A Conversation with Katherine Dieckmann
LS: How did you get into screenwriting and directing?
KD: I was a journalist in my twenties and wrote for Rolling Stone, Elle and other magazines, but I was getting frustrated with celebrity journalism. I was doing an interview with Michael Stipe of REM and we ended up becoming good friends. We loved the same films, photographs, and music and sort of came of age in our tastes around the same time, in our mid-twenties. He could see my frustration and took a leap of faith and asked me to direct the music video for REM’s song “Stand.”
I had no directing experience prior to making “Stand” except for taking one 16 mm filmmaking course one summer at Cornell University, where some girlfriends and I made a short called I’m So Bored. Also, I used to take lots of Polaroids of landscapes and found objects at that time, and a lot of that sensibility showed up in “Stand.”
After that, I went into television and directed the children’s show The Adventures of Pete & Pete, and that’s how I learned how to direct actors.
During that time, I developed my first script, A Good Baby, which I workshopped at Sundance. It’s a very dark, lyrical drama, and it was hard to get it made for that reason. That was a movie I really wanted to make, and I spent five years working towards that. The next film I directed, Diggers, was written by one of the actors, Ken Marino.
LS: So it took awhile for you to get A Good Baby out there. How did it finally happen?
KD: I feel like A Good Baby was a series of rolling breaks. First, my friend the singer Syd Straw gave the treatment (a prose telling of a story intended for a screenplay) I’d written to a producer named Lianne Halfon, who went on to make Ghost World and Juno. Lianne helped me develop the screenplay from that first treatment, and then got it to actors — in particular, David Strathairn. The script was workshopped at the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs, which helped give the project visibility. Then, my writer-director friend Alison Maclean (Jesus’ Son) suggested a financier, Tom Carouso, who she thought might like the script, and he brought the money. So it was each of these things leading to the next thing, all of which took time, that led to the making of my first feature. I think it is rarely one big break in these situations.
LS: What compelled you to make Motherhood? Why is this subject matter important to you?
KD: The job of “mom,” that care, is very devalued in our culture. I really connect to that feeling. The sacrifices of self, time and energy come out of love, but somehow that’s not meaningful enough in our society. I don’t understand that. The fact that there aren’t movies about motherhood in a daily sense proves the point that it’s not valued.
LS: How did you decide on Uma Thurman for the part of Eliza?
KD: I’d met Uma socially twice, but we didn’t really know each other. I thought she’d be really interesting for this part. I sent her this script, but didn’t get a response. Then Jana Edelbaum [a producer on the film] ran into Uma at a charity event and said it was too bad she didn’t like the script. Turned out Uma hadn’t read it, but wanted to. Once she did, she had a very passionate response to it. Then we met and talked for hours and just really understood each other. She had a strong personal connection to what I’d written.
LS: What was it like shooting the movie where you live?
KD: It was great because I could get to the set early and my kids would come through the set on their way to school. It was nice to have my life and my work so closely in alignment.
LS: What was the feeling on the set, working on a movie about motherhood with female leads and a female director?
KD: It was very unusual. We had Minnie Driver, who plays Eliza’s best friend Sheila, who was quite pregnant, and we all rallied around to take care of her because we’d all been through it. If someone’s kid was sick, it was like, “Bring your kid to work.” You could be late because of an issue with your child and people would understand. We all felt how special that was.
I think there’s a real divide between work and mothering. A lot of the time, women’s experience in the workplace is that they have to kind of hide the fact that they’re mothers. Like if they need to take a work call at home, they feel they have to hide the fact that their kid is in the background somewhere while they work. Why can’t motherhood and work be integrated?
LS: Why do you think it is that in our culture – in movies, on TV – mothers are portrayed in such absolutes (the Perfect Mother, the Psycho Mother, the Dying Mother), rather than with all their complexities?
KD: The culture doesn’t allow it. I’ve found that just the idea of a movie about motherhood provokes exasperated reactions. Maybe it’s too difficult for people to imagine the sacrifices their own mothers made, or that their mothers had a soul and a set of interests that had to be balanced against raising a child.
The very definition of childhood is that you presume your parents are there for you alone, with the dominant burden falling on the mother. I think there’s a connection between that dependency and a resistance to seeing mothers as dimensional. Being a mother is so often about serving others, and it’s challenging to turn that basic dynamic around and insist that motherhood as a topic, and mothers as individuals, deserve to be served, too.
LS: One of the major themes in Motherhood is how women can lose their sense of any kind of separate identity once they become mothers. How did you hold onto your creative self after having children?
KD: With my daughter, I definitely felt at sea in the beginning, as I think most new mothers do. Everything was overwhelming and time-consuming and I was shocked that I couldn’t just jump back into having a functional brain and exercising some creative impulse.
I did direct my first feature when she was close to a year old, so this was really a question of the first six months or so. I guess I forced myself to do things, in a way maybe I wouldn’t now, just to prove that I could. Now I would be easier on myself and let myself be in the process of having a new baby.
Basically it was force of will, because trying to integrate creative thought with new motherhood felt very impossible and inorganic. The thing is, those feelings pass, but they are real and difficult to handle.
LS: You say you would be easier on yourself. How so?
KD: I would still choose to go out and direct a film with a one-year-old if I did it all over again, but I would allow myself to be vague, or tired, or disoriented with a new baby, rather than feeling that those things were signs that I would never be my old self again, or that I could never find the creativity I enjoyed before having kids. Basically, I would cut myself some slack and trust that somehow I could find my way back to being productive in those ways, rather than stressing about it to the detriment of enjoying that fleeting time with a baby.
LS: In the film, you mock the obsessive-mom culture – organic everything, total UV protection, the latest parenting trend. Why do you suppose this obsessive culture thrives?
KD: I think a lot of it has to do with women who don’t have enough to do. Not that stay-at-home moms don’t have enough to do, but motherhood becomes a proxy for any other identity. I think if you have something you’re interested in apart from mothering, you naturally have less focus on these obsessive questions. It’s smothering for women’s identity and the kids. You have to allow some space to just be. There are parenting debates that are interesting but there is no real right or wrong apart from abusing your kids. The idea that you have to do it “right” and a certain way…it’s an unbearable pressure to think that it has to be done a certain way or it’s not right.
LS: Throughout the film, Eliza’s husband, Avery (Anthony Edwards), seems pretty clueless about her challenges.
KD: It’s a very real thing that Avery doesn’t see what’s going on, doesn’t see that she’s so frazzled. I think that in a lot in marriages and conventional domestic setups, most of the labor the woman’s doing is very much taken for granted by a lot of men. The cost of that is never really considered. It’s not mean-spirited, it’s just the status quo.
LS: At the end of the movie, we find out Avery’s sold a rare book, something he holds dear, for $24,000. He gives Eliza the check, telling her to buy a dishwasher and send their son to preschool so that she’ll have time to write. Eliza is overwhelmed and overjoyed. Why did you choose to end the movie that way?
KD: I think Avery sees that Eliza uses her laments about motherhood as a way to avoid contemplating whether or not she has anything to say. She’s lost herself, to a certain extent. He’s just trying to take her by the hand and say that he sees her self as worthwhile, and she ends the movie recognizing that in some way.
I also wanted to explore that aspect of marriage where domestic life pulls you away from each other but then there’s something really beautiful about knowing you actually are seen by someone when you thought you weren’t.
LS: What sort of responses have you had to the film from women?
KD: Things like, “Why is this life any more interesting than my life?” While some of the scenes in the movie show things that happened to me, I don’t think my life is more interesting than theirs. I just think some of it is funny and telling.
Some people find the character of Eliza self-pitying. But it’s okay if she’s annoying sometimes as long as you feel compassion for her at other moments. It’s part of the gamut of the human condition. Other people are made uncomfortable by some of the issues. The movie itself isn’t particularly provocative, but the issues the movie raises make you think.
LS: Motherhood is definitely loaded with issues – how children affect a marriage and a woman’s sense of self; how women handle the tedious, often boring and stressful tasks of mothering. Are you happy with the way the movie turned out?
KD: I am happy with the movie, though it’s always the case when you make a movie on a low budget that you lose things that feel precious to you. I do think my original script had to be compromised by certain factors involved with making the film, but I also know that is not unusual, and so you make your peace with it. There are parts of the movie I am so immensely proud of, and moved by, and for me, that is enough. And I do think the essential messages the movie was intended to deliver come through loud and clear to those willing to entertain them.
LS: What are you working on now?
KD: I’m considering a number of projects – some as director, some as writer/director, and some as writer. I hope to make another movie in the next year, whether it’s something I’ve written or not. If a script doesn’t come quickly for me, I’d rather direct, not sit on my hands too much. It’s nice to mix it up, the solitary writing and the socializing of directing.