Maggie Gyllenhaal on writing and directing ‘The Lost Daughter’: ‘I took one step at a time’

Filmmaking is quite literally in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s genes. Her mother is Oscar-winning screenwriter Naomi Foner (“Running on Empty”) who also directed the 2013 drama “Very Good Girls.” And her father Stephen Gyllenhaal has directed such films as 1992 “Waterland,” which featured his daughter, and 1993 “A Dangerous Woman.” But it took time for the Oscar-nominated actress (“Crazy Heart’) to follow in her parents’ footsteps.

“I think that now I have directed, I can see in a way I always was a director,” she noted in a recent American Cinematheque Zoom conversation with Oscar-winner Guillermo Del Toro (“The Shape of Water”). She added, though, it was so deep into her psyche that “it was even a secret for me.” She recently picked up Gotham Independent Film honors for writing and directing her first film, Netflix’s “The Lost Daughter,” starring Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris and her husband Peter Sarsgaard. And she has been nominated by the DGA for Best First-Feature Director.

Del Toro, whose current film is “Nightmare Alley,” readily admits he was wowed by “The Lost Daughter.” “I find your film remarkable,” he told Gyllenhaal. “I’m pretty empathetic and I was rattled watching this intense human drama. I was squirming in my seat the whole time. I find it almost impossible to think this is a first movie.”

“The Lost Daughter” is a difficult but extraordinary watch. Colman, a leading contender for Best Actress, offers a complex turn as Leda, a middle-age, divorced British-born professor of comparative literature vacationing at a small sea resort in Greece. Her peace is disrupted by the arrival of a large and loud family from Queens. Leda soon is finds herself focusing her attention on a mother, Nina (Johnson), who is having a difficult time coping with her demanding young daughter. The more she watches Nina, Leda drifts  in and out of her memories of being a young mother (Buckley) with two little daughters who lacks maternal instincts.

“I love acting,” Gyllenhaal told del Toro. “I miss acting. It’s been a long time, but I always felt like I was kind of bumping up the against the edge of something. I just thought like: ‘This is what life is, this is what being an artist is like, this is what making films is. You’re always not totally satisfied, but there’s also a lot of pleasure, too and a lot of space for expression.”

But then she became a producer on HBO’s 2017-2019 series “The Deuce” in which she played a prostitute. “I kind of said on ‘The Deuce,’ if I’m going to play a prostitute, I don’t know what the scripts are. I need to be a producer.’ When you work on episodic television, you have one script, two scripts [to read] and you sign on for five years. I said, ‘I want to be at the table and be part of the conversation. Once I got my foot in the door and I was seeing early cuts, I was seeing early drafts. I had strong opinions about what I felt. Now that I had a little bit of access, I was like ‘Oh, I really want more.’’’

After she made the decision to write and direct, said del Toro, “who was the first person you talked to?”’ Initially, no one. “I think I kept it mostly to myself for a really long time,” said Gyllenhaal. “I had these producers who I worked with on the film ‘The Kindergarten Teacher, which is a really good film I acted in. They started to say to me ‘You’re a director.’ I was like ‘I know, I think so.’ They were like, ‘You need to do it now. I was a little afraid. I took one step at a time.”

The one thing she knew is that she wanted to adapt Elena Ferrante’s lauded 2008 novel. “That I could do privately in my room” said Gyllenhaal, who also has two daughters. “No one has to see it unless I want them to. But I did need the rights. So, I appealed to Ferrante for the rights. She’s anonymous so there is no way to communicate with her except by email. I wrote to her and said ‘I want to direct it’ and “I want to adapt it.’ I told her not how I was going to adapt it because at that point, I really didn’t know. But I told her why I wanted to adapt it, which I can tell you if you want.”

“Please,” replied del Toro.

In her email to Ferrante, Gyllenhaal told her “The Lost Daughter” was honest. “I think it’s inherently dramatic to tell the truth about something, but in particular to tell the truth about something you’re not supposed to talk about, to tell the truth about something taboo. She was talking about the experience of being a woman in a way that I had never heard expressed before, secret things where you are like ‘I cannot believe you said that out loud. I’m a little freaked out and electrified and comforted to know I’m not the only one who has beautiful perverse dark feelings.”’

Gyllenhaal told her “wouldn’t it be interesting if instead of all of these people having this experience reading your novel alone where in some ways it still remains a secret, what if we could put it on a screen? What if we could actually hear these things spoken out loud in a communal space where you might be sitting next to your husband, or your mother or your daughter or your lover and hear things things out loud. That would be really radical. Then the cat is really out of the bag. Then you cannot put it back in. She said, ‘You can have the rights but only I you direct it.”’

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