Interview: Robin Swicord

Robin Swicord is the award-winning and Oscar-nominated screenwriter of a significant body of films that often put the family lives of women front and centre, including Little Women, Matilda (with her husband, Nick Kazan), The Perez FamilyPractical Magic, and Memoirs of a Geisha, as well as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. She also adapted and directed The Jane Austen Book Club, and her second feature-length outing as writer-director, Wakefield, starring Bryan Cranston, will be released by IFC in the US on 19 May (and on VOD on 26 May).

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I hope the Writers’ Guild of America is successful in bargaining for what should be a human right: The right to have children, and still earn a living wage.

Your new film is adapted from the short story by E. L. Doctorow. What first drew you to the story of Wakefield – a man, who moves into his own attic and hides from his own family and the world? 

I read the E.L.Doctorow short story in the New Yorker magazine a few years ago, and I immediately connected. I recognized in myself the all-too-human impulse that Howard Wakefield acts upon: He steps out of his life rather than face things he doesn’t want to deal with. As a kid I had a recurring fantasy of being able to stop time, of being able to freeze the moment, freeing me to wander in a kind of “neutron bomb”-induced world, in which I alone would have full agency, and could go to the library and read, or go wandering around in the world without supervision.  My dream of how I would spend this “time out of time” seems so innocent to me now – it wasn’t about robbing banks or prying into the privacy of the “frozen” people around me, or seizing power. I think what I wanted was to escape the hard things in my own life, by fleeing into an interstitial space in time where I could be myself, by myself.

E.L. Doctorow explores a universal fantasy: “What would happen if I just stopped everything I’m doing?”  In Wakefield’s case, Howard had constructed a life around certain things that aren’t entirely true – including the self that he presents to the world.  After you’ve made that discovery about yourself, after you’ve abandoned that self, how do you ever come home again?  The powerful thematic underpinnings of Doctorow’s story – some of which aren’t explicitly explored in the short story – began to haunt my thoughts. Eventually my producer Elliott Web and I approached Doctorow to ask if I could adapt his short story.

You have been writing for many years, primarily for film. Your children are grown now, but did childcare affect your career early on? And have you noticed any differences between then and now that would have had an effect on your parental responsibilities?  

When I became a mother, I had to change my work habits entirely.  I had been a night-owl since childhood. I wasn’t much of a sleeper. When everyone else was asleep, I would read and write and draw. That was my magic hour. This work pattern served me well when I had day jobs in my early 20s, and wrote at night.

When I began to support myself as a screenwriter in my mid-20s, I saw no reason to give up my night time writing – until a few years later, when I met my husband, and wanted to spend time with him. He’s NOT a night owl. But things really changed when our first daughter was born. Taking heart from the fact even that the magnetic poles of the Earth can change direction, I set out to reset my creative clock, to be awake when my children were awake, and to fall asleep as soon as possible after they’d gone to bed. Being utterly exhausted from mothering really helped press that re-set button; so did the 5 a.m. “I’m awake, feed me!” squall from our infant Zoe.  I was grateful to sleep at night.

But writing during the day meant we needed extra help – and I was incredibly fortunate to find that help in an experienced mother, Margarita Fernandez, who at 49 was already a grandmother (and by 59 would be a great-grandmother). She and her two youngest children had escaped the civil war in El Salvador by walking from San Salvador in Central America, all the way to Los Angeles. Margarita was the kind and stalwart soul I could trust to look after Zoe and Maya with a mother’s care, while I disappeared behind the door of my writing room. I set writing hours that began as soon as Margarita arrived, and ended 6 hours later, when Margarita had to go home to her large family, to begin her second shift of caring.

My husband, Nick Kazan, who was also a writer, also became my champion. When my writing day was broken by school meetings or a sick child, or any of the 1001 things that pull a writing parent away from the desk, Nick would take over bed-time rituals and evening chores, and I would go back to work for a few hours at night. If I had had a traditional “wife in the kitchen, husband on the job”-type marriage, my creative life would most likely have ended when our children came. But Nick’s mother had been a writer, and he was acutely aware of how she had subsumed her creative life to her more successful husband’s career. My husband didn’t want me to have to make that sacrifice for our family.

One thing Nick and I both noted when our kids were young, and we were still in the trenches raising two daughters: Every day has to be invented anew. Day to day, it’s always a patchwork of figuring out who will cover what part of the day, and which days of the week.

It might have been easier for us if we had had an extended family where we lived, but lacking that, we relied on Providence and each other, and figured it out every day. We had an image of ourselves as co-pilots, in a plane that required two pilots flying at all times.

Has your relationship with your writing and your family life changed over the years?   

A substantial change happened for us, as our girls got older: We found we could shift a surprising amount of responsibility to our girls. The first summer after our oldest daughter became school age, we had a rude awakening: Summers completely upended our writing hours. Suddenly our young daughters were home at all times, both clamoring to engage with us. We first tried to patch together day-camps and playdates that would fill their summer hours but 1) All of these activities required lots of driving from us, and 2) None of it sufficed.

After a few years of trying to keep our girls creatively occupied (and out of doors) during the summer, Nick and I cluelessly stumbled into renting a house in a small, rural coastal town in Washington state. We discovered this island to be a safe place where our girls could do fun things on their own, under the light supervision of a teenage baby sitter. They spent hours at the public library, swam at the public swimming pool, played in the woods, and picked blackberries in the rental house’s overgrown yard.  The first summer was such a shocking success, we bought a fixer-upper house there, and returned the next year, and every year.

Almost at once, mission creep happened: Once our girls were in town at the library, why couldn’t they do some grocery shopping? Here’s some money, kid. And if you’re bringing home the food, why not make lunch as well?

I’d like to say that Nick and I had a master plan to turn our kids into independent, self-sufficient, responsible people who knew how to make a tuna salad. But the truth is, we were just desperate for writing time. It was a whole lot easier for us to meet writing deadlines if our kids knew how to entertain and feed themselves.

Our program of benign neglect was, of course, facilitated by a local “older girl”, a high school-age teen who kept a general eye on things while we were writing, and who could also drive our children to the library and the swimming pool. Janna was there to provide a little “We need sequins and glue!” support, for the many complicated and collaborative projects our daughters invented for themselves. We loved getting to know Janna (and love her still), and we loved her influence on our daughters. “Don’t date in high school” was a sage piece of advice Janna handed on, which both of our daughters held to – though only for a while! Because of knowing Janna, when our girls became teenagers, they were primed to get summer jobs in town; which kept them mostly with us and still engaged in family life, at a time when teenagers naturally want to flee.

This is the circular logic of having enough help: Janna made it possible to for us to meet our writing deadlines. And because we met our writing deadlines, we could remain employed. And because we remained employed, we could hire Janna. Who made it possible for us to meet our writing deadlines.

It was a little shocking for me when I realized that my children were old enough for me to not feel guilty when I had to travel for work, or when I directed my first film. It was a bittersweet liberation: When our daughters grew up and began to give themselves interesting lives, it freed me – and inspired me – to do the same.

Has being a parent affected any specific projects you worked on in the past – and if so, in what way?  

 My husband and I adapted Roald Dahl’s Matilda – and I doubt that would have happened if Nick and I hadn’t fallen love with the book while reading it to our daughters. And I think being the mother of two girls also gave me a special insight into the “all girl family” milieu of Little Women, a book I had wanted to adapt since before I knew I was a screenwriter.

You’ve talked about the dangers of starting the day ‘in executive mode’ and how that can take over from your creative mode. Could you elaborate on that?

I heard a brain scientist being interviewed on the radio last year, speaking about how the brain takes its commands from us according to the mode in which we begin our day. If we begin our day in “busy mode”, getting lots of tasks done and the house clean and the groceries in and the school meetings taken care of, ostensibly so we can free our time later to write, your brain doesn’t want to shift, it stays in “busy mode”. It has its operating instructions from the first activities of the day: “Hooray! We’re in executive mode! Let’s get things done!”

Trouble is, we don’t do our creative thinking with our brain in executive mode. We can plan an outline, or correct typos, or research material on the internet – but we can’t freefall into our rich, associative, creative mind. The brain doesn’t easily reset itself from executive mode and shift into the soft “mental flow mode” of creative activity, where actual writing happens. (I think this may be related to something a therapist friend told me once:  “Efficiency and intimacy can’t co-exist in the same moment.”)

Hearing that radio interview, I realized that both Nick and I instinctively had developed writing habits that would keep our “executive functions” to a minimum in the first part of the day. Yes, of course we had to make school lunches and drive children to school; and perhaps do one small task, like clearing the breakfast table. But all else we try to shove to the late afternoon, whenever possible.

When I have to do a lunch meeting for work, I find my creative writing day is effectively done (unless I return to it late at night, which always means that tomorrow will be a sleep-deprived day). Later that day I might give my attention to something work-related, that requires my executive function. But inevitably I don’t write well when I try to substitute executive thinking for creative flow. I always end up having to fully re-write those pages.

In a similar way: I’ve had to learn to resist my wonderful non-writer friends, who can get peeved at me because I’m never available to hang out with them before I start my writing day. For me, “Can’t you write later, and come do yoga with me this morning?” actually means, “Can’t you abandon your work for the day?” Starting my day by socializing tells my brain, “Take the day off!”

Once in a while I’ll take a contemplative morning walk with my husband before we go to our respective desks – but we both find that we keep conversation to a minimum, so we can do the “parallel play” of thinking.

What advice would you offer someone thinking about becoming a scriptwriter (or director) and wanting to have a family life as well?

Choose your life partner well.

Be prepared to work two jobs for the rest of your life.

It’s good to realize before you set out, that your order of priorities will evolve to be: Parent/partner first, writing/directing second. Projects come and go, but family is forever. No movie you’ll ever work on, regardless of its possible meaning to others, will ever mean as much to you as your children do. End of story.

If you already have a family, you already know that.

The trick is to work with your partner to create time for yourself, so you can also be a filmmaker.   If you’ve been parenting and managing your family’s daily needs, and somehow in the midst of this not finding enough hours to write your screenplay or shoot your documentary – that’s not a personal failing on your part.

You need your creative time, apart from the family. You can’t inhabit two minds at once, no matter how capable and intelligent you are. It’s good to note: A lot of literature by female authors was written before dawn, before the demands of the family day began.

Claim your hours.

Did anyone become a role model for you as you were coming up in the industry – and why? Any inspirational work practices? 

 I came into the industry in 1980, a time when creative women didn’t see role models in the work place. No creative woman I knew had a mentor. The male-focused film industry mostly ignored women writers and women directors; the industry also refused to employ female cinematographers and composers. When I first began working in Hollywood, I think Jay Presson Allen and Joan Tewkesbury and Nancy Dowd were the only female screenwriters who’d had recent film credits; they were a generation ahead of me, and I never met them. Over the next few years, I gradually became acquainted with a tiny number of female screenwriters, all of them my age; all of us still struggling to get our first screen credit, in a hostile environment.

However, I found my inspiration away from the film business, in the clear examples set by other working mothers who were not in the industry. A stand-out example: When my kids were young, I would drive them to school early in the morning. We always passed public transit stops where young mothers were waiting with their very young children. We’d see these families sharing a breakfast burrito as they waited for the bus. I knew these young mothers were on their way to drop their kids at nursery school or day care or at a relative’s house, and that they’d probably take yet another bus to get to work.  Then in the evening, these working mothers would have to reverse the ritual, collecting their children and going home to prepare supper.

And I’d always think, “If she can do it, I can do it.”

What good/bad attitudes have you encountered in the industry? 

 I’ve found great collaborators – both men and women – in my career who inspired me, who made it possible for me to do my best work on certain projects.

But I’ve also encountered opportunists who were clueless about working with writers; and also some who simply could not recognize what I was doing (or wanted to do) creatively, because I’m female. I’m now sensitized to the ever-present background influence of unconscious bias – which isn’t a “bad attitude” so much as a cultural trait in the film business. So I no longer spend any time wondering, “Gee, why is it so hard for women filmmakers to get ahead in this business?” I know why.

It has become intolerable for me, emotionally, to accept “business as usual” practices, and just get on with it. I really want things to be different for female filmmakers, starting right now. I spend some part of every week mentoring the next generation of young women. Change is slow, but one thing is very clear: Women will never go back to the way it was when I first entered the film business.

I’m heartened by the younger writer and director women I meet, who as a generation seem very ready to meet such challenges head on, with resolve and good humor and outspokenness. More power to you, friends.

What would you most like to see change in the industry? What changes do you think would have helped you in the past – or might help others in the future when it comes to pursuing a practice sustainably?  

At this moment, the Writers Guild of America is negotiating a contract renewal with the companies, and one of the very few demands the writers’ negotiating team has on the table is the right to paid parental leave. In this nation, girls and women are undervalued in virtually every sphere – not just the workplace. I hope the WGA is successful in bargaining for what should be a human right: The right to have children, and still earn a living wage.

What future projects do you have lined up and will you continue to move between writing and writing/directing?  

I’m writing something now for HBO, a 2-hour movie; I love the subject (which I shouldn’t announce here) but I have no idea whether it will ever see the light of day. And I’m looking forward to a summer of uninterrupted writing in our rural refuge in Washington. I’ve have been playing with two ideas for the next thing I’ll direct. Since I care about both subjects, I may only know after I’ve written them which one I’ll pursue.   One explores gun violence in schools, a subject close to my heart. The other is a “comedy of manners” about a subset of women, which would let me create roles for a whole group of actors I’d love to work with.

 

 

 

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