“The Keeping Room” is not only a Western set in the South. It’s a Western written by and starring women. Brit Marling plays Augusta, who lives on a remote farm on the Confederate side in the waning days of the Civil War. She, her sister (Hailee Steinfeld) and their house slave (Muna Otaru) all find themselves banding together when they’re hounded by a pair of psychotic Union solders (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller). Getting a period film centered around women isn’t an easy one to get financed, as Marling and the film’s writer, Julia Hart, said as we sat down in advance of the film’s theatrical release. But it’s important to stay true, and to make a thriller that doesn’t subscribe to traditional and often patriarchal definitions of “strong female characters.”
There are subtle differences between the strong female characters in “The Keeping Room” and what typically pass for strong female characters elsewhere. They aren’t just men with their genders switched.
Brit Marling: We talked about that a lot together: what does it mean to be strong as a woman? There’s this idea of a strong female character just aping male characteristics or qualities that are considered strong. That’s different from the way women are strong. I think we’re still figuring out the language of how to talk about this. The film is about the way women work together. There isn’t a single hero or protagonist. It’s about the three of them surviving because of their ability to connect by telling stories to each other. That’s an amazing thing to smuggle across in an action movie. All this stuff is happening and it’s terrifying and it’s thrilling, then all of a sudden you’re in this grounded moment and the girls are talking to each other about their lives. That’s preparing them for the next stage of action. That’s a uniquely feminine idea.
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Julia Hart: There’s also the virtue of having women do things. Brit as a woman is physically doing everything in the movie. A lot of times when we have strong female characters they’re doing things that are physically impossible for a woman to do.
Marling: And [Augusta] is not a particularly strong woman. It’s not like I’m on the wrestling team and can bench press 350 pounds. Daniel [Barber, the director] was talking about us losing some weight and really embodying the quality of these girls who have been starving. And they’re also doing these crazy physical things: farming, hunting, chopping wood, horseback riding. By the time we came to shoot I felt like a wire, just a slip of a human. Trying to find strength in that made everything really real. There’s a scene where I have to dive on the floor to dodge a spray of bullets. Those wounds on my arm were real wounds. They weren’t fake. These things are really happening. You feel it.
And chopping wood is really, surprisingly hard.
Marling: It took me a long time. You have to hit it in the sweet spot, and if you don’t it hurts, because it reverberates back through your arm. There’s something martial arts about it. You have to drop into a zen zone. At the end of the day my hands would be caked with dirt and bloody with blisters from holding the reins and chopping wood. I’d come back to the trailer and soak my hands in a thing of water, with a s—-eating grin on my face that I had survived the day.
This doesn’t have a huge budget, and typically period means you need money. How consciously were you writing thinking about it in terms of practically getting financed?
Hart: I’m the wife of a producer, so I actually write very much to budget. It’s something more writers should think about it. It allows you to realize your story at its greatest potential if it’s written to a realistic sense of what you’re capable of achieving. If you have a movie that is three female protagonists and it’s a period piece, you’re probably not going to get $30 million for it. You have to think about doing more with less.
Marling: I love hearing you say that, because I think how more women can start writing and directing and putting female stories out there is to be more realistic about how you can get something to enter the marketplace. It’s an entrepreneurial job if you’re putting female stories out into the world, because you have to figure out how to get them to enter the landscape. You have to smuggle them in.
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You’ve both been lucky with getting your own, female-driven work out there. But do you find it’s generally difficult to get funding for female-driven films made, even in the independent world?
Hart: We are rarer than we’d like to be. We’ve both been fortunate to have women and men who have championed our work and gotten us through the sometimes dark tunnel.
Marling: Getting Sam Worthington to do this movie is sort of why this movie got made. What’s so cool about Sam is Sam’s a genuine feminist. He read the script that had three female protagonists —
Hart: And he just gets the tricky male supporting villain.
Marling: — and he was so taken by the story and found it so important that he was like, “Sign me up!”
Hart: Not all male actors want to do that, to play second. Usually they get the lead and the woman is supporting him. It’s very rare to have a movie star of his level taking a supporting role to women.
There’s been a lot of focus in the last half a year about inequality in Hollywood. It’s still early to judge actual effects, but do you get the sense that real change is coming?
Hart: For sure. I don’t think there’s more women making movies or people hiring women to do jobs they don’t normally hire them to do. But we’re at the first stage, which is awareness, which is a great place to start. At least people are writing about and talking about it, and there are studies and investigations going on as to why it is what it is.
Marling: There’s a writer, Elena Ferrante, who has written a series of books that are spreading like wild fire. And she’s writing them under a pen name. It’s a story of two girls, best friends through time, and people seem so hungry for it. What I’m finding is more men have started to talk about it, and women are of course excited about it. I think men want to better understand their wives and girlfriends and their daughters and sisters.
Hart: It’s usually a story about a woman in a man’s world, where a woman is a catalyst to a man’s arc. You’re not learning anything about women. It really is two women talking or three women talking or whatever, that actually allows you to understand the female experience. You can’t understand the female experience in isolation.
Marling: Or with a girl and a guy in conversation. That’s such a different dynamic. The moment you have two women, three women together, you’re revealing how women talk to each other, which has been kind of relegated or ghettoized to chick lit.
Hart: And those conversations are still about men!
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Marling: Yeah! They’re about men and putting them into the center of conversations between women.
Hart: I like to talk about how there are so many great female characters written by men. I don’t want to sit here and say the only people who can write about women are women. I’d be curious to see how many there are about two women written by a man.
Marling: Or “She’s Come Undone,” which is writing about a 13 year old girl and does it so well. Of course people can channel all kinds of things. And women can write well about men.
Hart: But I’d be curious to see how many scripts there are written by men that are about multiple women. There are a lot of great female leads, like Ripley [in the “Alien” movies] or Clarice Starling. She’s a great, strong female character.
Marling: But again that is a woman in isolation in a man’s world.
There seems to be a wave recently where people are trying to be more conscious of exposing themselves to the lives of people very different from them. The Black Lives Matter movement is in part about showing what black life is like, and getting away from the centralization of a white male perspective.
Marling: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” is so profoundly written. There are many things that are connected with this movie too. He offers you a point of entry and he lets you understand it from a perspective that has maybe been hard to see. One of the most amazing ways he frames racism is that racism comes from believing you are white and all the privilege you think you deserve. That’s an undiscussed part of racism. You turn the lens, and it’s so powerful when someone does that. You’re right, we’ve been stuck in the white male point of view for so long that we don’t even realize it. It’s these stories that are taking us outside of ourselves and showing us a different lens on being alive in different experiences.
Hart: My biggest influence on this script — I mean, there are movies that we big influences on me: Westerns and horror films. But honestly one of the biggest influences was Toni Morrison. And that’s not even a movie. We’re only now just even starting to get access to perspectives like Morrison’s on film. There wasn’t even a black female filmmaker I had access to growing up, that I could have been inspired by. So it was a novelist I was inspired by. That in and of itself is a signal that things are changing.