Fall 2018


Externalizing the Internal

With Colette, Wash Westmoreland attempts to dramatize what makes a writer tick


Director Wash Westmoreland and actress Keira Knightley.(Photo: Robert Viglasky/Bleecker Street)

Films about writers and their process have stymied directors for decades. And yet there has been no shortage of biopics on the big and small screens that attempt to get at the root of inspiration that has driven their art, whether chronicling the exploits of Lost Generation titans like Hemingway and Fitzgerald or such Beat icons as Kerouac and Ginsberg.

For Wash Westmoreland, director of Colette, about the French novelist who came of age in turn-of-the-century France, it was just as important to depict Colette's emergence as an independent woman and feminist pioneer as it was to show what motivated her. "I think the danger in doing a film about a writer is just to be in love with the writing itself and not the larger story," he explains.

Just as important is conveying the difficulty of a writer's toil, which can often be glossed over in movies where books seem to magically appear at the tail end of a montage of typing and wadded up drafts tossed into a wastebasket.

"It's not this beautiful, clean-flowing stream of consciousness that is often idealized in films," Westmoreland explains. "It's painful—the discipline is sitting down and making yourself do it. Which was something Colette was very conscious of because her husband would force her to write for four hours at a time."

If the task is to externalize the internal, Westmoreland was blessed with a subject who often borrowed from her own life, so we can see what she's chronicling, even as it's being worked out on paper.

In one scene, Keira Knightley, who plays the title character, and her husband Henry Gauthier-Villars (aka "Willy," played by Dominic West)—who would take credit for his wife's early novels, namely the Claudine books—squabble about plot and style for the book Claudine en ménage, based on an affair both had with Louisiana socialite Georgie Raoul-Duval.

"When they're discussing the characters in the novel, they're discussing their own lives," says Westmoreland. "So that scene is particularly revelatory about how real life can become part of art and can be presented to the world as a better story. When it's two people involved, personal issues then get worked out in the writing process."

Dominic West as Henry Gauthier-Villars (aka "Willy") and Keira Knightley in the title role of Colette. (Photo: Robert Viglasky/Bleecker Street)

It helped casting Knightley, an actress who's no stranger to the intricacies of literary adaptations both classic and contemporary (Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina, Atonement). "I like to work with actors who have a certain amount of emotional translucency, that we just feel their inner life," says Westmoreland. "Keira is great at it. Our process was casual and intuitive; we'd talk about the scene beforehand—the things that are said and the things that are not. And when the camera rolled we'd get that window into Colette's inner life."

Westmoreland and his DP Giles Nuttgens made sure they prioritized Colette's perspective throughout. "One of our mantras was 'Colette controls the camera.' Even when Willy is lording it over her, having money and power, the camera still privileges her point of view, putting her at the center of the story. Thus when Willy locks her inside the room we spend the vast majority of time in the room with her, sharing her feeling of imprisonment and rage."

The scene in question involves a country house that Willy has ostensibly bought as a gift to his wife, but in actuality he has leveraged her work in order to pay for it.

"Once Colette is inside the room, Willy turns the key—shown in close-up—to emphasize his phallic/male power, bringing home the further irony that Willy's 'gift' to his wife is now her very own prison. Colette throws herself at the door in fury, almost breaking it down. On the wall, there is also a mirror-within-a-mirror that reflects Colette and emphasizes her containment."

A writing desk by the window glows in the light, as if beckoning her. "It's a reckoning with destiny," Westmoreland explains. "If she picks up the pen, she is doing what Willy wants; she is submitting to him. But the words she writes, even despite his interference, are essentially hers."

Inkwells, nibs and close-ups of Colette help illustrate the act. "When she starts to write she simply tears into it," says Westmoreland. "Contrasting with early scenes where the nib glides effortlessly across the creamy paper, this writing is rough. The page is attacked, the words being scratched as though being etched on a prison wall, the pen blotting, the nib scribbling and crossing out."

In this way, the director explains, "we understand the pain, trauma and frustration" behind the process.

Problem Solving

Directors discuss overcoming challenges and, in effect, making lemons into lemonade when circumstances are less than ideal.

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