Connecting two worlds

Bart Freundlich on Michelle Williams' character, Billy Crudup's hair, and After The Wedding

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Bart Freundlich with Anne-Katrin Titze on After The Wedding: "It's always hard to talk about this movie in particular because there are so many secrets."
Bart Freundlich with Anne-Katrin Titze on After The Wedding: "It's always hard to talk about this movie in particular because there are so many secrets." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Bart Freundlich's treasure-packed After The Wedding, based on Susanne Bier's film Efter Brylluppet (story by Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen, screenplay by Jensen) stars Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, and Billy Crudup with Abby Quinn, Vir Pachisia, Alex Esola, and Anjula Bedi.

After The Wedding, reversing the protagonists' genders from Bier's Oscar-nominated film, is a tale of two worlds. Isabel (Williams) has been working for years at an orphanage in Calcutta with her colleague Preena (Bedi), when a letter arrives from New York mogul Theresa (Moore), who offers to donate a lot of money to the struggling institution, which is close to bankruptcy. Theresa wants Isabel to fly over and discuss matters in person. This is a busy time - not only is Theresa in the process of selling her media company, she and her artist husband Oscar (Crudup) are also getting ready for the wedding of daughter Grace (Quinn) to Alex (Esola), one of Theresa's very corporate young executives.

Isabel (Michelle Williams) with Oscar (Billy Crudup) and Theresa (Julianne Moore)
Isabel (Michelle Williams) with Oscar (Billy Crudup) and Theresa (Julianne Moore) Photo: David Giesbrecht

Whereas at first the juxtapositions of lifestyle clash unabashedly, and viewers might settle into one comfortable reading, it is soon revealed that nothing is exactly what it seems, as more connections between the women surface. The film deals with the grand questions of life but never loses a comedic touch that comes from precise observation. People familiar with New York City may recognise the Union Square Farmers Market, the tacky decorations of the Indian restaurant on 6th Street, or the lobby of the Ludlow Hotel, and sigh that, yes, this is what being there feels like. From the Oyster Bay estate fireworks to the fallen mossy tree in the forest, a lot of thought went into what we see and hear and what is left unspoken.

The following conversation is in code and includes false rabbit tracks that will all become clear after viewing After The Wedding.

When I met with Bart Freundlich, his first question to me was how my day had been so far. Well, earlier that afternoon, I had been stuck in an elevator, for the first time ever - not at all a pleasant experience.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I was thinking of the scene in your film when Michelle Williams takes off her shoes and walks down the stairs.

Jai (Vir Pachisia) with Isabel (Michelle Williams)
Jai (Vir Pachisia) with Isabel (Michelle Williams) Photo: Kevin Nunes

Bart Freundlich: You're thinking, that's going to be me! And she was actually sixteen floors up.

AKT: I was on the fourteenth today.

BF: Oh my goodness. So how long were you trapped?

AKT: A few minutes, but that's enough.

BF: Were you with other people?

AKT: No, I was the only one and the elevator just suddenly stopped between floors.

BF: Are you claustrophobic at all?

AKT: No, not that much. But let's talk about that scene with Michelle Williams. I was wondering if there was more to it, or if she just wanted to take off her shoes and get out of this world.

BF: I think that - Michelle talks about feeling like a caged animal. As she comes to New York the walls start to close in around her and the ceiling starts to lower and she starts to get further and further away from being connected to who she likes to think of herself as being. So this taking off the shoes and running down the stairs is a way of being kind of connected to the earth and to defying, like, this modern society.

Oscar (Billy Crudup) with his daughter Grace (Abby Quinn) and Theresa (Julianne Moore)
Oscar (Billy Crudup) with his daughter Grace (Abby Quinn) and Theresa (Julianne Moore) Photo: Julio Mucat

AKT: Defying that the earth is actually sixteen floors away from her.

BF: Right, and she is running down something that is man-made and she's not really on the earth. It was really an expression of not only her sense of being trapped, but also - it's sort of unusual. Michelle and I had talked about that she wasn't wearing heels or anything. So there was no practicality to taking these off. It was really just a matter of saying - I'm an animal.

AKT: The film is filled with these alluring details. On the one hand you have gigantic juxtapositions with the two locations: India and the world of the orphanage and on the other hand, the super rich New York corporate world. At the same time, sprinkled throughout, are tiny details, telling other stories, such as the third eye that the little boy [Jai, played by Vir Pachisia] has on his shirt, as if it were a Lacoste crocodile.

BF: I'm so glad you picked that up!

AKT: Or the horror about losing the nest with the blue eggs. Those things connect the two worlds.

Grace (Abby Quinn) with Isabel (Michelle Williams)
Grace (Abby Quinn) with Isabel (Michelle Williams) Photo: Julio Mucat

BF: Absolutely.

AKT: Is this how you were knitting the story together?

BF: For sure. There's one way to approach it where you just show how disparate those two worlds are. But certainly with the bird's nest, there is this connective tissue. And with Oscar's [Billy Crudup] art, there's this kind of cyclical circle that feels like it's both always complete and never complete. It was sort of my existential metaphor for life. Even the last shot of the movie from above. It's always hard to talk about this movie in particular because there are so many secrets.

AKT: I know! I'm very careful.

BF: I leave that to you. I thought of the last shot actually - I haven't talked about this with anyone - I thought of it as Theresa's [Julianne Moore] point of view at that point. I actually have Michelle [as Isabel] look up at the actual camera, which you can't really see, which is good because I didn't want to make too much of a statement. But you know, that bird's nest that is now baby birds. "I watched their mother feed them," that's what the boy says.

And Theresa has these cracked eggs. There is this sense of the circle of life that is really tragic and beautiful, you know. And hopefully understated enough that it doesn't have to club you over the head. But I felt that that last moment was Theresa's, that she was a bird.

Preena (Anjula Bedi)
Preena (Anjula Bedi) Photo: Kevin Nunes

AKT: I did not get that.

BF: No, I didn't intend for anyone to get it. It was sort of my feeling. You know what it was? What I love about filmmaking is in part the thing that inspired me to do that shot. So it had a meaning behind it for me. The meaning can be buried way under.

AKT: There is so much going on, so many tracks to follow. It's almost like a rabbit hunt.

BF: Oh wow!

AKT: A rabbit hunt film - no harm to the rabbit, I'm just trying to follow where it is going. And the rabbit runs in all these different directions and changes course totally unexpectedly. And I'm following along - which is really beautifully done.

BF: Thank you. That's great to hear. Part of my concern with the movie was one, that Susanne Bier made such a beautiful film. It was very complex emotionally and it gives you a lot of exposition. And then it gives you no exposition at the same time. There are scenes, like in the kitchen, where a lot is said and a lot is described.

And there are scenes at the wedding where everything is said in an unspoken way. It was this balance of this spoken and unspoken. Why did I go down this road? You were talking about the rabbits. Yes - so when I switch the genders of the lead characters and made the two women the two leads, I knew there was going to be a complication involved in the narrative there. Specifically because Mads Mikkelsen [in Bier's After The Wedding] doesn't need to know what has ensued from his actions.

Bart Freundlich on Oscar (Billy Crudup): "He is sort of trapped in another time."
Bart Freundlich on Oscar (Billy Crudup): "He is sort of trapped in another time." Photo: David Giesbrecht

AKT: Right.

BF: But Michelle's character needed to have a conscious … she was a conscious participant. I was afraid that it would complicate it in a way that pushed it over the top into too much complication. Yet, it seemed to deepen it.

AKT: Yes. It's a very strange parcel - these 30 days. I am speaking in code now.

BF: I know. Thank you. We both are.

AKT: 30 days - it's the same amount of time you have to return clothes.

BF: I know! I had no idea until I called the agency and I said, so how does it work? And do you ever have people who come back? They said it's different state to state, but many states say you have this thirty-day period. And I felt, was this going to seem random in the movie? But a lot like the other thing that we can't talk about - I try to give you enough information, but not so much information that almost would make you question it more.

AKT: It works because it plays with our sympathy. A lot. Take the introduction of the Theresa character. Julianne in the car singing [Lady Gaga's The Edge Of Glory] aggressively, loudly "I'm on the edge of glory". If this were out of the context you had developed earlier, we would laugh with her. But after what came before, we just think, who is this woman? And if she weren't played by your wife, good luck with getting any sympathy back!

After The Wedding poster - opens in the US on August 9
After The Wedding poster - opens in the US on August 9 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

BF: I know! I know, in fact, that was something that Julie was adamant about. That she not ever ask for sympathy from the audience. That she never shows, as she says, "no tells". No tells that there's something else going on.

AKT: It's brilliant.

BF: I'm just this person. And as you said, she's fierce with this song and it seems so gross after. In some ways she's, like, powerful and in other ways it just seems like, are you kidding me? This exists in India? And this exists there? Or talking about the lobster risotto.

AKT: I love that the lobster thread came back! That there was a follow-up on the lobster.

BF: The shot of the sign! Yeah, exactly.

AKT: "His and Her Cocktails"!

BF: The minutiae of what we all care about. I mean, it really is shocking. And trying to put that out there for the taking, but not necessarily judge it too harshly. This is what their world is. Is it more valuable to give 20 million dollars to an orphanage than it is to work at the orphanage? I don't know. They're both pretty important.

AKT: When you have in the same conversation the subject of vaccinations for orphans and the lobster shortage, then it opens up the abyss that we live on here.

BF: Yes, it really is true. What I love about it is, it brings up all these issues, our responsibility, the class divide, the financial divide, but doesn't really provide any answers, just depicts it.

AKT: Your play with sympathies - I mean, Billy Crudup's hair! Absolutely awful.

BF: You mean because he is so perfectly slicked back?

AKT: Slicked back, David Byrne style, I don't know when, in the Eighties?

BF: Yeah, he is sort of trapped in another time.

AKT: That hair says something and then he acts differently and we discover, no, it's not all in the hair.

BF: It's not all in the hair. I think you found a title.

After The Wedding opens in the US on August 9 and in the UK on November 1.

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