A witty portrait of a deferred career, marriage, motherhood, and a missing matriarch, Maria Semple’s hit novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette is prime material for Richard Linklater to adapt, and he found the perfect actress to take the lead. Cate Blanchett’s Bernadette Fox lives by the beat of her own out-of-tune drum. A once-heralded architect, for the last few decades she’s given up her creative passions, living in a bubble that ignores the fellow parents (aka “gnats”) at her daughter’s school and relying on a panoply of prescriptions to get by. When a family trip to Antarctica is planned, a series of unfortunate, perhaps self-precipitated events result in Bernadette’s further ostracism from those closest to her.
Ahead of the release this Friday, we spoke with the director about the desire to create, the similarities between architecture and filmmaking, the Up series, finding the perfect project, the struggles and unequal burdens women have to go through to balance career and family, as well as an update on his planned 1969-set film.
The Film Stage: So, a big part of Where’d You Go, Bernadette is how the opportunity or desire to create can be stifled in a person. Throughout your career, have you ever come across or felt something like that?
Richard Linklater: Yeah, I’m highly offended and freaked out when the movie I want to make doesn’t get made–like I can’t get money for something–it’s really unnerving. So, Bernadette is kind of a portrait of that. I’m so blessed. I don’t have anything to complain about, really, but I can imagine it getting worse. You know, architecture and filmmaking aren’t that different; they’re art forms that require a lot of support. You need a budget, you need a client. They’re expensive artforms. So there’s a lot of architects who design things that never get built and filmmakers write scripts that never get made. It’s a very frustrating medium. No one can tell a songwriter “Oh, you can’t write another song,” or can’t tell a painter, “No, you can’t paint anymore,” or a writer, “You can’t write a book,” But, these things that require a lot more capital and bigger undertakings, they are that much more volatile. So, to me, it was a nightmarish scenario of not being able to do what you feel like what you’re most happy doing, and it’s kind of a toxic environment.
That can be anyone whose either lost their muse, or is not doing it anymore. But, in [Bernadette’s] case, there’s very complex reasons we find out about what personally and professionally has kept her from doing anything for twenty years. The whole movie is a portrait of her slowly reconnecting with herself and getting back to work. You know, parenting can push life into a new direction, especially for women.
One decision you made that I loved in this film was that there’s this theme of marriage and how hard it is to have a successful one over the years. You choose to cross-cut a scene with Billy Crudup and a scene with Cate Blanchett, both revealing quite personal things that have been bottled up over the last twenty years. It reminded me of the hotel scene in Before Midnight, except these people aren’t next to each other. I’m curious about your choice to have the scene play out like and how it drew you to the story.
Another thing is, yes, it’s a portrait of a long-term relationship. At the beginning of the movie, Bernadette and Elgin are on autopilot as a couple and a parenting unit; they’re pretty stagnant as far as their relationship goes. They’re not really seeing each other much in the way where these other things have crept in and it has a negative slant. That idea of the cross-cut scene kind of acts as the centerpiece of a movie in a certain way. It’s very important because they’re reaching extremely different conclusions. On her side, [Laurence Fishburne’s Paul Jellinek] is an old friend that she’s going to be very honest with and who’s going to be very honest with her. She keeps everyone in Seattle at arm’s length, but she’ll be honest with him, and he assesses her situation quite accurately. It’s like, “You just need to get your ass back to work.”
And he’s right! So many people need to do just that. But meanwhile, her husband, the person closest to her, is misreading her. He’s got a grievance list and doesn’t know what to do. He’s busy, so he does that thing that so many do: they sort of outsource their family health to professionals, who are very quick to pathologize. Really by the time they’re doing this little intervention, it’s a mini horror scene in my opinion. A collision of misinterpretation. It’s frustrating and horrible, and I think she does the right thing escaping… [Laughs.]
They really do force her out that window. In my opinion, it’s a survival technique, but she’s driven toward it. I think it’s a good move on her part. That’s just one of those big ideas. There’s all this information in the book about how to have it find some kind of cinematic form was always a challenge in the adaptation.
Speaking to the original book, I was reading a few interviews with the author, Maria Semple, and she mentioned one of her favorite films of all time is 56 Up… which of course, when Boyhood came out, people compared the two. Did you talk to her at all in the process? And did you talk specifically about that film and your shared of love for those movies?
Yeah, I went up there initially. She showed me everything, like, “Oh here’s the school [Gaylor Street] is based on, here’s the Queen Anne neighborhood.” You know, looking around, all that. I got a really good feel for it. I was in touch with her, and she came in right before we started. Cate [Blanchett] spent time with her. She was kind of busy on a couple of other projects, but she was around, which was nice. Very supportive.
The resonance with [56 Up and] Boyhood, I think it’s just anytime you show what the years do to somebody. With the Up series, obviously it’s a documentary and they film every seven years. With Boyhood, it’s fictional, and we filmed every year. It’s different; fictional versus documentary. But, I think the relation is that you see how powerful the passage of time is when you can see it and feel it. It’s a powerful relationship we all have with time, whether we like it or not. We’re all changing and we’re all passing through… I agree, though. I find those films similar.
56 Up, however, they’ve all become so self-conscious. It’s so meta at this point and they’re so embedded in the process of the documentary itself. It kind of takes on a whole other zone, but I do love it and appreciate it.
Even though the movie is an intimate and emotional story at its center, it is one of your more ambitious projects. There’s this crazy mudslide that comes through a house, there’s the gorgeous Antarctica sequence. What was the pre-production process like? Was it daunting at all?
Well, you’re always looking for challenges within the stories you’re trying to tell, and this story just required it. It’s like, oh gosh, how are we going to do that mudslide? Like Bernadette says, you want to get inside something, you gotta know what problems there are. She calls herself a “problem solver.” I feel like a film director can call themselves a “problem solver,” even if they’re not problems, there are definitely systems to be worked out, things to overcome and figure out in a tangible, physically manifested way. It’s one thing to have words on a page, but like, what’s the shot? How are we going to do that?
This [film] kind of presented those fun challenges. Oh, we’re going to be around icebergs in Antarctica… how do you do that? So, you put in your years and you figure it out. You try to make it work and you have fun doing it. That’s kind of what the process is.
I was impressed by your casting choices in Bernadette. Obviously, Cate Blanchett carries the film, but I also loved Billy Crudup. He’s so empathetic and is almost a grounded center and an emotional anchor for the audience. I think he is having a real resurgence; he was so great in 20th Century Women as well. I’m curious about your choice to cast him.
You know, it’s such a treat. The best thing about making movies is that you get to work with these actors. In Billy’s case, I saw him on stage in New York at Lincoln Center in the ’90s doing a Tom Stoppard play. It was kind of like, who’s this guy? He was just out of NYU, so that’s how much I’ve been a fan over the years. And it finally just worked out that we could work together. So, you know, it’s a great opportunity. I can also say that about Kristen Wiig, I was a fan of hers. That’s the wonderful thing about this; you get to work with these great artists and have fun and dig into their characters. It’s great when it works out. And also, Emma Nelson. Thirteen-year-old kid comes in and you feel she’s perfect to be young Bee… and that’s a huge backbone of the movie. And I was lucky Cate was in the air since the beginning.
One big thing that comes through in this film is the struggle of women having to give things up in their career. Do you think that resonates now more than ever as we see Bernadette’s life and backstory?
I think the film portrays just how tough parenting is: it is a challenge, it is a compromise. Every parent kind of feels like they’re failing. But I think it’s so much more acute for women, for the mom. I think it’s just a fact, and it comes from various directions. It’s not only societal expectations, but it’s also that having a kid transforms a woman’s life more than it does with a man’s life. Quite often, they’re more likely to make a career choice in relation to that. I can’t say if that’s a nature/nurture, societal, or gender-based thing. Though, it’s a real thing. My whole life, my mom had kids and struggled to come into her own. We did it kind of backwards when I portrayed it in Boyhood: a mom who had the kids and is now going back to school.
With men, kids interfere less with their careers. Cate said, even when she’s working, she gets asked all the time, “How do you balance parenting and being a mother at work?” Whereas, no one asks the guy next to her, who has kids that are the exact age as her kids. People know it’s a tougher thing for women to do, but I personally think parenting is tough. You never quite get ahead of it. You’re always kind of behind, you’re always flailing a little bit, you’re always unsure if you’re making the right choices and decisions. It’s a tough thing, and it’s that much tougher for women with lots of stuff. It’s tough to be a human and negotiate roles. [Laughs.] But [the film] is definitely an accurate picture of that for sure, and the mother-daughter nature of it is strong.
Last year it was reported that you were working on a movie in Houston about the 1969 moon landing. Since the 50th anniversary just happened, I would love to hear if you had any details about it, and for you, as a child at that time, how it feels to look back on the 50th anniversary.
It was kind of bittersweet for me. I did have this project, and I think I will get to do it eventually, but no one took the small step–or the great leap–at that time for me to have it out by the anniversary. No one cared enough. I didn’t get to get the project off the ground… but someday!
It was kind of a magical time to be a kid living in the Houston area. That’s what was going on, NASA was right down the road and we all wanted to be astronauts. It was just a whole different world we were living in at that moment. I thought that’s worthy of exploring from the kid’s perspective. You know, they’re always making movies about the astronauts, how about the citizens’ perspective? We just celebrated the 50th anniversary, and it’s certainly worth celebrating. It’s like, oh my god, this is the biggest non-military undertaking in human history apparently? 400,000 people worked on it, 20,000 corporations? Incredible. That’s a big circle of people who got to share that triumph as everyone did, just as citizens of the world. I mean, it was special. There’s been nothing like it.
Since we’re at the end of the decade pretty soon, people are talking about which films have resonated with them the most in the 2010s. Of course, a few of yours are on that list. I know it’s kind of a big question, but I’m curious as to what you see as the most impactful or touching films of the past ten years?
Oh gosh, I never think in terms of decades. I mean, if a film touches you and it continues to touch you… I don’t know. I guess we are heading to the end of the decade. I think in terms of centuries. I personally feel good, I’m lucky I made a lot of films this century. And for this decade, I can’t complain, I’ve had a good decade. But gosh, so many every year, there are so many great movies. I don’t know, I’d have to look at lists. But you know, Quentin [Tarantino]’s latest film is right up there, though. That’s something I really, really loved.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette opens Friday, August 16.