Thu, 16 February 2023 at 9:00 am GMT
If you ask Rebecca Miller, it’s getting harder and harder to make movies about people in a room talking. That particular brand of intimate, personal storytelling, the kind the director of “Maggie’s Plan” and “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” is known for, is a challenging prospect for financiers weighing up a Darwinian landscape for cinemagoing.
It’s why Miller’s latest, “She Came to Me,” which opens the Berlin Film Festival on Thursday, feels like a triumph for the American director, who marks her return to narrative features after an eight-year hiatus.
“Making a movie like this is actually meaningful for independent cinema — it’s meaningful that we got it made,” said Miller. “Every time that happens, it’s a real victory, because it is very difficult … it’s hard to get personal films made.”
People are still eager to see stories about other people and themselves, she said, “but they also want to be surprised.” And sometimes, Miller noted, it’s hard going getting a movie made where it may read on the page as a little unusual. “That’s difficult, even if it’s within a genre.”
And there’s plenty that’s unusual in “She Came to Me” — albeit in all the best ways. The romantic comedy-drama stars Peter Dinklage as Steven, a moody classical composer struggling with an oppressive writer’s block that prevents him from delivering his next opera. Despite endless encouragement from his evangelical therapist wife (Anne Hathaway), it takes a bizarre and slightly traumatic encounter with an eccentric tugboat captain (Marisa Tomei) to snap him out of his creative torpor. But just as Steven makes his long-awaited comeback, his personal life implodes.
The project is Miller’s seventh directorial effort, and follows her 2017 documentary “Arthur Miller: Writer,” about her late father, the “Death of a Salesman” playwright. Her last narrative feature was 2015’s “Maggie’s Plan,” a cute rom-com-gone-wrong in which Greta Gerwig’s “other woman” tries to return her lover (Ethan Hawke) to his ex-wife (Julianne Moore).
Plenty has changed in the years leading up to her new feature. The pandemic “took a big bite” out of the filmmaking process — “We didn’t even try [to get funding] for a while; the pandemic just shut everything down,” said Miller — but the time at home also gave the creative, who is married to Daniel Day-Lewis, the headspace to write the anthology “Total: Stories,” which was published in 2022.
Dinklage’s Steven was based on a character from one of those very-short stories, though Miller zhuzhed up the concept for screen. “The story is constructed almost like a joke,” she explained. “It’s very ironic and not particularly romantic. It’s funny. It’s about being blocked, and the kind of randomness of inspiration and how people kind of create each other, and change each other.”
Other ideas that had been rattling around her head for years — the storyline of two teenagers marrying young, for example — were also baked into the eventual story.
Casting once again has played a pivotal role in her films, which have come to be associated with star-studded rosters. “You need to spend time writing and creating a blueprint. But without the cast, you can’t really get there,” Miller said.
In “She Came to Me,” Hathaway was the anchor that brought the rest of the movie together. “She was such a trooper and so loyal to the project; she really believed in it,” said Miller, who was effusive in her praise for the actor. “I felt she was so perfect for it that it really gave me confidence that everything was going to align.”
For much of the film, Hathaway’s therapist gives the impression of someone hanging on to reality by a solitary thread. When it all goes to pot, she delivers a show-stopping scene that most people, at some point in their lives, have wanted to re-create in some shape or form. (Hey, there’s still time.)
Dinklage, too, was “key” to the part. “I didn’t even understand how perfect he’d be, because [he has a] blend of being funny, sexy, completely uniquely himself. He carries with him his own story that you just know he has when he’s on [screen]. I love seeing him as romantic lead. It’s refreshing to see that.”
Miller said she’d always felt “a little alienated” from the world of classical music, but — inspired by her son, who is a composer — dove into research for the movie, working closely with composer Bryce Dessner of the National, and speaking to numerous figures in the opera world. The film has two elaborate opera scenes that almost served as productions within the production — so intricate and detailed were they to stage correctly.
It’s the theatricality of such scenes that Miller hopes will make “She Came to Me,” which is still to secure North American distribution, a theatrical proposition. “Some films are perfectly fine for a smaller screen, but I do think this one should be seen on the big screen, so I’m gonna try to fight to have that happen.”
Does she consider it a fight these days? Miller, unlike some of her peers, is more measured in her response. Not everything should be in a cinema.
“I do think that people appreciate original approaches,” she noted. “They don’t necessarily want to go to the movies and see something where they know everything that’s going to happen before they get there. It’s important as filmmakers that we can choose and decide what’s the right one to go with: ‘This is a cinema thing. This is for television.’”
Reflecting on the surprise success of a movie like “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Miller added that it’s equally important to remind decision-makers that taking risks is sometimes a “really good idea.”
“We still have a lot of executives where they just want to play it safe, keep their jobs, and not make any big mistakes,” she said. “But I think sometimes you have to take risks, and engage people’s imaginations. And sometimes, something really, really works.”