Tragedy in the Details; Christine Jeffs Talks About “Sylvia”
by Wendy Mitchell
I had some serious reservations going into “Sylvia” — Gwyneth Paltrow now seems like more of a celebrity than an actress, and the story of Sylvia Plath’s tragic life and death comes saddled with so much baggage that I wasn’t sure anyone should ever bring it to the big screen. But, to my surprise, the film turned out to be very impressive — Gwynnie included. In addition to the performances, the direction is top-notch, which shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who saw New Zealand director Christine Jeffs’ debut feature, 2002’s “Rain.” That remarkably evocative coming of age tale didn’t make huge waves at the box office, but it caught the attention of the producing team of producer Alison Owen and screenwriter John Brownlow, who were looking for a director to take on their Sylvia Plath project. Jeffs joined the project just 10 weeks before shooting began; Paltrow was already attached.
“Sylvia” opens with Sylvia Plath (Paltrow) meeting Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig) at Cambridge and follows the couple’s courtship, marriage, and separation. While told mostly from Plath’s point of view, the film doesn’t fall into the trap of making Hughes out to be the only cause of all the tragedy — he’s shown as a cad, but not the evil villain some feminists have tried to turn him into. indieWIRE spoke to Jeffs about the film, now in release from Focus Features.
indieWIRE: When you come into a project that everybody else has started working on already, do you feel like you’re at a disadvantage? Or did you like just stepping in?
Christine Jeffs: It has its ups and downs. It’s as good as it is bad because you don’t have to go through that pain of development. It’s like a complete blessing to be offered a script with Gwyneth attached and ready to go. On the other hand, when you develop a project, you are dreaming about it for years and so you’re deeply engaged with it, especially if you’re a writer/director. To come on board where you’ve kind of got to find the heart of it in a really short time, that was the difficult part. As a director when you come onto something late it’s all about logistics — like what color are the walls, where are we shooting this? You’re dealing with logistical questions when you only want to deal with the emotional ones — because that’s the heart of the movie and if you don’t connect with that and get that right you’re lost.
iW: How did you go about trying to find the emotional core of the film? Did you change the script a lot once you came on?
Jeffs: I didn’t really have much room to move. In terms of finding the heart, I really went back to Sylvia’s poetry and to her journals and to Ted’s book “Birthday Letters.” What I did was just really study their writing. I felt like that offered a huge emotional landscape from which to draw in terms of opening up the scenes. That was a constant resource for me. What I did was try and kind of open it [the script] up — because it felt quite interior — and to kind of give it a voice of more Sylvia’s point of view and more of a poetic lyrical feeling because I didn’t want it to feel functional. In terms of the drive of the narrative, I wanted it to feel more organic to the feelings. There are some things that we added along the way in terms of new scenes and things like that that I thought would work really well. Gwyneth and Daniel were really open to exploring those kinds of possibilities as we were filming. Even though it was a really tight schedule, we tried to squeeze some other things in.
iW: When you were going through Sylvia’s poetry, how did you and your team decide which poems to use and how much poetry to use?
Jeffs: That was already mostly decided. There was poetry in the script when I came onboard. It also became a rights issue as to how much was in the film so that was kind of completely outside of my control except for the fact that I was trying to get more in there because it was so inspirational.
iW: Did you ever worry that Gwyneth is such a celebrity herself that people would have a hard time seeing her as a character?
Jeffs: I was never worried that she wasn’t going to fall into the character. It was very clear to me that she was very instinctual as an actor; with those kind of instincts she could go anywhere.
iW: Do you consider this Sylvia’s story or Sylvia and Ted’s story or a love story?
Jeffs: I think it’s a love story but I think you’re more with Sylvia’s point of view. You don’t go off and really explore when Ted leaves. You’re with Sylvia and experiencing it through her eyes more. It does play with both of the characters because he leaves and we make the choice to stay with her… One of the things I was attracted to was the fact that it was about these two people and their love and the tragic nature of it.
iW: When you came onboard, how did you prepare the actors? Did they go off on their own or did you do a lot of readings with them?
Jeffs: We looked at the poetry together and I think that was a kickoff point: who were these people, what did they have to say and let’s hear it. Reading very emotional stuff to each other gives you a sense of that movement towards the transformation into character.
iW: I was really struck by some of the more idiosyncratic moments that you incorporate in the dramatic scenes — like the closeup of Ted ripping off his necktie or Gwyneth testing the milk temperature on her arm. Why do you think you need moments like that?
Jeffs: I don’t know, I just feel like it. I sometimes wonder if it’s kind of dorky. I just tried to find the space that if I felt something to just focus on it a moment. That came from reading Sylvia’s poetry. She’s just really into details and I felt if I didn’t have that in there it wouldn’t really reflect her.
iW: As a filmmaker, how have you adjusted going from a smaller film like “Rain” to something this high profile?
Jeffs: It’s been fine. I just sort of got on with the job. If you worry about that kind of thing, I wouldn’t have been able to get out of bed. I just kind of did my job and there was a lot of momentum because it just came about so quickly.
iW: What are you going to be doing next?
Jeffs: I’ve just adapted the Richard Ford book called “Wildlife.” It’s set in Great Falls, Montana, and it’s about a family whose passions get out of control. It’s very ironic and full of pathos. It’s a very beautiful piece. Richard Ford is a really fantastic writer.
iW: All of your films have been closely tied to literature, are you a huge reader?
Jeffs: I’m not a fast reader, I’m really slow. But things stick with me and I get obsessed about them. I am attracted, I think there’s so many great ideas out there in books. They’re so inspirational.