In a competitive situation, Saban Films has acquired North American rights to Craig William Macneill's Lizzie, which stars Chloe Sevigny (Boys Don't Cry) as the renowned accused murderess Lizzie Borden and Kristen Stewart (The Twilight Saga) as her unlikely lover.
Saban Films is partnering with Roadside Attractions for a theatrical release this summer.
Written by Bryce Kass and based on the unsolved, much speculated murders of the Borden parents, Lizzie explores the inner workings of the household leading up to the murders and their immediate aftermath and reveals many layers of the strange, fragile woman who stood accused of the brutal crime. As an unmarried woman of 32, Lizzie (Sevigny) is a social outcast trapped under her father's austere control. When Bridget Sullivan (Stewart), a young maid desperate for work, comes to live with the family, Lizzie finds a sympathetic, kindred spirit and a chance intimacy that blossoms into a wicked plan and a dark, unsettling end.
The racy period drama had its world premiere on Jan. 19 in the festival's U.S. Dramatic Competition section. It was produced by Sevigny, Naomi Despres and Liz Destro and executive produced by Elizabeth Stillwell, Roxanne Fie Anderson and Edward J. Anderson of Powder Hound Pictures.
"I couldn't be happier than to partner with Saban Films and Roadside on Lizzie, a film that has been a labor of love for me for over 10 years," Sevigny said. "I am thrilled for theatergoers to see this incredible tale."
THR's review called the film "elegantly lurid but compelling [with] Sevigny in her best form in the title role" and a version "befitting of the #MeToo generation."
Kim Dickens (Gone Girl, Fear the Walking Dead), Denis O'Hare (Dallas Buyers Club, American Horror Story), Jeff Perry (Scandal), Fiona Shaw (Harry Potter) and Jamey Sheridan (Spotlight, Homeland) round out the cast.
"Chloe and Kristen are two of the most esteemed actresses of our time," Saban Films' Bill Bromiley said. "Their performances in Lizzie are evocative and gripping, and we're proud to be championing this film."
Added Roadside Attractions co-founders Howard Cohen and Eric d'Arbeloff: "Chloe and Kristen make these roles their own, and they slay in every sense of the word. Craig delivered a tense period thriller, and we are excited to partner with our friends at Saban as we bring audiences Lizzie later this year."
Saban Films and Roadside Attractions previously teamed on Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman, starring Hilary Swank, and the Tom Hanks starrer A Hologram for the King.
Ness Saban and Jonathan Saba negotiated the deal on behalf of Saban Films, with Endeavor Content and Gersh, who represented the filmmakers.
Chloë Sevigny’s first close-up in Lizzie reveals only the back of her head, but there’s no doubt who we’re looking at—the purpose of her movement and the deliberateness of her gait is unmistakable. Lizzie, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last weekend, features Sevigny as Lizzie Borden, the young woman who famously, allegedly murdered her father and stepmother with a hatchet in 1892.
Written by Bryce Kaas and directed by Craig William Macneill, the film saves the murders for the end of the film, elsewhere exploring both their aftermath and what came before them. A key component is Bridget (Kristen Stewart), who comes in to the Borden household as a servant but becomes a friend—and, perhaps, more—to the headstrong Lizzie.
Sevigny is an indie stalwart; her very first film, the notorious 1995 cause célèbr e Kids, was also her first film to play at Sundance. Since then, she’s appeared in such modern classics as The Last Days of Disco, American Psycho, Zodiac, and Boys Don’t Cry (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award), in addition to her work as a series regular on Big Love. She's also a producer on Lizzie, so when she sat down with VICE during Sundance, we discussed not only how she developed her character, but the project itself.
In Lizzie , you’re playing a real person surrounded by over a century of iconography, legend, and folklore. How do you engage with that to create a real human being? Or do you?
I read so many books, watched so many things, and went and stayed in the house on three separate occasions—it's a bed and breakfast. They give you a tour, and tell you the whole story. You can have a séance, which we did. How could you not? I went to the courthouse in New Bedford, the cemetery where she's buried, and the Fall River Historical Society to look at documents and old objects that were in the house. I really immersed myself in the world.
Once [screenwriter Bryce Kass] and I decided the story that we wanted to tell and how we wanted to tell it, I had to stay true to that. There are so many aficionados that will say, "Well, that’s not how that happened"—this is our interpretation of the myth, and the myth keeps growing. It's an unsolved mystery. When I first started developing it, I thought it be interesting to do it as a game of Clue, where you played out all the different scenarios. That didn't happen, but I thought that would've been an interesting concept.
How was the séance?
[or Laughs] The frigid air came in. There was some communicating with [Lizzie Borden's father, Andrew Jennings]. It was terrifying. The first night, I was there with an ex-boyfriend who's a pretty practical guy, and he got really terrified in the middle of the night. He felt a presence pushing down on him. On all three occasions I’ve been there, it's been unnerving.
They get a lot of business—on the nights of the murders, those rooms are auctioned off because it's such a hot commodity. They say that guests will come and sleep on the floor where Abby's body was found. People are fanatical! And that's part of the reason we wanted to develop it—there's already a built-in audience. I'm not an idiot! I wanna make a movie that people want to see!
She's a brand!
Yeah, and so am I! I felt a kinship, in a misfit kind of way. Young people that feel possibly misunderstood or gravitate to my films and the kind of work that I've put out—I wanted to honor a woman who was an icon of that type.
The film is surrounded by all of that iconography, but it feels so grounded and naturalistic. The house and the cell felt like you actually lived in those places. Was there anything in particular that the crew did to create that space for you?
We emptied a hoarder's house in Savannah and rebuilt it—reset all the wallpaper and painting, repaired things, made the kitchen period. It was our interpretation of the Borden house, because the bed and breakfast is their version—but we wanted it to be more austere. [The production designer, Elizabeth J. Jones,] and Craig had an idea of the elegance they wanted to bring to the film, because it can so easily go camp. We wanted there to be real restraint—a real groundedness—and not having to go from one location to the next helps you immerse yourself in the world.
I want to talk about working with Kristen Stewart, because I love the way your characters and your performances counteract each other. Much of the film is about Lizzie's strength and how that balances Bridget's vulnerability, but there are key points where those roles are reversed and they need to be the other thing for each other. How did the two of you develop that dynamic?
She's very aware of filmmaking—the camera, lighting, everything. She's a very self-aware person, and she's also very free. She wants to try stuff, and it's very immersive and emotional. She brought this real energy. Any day she was on the set, it was like, "Alright! Now shit's gonna happen." [Laughs] She's such a present force.
Kristen said it was her first time doing period, and an accent, so I think that she struggled with that at a bit. The costumes were really hard for her [Laughs]. She would, like, take off her skirt, and she'd be in her Vans and her jeans, and smoking cigarettes and being all disgruntled [Laughs]. She's a cool lady, and that's part of the reason we wanted to cast her: We really believe in her as a person—what she puts out there, the kind of films she chooses to do, and the kind of work that she wants to represent her.
“Lizzie is a character I’ve always wanted to play,” said Chloë Sevigny of Lizzie Borden, the troubled Massachusetts socialite notorious for ax-murdering her father and stepmother in 1892—and whom Sevigny portrays in her new biopic Lizzie, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past weekend. “She was a gothic heroine and a gothic icon. I think so many misfits are drawn to her because of that.”
For her first starring role in an American movie, the actress, designer, and perennial cool girl developed the script after being introduced to the deeply flawed historical character by an artist friend in 2010. Even though the story takes place in the Victorian era, many of Lizzie’s themes are still applicable today: patriarchy, sexism, and LGBT discrimination (Kristen Stewart co-stars as the Bordens’s live-in maid and Lizzie’s forbidden lover, with an impressive Irish accent).
While in Park City, Utah for the festival, Sevigny caught up with InStyle about her passion project, working with Stewart, and Victorian style.
This is a complicated role. What attracted you to it?
True crime has also always been fascinating to me, and this is a story of a woman who possibly killed her parents, and why she did that—she was driven to this extreme act of violence to obtain freedom. She was just so captivating. Even looking at her pictures, she seemed so there ... but not there.
When did you first learn about Lizzie Borden?
I have vague recollections of hearing about her as a child, and the rhyme, of course, but I didn’t know that much about her. Then my friend, Lily Ludlow, showed up at my house as her for Halloween and I started doing research. I found out about the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast in Fall River, Mass., and went and stayed there. After spending one night there I thought, “This is a story that I want to tell.” The oppression that women felt at that time and the lack of options seemed like it would be a lot to explore.
It’s interesting how a lot of the social stigmas from the late 1800s sadly still ring true, like those against unmarried women in their 30s. All of a sudden everything seems very timely because of the discussion that’s happening post-Trump['s election]. The world is evolving and changing and we’re moving with it. Now it feels like the right time for this movie to come out. You never know why things like that happen.
There’s also a scene where Kristen Stewart’s character is sexually harassed by her employer. As someone who started out so young in Hollywood, is that something you’ve ever experienced on a job?
I haven’t, luckily. I don’t know if it’s my strength of character or who I am, but I was somehow spared. I’ve definitely had men say stuff off the cuff, like, “I never knew you had a body,” or, I’ve been in a casting where a director said, “You should show your body more.” Things like that are just uncalled for. I think that’s very casual sexism that we all deal with at work all the time.
What was it like working with Kristen?
She was amazing. I was so impressed with her, and almost jealous, in a way. No wonder she has the career that she has because she’s so bright and she brings so much and she works so hard and she’s so prepared and she has so many ideas in the moment and she’s questioning everything. She came in as this force and shook everybody up. I wish I had that wherewithal when I was her age, or even now.
I saw on Instagram that you two hit the local bars in Savannah.
Oh yeah, oh, we had fun. [Laughs] We had to. There was a lot of bonding.
Those who are familiar with the story know how the movie ends, but the final scene was still pretty shocking. What made you decide to do the murder scene nude?
I’ve been nude onscreen before in some of my earlier movies, then I shied away from it for a while—not that I became prudish, but I preferred not to show myself. But this movie really called for it. I just wanted it to be this really carnal, cathartic moment where she sheds all the social constraints and gets to really go wild.
Fashion plays a big part in the film, from the sexual tension when Bridget (Stewart) buttons Lizzie’s dress to Lizzie stripping naked to keep her garments clean. What was it like wearing such restrictive Victorian clothing?
It was fun for me. I’ve always wanted to do a period piece. I have a large collection of Victorian-era dresses myself, and we used some of the pieces in the film. I love a mutton sleeve; I love what it does to a waist. I love the extreme shapes and the length—there’s something about the swoosh, there’s elegance to it.
Jay McInerney once famously dubbed you the “coolest girl in the world.” Do you feel pressure to be cool, even in your 40s?
Not so much on the day-to-day, but the red carpet is really still hard for me. I’ve always struggled with it. You have to fit into a sample size, which is a struggle on its own, as you could imagine. And I never feel like I know how to do that whole dressed-up thing. It doesn’t feel easy and casual to me. Then, with this hideous digital world that we live in and how unflattering the photos are—the cameras are too close so your head is really big and your feet are really small, and there’s this horrible LED overhead lighting. It’s not flattering to anybody, even if you’re a young, beautiful child. So before you even walk out there, you’re in this horrible headspace just thinking about it. And then with Instagram, you’re seeing [the photos] all the time and try to delete them to recover some sense of confidence. It’s a weird cycle of abuse to have to deal with it. I’m feeling a little more confident about it, but it’s still a challenge for me.
What would you do to be free? That’s the question Lizzie, the highly anticipated Sundance premiere starring Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, attempts to answer—at least for the infamous Lizzie Borden, who's either America’s first axe murderess or misunderstood heroine (depending on who you ask). Director Craig William Macneill declares her both in this complicated, graphic film about female rage.
In truth, Lizzie is two movies in one: a grisly imagined telling of what happened in the Borden house before Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and Abby Borden (Fiona Shaw) were found brutally axed to death; and a soft, vulnerable love story between the youngest Borden and the maid Bridget Sullivan (Stewart).
Lizzie (Sevigny) is trapped in a house with her emotionally abusive father and stepmother, uninterested in marriage and unable to do so much as attend the theater by herself due to the burden of her wealthy family’s status and unpredictable fits that send her into seizures. In comes Sullivan, a quiet Irish woman of no means or education, and the pair become tangled in a barnyard tryst that’s both sweet and sexy. Stewart portrays Sullivan with a quiet strength too often stripped from characters who could be characterized as "powerless victims"—as well as falling for the acerbic Lizzie and being preyed upon by the master of the house, she’s stripped of her name and instead called Maggie by the Bordens.
With its soft lighting and delicate touches, the love story sits in stark contrast to Lizzie’s descent into madness under her father’s thumb. Life in the Borden house is so abrasive as to wear its inhabitants raw, and the usual sheen of period dramas gives way here to gritty reality; every creak of a door can be heard, and these rich Americans are clad in imperfect tailoring. These choices create an ominous tone that leaves the audience constantly anticipating danger.
Though set in 1892, Lizzie arrives at an apt modern moment. As women everywhere reach boiling point, unify, and expose abusers, this film highlights the insidious ways men with power wield it to oppress women with none. The youngest Borden girl had little autonomy, and few tools—besides her own pride and cunning—that she could use to protect herself from her father and scheming uncle John (Denis O’Hare), who plan to manipulate her out of her inheritance and lock her away. Meanwhile, as a servant, Sullivan was incapable of staving off her employer's advances. So when the macabre scene of the crime is finally revealed, it's a cruel reminder of these unsurmountable power dynamics and the desperate inequality they created.
Lizzie is a fiction based on a historical event that's famously shrouded in mystery. All the filmmakers had to work with were the trial transcripts, which gave them a sense of the young woman's incredible intelligence; Sevigny delivers several cutting one-liners that caused one Sundance audience to erupt in laughter. But the lack of available facts means that much of the story has to be invented. It’s frustrating that, in a film that focuses on the inner lives and motivations of women, and in the middle of a nuanced and revealing national conversation about harassment and sexual assault, rape is treated with such a heavy hand. Writer Bryce Kass offers it as a key reason for the murders, but at least one confronting assault scene in Lizzie feels like an unnecessary shock-value play.
Ultimately, one should not watch the film hoping to come out of it understanding Lizzie Borden any more than they might have going in. Instead, Lizzie speaks to how abuse can poison every aspect of a victim's life, and serves as a reminder to abusers and those complicit that there's power in women's rage.
Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart shine in this biopic of the nursery-rhyme horror legend.
The story of murderer Lizzie Borden is best known from the ill-advised children’s rhyme, but at Sundance 2018, she’s been given a more thoughtful, biopic-style treatment with the film Lizzie. Directed by Craig William Macneill (Channel Zero) and starring Chloë Sevigny, the film pulls from historical accounts while also expounding on Borden’s story with some hypothetical could-have-been plot developments, in the name of giving some sense and purpose to the brutal crimes.
The result is a hybrid. Part horror movie, part drama, it’s as happy to dwell on grisly violence as it is to point an accusing finger at gender norms and the disregard shown to women, presenting them as reasons behind the slaughter. In that sense, Lizzie feels like it’s designed for the current cultural moment, transforming Borden from nursery-rhyme psycho to a powerful, tragic female anti-hero.
Horror movie mixed with period drama. Early in the film, Lizzie plays up the horror aspects, with the score and shot selection calling to mind 1970s horror flicks like The Omen. Then it slowly evolves into a more conventional chamber drama — until it becomes time for murdering, that is.
It’s 1892, and Lizzie Borden is a woman in her early 30s who still lives with her controlling father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw). Lizzie is independent — she heads off to the theater in defiance of her father, who’d prefer she stay at home rather than go out alone — but she’s also a perpetual outsider. She suffers from seizures, and she has no qualms about speaking her mind whenever it suits her. Both of which make her parents, and 1890s society in general, more than a little uncomfortable.
Then the family welcomes a new live-in maid named Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart, with an effective Irish accent), and she and Lizzie quickly become friends. Both women suffer under Andrew’s grotesque, arrogant dominance. For Bridget, that means nightly visits where she’s sexually assaulted; for Lizzie, it’s a constant stream of insults and abusive behavior, including killing her pet birds and serving them for dinner. Soon the friendship between the two women becomes something more, and as tensions rise, Lizzie discovers that her parents might be sending her away, while putting her inheritance under the control of her scheming uncle John Morse (Denis O’Hare, playing the role with slimy relish). Given the odds against her, she resorts to extreme measures.
The way men marginalize women and subvert their agency in order to maintain power. Lizzie’s father and his friend John are opposites, financially — Andrew is successful, while John is always scraping by — but they both prey on the women in their lives. Even Abby, largely portrayed as an evil-stepmother stereotype, resents Andrew and calls him out for his nightly assaults against Bridget.
Lizzie represents everything Andrew fears: independence, fearlessness, and an unwillingness to defer to him simply because she’s been told that’s how things are supposed to be. When he discovers Lizzie and Bridget’s developing relationship, his fear is amplified. And while murder is an extreme response, the film makes it impossible to interpret them as anything but Lizzie asserting herself against an oppressive evil, no matter what the cost.
The movie is engrossing, with Sevigny delivering a fierce performance that inspires empathy in spite of — or perhaps because of — the awful things the audience knows Lizzie will eventually do. The romance between Lizzie and Bridget is largely sketched out with lingering looks and accidental brushing of hands, but Stewart and Sevigny do a lot with a little, really delivering on the idea that these are two outsiders who each feel they’ve found someone that finally understands them, even in the awful world they live in.
Given the movie’s horror leanings, much is made of the murders themselves. The killing sequence is horrible and chilling, and not just for the violence itself; the way the acts affect both women is more disturbing and more memorable. But while Lizzie does a strong job of leading up to and explaining possible motives for the killings, it loses its way afterward. It becomes not a look into the life of Lizzie Borden, but a more traditional re-creation of the trial and what happened afterward. It’s as if once the murders go down, screenwriter Bryce Kass didn’t know what story he wanted to tell. As a result, Lizzie follows its strong first two acts of wind-up with a true-crime series conclusion.
Director Craig William Macneill, himself a Massachusetts native who explored a similarly simmering ambience of patriarchal aggressions with his breakout 2015 debut The Boy, mounts an empowering portrait of Lizzie in what stands as the most compelling presentation of her to date (a television version starring Christina Ricci in 2014 tends to gravitate toward camp value of the case). Employing a formidable duo played by Chloe Sevigny as the titular murderess and Kristen Stewart as the Irish maidwho seems to upset the balance of masculine authority in the Borden home, Macneill, working from a sympathetic screenplay by Bryce Kass, turns a lurid melodrama into a compelling testament of the dangers of suppression.
In August of 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts, bullheaded and strong-willed Lizzie Borden (Sevigny) was accused of killing her wealthy father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and her step-mother Abby (Fiona Shaw) with a hatchet. Just six months prior, uneducated Irish immigrant Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) arrived as the Borden’s new maid, forming an empathetic bond with black sheep Lizzie. Older sister Emma (Kim Dickens) doesn’t share her younger sister’s rebellious streak, but it would seem certain hysterical outbursts and episodes stem from certain abuses inflicted upon her independent sister by both social expectations and her lascivious leaning father. As the claustrophobic tension mounts in the Borden household, Lizzie arrives at her infamous breaking point.
The scenario presented is nothing new to cinema. Jean Genet’s famous play The Maids delves into similar intersections of class and gender, while a whole slew of films have explored the tawdry possibilities of murderous lesbian lovers, from Chabrol’s La Ceremonie (1995) to Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), and Nancy Meckler’s Sister, My Sister (1994), etc. Stewart, as Maggie nee Bridget, decked out with an impressive Irish lilt and a mournful façade so morose it would distress homeless puppies, provides more evidence of an impressive range of vulnerability (the treatment of the Irish is lightly touched upon, but the main point being the class discrepancies allowing them to be treated like animals whose names could be changed with new owners).
Macneill allows Chloe Sevigny to tear into her portrayal of Lizzie, a victim of patriarchal heteronormativity who is fashioned into an anarchic feminist icon here. Sevigny is allowed a wide range of withering responses to her offenders, which lends the film a sort of cathartic release pedal. Although murder isn’t something which can ever be ethically condoned, her situation, including the context and period wherein even women of means had no actual agency, the situation of Lizzie and Bridget is comprehensible.
An impressive supporting cast, including Kim Dickens, Denis O’Hare, Fiona Shaw (of De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, 2006) and the selective Jamey Sheridan (The Ice Storm, 1997) churns Lizzie into a mounting orchestra of dread, even as it opens with the bloody corpse of Mrs. Borden before backtracking six months to the arrival of Bridget, the tipping point, it seems, of the family’s demise. Sheridan masters one of the film’s cruelest extended moments involving some pet pigeons who get the short end of the stick. While Lizzie (not to be confused with the 1957 Eleanor Parker film adapted from a Shirley Jackson thriller) manages the impossible in how it presents its title character as (at least partially) a victim of circumstance, it’s likely to be an unpleasant experience for many. But once Macneill allows this dark flower to completely unfurl into its horrifically imagined reenactment, Lizzie becomes a sobering, complex indictment—making it perhaps too difficult for many to engage with its clashing allegiances.
Speaking of difficult: oof, Lizzie. That’s not exactly a bad “oof,” but Craig William Macneill’s somber, arty film is not easy viewing. The film stars Chloë Sevigny as Lizzie Borden, the daughter of a wealthy Fall River, Massachusetts, family who was accused of axing to death her stern father and enabling step-mother in the dog days of summer, 1892. We know the murders are going to happen—bloodied bodies are among the first things the film shows us—so there is an inexorable dread looming. Macneill leans into that dire mood, drenching his film in a faux-Mica Levi score by Jeff Russo, and generally going for a feverish Jackie tone that only sometimes works.
Lizzie isn’t a bad film, but it doesn’t accomplish all that it wants to—and all I wanted it to. We’re never as immersed in its psychological swirl as we should be, and every character in it is either such a creep or a flinching headcase that it’s hard to get our emotional hooks in any of them. But we almost do. Sevigny, who’s been trying to get a Borden project off the ground for years, gives the performance her all, and I quite like the flat, modern affect she brings to the role. I’m not sure it quite syncs up with the rest of the film, but she vibes on her own weird wavelength, convincingly rendering Lizzie as a woman suffocating under the constraints of her life, robbed of her independence bit by bit until she is forced to lash out terribly to protect herself.
But was murder her only option? And was survival her chief motivation? It’s hard to tell if Lizzie plays with those ambiguities deliberately or just doesn’t know what it thinks. Bryce Kass’s screenplay turns Lizzie and her housemaid, Bridget Sullivan, into fledgling lovers, two lonely souls finding each other in a cloistered, airless existence; the Bordens’ austerly appointed home seems to be their entire world. Maybe they feel something genuine for each other, or it could simply be that they are each other’s only means of escape. Denied everything else, perhaps sex in a barn with your maid or your mistress is the only thing you can do.
As played by Kristen Stewart, putting on an effectively minimalist Irish brogue, Bridget is a bit of a cipher. But Stewart and Sevigny have a heady chemistry, one I’d love to see them explore in something less binding than this joyless exercise. The movie does finally get its blood up—and out, and all over the walls—in its final act, Macneill giving us the grand, vengeant horor we’ve been waiting for. It’s a teasing glimpse of what mad bit of patriarchy-destroying camp Lizzie could have been if all those involved weren’t taking everything so damn seriously.
By the end, Lizzie has cramped itself back into dour chamber piece mode. But for a moment there, it soars to near-ludicrous heights, forgetting all its pretension and just putting on a good, wild show. What a funny parallel, that the movie needs these murders to free itself, just as Lizzie did, or might have. She was acquitted, after all.
I’ll confess that, beyond the little nursery rhyme, I didn’t know too much about the story of Lizzie Borden, but it appears that much of what’s ended up in Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie is conjecture. So to catch you up to speed in case you never heard it, here goes: Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.
The resultant mess from this bit of New England gothic folklore are some of the first images in this gripping, well-acted and sharply-written low-budget drama. We then flash back six months, just enough time for Macneill to get audiences … well, I won’t exactly say cheering for the eventual act of violence, but at least understanding.
The Borden House is one of the wealthiest in their small Massachusetts town. Though it’s 1892, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) has yet to have set up electric lights. “Father prefers it in the dark,” Lizzie says to a gossipy women when she goes out – unescorted! – to the theater one night.
Lizzie, a marvelous role for the abundantly talented Chloe Sevigny, is gasping for breath in that house, but her father is strict and her stepmother (Fiona Shaw) and older sister Emma (Kim Dickens) do little for her desire to be independent. Lizzie suffers from occasional fainting spells, and that’s all the excuse one needs for a woman to be considered unfit to make any of her own decisions. Quite frankly, the women with no illnesses don’t seem to fare much better. “We live in this world and not another,” a character later says about the preposterous idea that two women in love could ever live together on their own.
That woman is the new maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart). Fresh from Ireland, she’s immediately dubbed “Maggie”, just to keep things simple. Lizzie, however, calls her by her real name, then starts teaching her to read. Just as Bridget gets into the rhythm of her work, Andrew suggests she keep her door open at night to let the air circulate. He proceeds to climb the stairs and, grotesquely, encourages her to “be a sweet girl”. There is no way for Bridget to refuse his advances.
The main stretch of Lizzie is a slow burn, showcasing the many insidious ways the cruel abuses of power (patriarchal power, specifically) can break the human spirit. When Lizzie and Bridget finally share an intimate moment it is one of the few glimpses of tenderness in an otherwise brutal film. But it just spells further doom for these two characters.
If the Borden murders went the way portrayed here, well, you’ve got to hand it to Lizzie for thinking it through. I’m not saying it’s right to hack your father’s face past all recognisability, but if you were going to do it, and in an era before you could watch CSI, her scheme was certainly the way to go. Whether you want to applaud when the deed is finally done is entirely up to you.
One thing’s for certain: Sevigny has been ripe for a juicy role like this for some time. It’s a shame she doesn’t get more opportunities. I noticed that Sevigny herself was the first listed producer for the film. Lizzie Borden, if she were to somehow come back as a Hollywood producer, would probably get a kick out of that.
Written by Bryce Kass, Lizzie is an in-depth behind the scenes look into the life of the Borden family six months before the murder of Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) and his wife Abby (Fiona Shaw). Chloë Sevigny stars as Lizzie Borden, a 32-year-old woman whose every move is monitored and controlled by her father, Andrew. Because of this, Lizzie has lived most of her life as a hermit with little to no interaction with anyone outside of her home. Lizzie forms an unlikely relationship with the new maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart) with whom Lizzie becomes fascinated. The two lonely women quickly become close and form a plan that will release Lizzie from the control of her father.
Whenever there is a Kristen Stewart film playing at a film festival, I go out of my way to see it. Kristen Stewart is one of my favorite actresses, and I admire her work because she takes on roles that are unique, complicated, and stand out. Lizzie was a project that I read a lot about before seeing it. Considering that there have been a least a dozens of films, tv shows, and plays about Lizzie Borden, I was very curious to see how screenwriter Bryce Kass was going to handle telling a story that has been told several times before. I am happy to report that this film is a refreshing and timely take on the Lizzie Borden story with two award-worthy performances and an ending that will leave you speechless.
There is a lot of speculation as to what happened the day of the Borden murders. The majority of Lizzie runtime is spent showing the type of environment that Lizzie grew up in and how her father treated everyone in her household. Sevigny portrays Lizzie as a smart and strong female whose father controls her every move. He is always talking down to her and trying to keep her quiet.
Director Craig William Macneill does a fantastic job of showing how poorly Lizzie was treated and how that treatment ultimately affected her mental state. It is a refreshing to see this because most other stories about Lizzie Borden only focus on how she went crazy without digging into her backstory and showing examples as to why she may have taken matters into her own hands. The real truth is that no one knows what happened at the Borden residence, but the way that Kass tells this story gives Lizzie a voice that hasn’t been given to Lizzie Borden before.
Lizzie in many ways feels like a stage play. There are only a few sets used and the film’s focus is centered primarily on Lizzie and Margaret with Andrew being portrayed as the film’s villain. While the film feels small, the director, DP, and costume designer create a film that is visually stunning. The entire Borden family mansion is so beautifully captured and I loved the use of candlelight in certain scenes. You can tell that this film was a labor of love for everyone involved which could be a reason why Sevigny not only is the lead but a producer on the film as well.
Regarding the story, the film’s first half focuses on the six months leading up to the murders. This is when we are introduced to Bridget and see the dynamic between all the characters. There is a lot of character and story setup within the first half of the film. We get to see scenes like the one where Andrew sneaks into Bridget’s room late at night as well as several confrontations that occur between him and Lizzie.
These scenes all showcase extremely powerful moments and ones that help depict how the Borden household isn’t as picture perfect as many would be lead to be believed. The second half of the film focuses on the murders and the aftermath. The way that this is handled feels incredibly well-rounded but at the same time makes the first half of film feel a tad too long since there is a lot of build-up to something that you know is going to occur.
While the script and direction are strong, the movie would not be a success if it weren’t for its two leading ladies. Despite taking place in 1892, the film feels relevant. Chloë Sevigny has never been better delivering a raw and haunting performance that will stick with you for days. There are several scenes in which you can see a quiet, intense rage in her eyes yet somehow she holds back from lashing out and showing that rage.
Sevigny does such spectacular work with the dialogue that feels as though it was written for her. She has several great one-liners that are perfectly delivered. I love the way that Sevigny presents Lizzie Borden to the audience as well. She is shown as someone who isn’t afraid to go against the status quo and stand up for her beliefs. This character is grounded in reality and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Sevigny turns Lizzie Borden into a very complex character and one that I believe a lot of women and men will certainly get behind.
Kristen Stewart’s performance as Bridget Sullivan is just another incredible performance to add to the actress’ constantly growing filmography. The role of Bridget is unlike anything that we have seen Stewart tackle before and is I believe the first time that she does an Irish accent. I swear that If you close your eyes when Bridget is on-screen talking, you would think that Saoirse Ronan was talking. Stewart embraces the material and dives into this world that Macneill and Kass have created. The intimate scenes with Stewart and Sevigny are ripe with passion and emotion. The chemistry between these two actresses was second to none.
While I would love to go into detail about the way that Macneill and Kass setup the murders, I won’t reveal too much because I don’t want to spoil these scenes for anyone. Let’s just say that the way that the murders occur are shocking and are presented in a way that is much different than you’re anticipating. Again, its hard to talk about without spoilers but the murder scenes are some of the best moments of the film and are astonishingly compelling to watch.
All in all, Lizzie is a refreshing new spin on the Lizzie Borden story that will speak to a modern audience. Macneill and Kass have created a film that is haunting, beautiful, and heartbreaking. Chloë Sevigny has never been better, and Kristen Stewart shows us once again why she truly is one of the best actresses working today. While I don’t know if horror fans will like the art house take on this story, I do believe that many will enjoy seeing a film that shows a whole new side of Lizzie Borden that the world has never seen before.
Scott ‘Movie Man’ Menzel’s rating for Lizzie is an 8 out of 10.
Evocative visuals and a strong cast ham-handedly reframe the infamous ax murderess as a heroine slaying the patriarchy.
Director Craig William Macneill’s “Lizzie” has another theory. The director re-imagines the murderess (Chloë Sevigny) as a powerless victim who literally slays the patriarchy. It’s a simple story made to rouse modern hearts, and the performances and cinematography are so good, the film nearly pulls off the trick.
Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass play their hands boldly. Andrew isn’t just a miser, which he was (the Bordens were locally infamous for refusing to upgrade to electric lights); he’s also a sexist, homophobic rapist. And Lizzie is a lesbian in love with their housemaid Bridget (Kristen Stewart), an Irish immigrant who enters the film in a tidy brown dress looking as helpless as a little bird. She’s even got tiny feathers in her hat.
She and Stewart both have the strong, pointed jaws of people who aren’t as fragile as they first appear. Early on, Lizzie has a ferocious mouth, sniping at a mean girl who teases her for still using candlelight, “Are you an Edison?” That Lizzie vanishes after the first half-hour and the two lovers eventually go near-mute, which underlines the film’s ideas about female passivity, but also clashes with the headstrong girl we first met. Stewart’s maid is more straightforward and practical, the kind of character who gets filled with life just from the look in Stewart’s eyes. Unlike Lizzie, she affords herself no hopes for the future. On the day of the murder, she testified she was outside cleaning windows — which is true, given Bridget’s recorded testimony, and a perfect metaphor for the all-seeing servant who sees everything more clearly than the people inside.
Noah Greenburg’s cinematography is stunning. He frames his actresses with the house, shooting them in shallow focus behind windows and railings to make them look like prisoners. In this airless, dim darkness, they rarely look free.
A lesbian spin on the legendary Lizzie Borden murder case is nothing new — Ed McBain posited the notion in a 1984 novel — but the stylish and haunting “Lizzie” paints a provocative portrait of a woman driven by passions and left with few options in a society that gave her little agency.
In “Lizzie,” we come to know Borden’s inner turmoil, not only by her periodic “spells” but also in the way that the camera captures a bewitching Chloë Sevigny. She’s often off-center in the frame, or reflected in mirrors, or out of focus in the foreground as she imagines what’s happening far behind her.
Screenwriter Bryce Kass (“Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs”) and director Craig William Macneill (2015’s “The Boy”), like everyone else who has tackled this story, are left to their own conjectures and theories as to the how and the why behind the murder of Borden’s father and stepmother, but they’ve turned the puzzle pieces into a haunting, horrifying romance.
Six months before Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan) and his wife Abby (Fiona Shaw) faced that fatal ax — and despite the famous rhyme, each received far fewer than 40 blows — housemaid Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) reports for duty. While most of the household refers to her as “Maggie” (the generic name given to all Irish servants, much as all Pullman porters once answered to “George”), Lizzie (Sevigny) immediately calls her by her given name.
Right away, there’s an electricity between them; as Lizzie reaches out to adjust one of Bridget’s hairpins, it’s clear that there’s already a connection. The unmarried Lizzie tests her father’s patience with her willfulness, daring to go to the theater unescorted and constantly questioning his authority. (Being “sent away” for her infractions is a constant threat being dangled over her.) Andrew’s a monster — he visits Bridget’s room in the middle of the night to rape her on multiple occasions — and he’s upset over a series of anonymous threatening notes that have come to the house.
Sevigny and Stewart are intensely affecting as women of different stations who are both nonetheless choked by the demands of the patriarchy; they also create a palpable erotic tension, particularly early on when Bridget is buttoning up Lizzie’s blouse for dinner. Their performances are powerfully supported by the extraordinary ensemble, which also includes Jeff Perry (“Scandal”) as the family attorney.
Based on the true story of Lizzie Borden, a Massachusetts heiress who killed her wealthy father and stepmother in 1892, Craig William Macneill’s feature debut recreates the story in the mode of gothic psychological horror. Starring Chloe Sevigny as the titular anti-hero and Kristen Stewart as an Irish housemaid who may have conspired with her to carry out the murders, Lizzie is, at best, a powerful showcase for the two actors.
With its strong performances and sensationalistic premise and execution, Lizzie may receive some modest commercial play, both in the US and in overseas territories.
Just as Sevigny is full of steely gazes and brittle quips, Stewart is beautifully anguished; her kohl-eyed face revealing years of sorrow.
The elegantly lurid but compelling Lizzie, written by Bryce Kass, directed by Craig William Macneill (The Boy) and produced by Chloe Sevigny in her best form in the title role, carves out of the raw material a suitably 2018 version, befitting of the #MeToo generation. In their hands, Lizzie becomes a study of secret female lovers (Kristen Stewart co-stars as the household maid Borden falls for) joining forces to fight back against an abusive patriarch (Jamey Sheridan) and his enabling spouse (Fiona Shaw). So it's empowering and respectful when delivering the tender love scenes between the women but also ready to go full-on horror-movie trashy, in a good way, with jump scares, close-up shots of faces stabbed to a pulp and a naked, blood-splattered Sevigny stalking stealthily across sun-dappled vintage floorboards.
Lizzie Borden returns to the silver screen in the gripping drama, “Lizzie.”
In 1892, Lizzie Borden stood trial for the murders of her father and step-mother in Fall River, Massachusetts. No one knows for sure why Andrew and Abigail Borden were murdered in their home one August morning. Many theories have surfaced over the years, ranging from Lizzie’s supposed insanity to some sort of financial dispute.
This new film bucks the traditional horror route in telling the story of the ill-fated Bordens. Instead, “Lizzie” is, at its core, a drama of a family under siege. Chloë Sevigny stars as 32-year-old maid, Lizzie. Her father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), tries to control his daughter, although she frequently finds ways to subvert him. Her sister Emma (Kim Dickens) is much more willing to appease his overbearing tendencies. Lizzie strikes up a friendship with their new maid, Bridget Sullivan—known to the family by the generic Irish name Maggie—(Kristen Stewart). Their friendship eventually blossoms into more. Abby Borden (Fiona Shaw) is a step-mother who never speaks against her husband, even when it seems she doesn’t agree with him.
While the film is more a drama than anything else, director Craig William Macneill weaves in gripping tension and sensuality. Upon first meeting, Lizzie adjusts a pin in Bridget’s hair, and already the connection between the two crackles in the air like electricity. When Lizzie and Emma’s maternal uncle John arrives at the family home, you can sense something is off long before anyone ever suggests it. There is so much unspoken throughout the film, and because it doesn’t need to be said. Entire conversations can be communicated with a simple glance, a peek through a window, hands tying an apron.
Perhaps what heightens the tension is the fact that it maintains Victorian-era chastity throughout most of the film. Macneill doesn’t need to show what happens when Andrew makes late-night visits to Bridget’s room. Scenes between Lizzie and Bridget are captivating in their intensity, conveying heat and longing through brushing a hand, or passing a note.
Chloë Sevigny shines in this leading performance. She commands attention in every scene, giving Lizzie Borden depth and strength. She does this while also giving the audience reasons to sympathize with her.
Kristen Stewart is also very good as Bridget. Her quiet, mournful expressions are well-suited to an Irish immigrant, alone in a new country, far from her family.
The film is full of great performances. Jamey Sheridan and Fiona Shaw are great as the doomed parents. Denis O’Hare is exceptionally creepy as Uncle John. Kim Dickens plays nice as much more submissive sister Emma.
Bryce Kass extensively researched the many theories and legends of the Borden murders. While the idea of a relationship between Lizzie and Bridget isn’t new (it was first introduced in a novel by Ed McBain), Kass gives the youngest Borden depth. Where others focus on her “spells” as signs of deep and deadly mental illness, Kass writes a woman who challenges the world around her. She questions convention and stands up to the men that want to believe they serve her best interests.
This is a film that takes its time. It isn’t in a hurry, but doesn’t dawdle either. The cinematography, the sparse score, the costume design, everything comes together to craft the confined and isolated life of a wealthy family under the control of an overbearing patriarch.
“Lizzie” is looking for distribution, but will hopefully be in theaters later this year.
Lizzie is a psychological thriller based on the story of Lizzie Borden and the axe murder of the Borden family, directed by Craig William Macneill and edited by Abbi Jutkowitz, starring Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart. Sevigny and Stewart are definitely at their best in the film with great characters and occasionally sharp dialogue, which is quiet, tense, and slow to build. But when it builds, it gets downright scary. It’s not surprising to add that Lizzie is pretty violent, and as I was thinking about my take on the film, I wondered if seeing a woman involved in this level of carnage (in a non-pulpy sense) was unconsciously affecting my opinion. It’s going to take a while before I really have a clear opinion, but I do know this: Lizzie ended up being a challenging and timely depiction of female rage.
"Lizzie" is one of those films that feels so perfectly timed to the #MeToo movement that it's almost impossible to view it in any other context. It contains two very phenomenal performances from its headlining ladies and presents an interesting story even if historical liberties are taken to show us what may (Or may not) have happened revolving around Lizzie Borden in 1892. For those unfamiliar with the story, they will find it both shocking and empowering. The film itself suffers from a few minor faults but as an exploration of one woman rebelling against the patriarchal society in her life, it's a bold and bloody story.
It's August 4th, 1982 in Fall River, Massachusetts. Two brutal murders have been committed within the Borden household. One is Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan), the patriarch who rules over the family name with an iron fist and the other is Abby Borden (Fiona Shaw), Andrew's second wife. Their daughter, Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) is shocked as she calls their house servant Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) to call the police for help. The film "Lizzie" takes us back six months before the murders occurred to show us Lizzie's relationship with her father, step-mother, uncle (Denis O'Hare) and her unique relationship with Bridget. All of these relationships play a role in piecing together just who exactly murdered the Bordens on that fateful day.
Lizzie is not to be messed with. As played by Chloë Sevigny, she is strong, intelligent and yes, definitely mad both mentally and at all the men in her life (In this case, her father and uncle). However, "Lizzie" explores what pushed this upstanding woman in society to break and possibly commit the murders which she was never officially charged with. Her father is portrayed to be the biggest asshole known to man (Or one could say, a stand-in for all man) who talks down to his daughter, forces himself upon women and is as cold as the film itself. This is all done expertly well by Jamey Sheridan (Who also played a great asshole type character in "Spotlight") who makes it look effortless in getting us to despise him that when Lizzie finally does lash out against him in order to reclaim her inheritance and get her revenge for a lifetime of abuse, we are fully onboard with her and Bridget. Which leads me to Kristen Stewart. Pulling off an Irish accent and baring herself both of body and soul, I believe this could possibly be the best performance I have seen Stewart give yet. The film may belong to Chloë Sevigny but somehow Stewart is able to sneak up and steal the entire film from behind her. And when they are both on screen at the same time? The results are magic, as their impulses, confusion, and intimacy carries the film's emotional weight.
But in Lizzie, director Craig William Macneill (The Boy, Channel Zero) and screenwriter Bryce Kass offer a different take on the still-unsolved killings that totally rewrites Lizzie’s narrative, casting her as a righteous heroine instead of an evil murderess. With superb performances from stars Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, this intimate drama serves as a fierce response to abuse and oppression and a seductive peek into the inner life of one of history’s most notorious killers.
In late 19th century Massachusetts, the well-to-do Borden family hires a live-in maid named Bridget (Stewart), an Irish woman with a big heart but little formal education. Lizzie (Sevigny), the family’s strong-willed youngest daughter, bonds with Bridget almost instantly, and their relationship blossoms from kind pleasantries into something much more sensual, much to the dismay of Lizzie’s domineering father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan). Meanwhile, Andrew is having business problems due to a railroad crisis, and after receiving some threatening letters, he begins entertaining the idea of putting his scumbag brother (Denis O’Hare) in charge of his finances because he doesn’t trust that his daughters are smart or capable enough to handle things themselves. But it’s not just Andrew’s financial schemes that grants Lizzie the moral high ground to eventually kill him – he’s also a serial rapist. By the time the two heroines strip naked to carry out the murders, Andrew has done plenty to establish himself as someone the world would be better without.
Sevigny is stellar in the title role, calmly rebelling against accepted norms and dishing out absolutely withering disses to high society brats and her oppressive family members alike. Stewart, an actress who’s long been underestimated due to her Twilight franchise past, adopts an Irish accent that was spot-on to my ear, and her connection with Sevigny is largely in the eyes – furtive glances between the two fly more than Lizzie’s beloved pet birds, who eventually factor into the story themselves. Both Sheridan and O’Hare bring a palpable sense of menace to their characters, playing villains that are almost cartoonish in their cruelty. Their presence, an unnerving score, a slowly-zooming camera, and the creaky, period-appropriate house that the filmmakers shot in all provide a suffocating claustrophobia for the women, who long for nothing more than to break free from their metaphorical chains.
While the film’s eventual depiction of the murders is especially brutal, the fact that it depicts a woman fighting back against her oppressors and the catharsis that comes with it is another element that feels directly tied to our current post-Weinstein climate. “We live in this world, not another,” Bridget hopelessly tells Lizzie in one scene. And though they do ultimately reside in a man’s world, Lizzie Borden’s refusal to accept her dispiriting status quo is something that – though extreme in her execution – provides an inspiring message for those who may find themselves trapped in similar circumstances today. Fascinating and ferocious, Lizzie takes a legend hardened by history and blows it up from the inside, forcing the viewer to pick up the pieces and recontextualize this figure in a whole new light.
You’ve been attached to play Lizzie Borden for a decade as the project underwent various incarnations. Can you talk about the long journey to make this story into a feature film?
Oh God, it’s so long and involved. [Laughs] It began the first time I visited the bed and breakfast in Fall River [the house where the murders took place is now a bed-and-breakfast/museum]. I was driving through Massachusetts with my boyfriend at the time, we were going to stay at the house and then go to Salem, for a spooky Halloween/romantic weekend getaway. As soon as I walked into that house, it was a moment that crystallized, and I knew I had to play this person. I felt so empathetic to her plight. Her story is so fascinating, because there are so many different theories and it’s still unsolved. The world has been fascinated by her for more than a hundred years now. She still inspires so many books, films, operas, and so many other things. She’s iconic as this misfit heroine. That was the moment that I realized I needed to do this.
This is obviously a passion project. How did you begin the process of turning it into a movie?
I was living with my friend Bryce Kass in Los Angeles as roommates. He was a struggling writer so I asked him to write it. He wrote an outline, and there was so much exposition, and we learned so many things––such as the police were at a picnic so many miles away. There were so many amazing details we could put in this story that it was hard to figure out how we wanted to do it. I was on Big Love at the time and very close to Peter Friedlander [a producer on the HBO series], so I took it to him, and he said we should pitch it to HBO. At that time—this was 10 years ago—they’d have given us more money and exposure and more people would see it on HBO than if it we made it as an indie film. That made more sense to me, you know? We pitched it, and it was there for a while. They held onto the material for a very long time. Bryce had to rewrite it as a miniseries. It was at various times a two-part miniseries and a three-part miniseries. Then they put us on the backburner over there and then picked us up again and had so many directors attached. In the end it just didn’t work out for us. We couldn’t pitch it to other networks for a variety of reasons that I had no idea about because I was so green to this whole process. The next time I’m going to have a lawyer that holds my hand through every step because it’s totally insane.
But your endurance eventually paid off.
Eventually, we had to reconceive it back to a feature and try to produce it independently ourselves. We set up a lot of meetings and sent it out to a lot of directors. I was attached and Kristen [Stewart] was kind of attached, so it’s hard to go to visionary directors who are working on their own projects when you already have actors attached. We watched Craig Macneill’s films and had conversations with him. He was actually from a place very near Fall River and had a very personal connection to Lizzie, so we decided to go with him. We found some independent financiers and set up some foreign sales and put it together. It came together really quickly.
You were born in Massachusetts, which is Lizzie Borden country. When did you first become aware of her?
I first became aware of her with the rhyme in probably junior high, or maybe I was younger. I didn’t know much about her. I was out one night for Halloween in the city, and one of my best friends was dressed as her for Halloween, so I delved into it.
What was the appeal of her story for you?
First of all, she was so misunderstood and didn’t have any real outlet. I was very empathetic to that. I wouldn’t say she’s crazy in any way, shape, or form. I just think she was disturbed. Playing a subtly disturbed person was something I’d never done before, and that interested me as an actor.
What research did you do?
I stayed at the house in Fall River several times. I went once on my own, once with Bryce, and once with the friend who had dressed up as Lizzie for Halloween. [Laughs] We went to her final resting place in Fall River and walked around Bedford. I went back with Craig and our cinematographer and art director to do more research at the Fall River Historical Society. It was very helpful in creating a fully realized version of her. We saw her objects, and they gave us permission to use a photo of her mother in the locket. I’ve read almost every book about her, and there are a lot. I actually read about different women at that time—even Emily Dickinson. There’s a great bio about her life and being imprisoned in her house, which gave me insight into what life was like in that period. My research was pretty extensive.
You really exhibited palpable rage when you were swinging the ax. How do you prepare psychologically to play a scene like that?
I’d prepared for that for 10 years now. I was naked in that scene, and now I’m sleepless every night. [Laughs] I’m 43 years old, and I can’t believe I did that. It’s not that I regret it because I wanted it to be very carnal and shocking, but now I feel pretty vulnerable, in all honesty. It’s my opinion and the writers’ that she did it and there are a lot of people who argue that she didn’t. There’s a theory that she went into an epileptic state of shock.
Lizzie has a romantic relationship with Bridget, the live-in maid, played by Kristen Stewart. How fact-based is this?
That’s not very fact-based. There are a lot of accounts of her having affairs with other women, especially Nance O’Neill, who was an actress. There are theories that that’s why she and Emma, her sister, didn’t speak to each other for the last years of their lives. We took liberty with that. There is evidence that Bridget was in cahoots and had to have been in the house [when the murders occurred]. Maybe those ladies did have one of the friendships that some women during that time period had, that were more intimate because they didn’t have anyone else. I think that after spending time in the house, we determined there was no way Bridget couldn’t have been in cahoots.
It’s a film that’s time has come in more than one way. Both Lizzie and Bridget were abused by a man in the film. How do you think the film will resonate in today’s climate when the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are calling out unacceptable behavior by men?
Since all of this has happened recently, well, I mean I’ve always thought of this film as a smack in the face of the patriarchy. It’s extreme, and it’s violent and it smashes the face of the patriarchy. That was how I pitched it 10 years ago. Putting more women in power is the only way to protect young girls. I think men will always abuse them and the more they’re called out and held accountable the less likely they’ll be to act untowardly to women––so women need to be in more positions of power. That’s the only way to shift the dynamics. There’s more of a weight and importance to films now. Even like Beatriz at Dinner [her film which premiered at Sundance in 2017], which is about so many different things now. I’m really lucky to be a part of films that reflect what’s happening in today’s society.
Photo: (L to R) Jeff Perry, Denis O'Hare and Chloe Sevigny. at the Variety Studios.
Sevigny made the trip to Sundance for the premiere of her drama “Lizzie,” about Lizzie Borden, who was accused of murdering her father and stepmother in 1892 Massachusetts. Sevigny co-produced the movie, having long been fascinated with Borden’s life.
Kristen Stewart plays Borden’s maid, Bridget Sullivan, who is believed to have had a romantic relationship with her. “I’m such a fan of Kristen,” Sevigny said. “She’s such a firecracker. I’m so honored. She said, ‘Chloe, I want to do this for you.’ There are so many movies I’ve done supporting other women and their performances are stellar.”
She said their chemistry came naturally. “What are you kidding? I think there’s a mutual admiration. I think we both really identify with an outlaw, misfit character.”
As for their love scenes in the film, Sevigny laughed: “There was a little bit of steam,” she said. “I wish there was more.”
By many measures, Joan Jett is one of the most influential figures in rock history. But how many young fans who adore her proto-punk attitude would guess that one of the rocker’s early influences was … Liza Minnelli?
“I wanted to be an actor before I fell in love with music,” Jett, 59, explains in an interview with Variety. “And ‘Cabaret’ was really the combining of the two. Seeing that, with its ’20s flapper girl decadence and the crazy makeup, around the same time I started wanting to play guitar, it all sort of melded together into this sort of slightly decadent-looking vibe — I mean, I didn’t quite have that at 13, but it was developing.”
Her career path veered decidedly to music, but she hasn’t been a stranger to the screen. The camera loved her from the moment she stepped out in red leather in 1981 for “I Love Rock ’n Roll,” one of the first true MTV-bred hits. Six years later, she took the lead opposite Michael J. Fox in Paul Schrader’s “Light of Day,” and she’s occasionally turned up since in places as unexpected as “Walker, Texas Ranger.” Her pioneering 1970s ways were immortalized for a new generation with Kristen Stewart’s portrayal in 2010’s “The Runaways,” which Jett executive produced.
Now she’s playing herself in “Bad Reputation,” a documentary that premieres at Sundance on Jan. 22, preceded by a live gig at the Park City film festival Jan. 20.
It was preordained that the film would be named after her 1980s signature song and album, but the title is a bit of a misnomer: If there’s any rocker who doesn’t require much image rehabilitation at this point, it’s the nearly universally loved Jett. “Bad Reputation” is really part of a victory lap, coming on the heels of not just that biopic about her seminal all-girl band but her 2015 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. That’s not to say the new doc feels unnecessary: As producer Carianne Brinkman says, “It’s wonderful that the Runaways’ story was told, but I didn’t think we were done telling a story about Joan Jett. I think it’s a really important story, especially for young girls to see, and also young boys.” The goal may be a tip-off that the movie’s story is less about decadence than, in Jett’s mind, “perseverance.”
Brinkman is the daughter of Kenny Laguna, a writer-producer-manager whose run of 1960s hits has long since been eclipsed by his nearly four-decade partnership with Jett. Beyond playing up the historicity of one of the first and foremost female rockers, Brinkman sensed there was a sort of buddy movie as well in the relationship between Jett and her dad: “Their banter is great, and I thought it would be entertaining for people to see that too.” A documentary wasn’t an easy sell, though, at least to Jett. “She’s an incredibly humble person, and somewhat private,” Brinkman says. “So it was kind of a reluctant getting-on-board.”
It’s oddly hard for Jett to be the center of attention offstage. “I find it very difficult to say, ‘Oh yeah, people are taking notice of me now!’” she says, having been coaxed to say just such a thing. “It just sounds weird and not humble. I find it hard to toot my own horn too loud, unless it’s in conjunction with something else, like the Runaways, or saying ‘the Blackhearts.’ But I can’t talk about me like that.”
So, leave it to her documenters. Kevin Kerslake has been one of the biggest video-directing names ever since he helmed three Nirvana clips in the early ’90s. He signed on at the end of 2016. “That’s not a lot of time to make a doc, especially one that has that kind of historical scope,” Kerslake says. “But we just put the foot to the floor.” He’s an unabashedly admiring chronicler: “I’m a huge punk-rock nut, and her roots tug on that sensibility. I also wanted to get at her stepping outside of the music world and having an impact on social justice and animal rights.” But at the core of it, he, like everyone, was taken by “the arc of a young girl, and then a young woman, cutting a path in a man’s world throughout her entire career, as a sort of feminist manifesto in the flesh.”
Kerslake was fully on board with doing a film that would be more about Jett’s career than her private life. There’s a vintage interview snippet early in “Bad Reputation,” “when she was with the Runaways and was asked about relationships and sex, and she says right then and there — as a teenage girl — that if she got into that, then from that point on every inquiry would really be colored by that answer. So, for me, it was sort of a relief. I don’t care who people sleep with or love as long as they’re doing right in the world. Plus, she’s just a workhorse, so I don’t think there’s a lot of time for relationships, in a way” — a point Jett addresses toward the end of the doc, a bit wistfully but with no great regrets.
There is an on-screen love affair, of sorts, with Laguna. “A lot of people say we’re like a married couple,” says Jett. “Soul mates sounds corny, but it feels right. We definitely connected on a mission. We’re not alike at all, but on some things we totally come together. We push each other’s buttons, and he tests and pushes me, and it’s engaging intellectually as well. It can go from very friendly to explosive and then two seconds later be fine, though it’s probably traumatic for the people around us,” she laughs.
Interviewees in the doc include onetime co-star Fox, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! speaks to Jett being one of the first to call and offer support when she came out as transgender. Miley Cyrus talks about finding inspiration in musical lust: “I think there’s this thing that women are supposed to act like we don’t like to f**k too.” Kathleen Hanna touches on Jett’s personal mentorship of members of the riot grrrl generation. Stewart recalls the instruction she got from Jett about how to look more convincing as a rock guitarist: “Pussy to the wood, Kristen!” (“You had to be there” is all Jett will say of this particular inclusion.) And on the other end of the spectrum, there’s a worshipful cameo from unlikely mega-fan U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley.
Jett became a big pop star in the ’80s, of course, but she chuckles at how little that was worth to some. “I learned in the film that Ian MacKaye from Fugazi had no idea who I was,” she says, “but once he knew I was the person that produced the Germs, because that was a big [band] to him, then he knew who I was. It’s just so funny. It’s why you can’t be a smart-ass and assume that everybody knows who you are, because depending on what world you travel in, you might not make a dent. So just be humble and be happy you’re making a living doing what you love.”
Given Jett’s extreme role-model status, the film’s guest list naturally tips to appreciative women. She values the new climate of outspokenness that might make things easier on younger generations. “The situations women and girls find themselves in daily is something I’ve dealt with since before being in a band was even a conscious thought in my head,” she says. “I applaud the women who have found the strength to speak out about demeaning, vicious, sometimes violent experiences and a misogyny that is pretty much baked into American society. In my experience, very little has changed on that plain in 40 years. Now that attention is focused on these entrenched problems, let’s deal with it at its roots and not let this moment slip through our fingers.”
Kerslake tries to tilt the movie’s climax toward Jett’s activism for animals and the environment. But career-wise, there’s another obvious happy ending. In 2014, she’s seen fronting the surviving membership of Nirvana at that band’s Hall of Fame induction, with Krist Novoselic knocking the Hall for not already having her in. The following year, she made it. “Part of me thinks that [Nirvana members] saying it on TV pressured them into it. Krist was saying, ‘What are you guys, nuts?’ So he embarrassed them into it.” She pauses, chuckling. “That’s my humbleness again.”
As it turns out, humility and swagger aren’t mutually exclusive.
'Bad Reputation' premieres at Sundance on 22 January and will screen throughout the film festival.
Macneill: “I had hoped to shoot on film since we were doing a period film, but, unfortunately, we could not for a variety of reasons. However, our DP (Noah Greenberg) and I know the Alexa well, and felt comfortable embracing digital on this, particularly given the tight 23-day shooting schedule. I didn’t want the film to look too sharp and crisp, though, which is a quality often associated with shooting in digital formats. I wanted there to be a soft, painterly quality to the image. Noah and I used vintage Cooke Speed Panchro lenses on a portion of a TV series we shot in 2016 and we were thrilled with the soft, immersive quality that they gave us, and knew that they would fit our desired look for “Lizzie.” Our plan was to keep the light neutral and clean with an emphasis on naturalism throughout. Our daytime interiors are dim and were motivated by soft window light; our nighttime interiors were often lit only by candles and flame which also allows for pools of darkness that obscure the frame. We wanted those pockets of darkness, many of which take up much of the frame, to feel textured and rich. We didn’t want to expose for safety and then ‘print down’ in post. In the end, we were happy with what we were seeing with the combination of the Alexa SXT and the Cooke Speed Panchro lenses.”