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Director William Oldroyd speaks on ‘Eileen’ and the art of adapting a romantic mystery

The director speaks on adapting the 2015 novel for the big screen and why the small deviations made everything full.

Neon Pictures

Eileen often feels like it marches to the beat of a ticking clock, and it’s not necessarily one thing bound to erupt. It’s the 1960s small town Massechutes life that bounds one woman like a tomb. The title character (played by Thomasin McKenzie) prefers to fade into the background as a secretary at a private correctional facility for young men. She calls it Moorehead, and it might as well mirror a personal prison she’s locked within. Her co-workers don’t care for her; Eileen’s former police officer father, Jim (Shea Whigham), is stricken with paranoia and insults her every chance he gets.

A weird, wild child inside of Eileen is clawing to get out. Then, one day, a counselor named Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) starts work at the facility. Her blonde hair and confident attitude washes over Eileen; perhaps this was her way out. Maybe she’s found a kindred spirit to show her the way to prosperity.

Director William Oldroyd uses Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel with care for attention to detail. If a character is not speaking their thoughts, clothing choices, and lighting are doing it for them. What you have is a combination of sultry obsession that forms into playing a dangerous game. How far would you go to obtain a new life? Oldroyd speaks on filmmaking progress and combines the reading and cinematic experiences.

DraftKings Network: You have a cautiousness that I admire when it comes to waiting for the right project. There are a couple of parallels with Lady Macbeth and Eileen. With Katherine, she’s bound to a horrible marriage; thus, society expects women to behave in a certain way. For Eileen, she’s stuck in this mundane existence in 1960s Boston with a father who couldn’t care less about her other than the basics. What drew you to Eileen initially, and did you see how the similarities in these stories

It’s funny. After Lady Macbeth, I was sent many similar scripts for a long time. I felt like I had told that story, so I didn’t want to go anywhere near them. Maybe a couple of years later, I forgot I had done that.

When I read Eileen, I wasn’t immediately aware of the similarities between those two stories because they’re set in the 1960s and have many more characters and different places. Now that you mentioned it, I suppose, ultimately, yes. There’s a young woman trapped in some mundane existence, and into that mundanity comes a larger-than-life character who acts as some catalyst. She’s some trigger and helps her get out of it.

That’s probably where the similarities lie because of what Catherine and Eileen do with those relationships. I like interesting, complicated characters, placing people under enormous pressure and watching how they fight to escape the situation.

Neon Pictures

When you read the novel, there are places where it feels cinematic already. I know you worked with both Ottessa [Moshfegh] and Luke [Goebel] on the screenplay, and that feeling translates to the feature itself. There are also minor deviations from the book that perhaps enhance specific motivations and twists in the feature film format that audiences witness.

The great thing about working with Otessa is that no research was needed because she invented Eileen's character. She knows her inside out. And even though it’s been a few years since she wrote Eileen,

Eileen is a character whom Otessa can recall very easily because she’s so bold and striking. It gave Ortetta an excellent opportunity to move forward from the book where she didn’t have to try and recreate each beat on the screen doggedly. That was great for me because I had to help her and Luke understand how we would achieve this visually.

There are so many great images already in the book. As you read it, you’re imagining the film. Otessa was inspired by so many movies in the first place when she was writing the book. If there were significant changes in the narrative, it felt suitable for how the story progressed. I trusted Otessa and Luke with much of that.

Much credit goes to the acting prowess of both Anne [Hathaway] and Thomasin [McKenzie]; their relationship has a lot of subtext. When Rebecca enters Eileen’s life, it’s fresh air. She’s the light in a very dark and dank place. A mutual sense of affection exists between them. With Eileen, she sees the woman she wants to be in Rebecca – assertive, sensual, and sure of herself. Eileen’s naive nature takes Rebecca and plays on it later in the film.

Much is conveyed without speech. There are scenes where Eileen often stares at Rebecca for spaces of time. Was your intention to tackle this from overt and unsaid places all in one?

I like the ambiguity of that. It’s something I’ve learned from some of my favorite filmmakers that it invites an audience to participate in the viewing experience. The principle of constantly being presented with a question about how somebody feels rather than being spoon-fed,

We shot the scenes as written. In the edit, you always have this job of listening to the film and seeing what the film is telling you it needs. Sometimes, you don’t need as many lines as you think. To help us in the edit, I often do a silent take – the actor on camera giving their performance, but without saying any of their lines. Their scene partner off-camera will say the lines as usual and wait for the response, but the actor on camera will not say it. That gives me a lot to play with in the edit because the thought is very clear from how somebody looks.

So I can use the look rather than the line if preferred. So I always start with the script, shoot it, and then have that additional footage. When you have actors like Anne [Hathaway] and Thomasin [McKenzie] who are so clear in their thoughts, you can use a look because they are doing the work for you.

The atmosphere you created in Eileen feels like another character. It’s often cold and dark. Eileen’s house is framed in shadows much of the time. When Rebecca comes in, everything gets brighter. Eileen then starts dressed in more luminous colors in the dresses her mother leaves. It’s an interesting amount of growth that isn’t spoken in plain terms.

Every single aspect of film had to work in conjunction with all others. I would sit with the hair and makeup department, the costume and production designers, and the cinematographer. We all made sure we were complementing each other. We needed to have the walls a particular color because the light had these people in a certain way to stand out on the set. Depending on the lights, they must wear the right costumes to be picked up on the camera.

Anne’s hair was a challenge because if you have such a bright object in the center of the frame, it’s tough to make that light a scene so that it feels dark. You essentially have a bright blonde reflector, which bounces light everywhere. It’s Ari’s[Wegner’s] skill as a cinematographer and Colleen [LaBaff’s] skill as a hair artist to work together to ensure that that was successful.

We all had a general sense of where to start reading the book and script together. “How do we capture that sense of coastal town outside Massachusetts that’s cold with sodium lights making everything seem slightly yellowy? It’s almost like there’s a constant tobacco-stained environment. Everyone’s smoking all the time. All those things we picked up from so many photographs made their way onto the screen.

I wanted to circle back to what you said about urgency because there are three parts. There’s the pressure cooker father/daughter relationship of Eileen and Jim. He increasingly gets verbally abusive with her and pretty much dares Eileen to do something about it. We have what happened with the Polks and the infamous thing at Moorehead.

Lastly, the relationship between Eileen and Rebecca comes to an apex where the life Eileen wanted conflicts with what she has to do to get it. It all comes to a big climatic and ambiguous resolution. How did you manage to get all these outliers together?

Well, we know it’s coming. This is always a hard thing for filmmakers. We know it’s coming, and we have to remind ourselves that an audience doesn’t. We have a very good script supervisor on set and many trusted friends who help us through the edit to ensure we are not laying any clues that will ruin the surprise. It’s hard to make something when you already know what’s coming – especially for an actor to play it because you want the surprise to seem genuine.

We had the great fortune of shooting in two blocks. One was ten days before the Christmas holidays, which was Eileen and her dad Jim. There, we could build their world and Eileen’s life before Rebecca enters it. We shot all those scenes in that house and then had the holidays. Anne was available to shoot when we returned, and we hit all of Eileen and Rebecca’s scenes. There, we got all the new life that Eileen thought she would have with this new friend. I think that allowed Thomason to play contrast. She could exist in the doom and gloom of her present situation, and then she could project something more optimistic onto the Rebecca scenes. When you cut them together, we had that nice contrast.

Then, it’s just bringing them together into the final act. Then it’s working very closely with the brilliant editor, Nick Emerson. He’s a good friend of mine. We’ve been through two edits together and constantly checking in with people. Is this believable? Does this work? Getting people’s reactions, people who haven’t read the script, haven’t read the book, and seeing what they feel, and then subtly shifting it bit by bit.