Q & A: SCREENWRITER JENNY LUMET ON “RACHEL GETTING MARRIED”
From left to right: Writer Jenny Lumet, Anne Hathaway and Director Johnathan Demme.
As the awards season heats up ZAMM.com’s MARTIN GROVE is focusing on films that could wind up competing for Oscars and Golden Globes. In today’s Q&A Conversation he talks to first-time screenwriter JENNY LUMET about Sony Pictures Classics’ romantic drama “Rachel Getting Married.”
Directed by Jonathan Demme, “Rachel” stars Anne Hathaway as an emotionally troubled young woman who comes home from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding and promptly becomes the family’s controversial center of attention just as she’s been in the past. It’s a performance that’s likely to bring Hathaway best actress nominations. There also should be best original screenplay nods for Lumet, who’s the daughter of legendary director Sidney Lumet.
“Rachel” also stars Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Tunde Adebimpe, Mather Zickel, Anna Deavere Smith, Anisa George and Debra Winger. It was produced by Neda Armian and Marc Platt and executive produced by Ilona Herzberg and Carol Cuddy.
- Q: How did you come to write “Rachel Getting Married?”
- A: I essentially stalked Jonathan Demme. In my complete arrogance and hubris as I was sitting in my house with my kids and typing away at what would end up being my first produced screenplay, I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, this is perfect for Jonathan Demme. What a great idea.’ My dad knew him. They knew each other — not closely, but pretty well. When I had a draft I showed it to Sidney and he said, ‘You're not ready.’ It took a while and after a couple of drafts I said, ‘Dad, you will never see your grandson again unless you get this script to Jonathan Demme’ and the extortion worked.
You never know how long things will take and I did indeed get a phone call from Jonathan, which felt like it was out of the blue because I had no preparation for it. I answered the phone and he said, ‘This is Jonathan Demme.’ And I probably said something like, ‘Yeah, my ass! Whatever.’ He was lovely and he said, ‘I’m not going to commit to directing it, but would you like to work on this script?’ And I said, ‘So you’re asking me would I rather stay home and walk the dog and clean up after my son or work on a script with you? I think it would be working on the script with you.’
- Q: Why did you feel Jonathan Demme was the director you wanted for this project?
- A: Because the women in the movie (are written so that) every single one of them is a pain in the ass. He loves the women in his movies. He loved Jodie Foster in ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ He loved Melanie Griffith (in the 1986 comedy drama ‘Something Wild’). He loved ‘Sister’ Carol (Carol East in “Something Wild” and in the 1988 crime comedy ‘Married to the Mob’). He loved Michelle Pfeiffer in ‘Married to the Mob.’ He takes care of them and I knew that because these women are such a pain in the ass it had to be someone who would love them. That’s why I thought of him immediately.
- Q: How do you work when you’re writing?
- A: Because of my family life — now I have a four month old daughter, but when I was writing the script I did not — I have a son and I’m a schoolteacher and I have a really huge sort of dumb dog and a husband so it was literally a matter of whenever I could (write). Whenever I could, I sat in a chair and I wrote. I didn’t really have the luxury of saying, ‘This is it — for three hours nobody speak to me’ because you can’t do that, I don’t think, when you have a family. So I did the best I could. I’m certainly not complaining. I mean, the urgency of it may have helped.
- Q: What about the mechanics of how you write?
- A: I write something (on the computer). I rewrite it. I print it out on a hard copy. I read the hard copy and then I make changes from there. If I can’t read it on a hard copy, I can’t do a final edit. I don’t know why, but it has to be on paper.
- Q: A lot of screenwriters like to put note cards on bulletin boards so they can structure their stories. Do you do that?
- A: (In writing) this particular script every kind of rule like that was broken. I would love to say it was my own mastery of the techniques that allowed me to throw a lot of the techniques out the window, but that’s not the case. I wanted to write honestly and it seemed like scenes that were eight pages long that were just dialogue were honest. There was, of course, an outline. I tried the note card thing and it actually inhibited me a little bit. Something about the flow of the words on paper took me from moment to moment.
- Q: You’ve got all sorts of crazy characters in “Rachel” and any number of scenes revolving around family conflict and all of them seem very true to life. Is this something you’ve drawn from your own life and experiences?
- A: In terms of the addiction thing, everybody knows somebody and the vocabulary is so in the language that I don’t think it’s something alien. But, to be honest, I watched a show called ‘Intervention’ on A&E, which is terrific. There are definitely aspects of my friends and family in the characters. You interviewed my Dad. He was probably thinking about offering you a sandwich (the way that Rachel’s father, played by Bill Irwin, does in the movie). He’s a guy who will give you food at the drop of a hat.
So there are definitely some things that are (based on real life), but some others I just made up out of whole cloth. I could say, ‘This is based on my friend Betsy,’ but you don’t know my friend Betsy so it doesn’t really mean anything. But I listened and I pilfered absolutely. I think the sisterhood thing is very powerful and interesting. Sure, I pilfered from my relationship with my sister especially in the scene where the first time they see each other (when Rachel returns home after many months in rehab) they both immediately get on the bed and start giggling.
- Q: How did you work with Jonathan Demme to develop the screenplay?
- A: I went to his kitchen. He would sit and say stuff that was so helpful and amazing. He never said anything like, ‘Oh, I don’t know. Make it funnier’ or ‘Make her more likeable’ or ‘Make her less likeable.‘ He said stuff like, ‘If this transition doesn’t happen here then 10 pages later is when you’re going to be screwed.’ And that’s the stuff that is so liberating and that’s the stuff I needed to hear because you can do something with that. He knows a thing or two so I got to get schooled. I got to learn and it was pretty cool.
- Q: Did you get to be on the set with Jonathan Demme during production?
- A: He does not allow his writers on the set. So I was very sulky and I sulked at home. Then I got over myself — but I still sulked secretly. Maybe it would have made the actors feel funky (having the writer on set). Who knows? Of course, it was the right thing because the performances he got were really brave. There seems to be something about him that makes other artists, the crew people (and) the actors willing to go somewhere. So the chemistry on the set was obviously right.
- Q: “Rachel” is your first produced screenplay. Are you working on anything new?
- A: Yeah, there’s a TV thing going on, which is pretty exciting, with (producer) Laura Ziskin, who’s amazing. And there’s another screenplay thing going on except I’m far too superstitious to tell you what it is because the movie gods will be upset with me. But this has made things happen and I’m the luckiest middle aged woman in the Four Seasons (the Los Angeles hotel where she was doing press interviews for “Rachel” at the time). That’s exactly who I am right now.
The first (script) I ever wrote was when I was pregnant with my first child and that was 13 years ago. I wrote one or two more in between that, but I did not have a burning desire (to write). When I was a little girl I wanted to be Batman, for heaven sakes! I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I didn't know that I was going to be a writer.