For over three decades, Robin Wright has been an ever-welcome presence on screen. From iconic roles in pictures like Forrest Gump to The Princess Bride to more recent, impressive turns in Wonder Woman and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, she’s revealed herself to be capable of any mode while performing. With Land, Wright sets up behind the camera. While she also stars in the film, this marks her feature directorial debut.
We spoke with Wright about the challenges of directing yourself, the nice thing about not a whole lot of dialogue, and some lesser-seen gems of hers she’d like people to seek out.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Film Stage: I couldn’t help thinking about this thing that other actor/directors have said after directing a movie they were also in, which is that it’s easy to almost focus less on your performance because you’re focusing so much on everything else. Obviously, you had directed episodes of House of Cards, but Land is your feature directorial debut. Was that something you had to reckon with at any point when you were in the director’s chair, but also carrying the movie with your performance in so many ways?
Robin Wright: I kind of feel the same… you’re not so obsessed and self-consumed with the performance. Normally you’re sitting in your trailer and you’re trying to keep that emotion, right? You attain it, and then how do you keep it? Because you don’t know when you’re going to be called to the set to have to cry. There wasn’t any time for that. So you’re constantly answering questions and thinking about the next take that you have to achieve, and what’s the next scene? Are we going to have time? Are we going to lose light? It’s non-stop. And then you just get in front of the camera and you do it like any other job. I mean, there were moments where I had to say: “Can we just clear the set? Just give me a breather for five minutes, let me get ready and then bring the camera guys in and let’s roll camera.”
So, it sounds like in a way, it might’ve been a positive thing then almost?
Almost. Yeah, it is. It’s liberating in a way.
That’s interesting. I have to say the set, that cabin. Wow, it’s something. I’ve read that your team built that cabin. Is that right? If so, can you tell me a little about that?
Yeah. Our amazing and talented production designer, Trevor Smith, up in Canada…. he’s a director, he’s amazing. And we collectively decided to, yes, build the cabin. Literally, they built it in the parking lot of our production offices, like Lincoln Logs. And he was working with the DP on where do you want a little slit in-between the logs so light can come through. Where do you want to place the windows, according to where the sun sets, where it rises? And we said, we’re going to take the risk. We’re going to transport the cabin 8,000 feet up in the Alberta mountains. And we want to feel the authenticity, feel the weather. Nature is a character in this movie, we’ve got to be with it.
One of the things that I loved about the movie is there isn’t a whole lot of dialogue. Was there a choice to pare down some of the talking to make it more of a fully visual experience or was it always a little “less is more” in terms of the conversation?
That was the script. It was very spare and Miguel’s character [played by Demián Bichir] was the epitome of that––very spare with his words and we basically shot what was on the page. I mean, that’s who those characters were. Their dynamic was that. They didn’t need to have all the exposition shared, you know? You don’t need to know everything about each other’s life and you still can have that beautiful connection with someone. And this character is her saint. I mean, he basically gave her life again and it’s about human resilience and the power of that and the power of human connectedness.
Was there ever a movie, a filmmaker, a set you were on at a certain point in your career where you were like, “Oh, I’d like to be in that chair, directing?“
It was many years ago when I was like, “I think I want to do this in the future.” That was probably 15-plus years ago and then I started hanging around the camera department more, asking questions, getting an education about, you know, lenses, framing. How does that apply to your story? How does that apply to your style? What is your style? How do you imbue that vision that you have? And then you get the confidence and you’re like, “I think I’m ready. I think I’ve stored enough. I’ve cataloged enough that I think I can do it.” And I had the gift of House of Cards. Basically as my mini-cinema school for six years. And they gave me that opportunity to direct that show, which felt safe. It was a family. We were a family for six years. And I was so encouraged by the production and the crew. They were like, “Robin, go for it. We’re here for ya.” You know, our camera operator had been operating cameras for forty years. So, very knowledgeable. And they’re like, “We got your back. We’re going to help you get through this.” And boy, did they ever.
And that’s so interesting with the show because there must have been a whole other level to jump to because with any show there’s an infrastructure in place, that’s maybe a little safer. Whereas with Land you’re the one making all the decisions up there in Alberta, even with a great team around you. I’m sure you were fighting to make the day every day because of all of that natural light, right?
Yeah. And speaking of lighting, having to use light as well as natural light. Because of the way light changes so quickly when you are shooting in the elements. It’s authentic. That was our goal. We wanted it to feel authentic. And if we had put that cabin on a stage, you wouldn’t feel the cold, you’d have a green screen and you’d be acting it and you’d have to do visual effects of the breath. Well, none of that happened on this. [Laughs] We made this call and said, “Let’s go in it, let’s be in it. Let’s be one with it.” And it’s a beast shooting in the elements like that. But definitely, you have to have a great respect for nature for it to be nice to you.
In doing some research I noticed that Erin Dignam co-wrote the script for Land. You’ve worked with her a bit over the years, is that correct? She’s directed some stuff that you’ve been in over the last couple of decades. It’s nice to see that kind of long-term collaboration.
She added some scenes, yes. She’s an incredible writer. And having been friends with her for almost thirty years, I always want to work with her. I just, the script was beautiful when I received it. Jesse Chatham was the original screenwriter and Erin just came on board once we cast Demián Bichir as Miguel. That was a very different role in the original script. And we changed it to a Hispanic man who works for a company called Dig Deep, where they literally do this in America. This one organization, they deliver fresh water to the reservations for [those who need it]. And I was like, “Okay, well that’s good. That’s authentic. I’m not going to get that wrong.”
So now you have this feature under your belt, is there anything immediate that you’re eager to tackle? Is there a next thing you’re eager to jump into in the director’s chair?
Yes, and I’m doing it in a month! I get to go direct a couple of episodes of season four of Ozark.
Oh my gosh, very cool!
I know! Such a great show…Incredible cast. I can’t wait.
So I’ve been asking this question to a few actors I’ve spoken with lately. When chatting with someone who has such an amazing career, I’d like to use that resume as an excuse to shout out a couple of smaller movies that I love, and maybe ask if there are any movies of yours you wish more people had seen. I love stuff like The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and A Home at the End of the World, for example. Is there anything like that in your career where you’re like, “Oh, check that one out if you haven’t heard of it.”
I mean Pippa Lee, I mean, you nailed it. I would say that Pippa Lee and White Oleander and She’s So Lovely. Those were all great movies I thought. And so much fun to play those characters.
Land is now in theaters and arrives digitally on March 5.