Interview is from the press day roundtable discussions.
Justin, why would you say you gravitate toward real stories?
Justin Kelly (JK): Well, I have done three, and honestly it's not seeking true stories out, it just keeps happening. But I will say, of course, I wouldn't tell them if I didn't love them. I think it's, you know, truth is stranger than fiction, and there are so many amazing stories out there, and there is something with each one. There is something that feels very good about trying to find and craft a true story.
There's a tabloid one liner - for my first film (I Am Michael), it was something like ‘Gay Activist Becomes an Anti-Gay Pastor’, you know? And this one is, ‘Two Women Trick the Literary World’. And it's kind of fun to do research - whether there's a book involved or an article or something - and tear it apart and try to find the real story behind that tabloid one liner. There's something very fulfilling for me about doing that.
Savannah Knoop (SK): Mystery is so much about a reveal. You look at the reveal then you go backwards and it's like this tangling of all these people's lives.
JK: Through her details.
What was your first conversation like? Justin, were there things that you especially wanted to bring out of Savannah's story - that you encouraged her to hone in on?
JK: I think for me, since I was living in San Francisco when the whole thing happened, and was truthfully obsessed with the story- I loved the book Sarah, but more so when I would look through images in magazines and see JT's photo, and then reading Sarah, it was just like ‘What is happening?!’
I didn't think it was fake, I mean the rumors surrounding whether or not JT was real, as you see in the film, made people believe even more, because if he wasn't real then why is he out in the world? Why is Courtney Love saying they're friends?
JK: I believed it! So for me it was reading the memoir (Girl, Boy, Girl) and after I finished the book, I thought, ‘Oh my god, this story is something completely different. It's so much more complicated than what some people would say,
‘These women who tricked everybody for fame and money’, that's not what happened and that's not what this story’s about, so, when I read it, it was less of me wanting something from Savannah and more so me realizing that she already had this incredible story written down, that we wanted to realize.
Savannah, are you still in contact with Laura Albert at all?
SK: Occasionally we email. We send each other YouTube links that we think the other would enjoy. She will see the film.
A decade ago, Albert didn't have the nicest things to say about the prospect of you writing your memoirs...
SK: For sure. That's true. I mean actually when I first started, like after the reveal, I said ‘Wow, this is crazy. I have to start writing this down and figure out what had happened and I asked Laura to do it with me. We should kind…
SK: Yeah, kind of go back together, and she wasn't interested in that. And so when I wrote the book, in some ways it was sort of a breakup publicly. There's that line, “Just because you played a writer doesn't mean you are a writer” (Albert’s initial response). It's interesting. It's an interesting statement in context. But obviously I think she's an amazing artist, and I have a lot of respect for her and I probably wouldn't have engaged in the first place if I didn't feel that way.
I enjoy the meta moments in the film that tease reality, like the cameo from JT’s old friend, Courtney Love.
JK: Yeah! Right? That's another moment where it's like that person actually was involved.
SK: She doesn’t play herself. She’s a producer.
Did Love enjoy being a part of the film?
JK: Yeah she did. We were really hoping to have at least one of the real people involved, meaning one of JT's friends, and Courtney Love, being a seasoned actress, felt like the logical first idea. I really had no idea if she would say yes or not. She just kind of liked the idea of this full-circle moment after having been friends with JT for so long out, being able to come back and play a fake character herself in the JT story. She was so cool, so fun to work with, and I was there when she saw Savannah for the first time.
Tell me about it!
JK: I can't remember what she said. But it was something like “I know you... Get over here!”
What were the biggest changes from your first draft to your final draft?
SK: So many.
JK: In the first draft, Laura and Savannah travel basically. It was like you see how Savannah becomes JT. They go to all these places and then the movie ends. And then in the last draft we sort of removed the information, the exposition with travel- I mean they still travel in the film, but… I remember a particular producer friend read the first draft - that we thought was so good, of course - and he was like, "This story's incredible. I love it, but I don't know who these two women are."
So the biggest change was flipping it and making it less so about JT and how they pulled it off and more why, really getting into their lives, which is why so much of the film takes place in their apartments, really, or inside. I almost think people when they get to see it will expect a much broader scope. But the story just became better and better and better the more we get more internal and intimate.
At this point, Justin and Savannah leave to join another small table of journalists as Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern take their seats across from us. A fellow to my right begins the conversation by comparing the onscreen relationship of Laura and Savannah to Clarence and Alabama of True Romance, adding that, “of course there is some inequality in this powerplay…”
Kristen Stewart (KS): It is a love story, 100 percent, which is strange because if you look at the story on a surface level, you can make assumptions that might lead you in the wrong direction. Such as, ‘Oh Savannah was manipulated and she was swept up in something so much larger than her, and there was this weird Svengali like figure behind the curtain.’
They were both really facilitating, in an ironic way, very, very deep embedded truths. They're sort of allowing each other to have them and really taste them. They really saw each other and they were really deeply protective of one another and still are. And they spent so much time together as well that they became a little consumed and a little addicted and codependent to a certain extent. And that's obviously never the healthiest thing, but real like real rock 'em sock 'em love stories are never healthy. It was really fun to get to know them as a couple.
Laura Dern: It was amazing!
KS: She just keeps saying that. (Teasingly imitating Dern) “Everything was amazing!”
LD: It was! I mean, that part of it was forever a love story. We had to find each other in it, and it got to be this amazing incredible human being who was as generous as Savannah is. (Gazing at Kristen) You open your heart, you tell me the truth with your eyes. (Turning back to us) You don't get that even from the finest actors. It's a different requirement to be an open human being.
What excited you most about taking on your individual roles?
KS: Well, the story takes place over like six years. When you meet Savannah, in the beginning of the story, she's a really sort of a lovely, fragile, delicate little forest animal. Seeing someone like that get swept up in something so much larger than her and then come out the other side of it the way that she did, and the sort of self exploration and sort of articulation of her identity was, to me, just like so cool.
And I think that I wanted to protect that. I wanted to protect her. I didn't want anyone to come in and fake that, because I have experience with that. I know what that feels like to be affected by the fact that maybe the way you're presenting doesn't necessarily line up with how you're feeling inside, and struggling with that and being in the public eye. It was so meta, I was like, ‘Dude, I got you. I know exactly how to protect you in this and tell that story truthfully.
And then, additionally, I think that Laura and Savannah's dynamic - the ‘art as savior’ story - is also something that runs through my veins. I think that if I didn't have my outlets, I don't know who I'd be, how I'd feel, I don't know how I'd survived, so I think it's a survival story on another level... and a dope love story and a weird and cool part of history.
LD: (Enraptured by Stewart) Oh! Um, same. Ditto.
KS: “It was amaazing!”
LD: Yeah it was soooo amazing!!
I mean, your character, Laura, is so complicated. We fault her, but we also feel for her, thanks to you.
LD: Well, that certainly was, as an actor, a great, delicious challenge that made me want to do it. If I read (a character) and don't know how to find deep empathy, then I want to take it on to figure it out, because it means I'm not seeing the truth, and I'm not being generous.
So then I want to find my way to understanding her, someone who's that desperate to be heard or be seen. It was an incredible opportunity to try to figure that out. There were moments where I felt venom and viscousness but I love her. Unfortunately, and fortunately, we've not been our best selves in our deepest love stories.
Sara Michelle Fetters: How did Bryce Kass’ script surprise you? What struck you most about what he had written?
Chloë Sevigny: So I developed the project, so I don’t think I would say Bryce’s script surprised me. I produced it. There were many different versions of the script. So really for me, having done extensive research on Lizzie Borden and the murders in Fall River, Massachusetts, I really just wanted to humanize Lizzie and to make a personal movie about her. I wanted to explore the love. Having been to the home where the murders took place, which is now a bed and breakfast, the writer and I ascertained that there was no way these women couldn’t have been together, and I love a tragic love story.
There are rumors of [Lizzie] having romances with other women, and I think there’s a lot of historical documentation of relationships between servants and woman in households during that time period. In this case, Lizzie and Bridget were prisoners of this household. They were all prisoners of Andrew Borden, the father, and living in his house all together, so a relationship had to be borne out of that. Not necessarily sexual, but some sort of closeness. It had to exist. This adds another aspect of the movie in the form of the tragic love story and the fact people so often have dangerous experiences when falling in love. That somebody else can provide a certain amount of freedom, or happiness, or security, stuff like that. I think Lizzie experiences that. Lizzie thinks that if she and Bridget are together life is just going to be hunky dory. I wanted to explore that as well.
What was it about Lizzie’s story that captivated you and just kept you this inspired? Had you wanting to explore this story in such detail?
I’ve been continually fascinated with her, but when we first set out to make the project, it was quite a while ago, and then the property, it went to another studio. So we had to fight to get it back. But that’s just part of the business. It wasn’t like I was every day trying to get this movie made. There were long periods when I was doing other stuff, other TV shows and movies. But it cycled back into my life at the right time. We got the property back and within a year we’re releasing the movie.
So it was more waiting for all of that to happen. But I think to me, there’s already a captive audience for Lizzie’s story. People want to know about Lizzie, just look at the other TV shows, movies, plays and operas that have been made utilizing her story. This woman has captivated American audiences for a very long time.
What I really liked about the movie is was the way that you humanized this situation. We really do feel that intense pressure that, not only is Lizzie feeling, or that Bridget is feeling, but her sister, Emma, is forced to deal with as well. You can just really feel this smothering on Andrew’s part and how it is affecting every member of the household.
Yeah. I think that’s right. Even the step-mother. I think they’re all prisoners in this house all together.
Why was it so important for you, Bryce and Craig to pass that feeling of being trapped, of being smothered by Andrew, onto the audience as completely as you do? I don’t think I’ve seen about Lizzie Borden that’s emphasized this element of her story to such a degree before.
I think that that’s the big reason why Lizzie committed these heinous acts. That she had no options. She was really oppressed and repressed, and there was nowhere for her to turn. I think a lot of women still feel trapped and have very limited choices. We don’t want to condone violence, obviously, but we did want to shed a light on abuses of power.
Talk a little bit about the relationship between you and Kristen. How did you two develop that intense, almost wordless chemistry?
I think we’re really both really good at acting without dialog. I think we both just have that ability. For me, I can just stare endlessly at her, there’s so much going on behind her eyes. You can always see her thinking. I think that she’s one of my favorite actresses because, knowing her as a person, and even before I knew her, you can tell she’s a very authentic person. She brings that to Bridget.
It comes across in her performances. Kristen’s not holding anything in. She doesn’t want anything to ring as phony baloney, for a lack of better words. There was a mutual admiration between us over our choices, about who we are and what we represent. And, yeah, I think we just really liked each other. I think that is the bottom line.
With this being an independent production without a ton of financial resources, was there time for you two to rehearse? Did you even want time to rehearse? Or did the two of you just figure out how you were going to interact when you got to the set?
We were working around her schedule, around her availability, but Kristen came to Savannah and was there for the whole duration. Because of that we had a few days before we started shooting that we were combing through the script, going over every line, every nuance, and anything that she was curious about. We worked on it all because we knew that on the day of shooting there wasn’t going to be a lot of time.
But then, even on those days, she wanted to explore and do other things, and when you have a great actress like Kristen you want to give her that time to put that out there. That’s not difficult. You’re excited to have that. When you have someone that’s going to deliver, you want to give them the space to do just that, and Kristen continually delivered.
Then there are those scenes between you and Jamey Sheridan. There is this tension between the two of you that is there right from the start. How was it that you were able to just make that feel so uncomfortably palpable?
I think a lot of that was on the page, going back to what you said about when you receive the script, so that was already there for us. It is also the crux of the story. We wanted to really hit that home, and Jamey was a team player. I think he was excited to take on this patriarchal figure and make him so complex. I appreciate everything he brought to the performance and to the part.
Jamey didn’t want Andrew to be this tyrant. He was like, no, that’s just not the way it’s going to be. He is very quiet, very intense, very methodical, all of which is almost scarier than having him get loud and go big. I think that is really what he does with the part, makes Andrew his own like that, which to me is more interesting than someone who could have been just flying off the handle all the time. Keeping it quiet is freakier.
Looking at the caliber of actors you were able to get to be a part of the film, were you at all surprised they came aboard? Fiona Shaw, Kim Dickens, Denis O’Hare, these aren’t big parts yet they are still given the freedom to make the most out of them.
It didn’t surprise me. I think they all wanted to support the film. I think there’s so few films out there that I think can talk about social injustice, speak to what is going on in society right now, and yet also entertain. I think it just felt like an important story that they wanted to be a part of telling. Dennis and I have worked together on “American Horror Story,” so we already had a relationship, and Fiona Shaw had worked with Craig on “Channel Zero” I think, do they also had a relationship. And Kim Dickens had worked with one of our producers, so there was that relationship, too. A lot of it was just us calling up people that we knew and hoping that they would find something in the script that they found compelling so they would want to be a part of telling this story. Everybody came out and gave us their time. It was so generous.
And, personally, I just love watching Denis. He’s so creepy!
I don’t want to reveal anything, but I’m so glad you say that. The two key scenes you two share together, the way they sort of bookend the core parts of the narrative, you two are just superb in those moments.
Thank you! Denis is just so great. He’s a generous actor. I loved doing those scenes with him.
I know we’re out of time so I’ll just ask one last quick question. What do you hope people are talking about when the film comes to an end?
I think it’s a beautiful story about women who are trapped and oppressed by men. Lizzie fights back against the status quo. She’s an outlaw.
Ten years ago, Kristen Stewart became what she calls "oddly famous." The California native had started working in films when she was 9 but it was the "Twilight" series that came along almost a decade later to generate more than $3.3 billion in box office sales and send her stardom skyrocketing.
The one question Stewart kept getting asked was what she planned to do after "Twilight." What she did was keep making movies ranging from big budget tales like "Snow White and the Huntsman" to her recent work in the independent-style production, "Lizzie."
In "Lizzie," Stewart plays Bridget Sullivan, the housemaid in the home where the father and stepmother of Lizzie Borden (Chloe Sevigny) are brutally murdered. More than a century has passed since the crimes were committed, but Borden continues to be an iconic figure in creepy American history.
"It's hard to think of your life as a trajectory," Stewart says. "It's easy for an outsider to kind of gauge on what seems to be the most significant happenings in your life and use those as touchstones. I was working rather consistently on smaller independent movies before I did 'Twilight.'
"I kept getting questions about how it felt now that I had all this success and would I be taking advantage of that. Or, did I feel like I couldn't live the way I wanted to and do independent movies anymore. Nothing really changed for me professionally except for an immense amount of access. It's easier to get a project greenlit."
Stewart's approach to her career is to ignore all of the outside chatter and focus on projects that interest her in some fashion. In the case of "Lizzie," it helped that while she liked the script, Stewart was the very first person considered to play Sullivan. Her casting was critical for director Craig William Macneill and writer Bryce Kass.
The moment Sevgny and Stewart started working together, it was clear that they had the chemistry needed to play the two women who bonded over their circumstances. There has been a lot of fact and fiction related to Lizzie Borden. It was critical that what is presented in "Lizzie" has been verified as much as possible.
"Lizzie's what would be considered then as having dysfunctional sexuality. That detail seems to be consistent enough that it must be is rooted in some truth," Stewart says. "Considering her housemaid, whom she apparently was close with, was the only other person at the house during the two hour period when the murders happened and she didn't hear a thing. And she was washing the same window for two hours. "So I am pretty certain they were in cahoots."
Kass describes Stewart and Sevigny working together as a "once-in-a-lifetime partnership between two gifted performers at the height of their power." Macneill adds that Stewart was so prepared to play the role that she brought more levels to the character than were in the script.
That's natural acting abilities as Stewart has never been a big fan of doing a lot of research and rehearsal. In the case of "Lizzie," there was very little information on Sullivan so Stewart's approach was to get an understanding of the time period and what women would have been going through in terms of social and economic oppression. The one thing she was concerned about in her performance the most was making sure that her Irish accent was believable.
This approach has been the norm for Stewart who has been acting for 18 years in such films as "Panic Room," "Adventureland," "The Runaways," "On the Road" and "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk." Stewart became the first American actress to be awarded France's Cesar Award in the Best Supporting Actress category for her role in Olivier Assayas' "Clouds of Sils Maria."
Her selection of roles has been a different process each time. There have been some films that Stewart knew immediately after reading only a few pages she wanted to do. Other times, it has been the actors or directors involved with the project who prove to be a lure creatively.
"As soon as I start reading a script and I start to get nervous and worried that it is going to be made properly, because I want it to be preserved and taken care of, that's when I know I have enough vested interest to do something as ludicrous as being an actor in a movie," Stewart says.
Stewart finds it difficult to evaluate where she was 10 years ago compared to today and where she thinks she will be in a decade. For her, it all comes down to the same forces that have been inside her before, during and after that period that made her "oddly famous."
"I am so happy to be working with who I am working with. I am also really happy that my interest has never dwindled. I am still as obsessed with making movies now as I have ever been. Even more," Stewart says.
Kelvin, you got Jeremiah Terminator Leroy coming up and it’s going to be the closing night film. What’s you’re role in the film?
I basically play Savannah Knoops’ boyfriend, so Kristen’s boyfriend in the movie. He goes to design school and he is kind of a free spirit and he’s just kind of vibing and they’re just really in love.
How was working with Kristen Stewart?
I was so scared of her the first time I met her. I was so intimated. I was like, she’s Kristen and she was the sweetest person I met. We really built beautiful this friendship and relationship for that movie, and it was special and unique and surprising. She’s captivating that girl.
Closing night in Toronto brought Justin Kelly’s $2 million indie labor of love, “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy,” which lured two bankable actresses with its twisted but true tale of mistaken author/avatar identity. Dern flew to Toronto from filming “Little Women” and Stewart from the set of “Charlie’s Angels” to help Kelly sell the movie in Toronto. The filmmakers wanted to screen “Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy” to friendly TIFF fans in order to land some upbeat reactions. (Metascore: 63.)
“This is as independent as it can get,” said Dern on the phone from the TIFF press day. “If a distributor gives Justin the time and love he needs to shape it, it’s about being able to finesse a thing we made on a shoestring.”
Clearly, both actresses rolled up their sleeves on set. When extras didn’t arrive in late ’90s-early ’00s period clothing, Dern and Stewart threw T-shirts on them “so it looks like a rich and real environment to live and breathe in,” said Stewart. “We are really running and gunning.” For the party scene, they threw a “house party” and ordered pizza, while the cinematographer picked up the camera.
The two women also bonded as the hardworking LA children of industry pros. “We both grew up knowing movie sets like a second home,” said Dern. “I gotta say, I could never have a more perfect partner who knows how to make $2 million movie. We’ve seen it all.”
Unlike Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary “Author: The JT LeRoy Story,” author Laura Albert (Laura Dern), who created the fictional battered memoirist JT Leroy, is not the central focus, but rather her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart), who also produced and co-wrote the screenplay.
Over six years, Knoop took on the public role of the shy, soft-spoken androgynous author LeRoy, while Albert whispered into the ears of his many celebrity fans by phone. On one trip when Knoop left her Bay Area boyfriend behind, she embarked on a lesbian affair with a charismatic filmmaker (Diane Kruger plays a version of Asia Argento), who turned her book into a movie. That’s when Knoop’s idenity was really challenged. Who was making love to who?
The actresses supported each other as they tried to help Kelly and Knoop deliver a believable movie, which was complicated at best. Both actresses took on and off multiple costumes and wigs as several characters: Albert has her own red-wigged alter ego as JT LeRoy’s pushy manager/publicist, while Knoop’s LeRoy persona keeps evolving, adopting a blonde wig and black hat. “We were changing constantly,” said Dern. “It was as punk rock as anything.”
“You do what you have to do,” said Stewart, “when you’re trying to get on the other side of adversity. Our intentions were aligned, with a few heartbreaks when things were not perfect and we were not getting what we wanted. We bolstered each other in way that allowed us to laugh at it as well. Considering the budget and time restraints, everyone had to stand at attention and not let things slip through cracks.”
The actress was also trying to protect Knoop, “who was not just a silly kid swept up in something that exploded in her face,” said Stewart. “She was fearful at losing herself in something bigger than her. It was a performative weird experience that was dizzying and exhilarating and confidence building. But it took a lot from her, it was draining, and at the end she couldn’t get away from it. There’s nothing worse than not being seen. I’m happy this movie exists because this is what fucking happened.”
“JT was one way for Laura to express her own pain and experience,” said Dern, who fell in love with Albert’s “brokenness.” “It was one writer’s way of expressing their truth.” As eagerly as celebrities jumped on the JT LeRoy bandwagon, after the fabricated identity was exposed, they angrily attacked Albert and Knoop for lying to them. “You’re asking, ‘Who’s using who?’ said Dern. “Is everybody so desperate that they need to be part of this thing?”
Stewart, who is openly bisexual, is thrilled that screenwriters are bringing her a wider range of women to play (she and Chloe Sevigne play lovers in “LIzzie,” which just hit theaters). “That has opened up in the world a bit,” Stewart said. “It’s not solely my journey to now start playing gender-fluid characters. More of them are now being written and presented to me. That’s a triumph for sure. I read things and say, ‘Where are the queer kids?’ I feel happy championing and telling those stories.”
She also didn’t mind joining the light-hearted set of Elizabeth Banks’ remake of “Charlie’s Angels.” “I’ve never done such a fun movie,” Stewart said. “JT was fun but it was dark and heavy, a lot of weight. This was a lot of flouncing around joking, women supporting each other, not just kicking ass and being kitschy. It was so well-intentioned and warm and strong. The only reason to remake ‘Charlie’s Angels’ was to do a super-woke version, with no objectification whatsoever.”
Dern is also remaking a classic, director Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” she said, “trying to do a new retelling from a female feminist perspective, with a delicious group of women.”