The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee
BEHIND THE SCENES
THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE is the story of one woman’s journey of self-discovery. For author and filmmaker, Rebecca Miller, that journey started nearly ten years ago.
"Pippa Lee began as a novel," explains Miller, whose book was published to critical acclaim by Canongate in the UK last year, and became a best-seller in England. By turns humorous and emotionally exacting, it follows the inner-journey of a fifty year old wife and mother confronting the buried memories of her past while maintaining a tenuous grip on the seemingly idyllic world she has built for herself as an adult.
"It’s about a woman who you think you know when you meet her," says Miller of her enigmatic protagonist. "Of course, you find out that she’s had a very different life than you’d ever expect, that she has a past. Gradually, you come to understand her, know her, and maybe even love her through understanding that past."
The genesis of Miller’s novel came in 2000, following a reunion with a friend she hadn’t seen in twenty years, an irrepressible young woman who had since become a responsible wife and mother. "I started thinking about how that happens, how somebody’s identity mutates in that way, and whether or not you really ever change internally," says Miller. "That was the fundamental seed of it."
Miller would first go on to adapt the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner PERSONAL VELOCITY (based on her short story collection of the same name) and write and direct THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE starring her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, before turning her attention back to her unconventional heroine, Pippa Lee, in 2005. While finishing the final rewrites on the novel, she began working on the film’s screenplay.
She describes the screenwriting process as a "reinvention" of her novel, rather than an adaptation in the purest sense. "There was so much in the well that I wanted to keep going," says Miller, who continued working on the script through multiple drafts for just over a year. "I wanted to see it in a different dimension. I wanted to give it to actors and see what they could do with it."
"For me, it’s just a deeper and deeper search into the same terrain," she explains. "The form of it is not the same. In some small ways, the plot isn’t the same. Even the characters in ways are not the same because of the actors’ interpretations. From the beginning, I knew that I didn’t need to be enslaved to the book because I’d already written it. I had the freedom to explore. "
With script in hand, Miller turned to trusted friend and long-time producing partner, Lemore Syvan (GRACIE, SHERRYBABY). Syvan, who has produced all of Miller’s films, was quick to rise to the challenge. "For me it was just a joy, essentially," says the producer. "I know Rebecca and her filmmaking. I knew what she had in mind and I was ready to make it happen."
For Syvan, though, the initial challenge was familiar enough - mounting a complex independently produced film with a limited budget. "My first thought was, ‘We have to make this as expansive as we can,’" she explains. "I’d have to drive the production to be as efficient as possible to allow the script to come to life. I knew it was a much bigger movie than we had the means for. But I also knew we could pull it off."
Syvan credits producing partners, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner at Plan B Entertainment for helping to make that happen.
Regarded as one of the most innovative production entities working in the industry today, Plan B has been a driving force behind such eclectic films as THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, THE DEPARTED and A MIGHTY HEART, and welcomed the opportunity to join forces with Miller’s team. "Creatively, they were a part of the process from the beginning to the end," says Syvan. "Dede is a true partner in that sense and for us, she was a pillar of strength."
"Movies are hard, little movies are harder, and little movies that are passion projects are the hardest of all," says Gardner, who, with Jeremy Kleiner, collaborated with Miller from the film’s initial development through to the final edit. "It takes a lot of people to make it all happen and we were, quite frankly, lucky to be a part of it."
"The biggest challenge, which Rebecca handled in an expert way, was creating this sort of seamless integration of different time periods in the character’s life," says Kleiner of the film’s unusual scenario, effectively a dialogue between Pippa Lee’s past and present and their points of intersection. "It was a creative question, but it had a production implication, too," says Kleiner. "Rebecca needed to figure out the camera approach and how to utilize the set design to maintain a sense of continuity so you felt like you were watching one person’s journey."
To achieve that aesthetic on film, the production team tapped the resources of cinematographer Declan Quinn (RACHEL GETTING MARRIED) and production designer Michael Shaw (BOYS DON’T CRY). Under Miller’s direction, Quinn and Shaw formed a unique partnership to plan their approach long before the cameras rolled. The use of music would also prove essential in framing the story’s multiple time periods, with Miller drafting veteran music supervisor Linda Cohen (THERE WILL BE BLOOD).
To round off the core creative team, Miller turned to three of her most trusted collaborators, film editor Sabine Hoffman, composer Michael Rohatyn and her indispensable casting director, Cindy Tolan.
Working with casting director Cindy Tolan, the script for THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE was soon circulated among industry power brokers with extraordinary results - arguably one of the most remarkable ensembles put together for an independent film in recent memory. Starring Robin Wright Penn and Alan Arkin and rising star Blake Lively, THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE also features such luminary figures as Julianne Moore, Keanu Reeves, Maria Bello, Winona Ryder and Monica Bellucci in key supporting roles.
"I think a lot of it is a testament to Rebecca Miller," says Tolan of the star-studded cast. "People really want to work with her. They’ve all seen her movies and they know what an opportunity it is."
According to Tolan, the key to putting the ensemble together was making sure it would function as a unified group. "You really want to make sure everybody fits into the fabric, that nobody stands out," she explains. "You want an ‘ensemble’ in the truest sense of the word. Rebecca and I also discussed the cast as individuals with unique individual qualities, as opposed to what you’ve already seen them do on screen and why they might be right for a role that other people wouldn’t necessarily think of them for."
Miller, not surprisingly, doesn’t discount plain old good luck, either. "Julianne Moore, for example, came in for only two days and she was so... happy," says the director, with a smile. "I asked her why and she told me it was great to be playing a character who wasn’t depressed," she laughs. "For Julianne, it was refreshing, something different. She wasn’t doing it as a favour. She was doing it because it was an adventure."
To the outside observer, the presence of actors like Moore, Monica Bellucci, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder - stars in their own right taking on supporting roles - would seem an anomaly. For the actors, it represented an opportunity.
"I loved the script, and I had wanted to have a chance to work with Rebecca," says Monica Bellucci, who plays, Gigi, an exotic romantic rival to the young Pippa Lee. "Even though the role was small, it was compelling. She had written it in such a way that it would give me the chance to do something interesting. While she certainly knows what she wants as a director, at the same time she loves and respects actors. She strikes a good balance between giving direction and giving an actor the freedom to explore."
Like the films of American auteurs Woody Allen and the late Robert Altman, Miller’s movies draw their strength not only from their leads, but equally from their ensembles. Individually, each supporting role is essential to the narrative. Collectively, however, it is the ensemble which informs the film’s overall tone, a captivating, multi-dimensional world infrequently evidenced in major studio productions.
"I think people are drawn to Rebecca Miller and drawn to the material," says Keanu Reeves, who plays Chris Nadeau, a mysterious new neighbour who becomes Pippa Lee’s unlikely confidant. "It’s a really well written piece. It’s not something you see every day," he says. "There’s a unique blend of drama and comedy elements, and all of the roles in it are juicy. And it’s also her, Rebecca. Just as a person and as an artist."
The film provided a challenge for Reeves, an opportunity that he relished. "It’s a supporting role, but it’s also a complex role in so many different ways," explains the actor. "He’s kind of a lover, kind of a friend, the peculiar stranger... approachable, yet unapproachable," says Reeves. "The journey that the character takes with Robin’s character had so many possibilities. I found that interesting and a challenge."
"They were all attracted to exploring unknown territory, to have that experience," says Miller. "I like to work with people who are willing to take big risks. And these parts are risk parts, in a way, for all of them."
On the page, in both Rebecca Miller’s novel and screenplay, the character of Pippa Lee presents a singularly unusual heroine. Here, a respected and admired woman, nearly 50-years-old, begins to question the seemingly fulfilling life she’s made for herself by entering into a dialogue with the demons of her past. As the trappings of her marital and familial life slowly unhinge, so too does the persona which has informed her world, triggering a continuous exchange between past and present to find a renewed sense of self. In short, the character of Pippa Lee presented a rare opportunity to a gifted actor - a female protagonist infused with true emotional complexity.
Miller originally wrote THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE with no specific star in mind. Ultimately, her one and only choice for the title role was Robin Wright Penn. One of the leading performers of her generation, Wright Penn has starred in such landmark studio films as THE PRINCESS BRIDE and FORREST GUMP while simultaneously putting her indelible stamp on the world of independent films. A film veteran, she has worked with acclaimed directors Nick Cassavetes, Anthony Minghella and Barry Levinson, and was keen to collaborate with Rebecca Miller.
"I don’t think I’ve ever been given an opportunity to play a character of this depth," says Wright Penn of her initial attraction to the film. "There are so many layers to Pippa and the chance to play her was, in a sense, the chance to portray the unveiling of an identity. To be able to execute that on screen in under two hours? That’s what attracted me."
It was Wright Penn’s agents who initially approached both the actress and the director with the intriguing casting idea. Says Tolan: "They’re the unsung heroes in this."
Miller, initially considering an older actor for the role, was nevertheless intrigued and open to the idea. "Robin was just so perfect for the role" says Miller, who didn’t think Wright Penn would be interested in playing a character older than the actress’s actual age. Instead, she found an eager collaborator ready to toss vanity to the wind.
"That’s what we do as actors," laughs Wright Penn. "We always try to step outside the box. It’s certainly what I do. It’s fun to explore, to reach, whether it be through a character’s age or mindset. For me, the idea of playing someone somewhat older wasn’t beyond my grasp."
So too, did she develop a deep understanding of the enigmatic Pippa Lee. "She’s a woman who has made a life choice," explains Wright Penn. "But the true identity of Pippa lies behind a mask. It can’t come to fruition in the life she’s chosen, but inevitably does with the unveiling of what her life has been."
Miller and Wright Penn worked closely to develop the character through an extended give-and-take between director and performer over the course of a year, as the production secured final financing.
"In a way, the delay in financing was the best thing that could have happened," says Miller. "I worked on the costumes, the sets and the script. And I was also able to talk to Robin for a whole year about it, much to the benefit of the movie. It was a wonderful collaboration. Robin was so full of ideas and yet so open at the same time. She’s really a character actress in the form of a classic beauty, a transforming actress, one of those people who even changes her personal rhythms so that the internalization of the character is total."
"I’ve never had that kind of time with a writer-director," says Wright Penn of the experience. "To have a full year of discussion, to sort out the who, what, when, where.... Usually you get a couple of hours, days, maybe a week. We covered the gamut in that year, so by the time we started principal photography, we were able to play."
With a film spanning a single character’s lifetime, Rebecca Miller planned from the onset for a second performer to portray the teenage Pippa Lee. What remained unclear was who was best suited for the part. Working with casting director Cindy Tolan, they considered nearly one hundred actors for the role before setting their sights on rising star, Blake Lively.
The youngest of five children born to an entertainment-industry family, the 21-year-old California native first attracted attention with a breakout role in the 2005 film, THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS. Two-years later, Lively went on to star as Serena van der Woodsen in the hit television drama GOSSIP GIRL.
Miller confesses she remained blissfully unaware of the GOSSIP GIRL phenomenon, casting Lively instead on the basis of her performance in the independent film ELVIS AND ANABELLE. "I thought she was a complete unknown," laughs Miller. "It’s a very, very difficult part and she was absolutely up to it," says the director. "She was charming, emotional and sexual, all the things she really needed to be."
Lively welcomed both the opportunity and the challenge, working around her demanding television schedule to join the Pippa Lee ensemble.
The role of Pippa Lee’s husband, Herb Lee, a successful New York publisher reluctantly accepting a life of retirement, required an actor who could convey the character’s iconic stature, paternal warmth and wry common touch. For Rebecca Miller, that man was Alan Arkin.
Arkin remains a legendary performer and one of the most sought-after artists working today. He received his first Academy Award nomination for his 1966 screen debut, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING and was awarded the Oscar in 2007 for the indie hit, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. The only question that remained was would he be interested (and indeed available) to work with Rebecca Miller.
"I spoke to Alan on the phone and he told me all the reasons he didn’t want to do it," laughs Miller, who assumed Arkin couldn’t be convinced otherwise. "It was clear he knew Herb, knew him well, and wanted absolutely nothing to do with him."
The following day Miller and Arkin reconnected. To the director’s relief, he ultimately accepted the part.
"Basically my manager, my agent and my lawyer all got on the phone with me with a conference call and said I had to do it," laughs Arkin. "I don’t usually listen to them, or anybody. But I paid attention because I trust them and I value them. I realized it was something I had to do."
Working with Miller, Arkin tweaked the pivotal role to create the fully-formed character now seen on screen. "We basically created the same guy," he says. "We just added a bit of humour and wit to him. I wanted him to have moments when you thought he was charming, interesting, possibly funny, which ultimately makes his betrayals worse. It gave Herb a little more dimension."
"He had a few ideas he wanted to talk to me about. And they were all great ideas, every single idea." Says Miller.
Arkin credits Miller with the highest praise for their work together, saying "she’s highly collaborative, gentle and very concentrated." He also lauds the understated yet powerful performance of co-star, Robin Wright Penn. "I don’t think they get better than she is," he says.
"Nobody has what Alan has. He’s an original," says Wright Penn of her on screen husband. "He just completely inhabits Herb, the character that I first read in the book. He brought such a reality to Rebecca’s words that it never felt like someone ‘acting’ a role. That’s what makes him so great."
THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE represented a homecoming for Rebecca Miller, filming in the Connecticut towns of New Milford and Danbury, near where she was raised. "There was something amazing about rediscovering this landscape that I knew so well that I almost took it for granted," she says. "At the same time, knowing it proved a tremendous advantage. I set the book there and then I set the film there because I knew it so intimately."
Rehearsals were kept to a minimum with Miller having worked out most of the logistics with her cast and crew well in advance of filming. "We rehearsed for a few days before shooting with Alan and Robin, but really very little," says Miller. "I’m not a huge fan of rehearsal," she adds. "I find if you overdo it you can lose that thing you’re after; that organic moment the first time something happens in front of the camera."
Still, the production team had their work ahead of them. Principal photography on THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE began on April 14, 2008. Working with a limited budget, the seven-week shoot would cover some thirty-odd locations, including purpose-built sets on makeshift soundstages created at a former factory site. "We had an enormous set, but not a real stage," laughs the producer, Lemore Syvan. "We were basically on top of each other. Between the dressing and the props and the lights and the camera equipment, it was more like a refugee camp."
Given these parameters, Miller and her team were simultaneously presented with a unique artistic challenge - blending past and present on film to create a unified whole. In bringing the worlds of Pippa Lee (and their points of intersection) to life, the production team needed to create an original, integrated aesthetic for the film itself, with a central character portrayed by two different actors.
"It was a real challenge to keep track of the totality of the movie, which of course is my job," explains Miller. "But in this film it was particularly tricky because you have all these different worlds. The movie has three different time periods in it, representing layers of experience which have to feel that they belong together."
While Robin Wright Penn and Blake Lively never appear together on screen, the two performers, nevertheless, worked together to create a single character. "They’re both amazingly subtle, smart actresses in that they both studied each other," Miller explains. "Robin studied Blake, mostly looking at her screen tests for certain mannerisms and expressions. And then Blake studied what Robin was doing. In a sense, they inspired each other."
Equally, production designer Michael Shaw, and director of photography Declan Quinn, forged a partnership behind the camera to visually integrate past and present on screen.
"You attack it from every front," says Shaw, whose numerous design credits include BOYS DON’T CRY and A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD. "In this case it was an even greater challenge because the actors in each period were different. We had to be really careful to make it all feel seamless."
In the film, transitions between past and present would be accomplished ‘in-camera,’ as opposed to relying on post-production effects. Effectively, this meant careful pre-visualization and planning, using scale models to work out the camera’s movements between sets which would be built side by side. To move from past to present, the camera would ‘simply’ drift from one set, representing the present day, to one built right next to it, representing the past.
"We created three or four transitions like that," says Declan Quinn. "Some of them, a straightforward camera move. Others, where two or three camera moves are cut together. To create that and make it feel not too arty, not too pretentious - that was the goal. We tried to have it look ‘matter of fact,’ that the audience almost doesn’t really know what’s going on until suddenly you’re in another time zone, another scene, another part of her life."
Nor did Quinn and Shaw simply restrict these intricate transitions to their makeshift soundstage. More often than not, the cinematographer and the designer would bring their set elements with them on location to achieve similar results. "We have one transition in a present-day restaurant, for example, where they’re having dinner," explains Shaw. "Pippa looks off, the camera follows her gaze through a curtain, where we brought in half the set for the next scene into that restaurant."
"I have to say that was one of the great joys of this movie," Shaw continues. "Rebecca really wanted to push the envelope and try new things. All of these effects could have been done in post-production. But she insisted on doing it this way, so that we would feel something different, something that we don’t get to see very often. Of course, it’s much harder. It’s harder for the actors. It was harder for Declan. We didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t have a lot of time. In that sense, it’s really miraculous that it all works as beautifully as it does."
For Quinn, the approach may have been atypical. But it also presented the best way to proceed. "Every film finds its own language," he explains. "In this film, we’re taking a look at this person’s life where things freely pop back and forth in time. A cliché choice would have been to do it with a visual effect, the ‘dissolve back’ or ‘cut back’. But we wanted to have this sense that it comes out of the blue - suddenly you’re back there, a kind of jarring-seamlessness that appealed to us. That seemed the right way to do it."
Miller is quick to credit both Shaw and Quinn for their contributions, giving THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE not only a sense of unity, but its distinctive look.
"Michael Shaw was a real lynchpin. There was no limit to his imagination" says the director. "And Declan was a real wizard with light. He painted with colours and gels in a very subtle way, almost like a wash of colour throughout the film."
Miller, who herself has a fine arts background, worked closely with Quinn to shape the film’s colour palette. Prior to production, she screened several films for Quinn, including HIGH SOCIETY and the English Technicolor movie, BLACK NARCISSUS.
"Between some of the colour details of HIGH SOCIETY and the more stark colour of BLACK NARCISSUS, we found our palette for the lighting, wardrobe and set design," explains Quinn. It also inspired their shooting style to a degree: the sense of the camera always moving very precisely within composed frames. Says Quinn: "In this film, it made sense to step back to let the story unfold."
"It’s shot quite differently from my other films," agrees Miller, whose previous movies tended to favour hand-held camera techniques. "I really felt that this film was so complex in terms of its structure that if I shot it with a hand-held camera, it would be too difficult to follow. It had to have a classical feel to it."
"To me, this film is remarkable," says Robin Wright Penn. "Rebecca Miller has a certain faith in her work, in her collaborators, and most importantly in her audience, quietly telling them, ‘It’s Ok... You’re going to get the answer... It will be resolved... It’s coming.’ As an audience, we get used to having all of our questions answered right away or things revealed in a certain time period. Rebecca has the utmost faith in us, the audience. The result, I think, is a great film from a great filmmaker."