“True Things,” which world premieres Saturday in Venice’s Horizons section, is the fruit of a collaboration between the production companies of two stars, Jude Law and Ruth Wilson, the first feature film that she has produced, as well as The Bureau, a production company with a stellar track-record for delivering arthouse hits.
When literary agent Cathryn Summerhayes sent Deborah Kay Davies’ novel “True Things About Me” to Ben Jackson, who runs Law’s production company, Riff Raff U.K., he found the story “gripping, interesting and weirdly relatable,” as well as “very modern and timely.”
The story follows a thirtysomething, fed-up singleton with a dreary job in a dead-end town. When a charismatic stranger crosses her path she dives into an intoxicating yet toxic relationship, which puts her at odds with family, friends and bosses, and pushes her to the edge.
Jackson passed it to Law who shared his producing partner’s view that it could make a great film. However, he felt “nervous,” he says, and that “I needed to get a woman’s perspective on it.” He was working with Wilson on a play at the time, and gave it to her to read. “She’s always been someone who I admire, and I value her opinion and her abilities,” he says.
Riff Raff U.K. and Wilson’s company, Lady Lazarus, optioned the book, with the idea that Wilson would star in the film, and they set playwright Molly Davies to do a first pass on the script.
Wilson was “steering [the project] creatively from the get go,” Law says, with he and Jackson encouraging her to “follow her creative nose and curiosity in the part.” He adds, “Both of us knew that we wanted this to be about Ruth playing the lead in something that she was very much in control of.”
After producer Tristan Goligher of The Bureau came on board, he recommended they hire up-and-coming female writer-director Harry Wootliff. From then on, Wilson and Wootliff set about reworking the story. “It always felt like an exercise in empowering first Ruth, and then Harry and Ruth to find their own route through this, and not be moored always to the book,” Law says. Wilson and Wootliff were “given the space” to create a story that “felt true to them” and “a world that they wanted to create to tell it in,” he adds.
They jettisoned the scenes of violence that littered the book. Wilson says that one of the reasons for avoiding the novel’s darker tone – which may have pushed the movie into the horror genre – was “to make it a more resonant story for a wider audience,” while taking “the aspects of the book that we love, which is the humor and its deeply subjective lens.”
In reframing the story, Wilson and Wootliff drew on their own relationship experiences and those of others they knew, to keep the film grounded. Wilson says: “It’s a fairly universal theme that you have these relationships where you can romanticize them into something they really are not. We felt that was a more interesting aspect of the book, rather than pushing it down a very violent sexual avenue.”
Kate romanticizes her lover in order “to fulfil all the things that aren’t right with her life,” she says. “I think that’s a really common experience for a lot of people, not just women, men as well, in relationships. You create them into something they can’t possibly be, and suddenly the veil is lifted and they are terribly disappointing. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you see them clearly.”
Wilson says female sexuality is more realistically portrayed in scripts nowadays compared with, say, 10 years ago. “There are more people being brave about and being more honest about what female sexuality is. And in our film, we have a woman that has got a sexual appetite and is needing that connection.”
She adds: “The Western world can be quite puritanical [in the way it approaches sex and relationships]. There was a taboo around it.” Now, people are being “braver and more honest about sexual experiences, relationship experiences,” and asking more questions about these issues.
“There’s a real complexity to women that is now being delved into by filmmakers and writers, and that is because we have more women writing and more women directing. And those projects are being successful. People want to watch them so more of them are being made.”
Wilson – who previously exec produced miniseries “Mrs. Wilson” – says she really enjoys being a producer. She started out in the theater, “where you feel like you’re part of a team much more,” she says, so that is what she had been used to. “When you’re an actor in film or TV, you’re sometimes just a tiny cog in a big wheel, and you come in, do your piece, and leave, and never really get to know any of the creatives behind the scenes, the set designer or casting director, or anyone involved in the bigger picture,” she says. “And so I’ve loved being part of that process, because the amount of people involved in creating something is so extraordinary. And I’ve actually never really got to be part of that, so I’ve really enjoyed it. And it’s something that I’ll continue to do.”
She says in her work as an actor she is used to seeing “the bigger picture.” “I’m quite narratively led. I think about a journey of a character all the time. So I think about the arc and how I’m going to pitch from here to there throughout the journey of the series or a film. And so in a way, I’m quite good at seeing a wider picture of the film and everyone’s journey within that.” She says she loves following a project from its inception through to completion. “It makes it a much more fulfilling process,” she says.
Wilson says that Lady Lazarus has some “really exciting” projects, both film and TV, in the pipeline, although she can’t reveal what they are yet.
She paid tribute to Jackson, who had been “the driving force” behind the project at Riff Raff U.K. “Ben and I have been working on it for years, so it’s nice to finally get it made with a sense of achievement. I’ve loved working with him, and we’ll definitely find something in the future to do together, because that’s been really fruitful.”
Wilson met her producing partner, Ryan Selzer, during the production of “The Affair,” on which Selzer was an associate producer, and the two of them then set up Lady Lazarus. Its name was inspired by a number of factors. Wilson was acting in a theater production of “Hedda Gabler” at the time, and she had started reading about people who had committed suicide, one of whom was Sylvia Plath. This led her to the poem “Lady Lazarus,” and the idea of resurrection.
“Ryan is an amazing leader and she finds the material, and a lot of the projects that I’m doing and she’s doing have been unearthed and resurrected in a way from years ago – that people have forgotten about, or never gave much attention to. And they’re amazing pieces of literature,” she says. “I believe that most stories have already been told, they just haven’t been found, so it’s the idea of resurrection – giving new life to them.”
Law hopes that in the next six months or so he and Jackson will be able to announce the first projects to come out of Riff Raff U.K.’s first-look feature film and television production deal with New Republic Pictures, signed earlier this year. “I hope so. Yeah, very much. We’ve been very busy in the last six. And we’ve got three pieces that are progressing quite quickly. One in particular, we’re about to finalize a contract with a writer, which we’ll probably announce once that’s done,” he says. “So yeah, it’s been a busy six months, but certainly in the next six months, we’ll hopefully have a couple of announcements.”
There are obvious benefits to having a star name attached as a producer, in terms of raising the profile of the project, but it has other pluses.
Goligher says: “When it’s with someone who’s as smart as Ruth and whose taste is as good as Ruth’s, the process can be very, very smooth. And she’s been genuinely a really brilliant collaborator on this, but it does bring some really, really crucial advantages on the creative and development side. I think the way producers, directors and to a lesser extent writers look at projects and talk about material and develop material is with a bird’s eye view of that. You’re on the outside and often looking at a kind of macro picture of it, whereas actors come into projects with a very micro point of view. They’re looking at the story through the lens of that character. And so that actually is really informative in the development process, and to have that alternative perspective on things was really helpful to develop Kate’s character.”
He adds: “And then usually what will happen, when you finish a script, if you don’t have a director, that process can take months or more, and then you go through the same process with an actor. So in this case, to have a writer-director like Harry pick up the script, drive it forward in collaboration with the lead actress, you know exactly what your project is, even before the script is finished. And the moment that we as a team felt confident that we could start taking it out to finance, you have a really strong package. You have the very emotionally invested and committed backing of individuals, and it just energizes that financing process, and at that stage then it moves very, very fast, as opposed to the normal stop-start that process can be.”
The Bureau has a number of projects in development with actors, he says, including Rachel Weisz, Dev Patel and Katherine Waterston.
From a commercial perspective, says Goligher, “True Things” benefited from having a clearly defined target audience: women in the 25-45 age range. It’s an underserved section of the audience, he says, but the success of films like “Promising Young Woman” suggests they will embrace the right material. This, as well as the strength of the package, helped bring U.K. distributor Picturehouse on board at an early stage.
But the other part of the equation, he says, is about “believing in a filmmaker,” and having confidence that the film was destined to become a “very distinctive and idiosyncratic piece of storytelling.”
The Bureau is drawn to “very contemporary stories that are, in some way, talking about the way we live our lives,” Goligher says, citing “Weekend,” “45 Years,” “Daphne,” “Only You,” “Supernova” and “After Love,” as well as “True Things.”
“I think they all are trying to offer some kind of insight, or at least discussion about, the way we live our lives, and the choices we make, or what it means to live a good life,” he says.
The company is also drawn to character-driven pieces, he says, and that, in turn, “lends itself to working with really good cast.” Having Wilson on board from the beginning “fits very much into what we’re trying to do,” he adds, as did having Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtney in “45 Years,” and Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci in “Supernova.”
The company is also looking to work with “distinctive filmmakers,” he says, and is “very open and confident about making first-time features.” He adds, “We really embark on those with a view to the long-term… what is going to be the second, third, fourth feature with that filmmaker? […] You’re trying to work collectively to plan out what might be exciting stories to tell, but also the right choices in building a career.”