After breaking out with her impressive directorial debut, 2014’s The Sleepwalker, Mona Fastvold wrote Childhood of a Leader and Vox Lux with her partner Brady Corbet, and The Mustang with other collaborators. She takes on a different role with her second feature The World to Come, directing an original script by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, and making the film completely her own.
In the 1850s-set drama, Fastvold explores the interior lives of two women Abigail (Katherine Waterston), a farmer’s wife, and her new neighbor Tallie (Vanessa Kirby). Taking place on a farm in Upstate New York, Abigail has lost her only child to diphtheria. She tends to the needs of her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck), but Abigail heals in Tallie’s arms to the disgust of her controlling husband Finney (Christopher Abbott). The film is beautifully structured by a diary kept by Abigail over the course of the four seasons, with her pages capturing personal trauma and love for Tallie.
With the film now arriving digitally following a theatrical release, The Film Stage sat down with Fastvold over Zoom to talk about dancing to Vox Lux’s soundtrack, the difficulties of creating The World to Come’s period setting on a small budget, her contribution to the conversation about hetero people creating queer stories, and why she kept Waterston and Kirby’s sex scenes off screen.
The Film Stage: Do you ever put on the Vox Lux soundtrack and dance?
Mona Fastvold: I used to do it a lot. [Laughs] Especially before we made the film. We were just like, “We have this incredible Sia record that no one else has.” After editing the movie we overdosed on it a little bit.
What did writing Childhood of a Leader and Vox Lux help you learn between directing your first and second feature film?
It’s been kind of great to make my first feature, and then writing Childhood of a Leader, Vox Lux, and The Mustang. I have these experiences with other filmmakers and look at the possibilities and mistakes in making movies. I think it taught me how to make a really complex and difficult plan and execute it so that I could make The World to Come. This film was very difficult to put together with the small budget and ambitious plan for what I wanted to do. Childhood of a Leader was especially helpful because it was a complex production and a period piece as well. It was my film school education in a way.
What drew you to this project?
The writing drew me to the project. I thought the dialogue was so great and fascinatingly accurate of the period. I loved all the period details as well. And I love that these two older gentlemen, Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, somehow got this friendship turned love affair––like they really got it! [Laughs] I thought that was fascinating and great. There was a lot of room for me to move into it and make it my own, and to make it into a movie because it’s a great screenplay. You have to turn it into pictures.
What was it like directing someone else’s script?
Directing someone else’s writing felt a little bit like working on a play. In many ways, you have to understand and own that text, and decide what you want it to be. It’s a process of doing that, which I enjoyed. It’s a little bit more challenging than when you had to write it yourself because then you truly are the master of that universe from the get go. Here, there’s a process of moving into it.
There’s an ongoing conversation in the industry about non-LGBTQ actors, writers, directors telling queer stories. Do you have anything to contribute to that conversation? Or is your contribution the work itself?
The work is how I like to contribute to any conversation. I don’t have social media. I’m not so much part of that online conversation. I like to spend years and years making a movie instead and then that’s what I have to say about it all. I don’t ask anyone that I work with who they’re with. I don’t think that’s appropriate. But I find that there are many different ways of being in relationship with people; people have really complex histories that they sometimes want to volunteer when we start working on a project.
How do you deal with the complexities of your fellow artists on set?
I thought it was important to have producers on the project, David Hinojosa and Christine Vachon, who have a long history of making and telling these kinds of stories, and doing it beautifully and thoughtfully. I had a lot of queer people as part of my crew and producers who are part of the community who could really make sure that what we were adding to the conversation was really thoughtful.
Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) don’t have the words we have to describe their love, and in our era many of us choose not to define ourselves by gender or who we love. We choose not to define, but your characters’ 1850s world would benefit from having the words and language to describe queerness that we have.
To look at it another way, I think there’s something inherently romantic to tragic love in some ways, but I think that both Abigail and Tallie would have chosen very differently had they been in our time right now.
Will you talk about your choice to keep Abigail and Tallie’s sex scenes off screen until the montage at the end of the film?
That was something that I felt very passionate about creating it that way. It’s not scripted that way. There was not a love scene in the script at all. When I first received it I said I definitely want to have the love scene between the two of them. I think it’s important. But I am really often bored by love scenes. I think they’re usually there just to try and be titillating. I find it to be a tricky thing to do a love scene. So my intent was that if I, by placing the love scene where I place it, I was hoping that by getting it right then when you think that I as a filmmaker have deprived you of it…
I’ve hinted at it the whole movie but I’m not going to show it, kind of like you do in traditional Hollywood movies: cutting the frame right above the nipple and not showing the love scenes and just seeing a nude butt afterwards. I thought you’ll feel sort of cheated by it, but when you get it hopefully you will feel moved by it. If I’d sprinkled it throughout the whole movie, then I feel like it would just be like, “Oh, look at these sexy, beautiful, gorgeous women being together.”
Instead, I was hoping that by putting it at the end, that you would feel the devastation that Abigail feels. That it would be more than just this way to excite you but you would feel that immense heartbreak and tragedy that she feels. And maybe if I was lucky, you might even cry watching it, because that’s what sex can be when it’s that amazing. That’s what it is, right? When it is complete heartbreak, connection, all those things. To convey that on film, I think that’s why I wanted to place it there, so there to hopefully make you feel some of those things with Abigail.
Did The Brutalist begin shooting in January like you planned?
No, it did not. We are shooting a little bit later in the summer.
The World to Come is now in theaters and available digitally.