine. I actually held the record at my high school for least number of days attended in my senior year. I went to school 71 days my senior year, and I still graduated somehow. So I am not an academic.
However, I got really into the idea of this lecture. A friend of Maggie's helped: Dominique Townsend, who’s a professor at Bard. I watched a number of lectures of people that I admired or knew other people admired. I read a ton, I really worked on it, and when I finally went to go give this lecture, I was so nervous.
I mean, this is nerve-wracking for me as an actor. For me, facing a group of people and talking is not really what it feels like I do for a living. I'm used to being on a stage and facing like, Ed, and we're having a conversation. When I face this way, my heart beat goes up quite a bit.
I remember I did a take, and was just happy to have made it through it. I’d said everything, it seemed like it was pretty good to me. But Maggie came up and she was like, "That's really great. Just take your elbow off the lectern." I was like, "Take my elbow off the lectern?" It was like the life raft! So I dared to, and my own wife really challenged me.
As I said, you wouldn’t necessarily know it in the movie because it's in bits and pieces in there, but that was tough, and I really finally got there. By the end, I really felt like I had been challenged to be better by my own wife and it somehow happened, and I'm proud of those little bits and pieces in there.
Q: Ed [Harris]?
EH: I thank my wife, Amy [Madigan], for reading the script after I read it. She's a woman and she read it, and she got it. She said, "Eddie, you've got to do this movie." I said, "Okay." I wanted to be sure. I read it again and finally understood where Ferrante, Maggie and where my wife -- how they were perceiving it and where it was coming from.
I have a daughter and I remember when she was little, I was taking care of her a lot, and getting, at times, really frustrated and confused. I was like, "What do I do with her?" She's annoying me or demanding things. Some of the frustrations or some of the difficulties of being a mother, that kind of thing.
Anyway, I had the opportunity. I was told I was going to be working with Olivia Coleman and was excited about that, because I like working with the best people. She's certainly that. Maggie was great to work with because she made it a very -- I think for all of us — personal, intimate experience in terms of the relationship between actor and director. She's not someone who gives you a note in front of the crew. She comes up and very [softly], "Ed, why don't you try doing this?" or "What about if he’s… “ dadadadada. And I go, "Okay Maggie, we can do it." It was just fun, it was great.
I’ve got to say, I've been doing this for a while, making films and things. I don't feel that as an actor in front of a camera, I've ever felt as relaxed as I did working with Maggie on this. So that was cool.
DJ: I feel like Maggie, having experienced so many different kinds of films herself, has waded through all the bullshit of making movies and goes directly to what's pure and what is honest and what is safe.
I think for me, Nina is a really different woman, and is so -- not helpless, but just wants something, wants something from anybody. It's just like "Help me!" I think that Maggie really gave me the space to be that vulnerable all the time, and not feel like I wasn't going to be taken care of in that moment and in the edit. And that was very important to me.
You know, a lot of times, you're on set and you're doing something that's really scary or really emotional or really provocative, and you're giving so much of yourself. And you're like, "There's something in me that knows that this is not going to be taken care of, but I'm doing my job, and I have to do my job."
But in this I didn't feel like I was "doing a job", I felt like I was doing my art. I felt like I was expressing my true artist self, and so were all of these people. It was like a family, and it was, like, everyone had each other's back. And if one of us had a hard day, everyone was there. It was like, "No, that was great. Don't go into your hotel room and cry and regret choosing this as a career." I've done that a lot.
But I think that's the thing that made it so special with Maggie: no matter what beautiful moment or extremely ugly moment, it was totally safe. And that is perfect.
Q: There is great chemistry among all the cast members on screen. But also an undercurrent of tension. It feels like you're always on the verge of something dangerous happening. Can you talk about the chemistry and tension between the three of you? And how do you work with your actors?
MG: I was on the jury at Cannes this year, and I saw 24 incredible movies. I saw them 10 days after I finished my final mix on this movie. And I realized something at Cannes: I was like, "Ohhh, you can do whatever you want."
But I think in this film, I thought I will be able to do whatever I want, I will be able to express whatever I want, if I hang it on a form that's known so that people feel "Oh, I know what's coming. I've got this rhythm." Then I can, like, hundred-and-eighty-degree it. I can do whatever I want, but I have to set up.
I was using the language of a thriller. And even, sometimes, there's a little horror sprinkled in, and a little French film. But really what you're talking about, in a way maybe, is the thriller aspect of the story, which I wanted to create. And then I wanted the whodunit and the terrifying thing to be what's actually inside of Leda's mind -- and actually inside, probably, many many peoples' minds. Of course, that's the most terrifying thing, you know: what lives in our minds. I wanted to use the language of classic thriller in a way to create that tension.
Q: Olivia, Dakota and Dagmara, do you want to add anything about building that chemistry and tension among the three of you.
OC: I never want to let Maggie down.
Q: The dynamic has been the three characters, both the harmony and tension they have.
Dag, did you create tension?
DD: Did I create tension?
DJ: You know, it's interesting because I was ready to create tension when I read it out, like "all right."
DD: She would spin me the other way, and she was like the great note whisperer. She would come in and drop like, 12, and just say "whatever sinks deepest,” like, "We'll see what happens." And so on the page, and in the book, Callie's character is bold and brash, and she's the one who wants to get a snack for everyone, but it has to be her snack.
I know moms like that, and sometimes I'm one like that, too. But I remember Maggie saying to me "She wants to be validated. She wants to be loved. She's wonderful.” I've never felt like everything was more relaxed or more confident in a movie. And I'm in a bikini with a pregnant fake belly and my jigglies are out, and Maggie made me feel extremely beautiful.
We discussed how not every woman who is loud and opinionated is a fuckin' bitch. So let's try it differently. And so I think the tension isn't like, oh three different personalities and they all hate each other. It's three different women who want to know that they're good inside and sometimes don't know how to do that. I think that's where the tension lies. Right?
OC: I would have said that. That's exactly what I would have said.
DJ: I also feel like Maggie does this thing where it's like life is tension. Every day is stressful for me. And I have moments with women and with men, and people, and everyone that is tense. But now, you go to the movies because it's escapism, or you're binge-watching a show because you want to feel less tension. But isn't the point of art to make you feel things that you need to look at, and then you feel tension in this movie. I feel like women can just look at each other and have millions of different tensions without saying anything.
MG: Yes, and that scene -- I love the scene where you're asking about these three women here. I love that scene between you guys when you just found the little girl. And so in terms of tension, these two women looked at each other. Dag, someone said to me about you, was giving me a note early on about the movie, and they said, "Well, I don't know. I can't tell if I'm supposed to love her or if I'm supposed to be afraid of her." And I'm like "Oh, yeah!"
DJ: How many people do actually feel [like that]?
DD: That's what my kids think about me every day.
DJ: Yeah. Also, that scene, you’re like -- is Nina going to cry, is she going to apologize? Is she embarrassed? Are they going to have sex? What's going to happen?
MG: Yes, yes. There's so much tension or vibration between you guys. I don't think you could articulate what it is, what kind. I love the scene because it's like 500,000 different things going on between you guys, and beyond my wildest dreams.
DD: Yeah but that's you, because you didn't tell us to play it one way. You would do your whisper thing and then it just…
OC: We each had 20 whispers.
DJ: Yeah and I'm like "Well, what'd she say to you?"
Q: You and the cinematographer you worked with, Hélène Louvart, created such a visual language for this movie. This is a very intimate kind of movie. Talk about crafting that and how you stayed close to the character?
MG: It's interesting that so many people have said that to me. In fact, early on in editing, I got a note saying, "We've got to expand a little bit. Can we see where we are?" Because I was watching the beginning of the movie and going, “big wide shot, oh, another big wide shot; another big wide shot." I think it doesn't get digested that way. I think because the movie is so subjective, inside of Leda's mind, actually in terms of the cinematic language, there's a lot of moving back and being wide. But it doesn't feel like it, for some reason.
Hélène -- I am so grateful to that woman. She's got five kids. She really taught me how to prep. I knew that I needed to prep, in fact I met a DP who I was a massive fan of. He pretended for a minute that he wanted to shoot the movie, and we had lunch a few times. He [said] "I don't prep. I don't do any prep." But I was like, Wow. I don't think I can do that.
Hélène was, "Of course you need to prep." We spent hours on Zoom in the pandemic thinking through the scenes. Then we scouted together and then we really shot listed together. But we had shot lists, I mean really organized. And I never opened my binder with my shot list in it one time, the whole time we were shooting.
I don't know how much we did that we had imagined. Certainly, coming from being an actress, I want my actors to be free, and if they came in with their own sense of what they were doing -- and they always did -- you can't really shot-list. But the point is, we really knew what the scenes were about. Together we knew what we were after. So then it was like jazz, because we were free enough to run with it.
Have you guys done scenes where we're at a dinner table? All of us are at a dinner table, and somebody's shooting it and they're like "I need two shots on you, and you, and you, and you.” And then they need your P.O.V. of everybody, and my P.O.V. of everybody. And you want to shoot yourself by the end of the day.
But if you know that the scene is really about Paul, and how he feels about Peter, then I don't have to come in that day. [laughter]
You'd shoot it in half a day, which is what we had to do anyway. because we only had twenty-eight days. But she helped me to really understand.
I learned to love the lenses. I didn't know that language. Now I knew some languages in filmmaking, and I was like "Get that 50 off." I never talked to her like that, but I really learned. I told Hélène that at the end, and she said "Yes, you did, you learned quite quickly." And I was terrible. She was totally like "Yeah. So people learn about London, whatever. " To me it was incredibly expansive. She really taught me so much.
Q: Irish actor Jessie Buckley isn't here, but talk about her a bit. You, Olivia, and Jessie basically built the same character at two different points of her life. Did you have any conversations about how to tackle this character in two different life stages?
OC: We knew each other beforehand, and I am obsessed with Jessie. I just think she's incredible. We spoke and said, "What action shall we do?" And that was what we decided, and then we didn't speak again.
It was lovely, though. I knew at this moment I might have realized that people are not sure of where they come from. It's all in the script, and clearly Jessie and I didn't talk to each other and we found it in the script. And it is all there, and we both ended up with something.
Even though we're clearly two different people, we understood it so beautifully between us. We came up with the same thing In a way, albeit different. But a woman in her twenties is not the same woman in her 30s or 40s. We all change, so it's okay that we're different. And Maggie said "It's okay. You don't have to meet and have a great big thing about it." And she's right.
But It's because the script is so good, we just knew our road map was clear. So we didn't go massively awry. For some reason, that was a massive moment for me, just that second. So we’re good, it’s good. We basically said we're from Shipley in Leeds, but we’ve been educated so the edge is taken off it. See you there.
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