Meg Wolitzer, Jane Anderson & Annie Starke Talk “The Wife”
In the age of popcorn movies, it is indeed a rare treat to see a film like The Wife grace our screens. It is a riveting exploration of the complex dynamics that occur in a marriage after thirty odd years. Creative Screenwriting Magazine spoke with Meg Wolitzer (novelist), Jane Anderson (screenwriter) and Annie Starke (actress.)
Wolitzer explains that her novel was a work of fiction and the story of Joan Castleman (Glenn Close) was inspired by her mother who is also a novelist. The fruit doesn’t fall far from the novelist tree. When Wolitzer’s mother published her first book, one of the headlines was “housewife turns into a novelist.” The notion of an ordinary woman with profound things to say was a novel idea at the time.
This was a starting point for Wolitzer’s novel. “I love invention. I love creating characters,” she adds. She wanted to champion women who were invisible and kept themselves back from reaching their full potential because of societal norms. Her mother challenged these long-held, sclerotic cultural attitudes and encouraged Meg to write.
Jane Anderson was asked about why she wrote the screenplay. As a female filmmaker, who experienced systemic sexism in the industry, The Wife spoke to her. “It was my sweet revenge.” When adapting the novel, her first concern was establishing a specific character point of view. “Who is the audience going to identify with and why?” Joan Castleman also had to grow as a character in the film by leaving her husband. “This was a major adjustment in the adaptation to the screenplay… How can I make it so visually and emotionally big, that the audience can’t stand it?”
Anderson was actively encouraged to write by both her parents. “Having a dad who deeply believes in you, who thinks you are powerful and capable also helps.” She was mindful of not portraying Joan Castleman as a victim. “It’s a film about the compromises women make in a marriage.” Joan’s character also explored the self-sacrifice and desperation women experienced to maintain that relationship. Wolitzer adds “The Wife is a film about the imbalance of power. Male power and female complicity in it over time.”
Actress Annie Starke plays the younger Joan Castleman in the film. Initially, she refused the part. She was terrified. Then she read the script and the novel and meditated over her own life experiences. “A lot of overwhelming emotions came to mind. My grandmothers married quite young and took a back seat to my grandfathers’ careers. My dad’s mom worked as a chemist in the 1940s on The Manhattan Project. When she got pregnant, she got fired.” Starke pondered how her grandmother’s career was cut short. “I was almost ashamed that I had no idea how incredible she was. It was never really talked about.”
“My mother’s mom was never encouraged to do anything for herself. She never went to college.” These perspectives helped Starke shape how she would approach Joan Castleman’s character. “It was a project that made me think about the incredible women that I had the honor of being related to. The Wife paid homage to who they were.”
Starke also believes, that as a young Joan Castleman, The Wife is a story about “the hopelessness of young love. She knows she has a writing gift, lives for that gift in a time where people don’t care she has that gift. In order to be herself, she uses Joe [her husband] to express that gift. I understood exactly why she was this way.”
Anderson also clarified that The Wife is not an androphobic, feminist story. “Meg didn’t write the novel out of rage and I didn’t write the screenplay out of rage either. We’re examining a very specific story about how people live. Joan and Joe had a love and dependence on each other.” Spousal conflict is never linear. Husbands and wives fight and then make up with gestures of tenderness and affection. The Wife was never a didactic piece on how women should live their lives.
“Marriage is very different for women today. People change over time as does marriage,” muses Wolitzer.
The trio discussed the fourteen-year journey to from novel to film. For many years, the studios balked at the idea of producing a film starring a woman. No male actor would want to play the role of Joe Castleman. One agent said, “if I gave this screenplay to my male client, they will never forgive me.”
But the women persisted. They eventually went to Europe for financing. Actor Jonathan Pryce, who plays the role of Joe Castleman, “saw this as a marvelous part and not a part second to a woman,” recalls Anderson.
That said, Anderson was mindful of writing Joe as an empathetic character. He had to be more than a narcissistic schmuck. She mined his inner turmoil. “There is nothing more agonizing than having an artist’s heart without the talent.”
Replacing male filmmakers with female ones will not solve sexism in the film industry.
“The artistic world is not a zero-sum game. Female filmmakers gaining a voice is not a loss for male filmmakers. There are beautiful stories by men about men. We simply want more parity,” concludes Anderson.
“The industry is forced to feel ashamed for not giving voice to women.” It is gradually realizing that people will equally watch films about the lives of both men and women.
The Wife is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital.
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