VENICE, Italy (AP) — Maggie Gyllenhaal may come from a family of filmmakers, yet she never let herself dream about directing until recently. Things changed very quickly and very profoundly for Gyllenhaal when she found herself writing to Elena Ferrante, asking for permission to adapt her 2008 novel “The Lost Daughter.”
Ferrante said yes, she could have the rights, but there was one condition: Gyllenhaal had to direct it herself or the contract was “null and void.”
“I think I’ve always been a director and I just didn’t feel entitled to admit it to myself,” Gyllenhaal said Friday at the Venice Film Festival before her film makes its world premiere in competition. “I think it’s a better job for me actually.”
Ferrante’s novel, which preceded her Neapolitan quartet, follows a middle-aged college professor and mother of two grown daughters on a solo vacation, where she is transfixed by a younger mother and her daughter.
Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley play the lead, Leda, at different stages of life. Colman’s Leda is vacationing in Greece when she notices Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her young daughter on the same beach and makes a bizarre decision involving the daughter’s doll.
Gyllenhaal said Ferrante’s novels present, “Secret truths about a feminine experience in the world that I really liked having spoken out loud... It seemed like a kind of dangerous, exciting thing to try. That was why I wanted to try to adapt it into a film.”
She corresponded with Ferrante who gave notes on the script, which takes many creative liberties with the text, including making Leda British and Nina American, instead of Italian. The Italian author was supportive, wanting Gyllenhaal to make it her own. But Ferrante did say one thing: It was very important that Leda “not be crazy.” If she was, it would make the story dismissible.
“I’m very grateful that she wasn’t depicted as someone with madness,” Colman said. “That’s what I loved about it.”
Colman found the prospect of playing someone who does something unthinkable exciting.
“All people want to be one person, turns out they’re not that person and they’re probably someone else,” Colman said. “It was intriguing to play a character who does something that I wouldn’t do, but (maybe) I’ve thought about it.”
For Johnson, it was the opposite.
“Olivia found it fun and I found it really hard,” Johnson laughed. “I at times felt so uncomfortable because (Nina) was so uncomfortable. It was fun sometimes to be so twisted, but other times it really hurt me.”
But Johnson did find in Gyllenhaal, “the kind of relationship, artistic, creative collaboration that is of dreams.”
“She really catches me off guard all the time in a way that makes me really want to evolve as a person and an actress,” Johnson said. “That’s something I find really rare in making movies. That used to be a more common experience bonding with a director where you felt like you could unzip and be safe.”
Gyllenhaal cast her husband Peter Sarsgaard in the film as well, as a brilliant professor who Buckley’s Leda is drawn to. But she said thought twice about it.
“To be completely honest there was a moment where I thought maybe it’s not a great idea to have him play the object of desire for a (beautiful) actress,” Gyllenhaal said. “Then I thought, ‘You’re so bourgeois.’ Peter and I have been together since I was 23 and I know he loves me. And I thought there isn’t anyone who could play that part like him. And I thought, ‘Let’s go.’”
For Sarsgaard, watching Gyllenhaal direct was a profound experience.
“It was such an enormous pleasure to watch my wife really fulfill her talent. For so long people have known what an excellent actress she is, but being around her is truly inspiring,” he said. “She has a real eye for an unconventional truth.”
The 78th Venice International Film Festival runs through Sept. 11.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr