Venice: Mona Fastvold on Love Between Two Farmers’ Wives in 1856 America

New York and Oslo-based writer/director Mona Fastvold made her directorial debut with “The Sleepwalker,” which unlocked secrets between two sisters and made a splash in 2014 at Sundance. Her ambitious followup “The World to Come” stars Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby as two farmers’ wives in 1856 Upstate New York who fall in love but have no template, no reference points as to how to handle their emotions. The period drama distributed by Sony Pictures premieres Sunday in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Fastvold spoke to Variety about the choices she made in bringing “the dream of these two women” to the screen. Excerpts from the conversation.

The film’s screenplay originates from a short story by Jim Shepard. Was that the starting point for you as well?

What inspired Jim to write the short story is he did research on this great snowstorm that happened in 1856 in Upstate New York. Going through all these farmers’ journals amid all this information about crops and things like that he came across a note that said: ‘My best friend has moved away, and I don’t think I will ever see her again.’ That was his inspiration for this story.

I received the script (written by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard) from Whitaker Lader, who is the producer of the film. It was just one of those stories that I knew exactly how to tell. When I read it I had this rare moment where I felt I just knew how to solve the puzzle of it all.

And then the screenwriters were super collaborative. So they really let me make the story mine. They were very happy to just keep on pushing it in different directions together.

The core of the narrative structure are journal entries done with voice over. Was that always an integral part of the project?

Yes, it was scripted with a lot of voice-over. And I almost saw this aspect as a second shoot, the part when we were doing the (voice-over) recording.

We also did test recordings of everything before shooting, so I really had it in mind. And I was structuring scenes around it (the voice over) specifically. 

Also on set we would record or re-record something, just on a cellphone and then listen to it. And then I would be like: ‘Okay, this is where we are going to play a pause.’ Or ‘This is where we can have a cut, or a camera movement.’

And my composer (Daniel Blumberg) was also actually working, early on, with the voice-over text in mind.

That’s perhaps what gives the film its most distinctive aspect. The combination of the voice-over with the music.

Daniel was so woven into the process from the very beginning. He started composing before we started shooting, and then he also came with us on set and took a lot of inspiration from our surroundings.

Every night when we finished shooting we would hear this orchestra of cowbells coming down the hill. All of a sudden we would hear it in the scene, and then we took that and kept a lot of that, and expanded on it in the score as well.

There is a very organic process with Daniel where the music really becomes an integral part of the film. In working on the voice-over I said I wanted it to play like a song. I want the voice-over and the music to really speak to one another, and to be completely integrated. I thought about Laurie Anderson and the way she puts the spoken word to music.

The film is basically about two women in rural 1850s America who fall in love but have no template for that, and the title of course reflects that. What was your main concern in bringing this love story to the screen?

One of the things I loved about the screenplay – and that I was really excited to explore – was the dream of these two women, when they discover this connection between them. Usually in these types of love stories there is all this guilt and shame, and all those feelings connected to it. But I just had this dream that we could explore it in a way, where I was just like: what if this is just the most glorious, wonderful thing? What if this is just a small miracle in their life!

I wanted to have room in the story to explore and celebrate that…It’s a love story, and those have been told many times before, but I wanted to break it open and see a new side of it.

 

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