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It was while working together on 2018’s The Kindergarten Teacher, her first feature effort as producer, that Maggie Gyllenhaal floated to her Pie Films producing partners Osnat Handelsman-Keren and Talia Kleinhendler her desire to direct.
She zeroed in on Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novella The Lost Daughter, a story about a literature professor from the U.K. on a summer holiday who, after befriending a young mother, grapples with the fraught parenting of her own daughters and the guilt-ridden realization that she feels liberated now that they’re adults. The book, which oscillates between a meditation on motherhood and psychological horror, was going to be adapted by Italian filmmaker Saverio Costanzo before he relinquished the film rights to Ferrante’s Italian publisher six months later. (Costanzo would later direct the HBO miniseries adaptation of Ferrante’s 2011 novel, My Brilliant Friend.)
Despite nearly three decades in entertainment — she earned an Oscar nomination for 2010’s Crazy Heart and has a résumé that spans features, television and Broadway — moving behind the camera was a first for Gyllenhaal, 43, and doing so six months into a global pandemic made it something of a gamble. So far, that gamble has paid off: The Lost Daughter became one of the first independent productions to shoot during lockdown, with the filmmakers navigating still-developing production protocols before eventually landing a coveted slot in Venice’s main competition, where the film will premiere Sept. 3 before streaming on Netflix in December.
While Gyllenhaal says that adapting went smoothly, she describes a kind of crisis-inducing self-examination that can come with reading The Lost Daughter. “You think, ‘Oh my God, this woman is so fucked up.’ And then one second later, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I totally relate to her.’ And then you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so fucked up.’ ” But she pressed on, intuitively recognizing some universal truths — albeit potentially uncomfortable ones — that demanded exploration. “If I relate to this fictional experience that this woman is writing, it means this is an experience that many people are having, and it isn’t being talked about,” she says. And the three filmmakers — all mothers themselves — wanted to talk about it. Says Kleinhendler: “Motherhood is portrayed as something that’s supposed to come naturally. When you become a mother, you just know what to do. And it’s, like, just blatantly untrue.”
Asking for the film rights to the novel, Gyllenhaal wrote a letter to Ferrante — the pseudonym of the notoriously secretive author best known for her beloved Neapolitan novels. All of the screen adaptations of Ferrante’s works have been set in her native country and performed in Italian. But, in her reply to Gyllenhaal, the author offered a different mandate. Explains Handelsman-Keren, “The way for us to get the rights was that Maggie does it her own way — in her language and her vision.”
As originally scripted by Gyllenhaal, the story was set to take place in a New Jersey beach town but by the time financing from Endeavor Content and Samuel Marshall Productions had come together, it was several months into the COVID-19 lockdown, and stateside production wasn’t yet up and running. After looking at Nova Scotia and the U.K., the producers found Spetses, a Greek island with a population of 4,000 and a production rebate of 40 percent.
“We spoke to a few epidemiologists, and to be completely honest, there’s a part of me that was hoping that they would say, ‘Oh no, this is impossible,’ ” says Gyllenhaal with a laugh. Adds Kleinhendler, “We were one of the first [projects] — at least that we were aware of — that was greenlit and went into production during the pandemic.” Ten days after getting the OK, they were on a plane.
With the movie rescripted to be set in Greece, the cast — led by Oscar-winner Olivia Colman and including Dakota Johnson, Normal People breakout Paul Mescal and Gyllenhaal’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard — quarantined on location for two weeks on Spetses for a September 2020 production start date. According to Handelsman-Keren, pandemic-era troubleshooting became a part of the filmmaking DNA of the film, which experienced no COVID disruptions during the shoot. “We went to do this movie like a commando unit,” she says. While studio tentpoles like Jurassic World and The Batman could weather shutdowns because of positive COVID-19 tests, The Lost Daughter didn’t have that luxury. “We could not afford it,” Gyllenhaal says.
The largest logistical difficulty came when shooting the film’s flashbacks, which are meant to take place on the East Coast of the U.S. and feature Jessie Buckley as a younger version of the story’s protagonist, Leda, played in middle age by Colman. Given the pandemic, the producers knew they couldn’t scout and shoot in a second locale, so they had to make the Greek island work for all of the film’s locations. Professional extras and background actors were a no-go, so the film was populated by locals, including the town’s mayor and Spetses’ head of recycling. “If you look carefully, there might be some of them in more than one scene,” Gyllenhaal says with a laugh.
When it finally came down to directing, Gyllenhaal says she tapped her decades’ worth of on-set experiences, both “situations where it was painful and situations where it was wonderful.” For much of the development and preproduction, Gyllenhaal felt stuck in one big math problem, her mind occupied by the geometry of camera angles and factoring in quarantine delays to shooting schedules. But once the camera started rolling, all that planning worked to her advantage.
“To turn that corner into the poetry and the freedom and the pleasure,” she says, “that was really heaven.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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