Ahead of her time

Wash Westmoreland on Richard Glatzer, Andrea Flesch and the relationships in Colette

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Wash Westmoreland at Le Parker Meridien in New York : "My co-writer and late husband Richard Glatzer was really the first one to feel a connection. He spoke fluent French  and his birthday was the same day as Colette's."
Wash Westmoreland at Le Parker Meridien in New York : "My co-writer and late husband Richard Glatzer was really the first one to feel a connection. He spoke fluent French and his birthday was the same day as Colette's." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Wash Westmoreland's Colette, co-written with Richard Glatzer (who co-wrote and co-directed Still Alice, The Last Of Robin Hood, and Quinceañera with Wash) and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (co-writer of Sebastián Lelio's Disobedience and Pawel Pawlikowski's Oscar-winner Ida) stars Keira Knightley in the title role, Dominic West as her husband Willy, Fiona Shaw as her mother Sido, Denise Gough as her girlfriend Missy, Eleanor Tomlinson as Georgie Raoul-Duval, Robert Pugh as Colette's father Jules, and Dickie Beau as the mime Wague.

Julia Kristeva's trilogy Female Genius: Life, Madness, Words (Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein, Colette), costume designer Andrea Flesch, a connection between Coco Chanel and Colette, Maurice Chevalier's character in Vincente Minnelli's Gigi, Keira Knightley and the cat, a dog named Life, and the early influence and enthusiasm of Richard Glatzer for Colette all come up in the first episode of my conversation with Wash Westmoreland.

Missy (Denise Gough) with Colette (Keira Knightley)
Missy (Denise Gough) with Colette (Keira Knightley)

Colette is a beautiful portrayal of a very important writer. It begins with 19-year-old Colette (Keira Knightley, energetic and thoughtful) in bed at her family home being awakened by sunshine and her restless cat. This is only the first of many awakenings which focuses on her early years and the marriage to Willy (Dominic West), a writer and Paris society fixture who employs a number of ghostwriters doing the work for him that he publishes under his pseudonym. Soon his wife will be one of them.

He convinces her, lacking his usual charm, by locking her in a room and telling her to put words to paper. The outcome is unforeseen. The Claudine stories, based on Colette's childhood become a gigantic success. For Willy. His rampant infidelities are juxtaposed with Colette's curiosity. When she meets Mathilde de Moray (Denise Gough), who goes by the name Missy and wears men's clothes, a new bond is formed, one that relies less on exploitation.

Colette's life and work was a marvel of complexity. It is important to have a new generation discover her. In the middle of the 20th century, Hollywood produced Gigi, and even then the subversive sparks could not be contained by adding a patronising, lecherous framing device that has Maurice Chevalier praise in song the heavens for inventing little girls for the amusement of little boys.

This evocation of Colette in 2018 knows that its heroine will always be larger than what is on screen - which makes it such a pleasure to watch.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You'll be having a big premiere at the London Film Festival this week. Keira will be there? All the actors?

Wash Westmoreland on Willy (Dominic West) with Colette (Keira Knightley): "There's a fine line. He should be enough of a monster to really understand why she has to escape from him."
Wash Westmoreland on Willy (Dominic West) with Colette (Keira Knightley): "There's a fine line. He should be enough of a monster to really understand why she has to escape from him."

Wash Westmoreland: I think they're all going to be there. It's the one occasion where we have everybody. The whole cast came out of, sort of British acting.

AKT: For a film about a French woman. One of the most important writers.

WW: I agree completely. So ahead of her time and so relevant today.

AKT: Julia Kristeva has a trilogy of works on Female Genius. One is Hannah Arendt. Another one is Colette. [The third volume is on Melanie Klein]

WW: Colette! I didn't know that one.

AKT: It's not predictable who loves Colette.

WW: It's true. She just reaches out to certain people. My co-writer and late husband Richard Glatzer was really the first one to feel a connection. He spoke fluent French and his birthday was the same day as Colette's.

AKT: Which day is that?

WW: 28th of January. He always tongue-in-cheek said it was a connection they had. He was an avid reader, he started reading biographies and also her early novels around 1999. And he was telling me that she was just the most amazing person that he encountered.

AKT: The film is dedicated to Richard and I am so happy that I still got to meet him and discuss Errol Flynn [in The Last Of Robin Hood] with him.

Eleanor Tomlinson is Georgie Raoul-Duval - Wash Westmoreland on costume designer Andrea Flesch: "She was obsessed with 19th century fabrics and materials and stitching and wanted every detail."
Eleanor Tomlinson is Georgie Raoul-Duval - Wash Westmoreland on costume designer Andrea Flesch: "She was obsessed with 19th century fabrics and materials and stitching and wanted every detail."

WW: Yes! At that point, I believe, he'd lost his voice partially? Was he speaking then or typing?

AKT: He was typing.

WW: Throughout Still Alice he was still typing but it got down to one finger. After Still Alice was out in the theatres, and there was the Academy Awards - by that time he was very, very sick [with ALS], but he got to see that event. And after that I said "What do you want to do next?" And he said "Colette." He passed away shortly after.

AKT: Are there moments in the film that are absolute Richard moments? That come completely from him?

WW: Oh yeah!

AKT: Too many to mention? Can you point to one that you had in the early stages of working on the script?

WW: When she [Colette] goes to the salon for the first time. That scene was very much in the first draft. It's a lot of Richard's ideas.

AKT: With the tortoise?

WW: Yeah, and "the slipperiest eel in the sea." All the kind of barbed wit that's traded around the marriage was very much a Richard Glatzer touch. He loved that bitchy stuff!

AKT: That scene was great.

WW: I did notes on a scene for Vanity Fair using that piece because it sets up a lot of things in that sequence, you know. About their marriage and you understand that Willy is a ghost writer for the first time and you see how Colette's out of place in Parisian society.

Richard Glatzer with Wash Westmoreland: "All the kind of barbed wit that's traded around the marriage [of Colette and Willy] was very much a Richard Glatzer touch."
Richard Glatzer with Wash Westmoreland: "All the kind of barbed wit that's traded around the marriage [of Colette and Willy] was very much a Richard Glatzer touch." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Starting with the clothes already - what she is wearing to the party. I think that is something that almost everybody experienced at least once in their life. That you are totally in the wrong clothes.

WW: In the wrong clothes and then just that feeling of burning embarrassment.

AKT: And then it all depends how you deal with it!

WW: But - fast-forward ten years, and they would all be copying the way Colette dressed. It's this interesting positioning of the least powerful person finding their voice and being able to have a cultural influence.

AKT: There were moments that brought to mind even Coco Chanel. There is an overlap, fashion-wise, corset-less.

WW: There is! Colette was very interested in clothes and fashion and very much had her own style.

AKT: Beautiful costume design for your film.

WW: Thank you. Andrea Flesch - I had seen her work in Duke Of Burgundy and I just thought she's this very inspired costume designer. She was obsessed with 19th century fabrics and materials and stitching and wanted every detail. A lot of those pieces are original 19th century clothes.

Our concept was that the people in the background, the aristocrats, dressed in a more showy way. More colour and frills and feathers. Colette would be wearing simpler clothes, like black and white with simple lines. She would stand out because she was the modern.

AKT: Again, similar to Chanel.

WW: I think there's a soul connection between Colette and Coco.

AKT: I liked all the yellow she wears at the beginning. It contains some of the sunniness she had growing up in then countryside.

Wash Westmoreland on Keira Knightley as Colette: "It's this interesting positioning of the least powerful person finding their voice and being able to have a cultural influence."
Wash Westmoreland on Keira Knightley as Colette: "It's this interesting positioning of the least powerful person finding their voice and being able to have a cultural influence."

WW: Yeah, the connection to the countryside and nature, you know, that sense of connection to things natural. Unlike the tortoise which has been decorated to look like something it isn't. That's why she connects to the tortoise because she feels it's like a natural creature who is in the wrong spot [the tortoise is "embellished" with faux jewels glued to its shell]

AKT: I've been writing and talking about animals in films a lot in the past two weeks. The New York Film Festival is full of them. A few days ago, I asked the Coen brothers about the animals in The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs.

WW: I am dying to see that!

AKT: It's a fantastic Western trope anthology. In Colette, I absolutely loved the beginning with the cat.

WW: On the bed?

AKT: Yes.

WW: That was the first day of our shoot. And the cat - I had asked for a really old, sleepy cat. And they brought a four-year-old cat that was like bouncing off the walls! And the amount of takes we had to get the cat lie still on the bed and go up and lick Keira! It was two hours, maybe three hours and I knew Keira was under the bed sheets the very first morning of the shoot thinking - What the hell have I signed up for?

AKT: That's what you get when you go for cat acting! It's like François Truffaut in La Nuit Américaine, Day For Night.

WW: Oh yes!

AKT: The film shoot? The cat is supposed to drink the milk or not. Remember? It was worth it in your case too. It works.

Colette US poster at the Angelika Film Center in New York
Colette US poster at the Angelika Film Center in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

WW: You got to start a movie of Colette off with a cat. There's also a cat at the very end of the movie when she's in the music hall. And then there's her little dog, French Bulldog, Toby Chien, who was played by an Hungarian dog. His name was Life. It's a fantastic name for a dog. Colette was very much an early animal rights person.

AKT: I did not know that. I love that.

WW: I mean, when she was touring with the Music Hall, she intervened if she saw some of the dog trainers having the dogs poorly treated. Or there was a bear that had a muzzle that was cutting into its mouth. She intervened. Her writing is very much about nature, animals, seasons.

AKT: You managed, as you say with effort, to get that cat act so naturally, including the head-butts.

WW: A completely naturalistic performance!

AKT: I liked your attention to details. The cucumbers Colette's mother [Fiona Shaw] ….

WW: It's courgettes, zucchinis. She's almost kind of hacking away, talking about Willy - she's kind of like castrating him! I love the way Fiona does that.

AKT: She is great. That's an interesting combination, Fiona Shaw playing Keira Knightley's mother.

WW: Yes it is! It's like the relationship between Sido and Colette could have its own movie. Sido is this very interesting character, you know, during her youth she lived in an anarchist colony in Belgium where they practised complete gender equality. And she always brought Colette up that there is nothing that can stop you doing what you want to do. She really imbued her daughter a tremendous kind of confidence and this rock-solid belief in herself.

AKT: Which is immensely inspiring - to get that from a mother.

WW: But she was also very possessive over her daughter and really resented Willy, rightfully, seeing him as someone who is exploiting her. She very much approved of Missy, which again was very far-sighted. Whom she saw as very positive in support of Colette's life and work.

AKT: The Willy character - you could have made him an easy monster, and you didn't. There is still some charm to him, which makes it even more horrible how he treats her.

Wash Westmoreland on Dominic West as Willy: "Many powerful men we hear stories in the papers about today, who behave badly, they're not appearing like Satan incarnate."
Wash Westmoreland on Dominic West as Willy: "Many powerful men we hear stories in the papers about today, who behave badly, they're not appearing like Satan incarnate."

WW: There's a fine line. He should be enough of a monster to really understand why she has to escape from him. But he should be charming enough to see how difficult it was for her. There's a certain formative relationship there.

She was a teenager when she first fell in love with him and he was her first love and there was a very deep connection up until the final betrayal. She found it very difficult to cut that cord. Many powerful men we hear stories in the papers about today, who behave badly, they're not appearing like Satan incarnate.

AKT: Some do!

WW: Some do!

AKT: Some look the part.

WW: Some look like it, yes. Which is just poetic justice. But others can be very charming and actually just all about their own ego but they get away with it through this kind of traditional male permission to take over and direct everything towards yourself.

AKT: Just the fact that the Claudine costume can be interpreted in such a variety of ways.

WW: It's such an amazing thing, isn't it? Claudine for her [Colette] was a way to express her feelings about her teenage years and her sense of liberation. For Willy, Claudine was titillation, it was the naughty schoolgirl, the schoolgirl who might flirt with the headmaster, might have an affair with her schoolfriend.

They were really coming at Claudine from two different places. Which you're getting to in the scene when Claudine is becoming this cultural phenomenon. And it's come from their bedroom, it's come from this private fetishism.

Willy (Dominic West) with Colette (Keira Knightley): "Yeah, the connection to the countryside and nature [for her], you know, that sense of connection to things natural."
Willy (Dominic West) with Colette (Keira Knightley): "Yeah, the connection to the countryside and nature [for her], you know, that sense of connection to things natural."

AKT: Before Richard approached you with the subject, do you remember your first encounter with Colette?

WW: I was ignorant of Colette's life and works. And I think many people are. I think inside France ...

AKT: Gigi?

WW: Of course Gigi! I knew the name Colette but not enough to differentiate her as a writer/personality, you know, someone who now dominates my life in every way. Richard knew more. Richard had a Ph.D in literature and knew the rough outlines of her story.

I think within France, she's very well known but mainly for her persona towards the end of her life when she was a literary grande dame. This more youthful period where she was so transgressive is still not that well known even in France.

AKT: Your film is bringing this part of her life to the forefront. It's important knowledge, especially her approach to gender.

WW: It's like the story of the heterosexual marriage that's completely queer. I mean it is LGBT and Q. There's a sense of those categories not existing and not having any kind of limiting effect on Colette's behaviour because she was unencumbered by the morals of the bourgeois French society as she never really felt part of that society. I think that connection with nature that she had from growing up in the country and from her mother really gave her an internal compass that was incredibly strong and enabled her to do things that even by today's standards are shocking.

AKT: Your film and the Cecil Beaton documentary [Love, Cecil by Lisa Immordino Vreeland] - he did the costumes and production design for Gigi - it is interesting to look back at Gigi from our perspective now. Through the perspective of now look at these American mid-century musicals, using Colette's story. I mean, Leslie Caron plays a prostitute, more or less, or she is trained how to be ...

Colette UK poster - London Film Festival première on October 11
Colette UK poster - London Film Festival première on October 11

WW: Well, a courtesan, I think.

AKT: Yes, you are right, courtesan is the word. It always says something about the time. Which place do we go back to?

WW: Yes, there's an interesting aspect to Gigi because the book Gigi is very much from the young woman's point of view all the way through. Which is Colette's point of view. The movie and the musical Gigi imposed a male point of view over that as an overlay, which is the Maurice Chevalier character. Who, you know, rather out of kilter with modern sensibilities is singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls", which was an imposition on what Colette has written. In the same way that Willy imposed a male gaze on Claudine.

AKT: Yes, precisely!

WW: There was even a line in the original screenplay [of Colette] where Willy was flirting with a young woman and said "Thank heaven for you, my dear." I felt it was too self-conscious. I think when Gigi was remounted a few years ago, it didn't take with an audience. If you want to represent Gigi you have to get more into Colette's original point of view, which was that of the woman.

Colette will have its red carpet UK première at the London Film Festival on Thursday, October 11 with Wash Westmoreland and cast members attending.

Colette is in cinemas in the US and will open in the UK on January 25, 2019.

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